How to Establish Personal Boundaries to Protect Your Relationship from Infidelity and Betrayals of Trust: Part Two: Clarifying Green-Light, Yellow-Light, and Red-Light Activities

The blog emphasizes setting boundaries in relationships to prevent infidelity, using circles and traffic lights as metaphors to categorize activities as safe (green), potentially risky (yellow), or harmful (red), stressing open communication and mutual respect between partners.

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How to Establish Personal Boundaries to Protect Your Relationship

How to Establish Personal Boundaries to Protect Your Relationship from Infidelity and Betrayals of Trust: Part Two: Clarifying Green-Light, Yellow-Light, and Red-Light Activities

Picture of Nathan Cobb, <small>Ph.D. in MFT, RMFT, R.Psych</small>

Nathan Cobb, Ph.D. in MFT, RMFT, R.Psych

Registered Psychologist and Registered Marriage & Family Therapist

Welcome back to part two of this discussion about setting intimate boundaries in your exclusive relationship.

In Part One of this two-part series of articles I defined three different categories of interactions and activities that you could engage in with people in your life, including your partner:

  1. Those that are exclusive to you and your partner and that define your relationship as a committed partnership (in the centre circle),
  2. Those that are not exclusive to you and your partner at all and that you engage in with friends, family, work colleagues, strangers and acquaintances without any appearance of impropriety (in the outside circle) and
  3. Activities that are not necessarily exclusive to your and your partner and that you might engage in with friends, family, work colleagues, acquaintances and strangers, but that have the potential to draw you into centre-circle activities with someone other than your partner, if engaged in consistently with someone and without thought to boundaries and open communication.

Now that we’ve defined the circles, let’s add another layer to this analogy using traffic lights, where green light means “go” and refers to activities that bear no threat to your relationship with your partner, yellow light means “be cautious and be prepared to stop” and refers to activities that could potentially be problematic, and red light means “stop, do not go” and refers to activities you do with someone who is not your partner that are a clear breach of the promise of exclusivity that defines your relationship.

All activities in all three circles combined are green light activities if they are done with your spouse, whereas with someone who is not your exclusive significant other, only the activities in the outer circle are green light activities. Activities in the inmost circle are those that are exclusive to your relationship with your partner and thus are red light activities if you engage in them with someone else other than your partner. They represent breaches of trust and full boundary violations if done with someone else. Don’t go there. Full stop.

Activities in the middle circle, if engaged in with someone who is not your partner, are yellow light activities. Yellow light activities are those that are potentially open to a lot of different people in your life, not just your partner, but at the same time, they are activities that provide more opportunity and time to develop a connection and so must be approached with caution and awareness. Yellow light doesn’t mean that such activities are wrong. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do them. But you need to be cautious about them. Be open and communicate about them with your partner. Negotiate ahead of time about them. And if some of them make your partner feel uncomfortable, be prepared to stop them, and change course. If even just thinking about communicating about them with your partner makes you uncomfortable, that’s probably a good sign you should think twice about what you are doing.

I am sure that most married people or individuals in a committed relationship have met someone in their life, other than their partner, who, under different circumstances, in another life, with the right nourishment, could potentially have been a romantic partner. Perhaps you have been aware of people like that in your life since you entered your current, long-term committed relationship. For the purposes of this illustration, what would be examples of green light activities with such a person, assuming you are in a committed relationship right now? How are green light activities different from yellow light activities? What activities are clearly venturing into red light territory? Have you discussed these ideas with your partner, ensuring a shared understanding of what constitutes your sacred space? Open communication about these matters lays the foundation for a strong relationship.

The next thing I want to point out is how easy it is to lose your spouse’s trust. You might think that betrayal only occurs once you wander into the red-light zone, but that’s not the case. Breaches of trust in the red-light zone usually begin with breaches of trust in the yellow light zone. For example, lets look in on Sally and John, a committed couple. Sally just found out about some lunch meetings John had with an attractive female colleague at work, and she says to John, “Wait. You’ve been out to lunch three times with Freida from work? In the last two months? How come you never told me about that? And why did I have to find out that you were going out with her at all from Joan?” In this case, Sally already feels that a breach of trust has occurred and wonders why John was keeping this secret from her.

Very few people would ever feel the need to lie to their partner about green light activities, but they might feel the need to lie about yellow light activities. Why? Because on some level, they know their spouse might have a problem with it. Deep down the person drifting deeper into the yellow light zone senses they could be approaching forbidden waters. Consciously choosing not to say anything at all about it is to have a secret from their partner. That secret is a lie, a lie of omission, every bit as much a lie as a boldly stated falsehood. This is why I say it is so important that you communicate openly and negotiate with your partner about these types of activities. Transparent and continuous communication, even about potentially uncomfortable topics, is a key factor in building and maintaining trust.

Some yellow light activities are best avoided altogether, to avoid taking unnecessary risks, or to avoid the appearance of impropriety. Since the pain of crossing into the red-light zone and giving away your treasure—and your spouse’s treasure—to someone else is so great, it can be worth it to set up a wide “no go” perimeter so that you never get close to crossing the inner boundary. Such a wide “no go” perimeter might encompass a good portion of what falls in that yellow-light zone.

