Is Your Relationship Stuck in the Negative Override Sentiment?

By Lauren Hall
May 28, 2024
Black woman taking offense of boyfriend

Have you ever felt like everything you say or do rubs your partner the wrong way?

Here’s an example: You say, “We should go out to eat tonight and find some really good pasta.” Your significant other responds, “Right, because the pasta I cook for you at home is never good enough.” You’re left wondering what happened and where their defensive attitude came from.

Or perhaps you’re the one who feels consistently cut down by your spouse.

You try time and time again to connect with them, please them, and build intimacy. Still, you feel your efforts are met with a lack of desire, understanding, and appreciation. Overall, you feel alone and misunderstood.

If either of these examples resonates with you, your relationship could be stuck in the Negative Override Sentiment.

According to University of Oregon professor emeritus and psychologist Robert Weiss, all couples develop sentiment overrides and use them regularly during interactions. 

“In essence, the residual emotions from every interaction (words, gestures, facial expression, or body language) accumulate over time, becoming a new dimension of the relationship that derails the objectivity of current interactions,” says Weiss. “One or both partners silently harbor the emotions of feeling unimportant, unwanted, or uncared for and now perceive everything said with a negative filter.”

For many significant others, this negative attitude or filter can come as a shock because they don’t recall doing or saying anything to warrant their partner’s underlying disdain for them. 

However, the Negative Override Sentiment was built every time you were late, and your partner was eagerly waiting for you. It grew in your partner when you, perhaps unintentionally but frequently ignored communication or interests that were important to them. Negative Override Sentiment may have smoldered in your partner because you simply didn’t show appreciation for a meal they cooked, an errand they ran, or a large task they completed.

Dr. John Gottman and his team at the Gottman Research Institute recently followed 96 couples to better understand the Negative Override Sentiment. Their study found an antidote they named the Positive Override Sentiment. Here’s how it works: 

  • One partner makes a statement such as, “We should go on vacation. We haven’t been anywhere together in quite a while.” 
  • The significant other may use the Negative Sentiment Override and respond with something like, “Well, what do you want me to do? Quit my job so we can spend more time together? I never have enough time to give you.” 
  • The other partner may have shut down or become defensive in the past. But, this is an opportunity to nip the negativity in the bud and create a new environment for the relationship by using a Positive Sentiment Override response such as: “I miss our vacations. You’re really fun to hang out with. Do you remember that one time at the beach when we (insert positive memory here).”

The goal of using the Positive Sentiment Override antidote is to re-establish hope in the relationship, remember moments when both partners felt more positive toward each other, and establish the opportunity to create positive interactions again. 

What if both people in the relationship are stuck in the Negative Sentiment Override? Research shows that it only takes one partner to change the usual rhythm of the relationship. As with any new dance, it may feel a little awkward and uncomfortable at times, but with a bit of practice and persistence, you can kick the Negative Override Sentiment to the curb and build a stronger connection over time.

Lauren Hall is the President and CEO of First Things First and can be contacted at [email protected].

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