Home All I Do, I Will: From Vulnerability to Joy

I Do, I Will: From Vulnerability to Joy

written by Sherri Fisher 4 June 2009

Sherri Fisher, MAPP '06, M.Ed., Director of Learn and Flourish LLC, is a coach, best-selling author, workshop facilitator, and speaker. She works internationally with smart people of all ages who have learning, attention, and executive function challenges. Sherri’s evidence-based POS-EDGE® Model merges her expertise in strengths, well-being, motivation, and applied neuropsychology.

Full Bio. Sherri's articles are here.

To get along better with someone, do you have to be able to dance cheek-to-cheek? Maybe not, since being able to take risks and “wing it” it is a better predictor of marriage success than carefully choreographed steps. In honor of June, the wedding month in America, let’s explore some aspects of human emotion that make for a joyful relationship.

Of course there are emotional risks when falling in love. To build a relationship with someone else—any kind of relationship—you are going to have to take some big risks at some point. Positive psychology can help you appreciate what’s good and working in a relationship while helping you to get past “once bitten, twice shy” to broadening and building. There’s plenty you can do.

Practice Gratitude

First of all, practice gratitude. According to Robert Emmons, you’ll know you are experiencing gratitude when you acknowledge that goodness exists, find that you have been the recipient of goodness from a source outside of yourself, and that as a result you feel both happier and motivated to share and do goodness yourself.

What are the relational benefits of gratitude? A few of the many benefits include the feeling of expanding from your self-referential home base and developing a future-versus-now way of thinking, something that is required even to get to the second date! Practicing gratitude also increases tolerance, (something no relationship can do without), compassion, creativity, and, understanding for those moments where the other person’s behavior is just plain confounding. The grateful exchange of intangible benefits leads to an upward spiral of love, bonding, empathy, wonder and joy.

Gratitude is not without its risks. We all suffer from the confirmation bias, and it insinuates itself into our relationships making it hard to be grateful. Are things in the relationship going well? Give yourself a pat on the back, since you know you are responsible. Are things not so good? You know it’s not your fault, so pass the blame, please. Has your partner been especially loving and giving? You might struggle to feel gratitude if you think you don’t deserve the goodness, or think you deserve more.

Take an Appreciative View

Take an appreciative view of the other person. Even when something is not going well, lots of other things are. What are your partner’s strengths? If you are feeling irritated, are you wearing your strengths buttons out where they can be easily pushed? Perhaps your partner is your opposite, a wild and spontaneous person and you are planful and self-regulated. (Read here to see how to rewire your strengths remote control).

Try taking a strengths vacation by test-driving spontaneity. Split the difference: It’s ok to set a time when you can just see what happens next. Be grateful when the unexpected comes along to sweep you off your feet.


Savor what’s wonderful as a way to draw you closer, and stories matter. Listen to your wedding music CD’s together, show the wedding or honeymoon album to friends while you share remembrances of the big events. If you like to write, journal to one another to savor the experience of beginning your life together. If you are naturally full of gratitude and humility, practice thanksgiving. Are you drawn to beauty and excellence? Savor by marveling at a magnificent sunset or work of art. Let your senses luxuriate in a massage or a dinner out and share the story to savor it. Even practice anticipatory savoring while you plan a vacation or imagine a new home together.

Monitor Your Negative Affect

How often you feel the negative emotion disgust predicts relationship failure. When something disgusts you, what do you do? Think of a food which you really, really hate, or the smell of something rotten. That visceral reaction is disgust. The overwhelming desire to spit something out is active in relationships, and when someone else disgusts you, it is extremely difficult to like them. When you begin to feel disgust, switch to something—anything—admirable about the person. Everyone has something.


Practice Active Constructive Responding. Share good news with each other. This is called “capitalizing”. Be enthusiastically (fake it till you make) interested in your partner’s capitalizing. Be curious and listen for places to ask questions so that there is some give and take. ACR makes the other person feel understood, validated and cared for. You’ll both like each other better.

Listen to George Vaillant

Follow George Vaillant’s advice and “connect the prose and the passion.”

