Revised 2/16/23

What is Negative Sentiment Override (NSO)?

John Gottman, the world-famous marriage researcher, describes those who are in Negative Sentiment Override are “…imprisoned in a roach motel for lovers… they check in, but they can’t check out...” These couples display the four horsemen.

Everything you say to your partner is met with a hostile or sarcastic comment. Or stone-cold silence. Repair attempts fail.

Couples in Negative Sentiment Override are wearing “dark gray glasses.” They interpret even the most complimentary statement as an intended insult or sarcasm. Those in positive sentiment override do the reverse.

Got my mojo workin’ and it just don’t work on you. Muddy Waters

in negative sentiment a couple in a therapist's office don't look at one another on a couch

Why is it called Sentiment Override?

Imagine a plane flying over turbulence when suddenly it begins to hit calmer airwaves containing a pasture of sheep. The flight then returns to rough air. Did the pilot notice when the air was calm (a positive perspective)? Or was he so focused on the previous turbulence that he ignored the smooth-flying interlude?

In many marriages, the angry or hopeless feelings and experiences are the “turbulence.” The soft and tender feelings (the sheep in the picture) are the “calm.”

Our minds spend time determining whether we are likely to give our partner the benefit of the doubt or not.

Cartoon airplane with pilot flying over a hill with sheep.

Positive Sentiment Override (PSO)

Do you remember a time when your relationship was peaceful and felt natural? A time when doing the simplest things together brought comfort or joy?

in positive sentiment override a couple laughs and hugs on a beach

When couples are first in love, this is true: They say “love is blind,” but actually, love is more “disinterest” in our partner’s faults than blind to them.

Most newlyweds can accurately point out weaknesses and flaws. These flaws don’t bother them. They have learned to respond positively or reframe these flaws as “quirks” or “personalities” that make the partner who he or she is. Gottman describes it this way:

“…in their day-to-day lives, they have hit upon a dynamic that keeps their negative thoughts and feelings about each other (which all couples have) from overwhelming their positive ones. They have what I call an emotionally intelligent marriage.”― John M. Gottman, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert.

Your capacity to think back to those times will help you combat feelings of despair and hopelessness.  Now you focus on the calming airwaves and not the turbulence.

Where is Your Focus?

In some relationships, we focus only on the negative feelings, and even when warm and fuzzy feelings or good times arise, we discount them.

Couples go from negative experience to negative experience, jumping over or “overriding” the positives in the relationship.

When they get stuck in negative sentiment override, even positive or neutral interactions can be perceived as negative.

Couples, in one study, discounted, reframed, ignored, or minimized the warm or positive interactions half the time. Gottman’s research helps us to understand w they could accurately identify every single slight or bad feeling, however. To quote a cliche, the “glass is half empty.”

 Fondness and Admiration

Part of the challenge, as a couples therapist, in helping the couple get out of the negative mindset is to persuade the couple that it’s even possible.

Cascade into negative sentiment override


For so many couples who have traveled far down the “Distance and Isolation Cascade,” have a tough time seeing any redeeming qualities in their partner at all. They only are able to see their partner’s flaws, weaknesses, or negative habits.

 Retraining Your Mind

One thing that couples do in couples therapy is they begin to notice the positive attempts their partner makes during treatment while calming themselves down and reassuring themselves when the “soft” negatives come up.

They create ways to tell themselves: “She might not keep her car’s oil changed, but she’s a very affectionate spouse.” or “He likes to lounge on Saturday, but he doesn’t mind if I go out….”

Flipping the Switch from Negative Sentiment Override

During couples therapy with me, couples go from Negative Sentiment Override to Positive Sentiment Override. It’s something they notice only in retrospect.

Now instead of those dark glasses, they see through rose-colored glasses.

They are happier together now and relate more naturally. And they are relieved that their marriage now “works.”

They don’t need to make a conscious effort to “be nice” to each other. They are nicer, kinder, and more thoughtful of each other’s feelings.

It’s like a light switch (as opposed to a dimmer switch); it goes from “off” to “on.” But the process starts with being aware of the switch itself. What is your Sentiment Override?

Only Two States in Marriage

There are only two states in marriage: You wear one of two glasses: Rose or Gray when it comes to your relationship.

angry couple on a couch staring from opposite ends


It isn’t what I say as a clinical psychologist. It is what over 42 years of research tell us.

The switch is dramatic: like a light flooding a dark room.

But because we’re often waiting for “the other shoe to fall,” it takes a while to realize that we can relax again..with each other. We feel more at home.

You Flick Your Own Switch

And here’s another fact: Psychologists or marriage therapists in couples therapy have no ability to “flick that switch” from dark, grim “Negative Sentiment Override” to bright “Positive Sentiment Override.”

We work on the “friendship system,” and the rest happens by itself.

Research shows that couples have only two modes when it’s good, it can be very, very good, and when it is bad, it is horrid!

Ready for a change in your relationship?

It starts with a no-obligation 15 minute phone call with our client services team.

Dr. K

Dr. Kathy McMahon (Dr. K) is a clinical psychologist and sex therapist. She is also the founder and president of Couples Therapy Inc. Dr. K feels passionate about couples therapy and sex therapy and holds a deep respect towards those who invest in making their relationship better. She is currently conducting online and in person private couples retreats.

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