If not careful, our perceptual evaluations of a partner can flip. The once endearing qualities quickly morph (in our minds) to annoyances and blaring imperfections. John Gottman refers to this perceptual state as “negative sentiment override.” This perceptual flip in how we evaluate our partner’s behaviors and character traits can quickly destroy the relationship. Where gentle sentiments once roamed, hurtful judgments move in, spoiling the fertile fields of love.
Relationships are dynamic, constantly changing, as the individuals involved change, the nature of the relationship changes. Sometimes these changes lead to strengthening bonds of trust, other times, to unhappiness and loss of friendship.
Negative Sentiment Override is when our perceptual judgment of a partner becomes negative. In this state, we see behaviors, even neutral or positive ones, in a negative light.
New Relationships and Positive Sentiments
New relationships flood our systems with feel good chemicals—primarily dopamine. Life feels good; everything looks rosy. This distorted positive view is partially responsible for some us to blindly trust someone we probably should protectively examine.
However, positive perceptions of a partner also lead to stronger and healthier relationships. Once invested, the positive sentiment helps dismiss the small incidental failings, something we all possess, without poisoning the good feelings partners have for each other.
In positive sentiment override, John Gottman, the William Mifflin Professor of Psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle, explains, “we don’t take negativity personally; we see it merely as evidence that our partner is stressed.” He continues, “we tend to distort toward the positive and see even negative as neutral” (2011, Kindle location 657).
Because feelings of fondness for a partner is related to experiencing more positive interactions than negative ones, perceptions of positive and negative are incredibly important. Slight shifts in perception (attributing neutral events as negative that once were seen as positive) can greatly impact the good feelings of the relationship.
Perceptions and Goal Fulfillment
To more fully understand Gottman’s concept of negative sentiment override, we must embrace that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are self created labels associated with relativistic thinking. When we relate an interaction as positive or negative, we are simply creating a label. Interactions are neither ‘good’ or ‘bad’ until we use a cognitive shortcut and attach them to a goal.
If the goal is a healthy, trusting relationship, then some interactions lead towards that goal, others lead away from the goal, and many are neutral.
Our perceptions of interactions, then, are foundational towards feeling satisfied or dissatisfied in goal fulfillment—happiness. When we see our companion as a contributor to goal fulfillment, fondness and friendship thrive. However, when we see a partner as a potential obstacle to these goals, the relationship bonds begin to fray.
Gottman explains under these strained relationships, need fulfillment and goal achievement shifts from mutual striving to adversarial zero-sum games. He wrote, ”in a zero-sum game each partner sees his or her own interests as preeminent: the interests of the partner do not count at all. The very notion of trust is directly opposed to the notion of the zero-sum game” (2011).
The Changing Narrative
While interactions may remain nearly the same, perceptions may change, renaming previous positive interactions as negative.
Trudy Govier provided an example of negative sentiment override in her timeless book on trust. She wrote, “whatever he says or does in response, it is unlikely to satisfy her needs. Under pressure, the husband may say, ‘I love you. Yes, I want us to stay together.’ But his wife will suspect that he does not really mean it. He may paint the bedroom, buy flowers, or plan a joint trip; but distrusting him, she will not take these actions as evidence of a firm commitment to their relationship. These, she will suspect, are merely tokens intended to influence her” (1998).
Negative Sentiment Override is an Absorbing State
Negative or positive perceptions are self-perpetuating. They invite more of the same. Perceptions color the entire relationships.
Gottman wrote, “in negative sentiment override, a negative perception is the “subtext” that accompanies all interactions, and people start seeing their partner as having negative traits, such as being selfish, insensitive, or mean” (2011, Kindle location 418).
These negative states create a hypervigilant protective shield against threats from our partner. The slightest word ignites defensiveness. T. Franklin Murphy wrote about this absorbing state, “the heightened sensitivity of one partner tends to infect the other partner. A simple comment may draw a negative response, and the negative response may heighten fear of rejection. The interactive reactions quickly cascade into a full blown emotional collapse. Flooded with emotion communication is halted and protective measures of attack or withdrawal creep in and destroy (2022).
Healthy relationships thrive in emotionally safe environments. Emotional intimacy cannot exist when constant fears that a partner interferes with goal attainment. Whether a partner’s behaviors interfere or we interpret that their behaviors interfere, our emotional reaction is the same—we protect.
Friendship with Our Partner Protects Against Negative Sentiment Override.
In Gottman’s book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work he wrote, “most marriages start off with such a high, positive set point that it’s hard for either partner to imagine their relationship derailing.” Early, relationships feel immune to the world. We gleefully feel that no amount of pressure can intrude on the joyful union. However, our perspective is wrong. We misperceive the power of time and neglect.
However, “over time anger, irritation, and resentment can build to the point that the friendship becomes more and more of an abstraction”. Gottman continues to describe the wear of time on the once blissful couple, “eventually they end up in “negative sentiment override.” We begin to interpret everything more and more negatively. Consequently, we take personal the words our partner says in a neutral tone of voice and with no ill intent (2015, p. 21).
Gottman attributes this shift to loss of friendship. He hypothesizes that when friendship isn’t working “people go into negative sentiment override,” seeing our partner as our adversary, rather than our once annoying friend (2011, Kindle location 652).
Gottman strongly emphasizes that if friendship processes are working, “you automatically get positive sentiment override. If friendship isn’t working, you automatically get negative sentiment override, because you are ‘running on empty’ in the friendship” (Kindle location 663).
Gottman argues it is one state or the other. As a result, there is no neutral ground (Kindle location 1,380).
A Few Closing Words on Negative Sentiment Override
Gottman’s work is well documented and the research is sound. Couples would do well to conscientiously and proactively protect the friendship. Importantly, couples must do things together, enjoy conversations, and respect individual goals. When these primary activities get neglected, the relationship begins to shift, perspectives change, and the costs of the relationship begin to seemingly outweigh the benefits. We must watch for the signs to prevent this from happening.
In conclusion, be friends and lovers to nurture that positive light.
Gottman, John (2011). The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples. W. W. Norton & Company; Illustrated edition.
Gottman, John (2015). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert. Harmony; Revised ed. edition
Govier, Trudy (1998). Dilemmas of Trust. McGill-Queen’s University Press; 1st edition.
Murphy, T. Franklin (2022) Emotional Flooding. Psychology Fanatic. Published 3-8-2022. Accessed 5-3-2022.