Relationship-building is often side-tracked by Eros, our lustful and instinctual love wired for envy, jealousy and mistrust. In his new-to-paperback book (out June 9th) Spiritual Evolution: How we are wired for faith, hope and love, Vaillant describes the joy in deep attachment, and the necessity of making oneself vulnerable, almost as a child is to its mother. No, this does not make you a wimp, but rather an altruistic, gratitude-filled, optimistic, forgiving, trusting partner. Therein lies the joy of connection, the expansive love that bonds you to one another in a so-this-is the-meaning-of-life sort of way.

So if you are still trying the same approach and expecting different results in your relationships, take an empirically sound, positive psychology-oriented risk. Best wishes to the happy couples!



Bryant, F. & Veroff, J. (2007) Savoring: A new model of positive experience.. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Emmons, R. (2007) Thanks!: How the new science of gratitude can make you happier. Boston: Houghton Mifflan Company.

Gable, S.L., Reis, H.T., Impett, E.A., & Asher, E.R. (2004). What do you do when things go right? The intrapersonal and interpersonal benefits of sharing positive events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87, 228-245.

Vaillant, G. (2008). Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith. New York: Broadway Press. Soon out in paperback.

Round Three Foxtrot (Newlyweds Dancing) courtesy of lepiaf.geo
Tango (Cheek-to-cheek) courtesy of Michal Osmenda
Paradise Found (Older couple) courtesy of Randy Son of Robert
A couple dance and spin around on the beach in their wetsuits courtesy of mikebaird

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WJ 4 June 2009 - 3:23 pm


I’m curious whether your advise applies to both genders. For example Tod Kashdan’s new research that showed that men didn’t benefit as much from gratitude. http://mason.gmu.edu/~tkashdan/publications/gratitude_genderdiff_JP.pdf

Sherri Fisher 4 June 2009 - 4:04 pm

Hi, Wayne-

Thanks for the article. Kashdan makes some sweeping generalizations: “men value power, novelty and stimulation, and achievement as more rewarding than intimacy” is just one. All men? In all cultures? At all ages?

My article addresses the marriage relationship, and looks at the value of broadening and building the positive emotions that make us willing to be vulnerable to another person. From this vulnerability can come love and joy, and they are what make the relationship what life is all about.

So yes, my advice applies to both genders, and as with all positive interventions, “fit” is an important part of how they work.

Are you married? Just wondering…


WJ 4 June 2009 - 6:57 pm

Sherri, I have been happily married for 20 years – and we are still very much in love. Our friends often comment on how good our marriage is.

I had a discussion with my partner abut your article and we agreed with most (not all) of what you said.

Others we would add are mutual respect for our differences; talking to each other; and understanding that “shit happens”.

I think Tod’s research is really interesting and fits with my emperical observations. So I avoid talking about gratitude with male clints unless its a high value.

As you say – one size does not fit all and the same applies to gratitude.

By the way the irony is that I have higher levels of gratitude than my partner.

As positive psychology matures I suspect many of the so called pillars will be challenged/refined – that’s the nature of science.

Senia 4 June 2009 - 7:08 pm

This is a lovely article and discussion section. I am really enjoying this. It totally makes me smile. I wonder if this article will become like the classic Aren article on love – with people adding more and more to the comments. Merci!

Kathryn Britton 4 June 2009 - 7:47 pm

Wayne and Sherri,

I was looking through Gottman’s book, 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work, trying to find the source of Sherri’s statement about frequency of disgust predicting divorce. In the process I found he said a few things about gender differences:

In 85 percent of marriages, the stonewaller is the husband (p. 37).

The male cardiovascular system is more reactive than the female and slower to recover from stress. (p. 37)

Men are more easily overwhelmed by marital conflict than women. (p. 38)


“The determining factor in whether wives feel satisfied with the sex, romance, and passion in their marriage is, by 70 percent, the quality of the couple’s friendship. For men, the determining factor is, by 70 percent, the quality of the couple’s friendship.” p. 17


WJ 4 June 2009 - 8:50 pm

Kathryn, I agree. My partner is my best friend.

Kathryn Britton 5 June 2009 - 11:55 am

But there is still a lot to be said for dancing cheek-to-cheek — we have found dancing — fox trot, waltz, mambo, cha cha, swing, merengue — to be a wonderful shared pleasure.


Senia 6 June 2009 - 3:08 pm

Kathryn, I could not agree more!
🙂 S.

