James and Anna (not their names) came to see me for help because of a big fight they were embroiled in. The issue was money, which I learned they had been arguing about for years, with no resolution. However, within a few minutes, it became clear that money was not their only or actual problem. They had vastly different ideas and values around money, different narratives on its importance and meaning, and its representation.
My work with Anna and James was not just to mediate their current and ongoing struggle, but to create relational harmony between them, to help them be together in a way that was indeed harmonious. So then, what is harmony in a relationship? We usually use the word to describe a relationship in which the people seem happy, and the interactions are easy and relatively conflict-free. We consider two people in harmony when they fit together like concordant notes in a pleasing musical chord. And yes, all this is true; such relationships are harmonious. But, there is one element of relational harmony, which may be the most important and defining one, that we deeply misunderstand and that causes much of our unhappiness in relationships.
Because we think of harmony as an agreement between two people, we spend our energy trying to agree on some version of what’s true. We fight until we determine a shared reality. Undoubtedly, agreeing with another person’s version of the truth, their ideas, values, and belief systems, certainly makes things easier in a relationship. But in fact, deep and lasting emotional, mental, and spiritual harmony requires something other than just agreeing on a shared experience.
Harmony in a relationship means understanding; we don’t need to agree to be in harmony, but we do need to be willing to understand another person’s experience and actually hear their truth.
From the time we’re born, we're conditioned to believe that our thoughts, opinions, and beliefs define us, that they are who we are. At the same time, we believe that our thoughts are true, but not just true, fundamentally true as in, the Truth. If someone disagrees with us or experiences something differently, it can feel like our identity or very existence is being threatened. How can we exist harmoniously with this other person if they disagree with us, and don't see it the way we do? This implies that they disagree with who we are, which means there can be no harmony between us, and maybe more importantly, within ourselves. We must get this other person to agree with us and our experience; we must win the battle of whose version of reality is true so that we can feel better and find harmony again, at least temporarily.
Returning to our couple, Anna and James were in a state of disharmony when they first came to see me, not because they disagreed on the role that money should play in their relationship, but rather because they were unwilling to listen to or even try to understand each other’s experience around money. They were locked in a brutal fight to determine whose version of reality was right, whose experience was going to be allowed to exists as valid and real. And, they were in my office for me to serve as the umpire in their battle, and award one of them with the badge of truth. As in, you win... this is what money should mean! This couple needed not to agree on who was right, since they both were right, and both of their experiences mattered, but rather to learn how to hear each other and understand each other’s truth—to coexist in disagreement and simultaneously, in harmony.
Harmony in a relationship, whether romantic, platonic, professional, familial, or any other kind, stems from our willingness to understand another person’s truth, without judging them or defending ourselves, to let their truth be true for them, and therefore, true. Harmony is born from our desire to genuinely know what another person’s reality looks and feels like, through their eyes and heart—not ours. To understand their truth beyond what we think of it.
Harmony blooms when we have the courage to stop hearing another person’s experience solely through the lens of what it means to and about us. Like grace, it appears when we listen to know another human being—not as they exist in relation to us, but as they are.
At the most profound level, harmony in a relationship does not mean that we agree with each other on the contents of life, on what should or shouldn’t be, what happened or didn’t happen. In other words, what’s true. However, it does mean that we share an intention to understand and know each other, in agreement, disagreement, and everything in between.
In service to our desire for harmony, we can start by learning to ask harmonious questions: What is this like for you? How do you experience this? What does this mean for you? And not just to ask the questions, but to set your self and your opinions aside long enough to really listen to and hear the answers. And…to let them be.
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