What Americans think about boundaries and romantic relationships

Jamie BallardData Journalist
September 18, 2023, 3:30 AM GMT+0

A new YouGov survey explored opinions on boundaries in romantic relationships, the prevalence of therapy speak in everyday life, and Americans’ own experiences with therapy and mental health. Among other findings, the survey reveals that many Americans have mixed feelings about relationship boundaries depending on the scenario and their own relationship status, that many are familiar with many therapy-speak words, and that a high number are experiencing feelings of anxiety, depression, and stress.

Recently actor Jonah Hill's ex-partner Sarah Brady shared texts allegedly exchanged during their relationship. According to the images she shared on social media, Hill shared his “boundaries for romantic partnership” by writing, “If you need: surfing with men; boundaryless inappropriate friendships with men; to model; to post pictures of yourself in a bathing suit; to post sexual pictures; friendships with women who are in unstable places and from your wild recent past beyond getting a lunch of coffee or something respectful I am not the right partner for you … if these things bring you to a place of happiness I support it and there will be no hard feelings.”

Amid widespread media coverage of Brady’s sharing of the text messages on Instagram, many people on social media were discussing the concept of boundaries and whether one person can set boundaries on their partner in a romantic partnership.

In the YouGov survey, Americans were asked for their views on boundaries and romantic relationships. Among U.S. adult citizens, 42% say the statement “you set boundaries on your own behavior, not partners’ ” comes closest to their view, rather than the offered alternative of “it’s fine to ask partners to change their behaviors according to your boundaries” (36% say this is closest to their view).

Among people currently in romantic relationships, 43% say boundaries can only be set for the person setting them, while 41% say it’s fine for a person to ask a partner to change according to the person’s own boundaries.

Opinions on boundaries in relationships vary by age. Among adults under 30, more say it’s fine to ask a partner to change (42%) than say a boundary is something you can set only for yourself (32%). Americans who are 65 and older are far less likely to have views that align more closely with the belief that a boundary is something you can ask a partner to change about themselves rather than something that can only be set on your own behavior (25% vs. 53%).

YouGov’s survey also asked about several kinds of boundaries in a romantic relationship, such as telling a romantic partner who they can spend time with or what they can wear.

Majorities of Americans think it is unacceptable for someone to set a boundary telling their partner what to wear (74%), who they are allowed to spend time with (70%), or what they are allowed to post about themselves on social media (64%); 52% would find all three to be unacceptable.

Women are more likely than men to say it’s unacceptable for someone to tell a partner what they’re allowed to wear (82% of women say this is unacceptable vs. 66% of men), tell a partner who they can spend time with (74% vs. 65%), or tell a partner what they can post about themselves on social media (69% vs. 58%).

However, there are some boundaries most Americans do find acceptable, such as telling a partner you need personal space (80%), telling a partner you need to spend time with your friends without your partner (70%), and telling a partner that you want to remain private on social media (63%).

Most Americans agree that it is important to set personal boundaries in romantic relationships: 57% say it’s very important and 32% say it is somewhat important. Most people who have ever been in a romantic relationship say they’re comfortable setting boundaries in romantic relationships: 40% say they’re very comfortable and 42% say they’re somewhat comfortable.

Some of the online discussion around Hill and Brady related to his use of therapy speak, or words and concepts from psychology and talk therapy that describe certain behaviors. Outlets including the New Yorker, NPR, and Bustle have explored the rise of therapy speak in interpersonal interactions outside of therapy, and whether these concepts are being applied correctly or fairly within personal contexts.

The therapy-speak terms that the highest percentage of Americans say they are familiar with are toxic (42%), comfort zone (41%), grooming (41%), and self-care (41%). Similar percentages are familiar with the terms trauma (40%), narcissism (39%), validation (39%), and burnout (38%).

The terms included in the poll that the fewest number of people are familiar with are holding space (11%) and emotional labor (15%).

Women are more likely than men to be familiar with a handful of these terms. While 35% of women are aware of the term emotional blackmail, 24% of men are. Similarly, 38% of women are familiar with the term triggered, compared to 30% of men. Men are more likely to be familiar with the term toxic (45% vs. 39%).

Among Americans familiar with each of these terms, 28% say they’ve personally used the term comfort zone and 25% have used the term burnout. Similar shares have used the phrases self-care (24%), trauma (24%), and toxic (23%).

