It is inevitable that we will have a feeling or reaction to something our partner does or says.  We often find that the most trivial daily interactions become the biggest areas of conflict and frustration.  And when friction happens frequently, we can start to feel negatively about the relationship overall, regardless of our partner’s intentions when they left the dirty dish in the sink. 

When we enter into “negative sentiment override” about the relationship and our partner, this can become very troublesome and in fact can be one of the major predictors of divorce for married couples. 

Dr. John Gottman, the quintessential leader in research on couples states:  “Negative sentiment override is when there is a discrepancy between insider and outsider perceptions of the interaction. An actually neutral or positive communication sent by one partner is interpreted by the other partner as negative. Hence, negative sentiments or feelings override positive interaction.”  And when this happens more often than not, this might spell trouble for the both of you.

So how do couples handle this?  One way is to take these daily interactions that bring up the source of frustration and upset and go deeper. 

I remember when one of my couples, who have generally a good relationship, except for they argued constantly over the unpacked boxes, from when they first moved several years ago, creating clutter in their apartment.   We tried making a plan, deciding when they would like to work on this unfinished project, who would do what and when. However, nothing seemed to alleviate the feelings of frustration and upset about these unpacked boxes. 

In therapy we tried exploring a bit more about the feelings these boxes represented.  After some exploration, one partner shared that these boxes were not just any boxes.  These boxes were medical records and bills documenting a chronic auto-immune illness that she had been living with for years.  Despite having worked with several doctors on finding a solution to alleviate her symptoms, she still hadn’t discovered a solution that worked for her.  Moreover, she felt her partner didn’t seem to understand the impact her illness had on her daily functioning, leaving her feeling quite alone in her experience.  By sharing this deeper meaning about the boxes helped us to identify what was really going on, how she was feeling on a much deeper level and we could then work towards a solution so she felt more supported in the relationship.

So, how do you go deeper?

When a specific behavior your partner is doing is bothering you, you can ask yourself some of these questions:

Why does this specific behavior matter to me?

Is there someone in my past that has done this specific behavior?  If so, how did I feel about it?

Does this behavior represent a bigger issue going on in our relationship that I want or need to address?

Do I feel my partner is not contributing enough or I have contributed too much in our day-to-day routine?

Is this specific behavior a habit or behavior I want to change in myself?  If so, do I need help from my partner to support this change?

Am I hurting inside and feel my partner hasn’t heard or understood my hurt?

By doing this kind of exploration, we can key in on what may be truly going on with us on a deeper level.  Also, it can help our partner understand us better, they are more equipped to express empathy for what we are feeling and it help you both work towards a real solution. 

Does this mean all of our reactions have a deeper meaning?  Of course not.  However, it’s a worthwhile exploration that will deepen your own personal understanding of yourself and, in turn, will make your relationship closer, more meaningful and more satisfying.  With a bit of practice and patience, over time this can improve the overall quality of your relationship, lessen the impact of negative sentiment override and prevent your relationship from going down a dangerous path of resentment and contempt.  

Warmly and with support,