The True Meaning of Mutuality and Healthy Relationships

Mutuality isn’t all about the other person. It’s about you, too.

When we teach the concepts of mutual purpose and respect in Crucial Conversations® Training, we spend a lot of time talking about respecting the other person and understanding their purpose.

The most important part of mutuality is caring about our own goals and we need to care about ourselves as people too.

Mutual purpose isn’t about me caring about others goals with them, and it isn’t about caring for their goals for them. Mutual purpose means caring about both of your goals. Mutual respect means respecting others while respecting myself.

Ultimately, it is all about boundaries. Healthy relationships come when we draw and maintain those healthy boundaries. In positive relationships, we carry mutuality within us. We balance care for another person’s goals while still caring about our own goals. We balance respect for others while respecting ourselves.

Some of us learn boundaries through bad relationships. It’s never how we want to learn but we can become stronger from them. In this case a colleague’s relationship with her father taught her a lot.

Her story:

In May of 2015, my dad had a bad fall. He broke his distal femur (the long bone in the leg) and had surgery to repair it, but he never fully recovered. The fall and subsequent surgery started a downward spiral that led to his death in November. He was only 71 years old.

But this story of his fall, surgery, hospitalisations, complications, medications, and ultimately fatal congestive heart failure is only a partial truth.

The truth is my dad died because he was morbidly obese. He weighed over 400 pounds, reaching 500 pounds at times. My dad was a mixed bag: a really sweet person with good intentions who was profoundly depressed, sometimes suicidal, and the most dishonest person I have ever known.

Unsurprisingly, because of his weight, he had a lot of mobility issues. The fall happened one night as he launched himself into bed. After he fell, he managed to scoot his huge body towards his phone and call 911. He then again scooted across the room to the door so he could unlock the deadbolt.

When the paramedics arrived, they helped him stand up — something he could not do on his own. An hour later, the entire scenario repeated itself. This time, the paramedics left with a warning, “If you call again, we’re going to take you with us.”

He was able to get into bed for the night, but the next morning, he fell again. This time, though, he pinned his leg underneath him as he fell. As he tried to scoot towards his phone, the weight of his body twisted his leg and broke his femur — the largest and strongest bone in the body. When the paramedics arrived, they drilled through the deadbolt to get inside, then took him to the hospital.

Hours later, I was notified by a hospital staff person who found my name as his emergency contact. While my dad had alienated himself from almost every other relationship in his life, we’d managed to hang in there together, but not without struggle and not without boundaries.

See, in 2007 when Influencer was published years before, I knew those were the skills that I could use to get my dad healthy. I remember sitting in my first Influencer course thinking, “This is it! This is why I work at VitalSmarts! I can use these skills to help my dad!”

And last November, I did help him — but in a drastically different way than I’d imagined. I helped him take his last breath and transition out of this life weighing in at close to 400 pounds. Yet, I was at peace.

How? I realised his death was not because of my failure to influence.

The ability to change behaviour is one of the most important skills a leader can have. But, no matter what, we can’t change everyone.

Despite my influence, my dad’s behaviour never changed, but our relationship did.

Mutuality is what changed the relationship.

Because of this, I was able to draw the boundaries that allowed us to have a positive relationship that didn’t harm me. And that’s what we had in the last years of his life. Even in his last 24 hours, I was blessed to spend the day with him in a room filled with peace and love.

Mutual purpose and respect don’t create perfect relationships. They aren’t a magic wand or a silver bullet. Yet, true mutuality leads to the strength and boundaries we need to create healthy, beautiful relationships.

Latest Blog Posts

Stop Apologising

Have you found yourself in a relationship where you find yourself constantly apologising and feeling like you’re being taken advantage of? Genuinely expressing sorrow and


Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

Improve communication, habits, productivity and more with weekly insights and tips from our authors and experts.

Join our 10,000+ community.