Sherri Fisher 8 June 2009 - 2:00 pm

Hi, Wayne–
Congrats on your your long-lived marriage. I’ve been married 25 years. The friendship and flexibility you mention are certainly important in any relationship. I did not make an exhaustive list of things that work. For instance, I meditate nearly every day, and I find mindfulness is a great tool for dealing with the unexpected in life.

WJ 8 June 2009 - 4:22 pm


Glad you are into mindfulness – as you know I believe that it’s a foundation skill of life.

By the way “shit happens” is almost like the acceptance facet of mindfulness.

Nicholas Hall 9 June 2009 - 1:55 am

I gotta say, Sherri, you have a lot of good stuff in there for couples to focus on! And…”Listen to George!!!” Hahahaha! I couldn’t agree more! Did you watch the video they produced in the Atlantic article about him and the Grant study? It’s fantastic… “Happiness is love. Full Stop.” Can’t get more classic George than that.
Thanks for the article. I ate it up.

Sherri Fisher 9 June 2009 - 2:34 pm

Hi, Nick-
Yes, I saw the video. The Atlantic article about George was great, too.

Isn’t it great how a lifetime of working with a study population can crystalize one’s wisdom? I think George has added greatly to relationship wisdom and “other people matter” even though that is not really what he set out to do.

We benefit:-)

WJ 9 June 2009 - 7:11 pm

Sherri, I’m not sure if George is the best person to talk about relationship history

Sherri Fisher 9 June 2009 - 8:35 pm

Hi, Wayne-
Can you please explain? If you are speaking about personal life v. professional research, I try not to confuse the former with the latter, to which I refer.

I’m not sure that a person need be a paragon of relationship success throughout one’s entire lifetime to have added greatly to the collected wisdom on a topic. As a learning specialist, I see “life-long learner” as a valuable strength. I’m a George Vaillant fan 🙂

WJ 10 June 2009 - 3:37 am

Sherri – Perhaps I’m a little naive but I think you have to be able to “walk the talk”.

Sherri Fisher 10 June 2009 - 1:42 pm

Hi, Wayne-
Albert Einstein comes to mind as someone who did not walk his talk but who added greatly to the collected wisdom of his field. Applications of E=MC2 have been met with, shall we say, mixed value.

Perhaps it is not naivete but cynicism that stands between the personal and the professional application of science.

Many researchers never get close to the application of their findings. In psychology, it is practitioners like those from MAPP whose job it is to apply findings. That is my intention in my articles as well.


LeanRainMakingMachine 10 June 2009 - 3:20 pm

I too am a GV fan, and my uninformed assessment is that in many ways he may have walked the talk –trying valiantly to overcome challenges from a difficult childhood; always getting up and trying again; admitting mistakes; returning to a love, etc… These are the grist of the relationship mill.
Simply having one perfect rtelationship fopr a lifetime is both an abberration and potentially uninformative…

WJ 10 June 2009 - 4:40 pm

Sherri and LRM,

So how would Albert Einstein walk the talk with regards to E=MC2? The analogy doesn’t seem to fit

If cynicism means expecting people to “walk the talk” then I guess I’m one.

And I guess I’m glad I’m an abberation.

I’m not sure if you have seen this video where a group of experts who discuss GV’s work.


Sherri Fisher 10 June 2009 - 9:44 pm

Yes, I would agree that “sticking with it” (you saw my May 5th PPND)gives great opportunities to build insight and resilience.

and WJ–
I find that being a cynic is useful on occasion, but is not helpful in opening or continuing dialogue. Cynical responses are rather like a spike in volleyball or table tennis. Point scored. For people who are not interested in competition but in collaboration, the shared set-up is more fun than the spike.

There are lots of experts with differing opinions. I have been to panel discussions where PP researchers openly disagree with each other but remain friends, rather like opposing attorneys who go out for a drink after the trial.

So I agree to disagree agreeably.


WJ 10 June 2009 - 10:12 pm

Sherri – I believe I have a healthy level of cynicism. It allows me to know when to spike or when to enjoy the setup.

By the way do you know about the origins of cynicism – sounds pretty good to me.

“The Cynics (Greek: ???????, Latin: Cynici) were an influential group of philosophers from the ancient school of Cynicism. Their philosophy was that the purpose of life was to live a life of Virtue in agreement with Nature. This meant rejecting all conventional desires for wealth, power, health, and fame, and by living a life free from all possessions. As reasoning creatures, people could gain happiness by rigorous training and by living in a way which was natural for humans. They believed that the world belonged equally to everyone, and that suffering was caused by false judgments of what was valuable and by the worthless customs and conventions which surrounded society. Many of these thoughts were later absorbed into Stoicism” (Sourced from wikipedia).

