In this article, I discuss how what a couple does in the friendship side of their relationship makes a big difference in how well they fare in the conflict management side of their relationship because of Gottman’s concept of ‘sentiment override’.
My work in helping couples improve their relationships in couples counselling became much easier after I learned the ‘secret’ to having a good relationship from relationship expert Dr. John Gottman. He reveals this secret on the last page of Chapter 2 of his best-seller which I recommend to couples, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. In a brief passage, Gottman states that for years he had believed the secret to helping couples have a good relationship was in teaching them skills to communicate about their issues constructively. He then adds that he was wrong in this belief. That is, although being able to communicate constructively about issues is important, the real secret to a good relationship is in what the couples does when they are not discussing issues. In other words, how well do they attend to and nurture their ‘relationship friendship’?
As Gottman has eloquently stated, a key reason that having a solid relationship friendship is fundamental to having a good relationship is that the state of the relationship friendship impacts on the couple’s ability to manage conflict effectively. This interaction between the two main parts of a relationship is facilitated by what Gottman refers to as ‘sentiment override’. In the following sections, I will discuss this concept’s importance in terms of how it serves as the bridge between the friendship and conflict management sides of a relationship.
What is sentiment override and how does it affect a relationship?
Sentiment override refers to the couple’s overall perspective on each other and the relationship which they carry with them into each interaction they have—particularly when they enter into discussions of issues. This perspective influences the mindset they have toward each other when they are discussing issues.
Their perspective on each other stems from the quality of their relationship friendship. If the couple spends time connecting with each other to the point that their relationship friendship is in a good state, their perspective on the relationship and toward each other will be positive. In turn, they will bring this positive perspective to their discussions of issues with the benefit of it serving as a buffer against negative thoughts and feelings about each other during these discussions. Gottman refers to this phenomenon as ‘positive sentiment override’. Not surprisingly, research indicates that couples with a good relationship friendship leading to positive sentiment override find it much easier to communicate constructively about their issues.
On the other hand, if the couple does not spend enough time connecting with each other so that their relationship friendship is in a poor state, their perspective on the relationship and toward each other will be negative. In turn, they will bring this negative perspective to their discussions of issues. This makes it much more likely that the couple will have negative thoughts and feelings about each other during these discussions. Gottman refers to this phenomenon as ‘negative sentiment override’. As you might expect, research indicates that couples with a poor relationship friendship leading to negative sentiment override find it much more difficult to communicate constructively about their issues.
How you can use sentiment override to improve your relationship
Gottman’s research is clear on how you can use sentiment override to improve your relationship. If your relationship needs work in the conflict management area, make sure that you work on improving your relationship friendship. Doing so will help to instill in you and your partner a positive perspective on each other and your relationship which will facilitate positive sentiment override. In turn, this will make it much easier for you to improve your ability to manage conflict.
Gottman’s research also indicates that if you work on conflict management skills in marriage counselling or relationship counselling without working on your relationship friendship, it is unlikely that your application of these skills will improve your ability to manage conflict because of the ‘drag’ that negative sentiment override will exert on this area of your relationship. In my work as a Calgary psychologist and a Cochrane psychologist, I have found Gottman’s notion of sentiment override to be one of the most important elements for couples to focus on for them to be successful in improving their relationships.
May the sentiment override in your relationships be positive,