A husband came to see me somewhat baffled by his relationship. His chief complaint?

“I do nice things for my wife, but it doesn’t seem to matter. She doesn’t even notice. I don’t get it.”

There was a reason his nice deeds were going unacknowledged. So much ill will existed between the two, negativity cancelled out the good. I know that doesn’t sound fair, but an on-going negative relationship depletes the positives over time. It has to do with something called negative sentiment override.

Marital therapist, JohnGottman explains: The overall feeling you have towards your partner is something called sentiment override. Sentiment override influences how a partner perceives both negative and positive comments and behaviors. Overall, when a couple has a positive feeling or sentiment for each other, they  acknowledge the nice things that happen. And when conflict comes up, they diffuse it because their overall feeling for each other is positive.

For example, in an overall positive relationship, if a husband comes home and forgets to bring the bread needed for dinner, his wife would probably think,
“Oh, he must have had a lot on his mind and just forgot. No worries. We can do without bread.”

But if that same relationship is already very negative and the same thing happens, the wife might think, “See, he only thinks of himself. I can’t depend on him.”

In fact, research tells us that 50% of positive gestures go unrecognized in couples characterized by negativity. The reason–there is too much negativity in the bank. Even neutral actions are seen as negative.

Back to our couple: This couple is stuck in their negative sentiment override. So what can they do?

  1. Go back to the basics. Work on the marital friendship, show admiration and respect for each other. Most of all, be available when he or she tries to connect over a conflict. The challenge is to deposit positives into that emotional bank account. Over time, they can turn the negativity around. But it takes intention.
  2. Keep down the criticism, defensiveness and disrespect towards one another. Don’t turn away from your partner when frustrated. Stay in the    interaction, calm yourself and talk. Point out the positives about each other. Remember why you got together in the first place and try to recapture some of that good feeling
  3. If there are areas of hurt, listen to your partner. Share those feeling in order to let go of resentment and begin to heal. Accept whatever part you played in hurting the other person. Then apologize and ask forgiveness.
  4. Finally, moving forward, stay on top of the emotional temperature in the relationship. Check in on a regular basis. Ask, “How are we doing? We good?” If the answer is NO then get at the issue. The key is to work out hurts and areas of resentment and then deposit positive behavior in the couple bank. Gradually, this will build trust and a positive sentiment. And the result will be that the positives will be noticed.

If you need help in this process, find a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) who can help walk you through changing a negative sentiment override to a positive one.


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