In other words, it may not be inherently wrong to go to lunch with someone you find sexually attractive, or to spend time with them in long daily commutes, etc., but it makes crossing the inner boundary more likely so it may not be wise to do some of these things, or at least don’t do them consistently with the same person. In this yellow area, activities with others need to be negotiated between you and your partner. You may both agree that there should not be hard and fast rules. There may be exceptions, but these exceptions need to be discussed and negotiated as they come up. And engaged in only once. Something you do repeatedly is no longer an exception, and it is the repetition of placing yourself in that yellow-light zone over and over that can lull you and desensitize you and wear away at your resolve and potentially draw you closer to the red-light zone with someone who is not your partner.


For the most part, I have not named specific activities as “green light” “yellow light” or “red light”, for the purposes of this article, because I don’t want to convey the impression that there is a list of absolute green light activities and absolute yellow light activities.

It is necessary to keep context in mind, and part of that context is how your partner feels. It is important that you and your partner have open dialogue about what constitutes a green light activity versus a yellow light activity versus a red light activity. It is important to the health of your relationship to be a responsive partner. A responsive partner is one who is willing to adjust their behavior in response to their partner’s feelings and wishes.

While certain activities fit neatly into the inmost circle for most couples, agreement becomes more nuanced when considering certain specific interactions. Take flirting, for instance. What one person perceives as harmless banter and a yellow light activity, another might interpret as a clear red-light activity and a breach of trust. The subtleties of flirting can vary greatly depending on individual perspectives. For some, it may involve playful teasing and lighthearted compliments, viewed as harmless and not akin to giving away what belongs exclusively to the couple. Someone else, on the other hand, might define flirting more strictly, including any form of verbal or non-verbal communication that hints at romantic or sexual interest. Understanding these nuanced differences is essential for couples to navigate the boundaries effectively. It’s not about what activities are objectively harmful and what activities are not, but how each partner interprets and feels about those activities that adds complexity to the issue. If your spouse doesn’t like it, and they tell you so, are you being true to your commitment to care for your partner’s well-being if you disregard your partner’s feelings and sense of security? The bottom-line answer is likely to be no.

The consumption of pornography is another example of an activity that could be seen by a partner or spouse as either a red-light activity or a yellow-light activity, depending on personal comfort level, preference, perspectives, and agreements (implied or otherwise). Using an image of a naked, sexually attractive person or persons to stoke sexual interest or urges or lustful feelings is fraught with potential challenges that weaken the intimate agreements that are intended to be part of your inner circle. Such challenges include secret-keeping; diverting sexual energy and interest away from your partner; creating unrealistic, one-sided sexual expectations of your partner; and undermining opportunities for authentic, vulnerable, open, honest, intimate communication between you and your partner that are the lifeblood of a thriving, committed romantic relationship. There is a lot of material emerging in research and academic writing that indicates a highly negative impact of pornography consumption on intimate relationships, underscoring the need for caution, awareness and open communication.

Take some time together to identify and discuss with each other which activities fall into each category. What are your inmost circle activities? What are your middle circle activities? What activities make you feel unsettled, uncomfortable, worried, jealous or insecure if your spouse engaged in them with someone else? Take note that if your spouse says something you are doing in the yellow light area makes them uncomfortable, if you brush them off or act dismissive then you have already left the inmost circle of your relationship. The reason I say this is that making your spouse and his or her well-being your highest priority over other things such as work, leisure, friends, or another individual is an act that belongs in the inmost circle. It is an action, or an expectation, or an obligation that is exclusive to you as a couple. Making someone else outside of your marriage more important than your spouse is like giving away a treasure that should be exclusive to you as a couple. It’s like leaving that inmost circle with your partner to re-create a new inner circle with a third entity, be it another person, your job, your friends, your parents, and so on. That is what leads to betrayal trauma.

I would say that not all third parties are a threat to your relationship. There is a time and place for involving third parties. A therapist is a third party, for example. Couples temporarily invite a therapist into the inner circle with them for the purpose of helping them resolve an issue they are unable to resolve on their own. The therapist helps them resolve issues with each other. You may temporarily and jointly invite another third party into your inner circle for the purpose of helping the relationship. But some third parties are not helpful. They do not encourage the two parties to work together in collaboration. They take one person’s side. Or one of the partners leaves that inner circle and begins to relate to a third-party in ways that are giving away the family car, essentially re-creating a new inner circle with a third person, a competing inner circle, that jeopardizes the integrity of your relationship. And the third party doesn’t do anything to stop this. Again, this is what leads to betrayal trauma.


In conclusion, I invite you and your significant other to read this article together, along with Part One, and have a heart-to-heart about the important boundaries of your relationship, recognizing what each of you view as inner circle activities and what constitutes your yellow-light zone. Such open discussions, along with steady commitment to act in each other’s best interests, can help you fortify the boundaries that define your relationship and are essential for establishing and building trust between you.