Women are more likely than men to have used many of these terms. Among Americans who are familiar with each term, one-third (31%) of women have used the term self-care, while only 17% of men have. Women also are more likely than men to have used the terms coping mechanism (22% of women vs. 13% of men) and triggered (21% vs. 15%). Men aren't significantly more likely to have used any of these terms.

Although many of these terms are familiar to much of the population, that’s no guarantee that people are using these words correctly.

One-third (35%) of people familiar with the term emotional labor think it’s more often used correctly than incorrectly, but about as many (31%) think it’s more often used incorrectly. As for gaslighting, 43% of Americans who are familiar with the term think it’s more often used correctly and 35% think it’s more often used incorrectly.

YouGov’s survey also asked about mental health and therapy, beyond boundaries and therapy speak.

When asked to rate their mental health, 18% of U.S. adult citizens call it excellent, while far more say it’s very good (26%) or good (26%). Fewer describe their current mental health as fair (17%), poor (7%), or very poor (3%).

Although the bulk of Americans have generally positive views of their own mental health, many also say they’re experiencing stress, anxiety, or depression, to a level that interferes with daily activity. Within the past month, 53% say they’ve experienced a significant amount of stress, 42% say they’ve experienced a significant amount of anxiety, and 32% say they've experienced a significant amount of depression. Among Americans, 60% have experienced substantial levels of at least one of these three (stress, anxiety, depression) — including 24% who have experienced all three.

Adults under 30 are more likely than older Americans to say they have experienced levels of stress, anxiety, or depression recently that have interfered with daily life. Majorities of 18- to 29-year-olds have experienced a significant amount of stress (63%) and anxiety (54%) in the last month, while 43% say they have experienced a serious level of depression.

Women are more likely than men to report significant amounts of stress (57% of women vs. 49% of men), anxiety (48% vs. 35%), and depression (36% vs. 27%) within the past month.

Many Americans have had therapy to address some of these feelings.

About one-third (35%) of Americans say they’ve attended therapy at some point, while many have a family member (42%) or close friend (34%) who has. Women (42%) are more likely than men (28%) to have been in therapy at some point in their lives.

Around one in 10 (11%) of Americans say they’re currently in therapy.

Most Americans believe that therapy generally has a positive effect on a person’s mental health, with 26% — including 31% of women and 20% of men — saying it generally has a very positive effect and another 41% saying it has a somewhat positive effect. Fewer believe the effect of therapy is neither positive nor negative (15%), somewhat negative (3%), or very negative (2%).

What effect has therapy had on people who have been in therapy themselves? Most say it had a positive effect, including 34% who consider the effect to be very positive and 36% saying it was somewhat positive. One in five (19%) say the effect was neither positive or negative while few had a somewhat negative (4%) or very negative (3%) experience.

The survey also asked people to evaluate a few statements about mental health and therapy.

Nearly two-thirds (64%) of Americans agree with the statement, “Everyone can benefit from therapy, regardless of their mental health status.” Women (72%) are more likely than men (55%) to agree with this statement. A similar percentage of Americans (65%) agree with the statement, “Going to therapy improves people's relationships,” including 72% of women and 59% of men.

Most Americans (58%) also agree with the statement, “People today spend too much time dwelling on their problems.” Men (63%) are more likely than women (53%) to agree with this.

Far fewer (11%) agree with the statement, “Seeking therapy is a sign of weakness,” including 17% of men and 6% of women.

— Taylor Orth and Carl Bialik contributed to this article


See the results for the July 11 - 18, 2023 and August 25 - September 4, 2023 YouGov polls

Methodology: The YouGov polls covered in this article were conducted online. One was conducted among 2,000 U.S. adult citizens on two separate surveys from July 11 - 13, 2023 and July 12 - 18, 2023. The other was conducted among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens on August 25 - September 4, 2023. For each poll, respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel using sample matching. A random sample (stratified by gender, age, race, education, geographic region, and voter registration) was selected from the 2019 American Community Survey. The sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, education, 2020 election turnout and presidential vote, and current voter registration status. Demographic weighting targets come from the 2019 American Community Survey. The sample also was weighted by baseline party identification, which is the respondent’s most recent answer given prior to March 15, 2022, and is weighted to the estimated distribution at that time (33% Democratic, 28% Republican). The margin of error for the overall sample is approximately 3% for the July poll, and 4% for the August poll.

Image: Adobe Stock (Volodymyr)

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