True Mutuality: The Key to Healthy Relationships

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

For people who know the literal definition of mutual, this may not seem like great insight. But for me, it makes a big difference.

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

I use this slide to demonstrate the two concepts:

But this is too one-sided.  The most important part of mutuality is missing. We need to care about our own goals and we need to care about ourselves as people too.

Healthy Boundaries = Healthy Relationships

Ultimately, this is all about boundaries. And 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.

I learned how important these boundaries are the hard way — through my relationship with my father.  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.

The Power of Mutuality

Mutuality is what changed our relationship.

I realised mutual purpose wasn’t about me caring about his goals with him, and it definitely wasn’t me caring about his goals for him. Mutual purpose means caring about both of our goals.

Mutual respect wasn’t about me caring about him as a person while he repeatedly lied and let me down. Mutual respect means respecting him while respecting myself.

Mutuality means caring about him AND myself.

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.

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