Sherri Fisher 11 June 2009 - 7:17 am

Hi, Wayne-
Oxford Concise dictionary (British English version) says a cynic is characteristic of the Cynic philosophers, as you have shared, but also these two modern definitions:

1) marked by ostentatious contempt for pleasure
2) sneering fault-finder

Are you familiar with research which positively correlates cynicism with well-being? Please share.


LeanRainMakingMachine 11 June 2009 - 10:25 am

I agree with Wayne that Albert E might have a difficult time walking “E=MC2”. However, he was a believer in thought experimentation and he sure walked that talk often..Moreover, he made mistakes –some very famous and grand ones–yet is still seen as a great master… and, of course, he had his share of challenges in relationships…

As an aside, my lab assistant in Physics at Princeton was Albert E’s last lab assistant…. so,………

I’d say that some skepticism is healthy, but one who is always cynical might not be optimizing enjoyment of life or relationships.. I admire skepticism but seldom choose to have a cynic as a friend
I have an acquaintence of long standing who remains just that due to his constant cynicism, often exhibited in tearing others down, always quick on the trigger of “gotcha” etc. He’s often right but seldom happy, and a lot less smart than he thinks. I’ve decided I’d rather be happy than right, and that seems to work. It doesn’t mean that I live a life of errors, just that I need not point out the “errors” of others. “Live and let live..”
BTW, one of the great cynical pieces in science was a work by Hawking that tweaked fun at one of Einstein’s great mistakes. I believe the title was “God rolls dice in the farthest corners of the universe” –responding to AE’s statement that “God does not roll dice with the universe..” Obviosuly, great minds can sometimes be cynical…

LeanRainMakingMachine 11 June 2009 - 10:30 am

Definitionally, I think the basic idea of cynicism is always to spike, without regard for the human consequences.
Healthy skepticism, on the other hand, gives rise to the recognition of the choice between psiking and set up.
Of course, those whose game is limited to spiking eventually meet their match and are incapable of devising a winnig startegy, as they’ve lived a lifetime of spiking..
I studied with 2 Nobel winners and they both said, in synopsis: “When you meet someone who knows everything, you know you’ve met a small mind””” and “the more we know, the more we see how little we know….”

truman siad: “It’s what you learn after you know it all that’s most worth knowing…”

WJ 11 June 2009 - 6:33 pm

Sherri – nice spke!!!!!!!!!!

Sherri Fisher 11 June 2009 - 8:01 pm


Thanks for you thoughts on cynicism v. skepticism. Karen Reivich talks about “kindling curiosity” and we might also think about cultivating it as well. This turns questioning away from the negative, spiking, realm and toward discovery. I think that broadens possibilities and can foster the relationships.
🙂 Sherri

Sherri Fisher 11 June 2009 - 8:12 pm

That’s an interesting perception since I am interested in finding out whether there is research to support your point. If cynicism is not positively correlated with well-being measures or other positives, especially as they relate to relationships (the topic of this article), then we do not want to be building it, do we?

Back to George…He would say, I believe, that cynicism prevents vulnerability, and without vulnerability the depth of closeness in a relationship is only at the crust rather than at the core.


WJ 11 June 2009 - 10:33 pm

Sherri, I doubt if I’d find the research as you would need to operationalise healthy cynicism. But to use your argument does George have research on vulnerability and its links to closeness of relationships?

I agree that cynicism has no part in healthy relationships – and I don’t apply it to relationships that matter.

To get back to the origional point let me ask who you would listen to
1. A fat doctor offering you dietary advice?
2. A normal weight doctor offering you advice?

Steve 14 June 2009 - 9:09 am

Great article. Speaking of the eros component of love. I believe that mature and successful relationships are rooted in agape: unconditional, altruistic, gratitude and appreciation oriented love. It is within upon this overarching type of love that eros can exist.

Sherri Fisher 15 June 2009 - 11:23 am

Hi, Steve:
Thank you!

Yes, I agree about agape and see it as a “home” where many positive relationship elements lead to flourishing.

If you read George Vaillant’s book, you’ll see agape love referenced as well.



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