Beware of Negative Sentiment Override
Michael Brown, MSC, LMFT
– Certified Gottman Therapist
When your partner directs negative affect towards you, do you find yourself saying to yourself something like, “My partner is in a bad mood. He (or she) is so selfish. I’m not going to be controlled and manipulated by my partner’s mean traits!”? If so, you may be caught in negative sentiment override.
In the state of negative sentiment override, we do not give our negative-affect partner the benefit of the doubt. Our negative sentiments about our partner override any momentary positivity of the partner. We may even take neutral statements from our partner as if they were hostile attacks.
Dr. John Gottman found that when couples don’t attune to each other emotionally and they dismiss each other’s pain, they fail to build up what he calls an emotional bank account, a reserve of good will in the relationship that can be drawn upon during difficult times in order to repair interactions. “Running on empty” emotionally in the relationship puts us into negative sentiment override, and we are unable to repair negative interactions.
The consequence is that negative affect during conflict becomes an absorbing state, and negativity is like stepping into a quicksand bog—no matter how much you wriggle, you sink deeper into negative affect. We then find ourselves in “the Roach Motel” model of negativity—it’s easy to check in (to negative emotions, and they get reciprocated), and it’s hard to check out.
The opposite of negative sentiment override is the positive perspective or positive sentiment override. In the state of positive sentiment override, partners give their negative-affect partner the benefit of the doubt. They say to themselves something like, “My partner is in a bad mood. He (or she) must be stressed out.” Their positive sentiments about their partner override momentary negativity of the partner. They take even negative statements as if they were indications that the partner needs comfort and support.
The trick is, if you are caught in negative sentiment override, you cannot make yourself have a positive perspective: you either do or you don’t. You can tell yourself, “I’m going to have a more positive perspective on my partner and my relationship today,” but it probably won’t last very long. The first misunderstanding or miscommunication that you have, your intention will probably go out the window and you will find yourself back in negative sentiment override.
The way to get to the positive perspective is to build your emotional bank account by building your intimate knowledge of your partner and your relationship (building Love Maps), sharing fondness and admiration (i.e., telling your partner the ways that you are fond of them and the things that you admire about them), turning towards each other’s bids for connection, and attuning to each other emotionally when there is no conflict. Therefore, if you find yourself in a state of negative sentiment override, work on your friendship and your emotional connection, and, then, you may find yourself moving out of the Roach Motel, having money in your emotional bank account, and having a more positive perspective on your partner and your relationship.
© 2023 Michael Brown, MSC, LMFT, dba Happy Couples Healthy Communities