Negative sentiment override (NSO) refers to a state in a relationship where negative emotions and perceptions outweigh a partner’s positive perspective. Positive sentiment override (PSO) is just the opposite. Here, a partner making a negative comment might be seen as tired. Alternatively, the tone might be interpreted as being “for emphasis” instead of hostile.

According to John Gottman’s research, NSO skews emotions and views about the partner and the relationship in a negative direction. PSO biases do the opposite: the partner overlooks or minimizes the negative and positive emotions predominate. Partners feel positive about their partner and the relationship even without positive behaviors.

In PSO, couples remember “the good times.”

For many of my couples, there was once a time when it was peaceful and natural. When doing the simplest things together brought joy or comfort. Remembering those times allow you to feel more hopeful and positive about your relationship naturally.

For example, in NSO, Barbara could only see her husband, Kevin, as inconsiderate of her need to work evenings. When in PSO, she began to view his cooking dinner as his contribution to her busy schedule.

Is your relationship “hopeless?”

In NSO everything you say to your partner might be met with stone-cold silence or a hostile or sarcastic comment. Couples in NSO wear “dark gray glasses” and interpret even the most positive statement as an intended insult or sarcasm.

Gottman says those in NSO are “…imprisoned in a roach motel for lovers… they check in, but they can’t check out...”

Couples can’t imagine anything can change when they are in NSO.

Why is it called negative sentiment override?

Imagine a plane flying over turbulent airwaves when suddenly it begins to wash over calm airwaves containing a sheep pasture. The aircraft then goes back into turbulent airwaves.

Did the pilot notice that the air was calm? Did he enjoy the peaceful time, or was he so focused on the previous turbulence that he ignored the smooth flying?

In many marriages, the angry or hopeless feelings and experiences are the turbulence. The soft and tender feelings are calm. In some relationships, we focus only on negative emotions, and warm and fuzzy feelings or good times are ignored or discounted.

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

In one study, couples discounted, reframed, ignored, or minimized the warm or positive interactions half the time, according to researchers, but identified every single slight or bad feeling accurately. To these couples, the “glass is half empty.”

Fondness and admiration

As a couples therapist, part of the challenge with NSO couples is to persuade them that it’s even possible. So many couples who have traveled far down the “Distance and Isolation Cascade” have a tough time seeing any redeeming qualities in their partner.

Interestingly, when couples are first in love, the reverse is true: They say “love is blind,” but actually, love is more “apathetic” to our partner’s faults than blind to them. Most newlyweds can accurately point out weaknesses and flaws but aren’t bothered by them.

Let’s face it, none of us are perfect, and part of having a happy marriage is the capacity to “override” the negative and focus on the positive.

“Hard” vs. “soft” reasons for divorce

Of course, some of these “negatives” are hard to overlook, especially in large doses. William Doherty calls them “hard” vs. “soft” reasons for marital dissolution. Violence, substance abuse, personality disorders, and chronic infidelities are “hard” reasons. Soft reasons are typically more subjective and may vary depending on individual perspectives and experiences.

And chronic fighting is neither. Fighting itself is no predictor of divorce.

Retraining Your Mind

In couples counseling, couples practice noticing their partner’s positive attempts during treatment. They actively calm themselves down and reassure themselves when the “soft” negatives arise. They devise ways to begin again to look at the positives: “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…”

It’s important to note that sentiment override is not static and can fluctuate over time. Couples can work on cultivating positive sentiment override by nurturing their emotional connection, practicing effective communication, and focusing on their relationship’s strengths and positive aspects.

Additionally, seeking professional help, such as couples therapy, can provide support in addressing and resolving negative sentiment override, fostering a healthier and more satisfying relationship.