Healthy relationships begin with safe and appropriate boundaries based on roles and established expectations. Like dividing lines on a two-way road, relationship boundaries help us build trust by defining limits and establishing norms that benefit all involved. We feel safe driving because dividing lines keep each driver on the right side of the road, out of harm’s way, and free to reach desired destinations. The expected roles we establish between two people serve the same function.

With our closest friends, we expect them to show up in good times and bad, give us their attention when they are present, do their best to understand who we are, and support our friendship in ways that reflect this understanding. In turn, we do the same for them.

In committed love relationships, we expect the behaviors listed above—and more. We expect to be a priority, to have access to intimacy not shared with anyone else, and to place primary importance on the well-being of our relationship.

In family relationships parents (or guardians) provide love, structure, protection, and guidance. They are there to establish a safe environment where children can grow and develop their own skills, competencies, and eventual independence.

When someone violates an established boundary in relationship it creates anxiety. Your internal alarm system says, “Pay attention, this could be dangerous!”

Boundary violators often don’t take social cues, and they make their own agendas more important. The reason it makes us uncomfortable when people cross boundaries is because it forces us to create boundaries for the other person, often forcing us to act out of our own core values in self-defense. Having clear boundaries lets everyone relax.

When a close friend demands exclusivity and requires to be your only pal, this doesn’t feel right. When a friend makes unkind remarks behind your back it feels like a violation of trust and makes confiding in that person seem unwise.

When a love partner spends more time on a smart phone than talking or relating to you, it’s difficult to believe you are a priority. When you find out your partner’s friends know intimate details about your worklife or sexlife without your permission, you realize your privacy boundary is no longer in place.

When a parent overfunctions and robs a child of learning and developing vital life skills, it leaves the child feeling anxious and insecure as an individual. When a parent turns to a child to get adult needs met (best friend, confidant, scapegoat, emotional crutch), the child sacrifices self needs, often with a life-long cost.

Relationships work best, for everyone involved, when boundaries are healthy, appropriate—and yes, even flexible.