Relationships, Part 26: Positive or Negative Sentiment Override

If you dislike someone, the way they hold their fork may make you furious. If you like them, they can turn their plate over in your lap and you’ll overlook it.

Happy couples are a little bit brainwashed about their partners. They admire each other, even if there’s little to admire. They love how they look, even if they’re ugly and out of shape. They laugh at their jokes, even if they’re not funny. They’re convinced they can do no wrong. They give each other the benefit of the doubt.

That’s what we call Positive Sentiment Override. It can certainly improve a relationship. If you’re going to live with someone for the rest of  your life, it sure helps if you like him.

If someone is in Negative Sentiment Override they appear to have a chip on their shoulder. Their partner can try to make nice and they won’t accept it. They see evil intentions in every natural mistake. They behave as if their partner is an enemy rather than an ally. I get lots of couples who come to my office in Negative Sentiment Override. They have no trouble bringing up issues, but they have a great deal of trouble recognizing when their partner tries to change.

No one wants to feel negatively about their partner. How do you get Positive Sentiment Override in your relationship?

Having positive or negative sentiments has almost nothing to do with your partner. It has everything to do with you.

I had positive sentiments about my Kodak stock for years, despite a steady decline. I always thought the company would come back. It would develop a good digital camera. It would find some more uses for film. There were too many smart people working there for it to do otherwise. I knew some of them, here in Rochester, and I had faith in them. Well, the company recently declared bankruptcy.

I had positive sentiments about Kodak, despite Kodak, not because if it. I had positive sentiments because of an investment strategy I’d adopted that, most of the time, yields good results. If you went and sold your stock every time the price went down you would never make a profit. Most of the time it pays to hang in there.

Similarly, you shouldn’t file for divorce after one bad day of marriage, or one bad week, or year. What does love mean if we don’t have faith in our partner?

This is what I mean when I say that having positive sentiments has everything to do with you, not with your partner. It is a decision, a strategy designed to get the most out of marriage. You can clearly have positive sentiments for someone or something undeserving.

Clearly, adopting this strategy has its risks. My positive sentiments overrode the objective data about Kodak in the same way that positive sentiments can obscure red flags in early relationships and blind someone to terrible problems in marriages. People will hang in there with horrible marriages, and bad companies, long past the point when they should give up. However, I still believe nurturing positive sentiments is a sound relational practice, as well as good investment advice.

To understand this, consider the alternatives.

If you have negative sentiments overriding anything positive your partner tries, how well do you think that’s going to work? Will you be happy? Will they feel affirmed? Will that chip on your shoulder keep the cold out? Why be with someone at all if you can’t stand the sight of him?

How about if you don’t have any sentiments about your partner at all, either positive or negative? Can you treat your relationship as a levelheaded investor treats his portfolio, buying and selling whenever a particular stop or limit order is hit? Can you love without sentiment?

Good luck with that.

Click here to go to the entire Relationships series.

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