“When negative sentiment override is activated, even neutral or positive behaviors from your partner can be perceived as negative.” John Gottman, Ph.D.

Jane and Mike have been married for five years. Like many couples, they have disagreements about chores, household responsibilities, finances, in-laws, how they spend their free time, etc. Lately, these disagreements have become more frequent and have turned into fights where they resort to character attacks and defensiveness. Jane and Mike leave those fights feeling angry, resentful, and disconnected. Jane might say things to Mike like, “You’re just selfish and only care about your own needs.” Mike may say, “All you do is nag me. It feels like you only focus on the things I don’t get right and never see everything I do for you and this family.” Jane and Mike are in negative sentiment override.

What is negative sentiment override? 

Negative sentiment override is a phenomenon that occurs in relationships when one or both partners consistently interpret their partner’s actions and words in a negative light. Couples with negative sentiment override often experience pervasive negativity in the relationship, causing both partners to feel unhappy and dissatisfied. 

In a relationship with negative sentiment override, even neutral or positive interactions can be interpreted negatively. For example, suppose one partner forgot to buy milk at the grocery store. The other partner may interpret the forgotten milk as a deliberate disrespect or negligence rather than a simple mistake. The negative interpretation can lead to arguments and resentment. In short, negative sentiment override occurs when the negative feelings and experiences in a relationship outweigh the positive ones. 

What causes negative sentiment override? 

Negative sentiment override is not a one-time event. It happens over time. A couple may fall into negative sentiment override if they experience a series of negative interactions that do not get properly resolved. You’re at an increased risk for negative sentiment override if you struggle with the following:

  • Betrayal or trust issues
  • Poor communication
  • Reoccurring conflict
  • Quick emotional escalations
  • Not feeling heard or validated
  • Fear of being dismissed or shut down by your partner 

Negative sentiment override is like sustaining a thousand paper cuts with no care along the way. The phenomenon leaves a gaping wound filled with distrust and negative sentiments toward your partner. Matthew Fray talks about this very notion in his article The Marriage Lesson I Learned Too Late

Thankfully, negative sentiment override does not have to be a permanent fixture in your relationship. Keep reading to learn how to identify and prevent negative sentiment override in your relationship.

How to identify negative sentiment override in your relationship 

In a relationship with negative sentiment override, certain behaviors can indicate that one or both partners interpret things in a consistently negative light. These behaviors can include:

Constant criticism: One or both partners may continually find fault with the other person’s behavior, even when there is no genuine issue.

Defensiveness: If one partner feels regularly attacked or criticized, they may become defensive in response.

Disengagement: In some cases, one or both partners may disengage from the relationship entirely, avoiding conflict and interaction as much as possible.

Contempt: This can take many forms, including yelling, name-calling, and aggressive behavior. Contempt is often a sign that negative sentiment override has reached a critical point.

Lack of affection: When negative sentiment override is present in a relationship, affectionate behaviors like hugging, kissing, and holding hands may become less frequent or disappear altogether.

Negative attributions: Both partners may begin attributing negative motives to each other’s behavior, even when no evidence supports these interpretations.

Stonewalling: Stonewalling occurs when one partner completely shuts down during a conflict, refusing to engage or respond to the other person’s concerns.

If you notice any of these behaviors in your relationship, it may be a sign that negative sentiment override is present. It is essential to address these issues as soon as possible. When couples continually engage in the behaviors listed above, over time feelings of resentment can settle in, which is an extremely difficult feeling to overcome in a relationship.  Here are some tips on how to work to break the cycle of negative sentiment override.

8 strategies to prevent negative sentiment override

Preventing negative sentiment override in a relationship requires intentional effort from both partners. Here are some strategies that can help:

Focus on positive interactions: Make an effort to notice and appreciate your partner’s positive actions and express your gratitude and affection for them. Your appreciation can help counterbalance any negative interactions that may occur.

Communicate effectively: Practice active listening and try to understand your partner’s perspective, even if you disagree. Use “I” statements to express your feelings rather than blaming or criticizing your partner.

Manage conflicts constructively: When conflicts arise, work together to find a solution for you and your partner. Avoid attacking or criticizing each other and instead focus on the problem.

Take breaks: If you start to feel overwhelmed by the conflict and no longer feel the conversation is productive, you may be emotionally flooded. A time-out or a break from the discussion can give you and your partner time to calm down and discuss the issue later. 

Be a good listener: When we actively listen to our partner to truly understand their perspective it can keep conflict at bay and foster deeper connection. When we listen only to formulate our rebuttal, this can be damaging to the relationship. 

Practice self-care: Take care of your physical and emotional needs, and encourage your partner to do the same. Regular self-care practice can help to reduce stress and maintain a positive outlook.

Be patient: Changing relationship patterns takes time and effort, so be patient with yourself and your partner as you work to prevent negative sentiment override. Celebrate small successes along the way, and don’t give up if you experience setbacks.

Seek professional help: If you are struggling to prevent negative sentiment override on your own, consider seeking the help of a therapist or counselor. A trained professional can provide guidance and support as you work to improve your relationship.

You and your partner can keep negative sentiment override at bay by recognizing your negative patterns and effectively communicating your thoughts, feelings, opinions, and struggles. Your efforts will significantly contribute to positive and thoughtful interactions with the person you love. 

Ready to overcome the negative sentiment override in your relationship? 

If you and your partner want to eliminate the negative perspective in your relationship, consider seeing a therapist trained in Gottman Method Couples Therapy. This approach will help you identify problematic patterns and learn skills to build confidence and trust in your relationship. 

To learn more about the Gottman Method, check out The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, by John Gottman, Ph.D. If you are looking for a couples therapist and reside in NC, AZ, SC, or TX please connect with us. We have several therapists who are trained in this method who are ready to work with you.