James and Anna came to see me because of a big fight they were embroiled in. The issue was money, which I learned was something they had been arguing about for years, with no resolution. They had vastly different ideas and values around money, different narratives on its importance and meaning, and what it represented. Within a few minutes, however, it became clear that money was not their only—or actual—problem.
My work with Anna and James, as I saw it, wasn’t just to mediate their current and ongoing struggle but to create relational harmony between them and to help them be together in a way that was indeed harmonious. So then, the question begs, what is harmony in a relationship? We use the word a lot, usually to describe a relationship in which people seem happy and their 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.
We think of harmony as agreement between two people. Consequently, we spend our time and energy trying to agree on some version of what’s true, one that we can both agree with. We fight until we determine this shared reality. And yes, agreeing with another person’s version of the truth (their ideas and values and belief systems) certainly makes things easier in a relationship. But in fact, deep and lasting emotional, mental, and spiritual harmony requires something different than just agreeing on a shared experience. Harmony in a relationship means understanding—not just agreeing. We don’t need to agree to be in harmony, but we do need to be willing to understand another person’s experience and to actually hear their truth.
From the time we’re born, we’re conditioned to believe that our thoughts, opinions, and beliefs define us; they’re who we are. At the same time, we’re trained to believe that our thoughts are true—not just true, but fundamentally true. As in, the truth. If someone disagrees with us or experiences something differently, it can feel like our identity—our very existence—is being threatened. How can we exist harmoniously with this other person if they don’t agree with us, don’t see and live the way we do? This implies that they don’t agree with who we are, which means that there can be no harmony between us, and furthermore, no harmony 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 didn’t agree 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 exist as valid and real. And they were in my office for me to serve as the judge and jury in their battle, and award one of them with the badge of truth. What this couple needed wasn’t to agree on who was right—since they both were right—but rather to learn how to listen to each other, to hear 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. We let their truth be true for them, and therefore, be 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. We seek 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 about us. Like grace, it appears when we listen in order to know another human being—not as they exist in relation to us, but as they are.
At the most profound level, harmony in relationship doesn’t mean that we agree with each other on the contents of life, on what should or shouldn’t be, or what happened or didn’t happen—in other words, what’s true. It does mean, however, that we share an intention in the relationship 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 ourself aside long enough to really listen to and hear the answers. And … to let them be.
This article was first published in Radiant Life magazine.