Feminist Therapy: Setting boundaries, trusting your gut, and dealing with postpartum depression in a partner

I am a therapist, but I am not your therapist. Therapy, in my opinion, is not just about the information I give, but also about the highly individualized relationship I build with each client, getting to know their unique needs, strengths, and challenges. This column is not meant to substitute individual therapy. When in doubt, speak to a therapist about these issues — preferably someone who knows you, who you feel safe with, and who is equipped to support you exactly as you are.

** All of the questions I received were complex, and profoundly honest. Thank you for your submissions. The questions answered in this month’s column were edited for length and privacy, while attempting to preserve the original question.

Dear Feminist Therapist,

I am having an issue with an ex of mine. He comes across as a generally nice man but is also very clingy and smothering. After we broke up, I explained to him very clearly that I don’t want contact with him, but he did not respect that, so I have lashed out at him. Recently, I had to reiterate that I no longer wish to have any kind of relationship, and that I would no longer speak with him. But I recently learned that I had contracted HPV from a man who raped me, and so had to contact him to let him know. This seems to have opened the doors to him contacting me again. How do I get rid of him?


Dear D,

I’m so sad and frustrated for you — for the rape, and for having to deal with HPV and yet another person in your life who won’t respect your boundaries. I am glad your relationship with this person is over, and that you felt resilient enough to end a relationship with someone who does not respect you and your boundaries.

Although you should not have to do this, as people should be respectful of your desire to end communication, it may be necessary to block this man’s phone number and/or email address. You may or may not want to tell him that you are doing that. It might be necessary to state again, in writing, that you are asking him to not contact you anymore, and that if he continues to do so that you will be seeking out a non-contact order. Different states and provinces have different regulations around how to accomplish this, so I recommend looking into the process so you are informed and equipped.

Remember, you do not have to justify to him why you do not want to be with him. Nor do you have to get into a conversation at all. With boundaries — especially when you are dealing with someone who is not listening — a simple “no” or “do not talk to me anymore” is sufficient. If they continue to attempt to engage with you, just restating the boundary will do. You may feel like a broken record, but it’s not your job to justify that you are not interested in something, especially with a person who will not listen to you anyway. It may help to practice saying “no,” or to pretend responding to him with a friend, until it feels comfortable to state your position again and again, without feeling like you need to explain further or that you owe him a response. If you find that you get sucked into conversation, or that setting boundaries is difficult for you in general, you might find Boundaries by Anne Katherine useful

Remember, your “no” is valuable, even if the other person doesn’t listen at first. You have the right to state for yourself, and for those around for you, what does not work for you.


Dear Feminist Therapist,

I was dating a soon-to-be-licensed therapist a few months ago. I met him through an online dating app, and he identified himself as a feminist on our very first date. We hung out for a few months; he didn’t want to put “labels” on things and declared I was “someone to have sex with that he could trust.” He had already sexually violated me when he said this, so in fact I couldn’t trust him. He is into BDSM, as a “Dom.” After dating him for a month, I realized what a sadistic, manipulative, and aggressive man he is. He was charming and apparently “totally feminist, but engaged in aggressive, abusive sex with me, without consent, leaving me coveredgrr in bruises. Is there anything I can do to protect other women — especially young liberal feminists — from men like this? It troubles me that men like him can become mental health professionals.

– E

Dear E,

Yikes! The terrifying reality is that anyone with the appropriate academic and clinical experience can get licensed, regardless of the values they hold in their private life, or how they treat the people around them. It seems like early on, something didn’t sit well with you. I’m so glad you got away from that relationship, and trusted yourself in the end. I wonder what it would take for you to listen to yourself earlier next time, and know that when your intuition speaks to you about a guy, you have every right to listen to yourself and end contact with him without explanation?

If he assaulted you, and coerced you into sex, it’s not a bad idea to report him to his licensing body. You may be able to do this anonymously. It may not stop him from getting licensed, at this point, but if someone else makes a complaint down the line — another person or a client — their complaint will be stronger having your information linked to him. If you feel safe doing so, you might consider reporting him to the police.

