Negative Sentiment Override…How the Partner in Your Head Can Ruin Your Marriage

Do You Suffer From Negative Sentiment Override?

negative-sentiment-overrideDo you suffer from Negative Sentiment Override in your marriage?

I tell couples that I’m working with that there are 4 people in their relationship. They look a little startled at first.

There’s the real John. And then there’s the John that lives in Mary’s head.

This is the John that Mary is always prepared for when the real John shows up.

And then there’s the real Mary and the Mary in John’s head. This is the Mary that John braces for impact with every time they don’t see eye to eye.

So here’s the problem.

When you’re in Negative Sentiment Override, you know more about the spouse in your head than you do about your real partner. These conversations that we have about the spouse in our head keep us in a reactive state.

When we make assumptions about how our spouse will think, feel, or speak to us, we lose our real-life connection.  This needlessly frustrates our ability to truly understand our partner and communicate effectively with them.

So we have a deeply intimate relationship…with the totally (insert negative adjective here) partner in our head.

So how did this happen?

Well, it’s useful to assume that the version of us that lives in our spouse’s head is a slight exaggeration of us when we are at our worst. In other words…we taught them, gradually over time, to see us that way.

Negative Sentiment Override is a Negative Expectation

negative-sentiment-overrideThe human brain is as wonderful as it can be annoying. For example, our brains don’t care about our personal happiness.

They only care about safety and survival.

A singular focus on survival can often interfere with achieving relational happiness.

If you’re going to survive, you have to carefully monitor all of the threats in your environment.

You must have a plan for dealing with them, which means you must anticipate the negative or Mr. In-Between might eat you alive.

So as you, over time, thwart your spouse’s relational happiness, their brain will adjust to reflexively perceive you as an external threat.

And to better prepare for this threat, it will become completely necessary to vividly imagine a “partner in their head” to guide them at the meerest inkling of conflict with you.

Where some therapists may see “maladaptive coping strategies.” Neuroscience sees nature’s deliberate cognitive architecture.

We have reactive minds because that’s what kept us alive as a species. These reactive minds aren’t working so well for us in the 21st century. Particularly for this new-fangled human construct called… intimacy.

The Receptive Mind… Our True Nature?

I recently read another couple’s therapist’s blog post praising the power of the receptive mind, which she maintains is our natural state.

It’s a very seductive idea to believe that our true nature thrives in moments of clarity, calmness, confidence, courage, compassion, curiosity, connection and creativity.

The problem is it’s not true.

Don’t get me wrong I am a huge fan of the 8 C’s. But it’s not our true nature.

Nature is neither idealistic, trendy, or treacly.

Happiness, like anxiety, is an emotion that specifically evolved to motivate us as a species to engage in behaviors that would allow us to adapt and survive. Happiness is not an end in itself… it is a means to an end.

Remember, in order to survive we must play ball on running water. We must always be adapting. Therefore, our brain craves more and more, never really feeling happy or content with what we have in the present moment.

One of the reasons why I’m always saying that when it comes to couples therapy “you have to be in it to win it” is that internal motivation is far more powerful than external motivation.

Internal motivation informs our behavior with goals and concerns that are internal to ourselves. Internal motivations are individual and abstract. This is quite different than the external world that our brains are designed to deal with.

In fact, external motivation contradicts happiness. In one classic study, psychologists found that if you give an external reward to a person for completing a behavior or action that they previously enjoyed for its own sake (an internal motivation), it actually lowers the likelihood that a person will find the internal motivation to engage in that particular action in the future.

In other words, if we can muster sufficient internal motivation, we can usually override the external. But external motivations can distort what we want for ourselves. The key to marital happiness is a full self-possession and internal motivation for intimate connection.

This is the ultimate life hack, overriding our innate tendency to focus on externals like safety and survival in favor of the individual motivation to have a deeper and more lasting intimate bond. This requires vulnerability and risk-taking, neither of which guarantees safety or survival.

Negative Sentiment Override and the Roach Motel for Lovers

You have to have an inner motivation to release your grip on the partner in your head. Who, in many cases, has become more of an enduring adversary than an intimate other.

In the first place, it negates their humanity. Your spouse is a real human being. They are capable of growth and change. But as long as you’re primarily engaged with the John or Mary in your head you’re not likely to notice anything positive that they are saying or doing.

Because Dr. Gottman was a mathematician, he compared Negative Sentiment Override to a Markov chain.

In the mathematical theory of probability, an absorbing Markov chain is when every state can reach an absorbing state. An absorbing state is a state that, once entered, cannot be left.

In other words, it’s “the More…the More once again. The more negativity that is present in your marriage, the harder it becomes to escape the partner in your head.

This means that for couples in a profound Negative Sentiment Override, entering conflict is easy, and trying to pull out of it is like fighting against quicksand.

Nan Silver and John (Gottman & Silver, 2016) gave us a vivid image by calling this state the “Roach-Motel for Lovers” because it resembled the old roach-trap ad that proclaimed “They check in but they don’t check out.”

This is how negative emotions begin to seep into the lives of unhappily married couples as they move down what Gottman and Robert Levenson called in their research the “distance and isolation cascade.”

Couples who become distant, withdrawn and isolated withdraw from one another are paying too much attention to the partner in their head…and they’re playing it safe.

Cuber and Harroff (1965) described these marriages as “devitalized.” Apparently, these emotionally detached couples can hang on longer than couples displaying the Four Horsemen.

These “devitalized” couples may raise a family together, but they were lonely, and starving for positive interaction. Their friendship systems were impoverished, and they usually divorced once their nests are emptied.

Gottman became famous because he could not only predict if a couple would eventually divorce, but also when they would divorce. Over time, the “Roach Motel” Couples tended to divorce early.

However, the cold, distant, “devitalized” couples also divorced, but usually significantly later.

This is the source of Gottman’s famous quip that marriages die by either fire or ice. But in both cases, there is a Negative Sentiment Override.

But whether we are talking about hot, escalating couples, or cold and withdrawn couples, there is a blamable partner in each spouse’s head. And this spouse in their head was, sadly, doing its job…dictating exactly how they might be “safe” and “survive” the ordeal that their marriage had become.

Intimacy is a relatively new concept, but we have old brains.

We now have compellingly different notions about what matters in this life. And these new ideas have created a hunger for intimacy.

We used to think that the meaning of life was to work to satisfy our survival needs. Whatever bliss we earn, we might enjoy in the afterlife. That belief has utterly collapsed. We aspire to happiness in the present moment. And we want it most in our intimate relationships.


Gottman, J. M., & Gottman, J. (2017) The Natural Principles of Love. Journal of Family Theory & Review 9 (March 2017): 7–26

Gottman, J & Silver, N (2016). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. Random House/Crown/Harmony: New York.


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About the Author Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.

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