Joy Evans Peterson (60) teaches couples how to use gratitude to strengthen their relationships. We talked to her about the difference thankfulness can make in relationships.
Q: Your book, Discovering a Dynamic Marriage, is about how to strengthen marital relationships based on an approach called “appreciative inquiry.” Can you tell us a little more about this and how it connects to gratitude?
A: Appreciative inquiry grew out of the field of organizational development. The standard practice for business consultants at the time was to begin their relationship with a new client by conducting a “needs analysis” as a neutral observer, basically compiling a laundry list of problems, issues, and complaints. David Cooperrider doubted the assumption that the observer was perceived as neutral by those questioned. He believed that the questions prescribed the responses, which follows that the expectations were set by the questions. He further reasoned that if you want to build a better future, it should be constructed on the strengths and successes of the past, not the problems and failures. What quickly became apparent was that opening the inquiry by asking subjects to recall a time when they felt happy, productive, and successful set a direction of enthusiasm and excitement. The results were astounding and continue to be. Change was embraced rather than resisted. This model is based discreetly on gratitude because it focuses on a person’s best moments, and the way forward is illumined by past success. Recent research into brain development and functioning is providing the physiological basis for the superior results from an appreciative and positive mental frame.
Q: What are some of the benefits you have seen among couples as a result of using this approach?
A: First, it is important to understand the circumstances under which couples make a decision to get counseling. Couples generally do not seek counseling until they are desperate, having exhausted all their customary coping strategies. Usually they walk into the counselor’s office with far too much damage already done. Although the stated objective is to repair the relationship, initially each spouse wants to convince the counselor that they are the injured party. In the process, they recount the “laundry list” of all the other’s past offenses and failures, further—often fatally—wounding the relationship. Bringing all the worst aspects of the marriage to the surface reinforces the feelings of hopelessness and despair. In Discovering a Dynamic Marriage, I take seriously the biblical caution, “For as a man thinks in his heart so is he.” (Proverbs 23:7). In appreciative inquiry, the same idea is expressed as “thoughts are things.” With this in mind, the appreciative inquiry approach precludes going into the negative history of the relationship and refocuses spouses on the positive aspects of the marriage. The first step is reconnecting couples to their love story and the best memories and practices of the marriage. In other words, directing them to remember and narrate the things they are grateful for in each other and the relationship. This exercise actually alters brain chemistry. The second step asks each spouse to make a list of the things the beloved says or does that makes them feel “loved and special.” They exchange lists and give each other a gift from their spouse’s list each day. The task of making the list acknowledges specific things they appreciate in each other. The third step requires that they engage in a conversation at the end of each day stating at least three things for which they are grateful. When I was a child, my pastor father called it “counting your blessings!”
Q: Can increasing gratitude in the relationship strengthen marriages that are going well?
A: Long-married couples with solid marriages who have attended my course report that the tools and strategies they learned have breathed new life into their relationship. Specifically, they cite the “loved and special” exercise and counting their blessings at the end of the day. Both are clearly a result of developing an appreciative eye. Another benefit that is consistently noted is the depth and richness of conversations since the course. That is an amazing result in decades-long relationships that have deteriorated—as most do—to conversations regarding health issues and scheduling. You wrote your book because you are passionate about lowering the divorce rate in our country.
Q: How important is gratefulness in making that happen?
A: Fifty years of a 50 percent divorce rate has proved to be a failed social experiment. It is appalling that Christian couples with a shared faith fare no better. Somehow the faith community has failed families. The so-called “intact family” is becoming an endangered species, and the fallout in every aspect of our communal life is horrendous. As a member of the generation that ushered in the divorce spree, I feel my legacy project is to do what I can to turn things around. In my 25 years of experience counseling couples, I have come to believe that couples decide to divorce in a misguided quest to restore hope. Human beings don’t thrive without hope. They can weather difficult life trials as long as they have hope that the future holds happier times. Couples who are stuck feel hopeless, and the only light they see on the horizon is extricating themselves from the painful relationship. Focusing on gratitude for the lovely things in the history of their relationship and even in the present introduces a positive pathway to restoring hope. When people regain a belief that the future looks promising, they find renewed energy to tackle the issues that divide them.
Q: Does the approach work when only one person engages, or does it require the participation of both parties to be successful?
A: Most individuals seeking therapy come to address a troubled relationship. It is one of the most sensitive ethical issues facing a psychotherapist. One half of the relationship is not represented, yet what goes on in therapy will impact the absent spouse. When the counselor is able to shift the client to an appreciative perspective, gears are set in motion to change things at home. Remember appreciative inquiry’s premise that change begins with the questions you ask. If the therapist focuses on the “issues” as presented by the client, the negative aspects are reinforced. When the therapist asks questions about their love story and favorite memories of the relationship and the things they most admire and appreciate about the other, a very different way forward is suggested.
Q: Is “reinforcing good behavior” in one’s spouse a form of manipulation? Does the gratitude have to be sincere for it to work?
A: Interesting questions. The answer is no to both. Manipulation occurs when one individual has an undisclosed agenda to elicit behavior from another for his exclusive benefit. If the behavior results in mutual benefit, there would be no need for manipulation or hidden agendas. We all reinforce behavior—good and bad—in those close to us everyday. One spouse changing their own negative behaviors to improve the relationship for mutual benefit is a gift. Gratitude doesn’t have to be sincere in the beginning, but the effects on mood and behavior will automatically reinforce the behavior until it becomes sincere. Research has discovered that a depressed mood can be lifted by laughter, even deliberate, faked laughing. Whether or not laughter is sincere, the brain responds by releasing chemicals associated with mood elevation. Similarly, when we assign the “loved and special” and gratitude exercises, couples are initially awkward an skeptical. However, they become enthusiastic believers when they experience the positive results. Even when only one partner starts practicing appreciation and gratitude, the relationship is bound to improve.
Q: What other relationships besides marriage might benefit from the practice of appreciative inquiry?
A: As I mentioned, appreciative inquiry was originally an organizational development model. In the 30-plus years since, it has been used extensively in the whole spectrum of organizations and institutions. As far as I know, Discovering a Dynamic Marriage is the first book to promote the appreciative inquiry model for treating couples. After retiring from 25 years in private practice, I spent a decade consulting using appreciative inquiry. Most of my clients were community colleges, local governments, and the Navy. The outcomes are very different from problem-based approaches. Focusing stakeholders on the positive and rewarding aspects of their job, organization, and contribution infuses new life and energy into the individuals and the organization. Once again, people thrive in an environment filled with hope for a better future.
Joy Evans Peterson has spent 25 years as a psychotherapist in private practice, has been a mediator in family court, and spent a decade in leadership coaching and consulting. Recently, Peterson published her first book, Discovering a Dynamic Marriage, through Aviva Publishing and developed a companion course for therapists churches, and organizations.