The Importance of Mutuality

When you go to the grocery store, you generally have a successful relationship with the cashier who rings you up. It’s not much of a relationship, but it is a successful one. This success occurs simply because you and the cashier share a certain mutuality. You care equally about one another, maybe not much, but equally. Since your feelings are mutual, it is easy enough for you both to share a brief and cordial exchange. Why?

Because this is exactly what you both want. You want the same thing, to have this one transaction flow smoothly with a small measure of courtesy, then to both go on about your respective days, thinking no more about each other thereafter. Success.

When I’m speaking of mutuality here, I’m speaking of mutuality regarding two things in particular: mutuality of feelings for one another and mutuality of wants. All successful relationships share such mutuality, mutual feelings and mutual wants. That said, it should also be understood that, while all successful relationships share mutuality, not all mutual relationships are successful. To understand this better, imagine a young couple who is madly in love with one another. They share intense feelings and, let’s say, both want the same thing, want to be together. And yet they fight constantly and just cannot seem to make things work. Just because they share mutuality, that’s not enough to insure that they have a successful relationship. Mutuality is just one important hallmark of successful relationships.

In couples counseling, one of my first objectives is to discern whether or not both partners want the same thing. If both people are fully committed to making the relationship work, if they want the same thing, then that makes for a good prognosis, because I know that the skills it takes to create an extraordinary relationship are not difficult to learn and put into practice. I know that both partners can learn how to do the few things it takes to achieve an exceptional partnership. On the other hand, if they want different things, if their feelings or wants are not mutual, well, there’s not much I can do with that other than facilitate their harmonious parting of ways, which itself would be a very fine accomplishment.

When two people commence a relationship, their feelings for one another usually start out as fairly mutual. You can imagine this mutuality (the emotional bond) like an elastic band stretched between these people, with each holding an end. At first, this band has the perfect balance of tension and slack to connect one to the other without considerable effort or strain. Unfortunately, over time, this can change. If the emotional attachment of one person increases, it is like this person climbs a ladder. If the other person does not also climb a ladder of their own, then the distance the elastic band must cover to continue connecting them stretches. As the band stretches, it becomes more thin and tenuous. It now takes greater effort for both people to keep holding onto the band. The greater the disparity of distance, the higher one person climbs without the other following suit, the greater the strain. No bond can withstand too pronounced a level of disparity and so, once disparity reaches a certain point, the emotional bond becomes so thin that it will suddenly break. Why? Because there was not mutuality.

Like I talk about in my book, everyone has 99% control over the state of their relationships. In your relationship with someone, if you notice yourself climbing up a step in your emotional ladder, there’s a lot you can do to inspire your partner to similarly climb a step on theirs.  You can practice giving permission and demonstrate yourself as someone who is willing and able to participate in an extraordinary relationship with them. Conversely, there’s a lot you can do to inadvertently inspire a person to descend an emotional step. You might accuse them of being the cause of your emotional experience or argue with them; you might shout and scream at them, criticize them, judge them. Keep doing this long enough and distance will increase until the bond breaks.

If you know that you do not want your emotional bond with someone to snap, choose actions and words that accord with your feelings and wants for the relationship. If you really like someone and want to have a successful relationship with them, maintain harmony by managing your emotional reactions. Honor this person’s freedom to be who and how they are at any moment, giving them permission for that. In this way, you nurture their affection for the relationship and maintain the mutuality that all extraordinary relationships possess.

Sometimes others simply do not feel towards us the way that we feel towards them. We might pine away for an ex-lover who has moved on or find ourselves persistently pursued by someone in whom we have no romantic interest. When this is the case, we can recognize this as neither good nor bad, but rather a simple observation of what’s true in the moment. If mutuality is lacking, the relationship will be strained according to the degree of discrepancy. This “unsuccessful” relationship will likely result in an experience of suffering for one or both members. So, what to do? How can we create a successful relationship (and, keep in mind, a successful relationship does not necessarily mean a close one—as in the case of the cashier); what are our options?

To cultivate mutuality in a relationship, we have two main choices. We can either transform the way another person feels about us (by relating to them in a new way) or we can transform the way we feel about them. That’s it.

Of course, how people feel about us is beyond our control, but it is not beyond our influence. If someone cares less about having a relationship with us than we care about having a relationship with them, then perhaps this is something we can remedy. Maybe there are some understandable reasons they have lost feeling for us, or never had it in the first place. Maybe we have been excessively reactive toward them. Maybe we have been judgmental and critical. Maybe we have not adequately supported their freedom to be who and how they are. If this is the case, we can do something about this. We can mitigate our emotional reactions or cease our judgments and criticisms. When we take responsibility for how we interact, maybe we will regain a person’s trust and they will see that having a relationship with us would be rewarding. Or maybe not. All we can do is take ownership for our contributions to the relationship and see where that leads. Besides, sometimes someone’s not liking us (or not caring as much about us as we care about them) is simply a reflection of who they are as a person. When this is the case, we can give them permission to be as they are and move along, or let them do so, since this is obviously what they want. We can let others be who they are and then make a choice to walk away (or let them walk away) based on this knowledge about them. And should we decide to leave, out of love and respect both to another and to ourselves, we understand this: we can still have a successful relationship with them. Success is not defined by staying together.

When our attempts to influence fail, when our efforts to inspire another person to feel about us the way we feel about them, then another option is to cultivate mutuality by changing ourselves. Instead of struggling to match their feelings with our own, we can instead endeavor to match our feelings with theirs. If we can do this, we can build a successful relationship with them, even if we never speak to this person again. It’s about giving permission to whatever is, and doing so with grace. It’s about choosing to love without attachment. We do not have to possess someone in order to love them. Instead, we can let them seek their own happiness in the best way they feel they know how, respecting their choices completely, even if this means they do so apart from us. We give this freedom willingly and gladly to others.

Some of my most memorable couples counseling experiences have been with those who ultimately decide to part ways, but do so in a spirit of immense friendship and mutual love. My goal is never to keep people together, even if that is why they come to see me. Instead, my goal is to help people have successful relationships—with one another and with themselves. Success by this definition manifests as harmony and intimacy. When we discover that another person’s feelings about us are inflexible then, to have a successful relationship with them regardless, we change how we feel about them. No, we don’t start resenting someone who resents us, for instance. We just give permission for them to feel this way and embrace their wants for the relationship as our own. In short, we realize that we do not want to be with someone who does not want to be with us. With this embrace of who someone is comes an ability to still retain a successful relationship with them, just by letting them go and being genuinely okay with that. We know our happiness is our own dominion, and that their happiness is theirs. Love is not about need, it’s about giving permission, and doing so completely.

So, if you are struggling in a relationship, ask yourself if there is mutuality. Are your feelings for one another mutual? If the answer is yes, fantastic. That’s a great sign that the relationship can work (with the right tools). Then ask yourself if you and this person want the same thing? If the answer again is yes, then that’s even a better sign! Now I have no doubt in the world that you and this person can create an extraordinary relationship together. All it will take is learning the skills to make it happen, the skills that are revealed in The Two Truths.