Unfortunately, being licensed does not mean you are a high quality therapist — it just means you are allowed to practice. For this reason, I always recommend that when people are looking for a therapist, they interview potential therapists, or do a trial session before jumping in. While doing that, listen to your “gut” — see what your body is telling you about whether the therapist is safe or not. You can also ask them if they are feminist, and to talk a little about their views on feminism. Often, though, therapists will decline to share details about their political views — some take the position that this kind of self-disclosure in a counselling relationship is contrary to their professional theoretical and ethical approach. If this is the case, another way of getting to know them is to ask about their theoretical orientation, and how their theoretical orientation informs their work with women, minorities, and around sex and sexuality. It’s also a good idea to start seeing a therapist based on a personal recommendation from someone you know and trust — this is likely the closest you will get to having a “reference.”


Dear Feminist Therapist,

My wife and I had a baby several years ago using a sperm donor. We decided it was best if I was the one to get pregnant, and that this would be the first of two. It was really hard when our daughter was born, but I feel like I have grown a lot. On the other hand, my wife struggled — she had really severe postpartum depression, something that’s not really talked about as something experienced by the non-pregnant partner. Our daughter also had some medical concerns which have made the last few years a challenge at times. Now, I’m ready to try to have our next kid, but she has changed her mind about having another one. Understandably, she is worried she will get depression again, even though I will be the one who gets pregnant and gives birth. She is also worried that we might have another baby with medical challenges, like our daughter. We’ve been arguing a lot, and can’t seem to reach an agreement on what to do. How do we figure out whether to have another child, as a couple?


Dear M,

What a difficult position to be in. No matter what the issue is, if something is important to us, but our partner doesn’t agree on the best way forward, it can be painful, isolating, scary, and confusing. I empathize with both of you. When we first meet someone and talk about all the things we want from a life together, we forget that sometimes things can change, and what we wanted at first we no longer want. It is understandable that, considering what she went through the first time, she wouldn’t want to do it again.

If you do indeed want to stay together, and having another child is not a deal-breaker for you, do your best to stay together as a team. While it is possible that, if you had another child, the experience would be different this time around, if your partner is worried and resentful once you get pregnant again, that could ultimately be very painful. It could also be damaging in terms of the relationships between you, your partner, your daughter, and the next child.

From my perspective, your wife’s boundary needs to be respected, for her sake and for the sake of everyone else in the family. What that might mean is that you grieve, and learn to grieve with her, or find a way to do that on your own. If you haven’t already, you might also want to have a conversation about adoption.

It is also possible that if what happened last time is explored and healed, your partner’s feelings change. You may need to have numerous conversations about how difficult the postpartum period was for her. She might need room to talk about how she felt alone, abandoned, scared, or rejected. She may need to do some therapy, on her own or with you, to see if she can work through any of the blocks she has around a second pregnancy.

If your partner is worried that what happened last time will happen again, there are things to do to make sure you are both better prepared than you were before. Get a postpartum doula. Have her plan regular appointments with a therapist who works with postpartum parents and couples. If necessary, have her get a referral to a physician or psychiatrist who specializes in reproductive mental health. Have meals made ahead of time and frozen, or order a meal service. Prioritize healthy sleep behavior. Inquire about shared parental leave, or about whether she is able to take vacation time off work.

No matter what happens moving forward, the two of you are in it together, and need to feel like you each have the support you need to deal with the pain and losses you experience, whether that means you losing out on the opportunity to have another child, or her dealing with postpartum challenges. Do your best not to shut each other down in conversation, but to listen and hear each other, instead, making sure the other person feels validated even if you don’t agree. That might include statements like, “I hear how important that is to you, and I wish I felt differently so I could give you what you wanted.” Or, “I know this is hard for you — even if we want different things I want you to know that I care about your sadness, and will listen to you cry anytime you need me to.”

You can send your questions for Hillary, our Feminist Therapist, to [email protected] or [email protected] with the subject: “Feminist Therapy,” or tweet her @hillarylmcbride using the hashtag, #feministtherapy. (We will anonymize your questions, unless you specifically ask us to include your name.)

Hillary McBride

Hillary McBride is a registered clinical counsellor working in the Vancouver area. She specializes in women's experiences and feminist therapy. Hillary is a PhD student at the University of British Columbia, where she researches women's experiences using feminist methodologies. She is the author of "Mothers, Daughters, and Body Image: Learning to Love Ourselves as We Are" and recently won the International Young Investigator Award in Human Sexuality from Taylor & Francis for her research and clinical work on sexuality in mothers.