Do you ever feel like you can’t do anything right in your relationship? Or like your partner is endlessly frustrating, and they’re probably doing it on purpose, just to annoy you? This is what it looks like when a relationship is suffering from negative sentiment override, a destructive pattern that you need to address ASAP.
“Negative sentiment override” is the fancy psychology term for having an entrenched, negative view of your partner. It happens when you’ve had some bad experiences in the past, and those experiences begin to distort the way you interpret everything new your partner says and does. It makes you assume that your partner’s intentions are bad, or that they have poor character, when you wouldn’t draw the same conclusions in an identical situation with someone else.
Negative sentiment override is very common, but it’s also a relationship warning sign. Many couples counseling clients I meet whose relationships are in a difficult place are dealing with some level of it, but they rarely know that. When you’re in it, negative sentiment override feels like you’re making accurate judgments about what’s happening in your relationship, when you’re really jumping to unfair conclusions based on a build-up of hurt feelings and resentment. It’s very important to get out of this negative cycle as quickly as you can: If you don’t it can damage your relationship. Couples therapy can help you slow down and notice these knee-jerk reactions, so that you can once again experience each other in a way that is open and generous. When you can do that, changing your relationship for the better becomes much, much easier.
If you have a well-worn mental catalog of all of your partner’s shortcomings, or you’re trying your best to improve your relationship but it feels like your partner won’t give you a chance, this article is for you. Overcoming negative sentiment override makes it much easier to improve communication and work on your relationship. If you’d prefer to listen, I’ve also created an episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast about negative sentiment override. You can find it on this page, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
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How Negative Sentiment Override Impacts Your Relationship
Here’s an example of negative sentiment override in action:
Christine is browsing flight deals on her laptop, daydreaming about a mai tai on the beach.
“Oh, we could get a non-stop to Aruba for under $400,” she tells Patrick. She’s been feeling so stressed about work lately that just the thought of getting away is giving her some much-needed relief.
“Four hundred? You can’t seriously be thinking about that right now,” Patrick says. She knows that taxes are due next week and that money is tight, he’s thinking. He used to find Christine’s taste for adventure endearing, but after five years of marriage he’s sick of always having to be the adult while she gets to live in la-la land.
“I was just looking!” Christine says. It’s like he takes pleasure in crushing my dreams, she’s thinking. If I’m happy, he has to find a reason to make me feel bad about it. She gathers her computer and sulks off to the bedroom where she can window shop without feeling judged.
If Christine and Patrick didn’t have a long history of fighting over finances, this conversation would have gone differently. But they do have that history, and so negative sentiment override got to work on them both.
Patrick misinterpreted Christine’s intentions. He assumed that she wanted him to agree to spend money when she really just wanted him to enjoy a daydream with her. Christine assumed that Patrick wanted to make her feel bad about herself — because their money conversations so often do — when his true goal was to soothe his own financial anxieties and avoid getting into a fight.
Negative sentiment override makes it hard to give the other person the benefit of the doubt. This not only makes you both feel worse about each other and the relationship, it makes creating any positive change feel like pushing a semi truck up a hill. Even if your partner is trying really hard to solve the problems in your relationship, they won’t feel like their efforts are making any difference if you continue reacting to them from your old programming rather than responding with intention. After a few failed attempts at change, one or both of you may begin to give up hope that things can ever get better, and that is ultimately what causes relationships to fail.
Overcoming Negative Sentiment Override in Your Relationship
It’s not like you can flip a switch and banish all the pent-up negativity in your relationship. Changing your narratives about each other takes work, but the payoff is huge. As you get better at recognizing negative sentiment override in the moment, you’ll be able to intentionally shift into more helpful frames of mind.
Here’s how you can do that:
- Build your self-awareness
The first step in changing anything is increasing self-awareness. Spend some time getting familiar with the old stories you have about your partner, where they’re coming from, and how they show up in your interactions with them in the present.
- Slow down
When you find yourself getting defensive with your partner, or feeling really irritated and annoyed for reasons you can’t quite pinpoint, slow down and consider whether negative sentiment override could be playing a role. When you notice you’re making assumptions that might be distorted, you can challenge them by thinking about other reasonable explanations for what’s happening.
- Heal old wounds
Addressing old wounds can be an important part of overcoming negative sentiment override. If there have been major betrayals or emotional ruptures, then forgiving your partner for past hurts can help you start a new chapter. Working with a good couples counselor who practices Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy can be very helpful if old wounds are the core issue.
- Increase appreciation
Negative sentiment override is damaging to relationships because it makes people feel unrecognized and unappreciated. If it persists for long enough, you can start feeling hopeless and like there’s no point in trying. To avoid that outcome, make a conscious effort to notice and appreciate your partner’s efforts to change and grow for the benefit of your relationship.
- Stay in the present
When you’re having a conflict with your partner, stay in the here and now. That doesn’t mean you can’t ever discuss your history together, but create some separation between the past and present. Rather than saying “You always do XYZ, just like that one time four years ago…” you could say something along the lines of, “I’m feeling the way I felt that one time four years ago. Is that pattern resurfacing, or is there something else going on?”
Support for Overcoming Negative Sentiment Override
As much as we may wish we could snap our fingers and do away with all of the unhelpful judgments in our relationships, it doesn’t really work that way. It takes time to fundamentally change the way that you experience your partner, and often it takes support from a relationship expert who understands these complex patterns and how to overcome them.
Changing your story about your partner will make a huge difference in how your relationship feels and functions. And if you would like to do this valuable work with a counselor on our team, I invite you to schedule a free consultation.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
P.S. — For more advice on changing difficult communication patterns in your relationship, check out my “Communication that Connects” collection of articles and podcasts.
Music in this episode is by Sallie Ford with their song “Soul Sick.” You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://sallieford.com/. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
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Negative Sentiment Override: the Communication Killer
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Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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