Cancellation of guilt, resentment and negative feeling

Has this happened to you? You’re enjoying takeaway food at your favorite place and he says, “This restaurant is good, isn’t it?” Your partner replies, “You’ve never appreciated my cooking.” Or express your opinion as, “We need a vacation. We haven’t been together in a long time,” and you find yourself saying, “What do I have to do to make you happy? Do you want me to quit my job?” You feel perplexed and try to defend yourself, but it only seems to increase the conflict.

Do you sometimes wonder what you said wrong? Were your words or context? Looks like something is bothering your partner and you don’t know what. Over time, as talking leads nowhere other than conflict, you give up. Instead, focus on something else, whether it’s work, housework, or social media travel. Even though you yearn for your partner’s company, it seems like an impossible feat to achieve.

What happened?

What has possibly happened here is that your partner has generated resentment and is caught in the substitution of negative sentiment. Couple interactions are influenced by the annulment of feelings as Weiss theorizes. In essence, the residual emotions of each interaction (could be words, gestures, facial expressions, or body language) accumulate over time, becoming a new dimension of the relationship that derails the objectivity of current interactions. Your partner silently harbors the emotions of feeling unimportant, unwanted, or careless, and now perceives everything that is said with a negative filter. This can be a shock to many partners, as they seem to remember nothing of what they said or did to provoke their partner’s underlying anger.

This resentment, however, passed the times when you were late waiting for you impatiently; you unwittingly exposed your personal information to friends; or, you’ve ignored things and activities that you see as a priority over and over again. Your partner may have expressed his or her concern gently, and you may have taken it out as you were right. Over time, they withdrew, feeling that their concern was futile, which was probably also out of control. Now your partner is resentful and bitter and shows criticism and contempt for everything you say. If the situation persists for a long time, as multiple attempts to build a normal conversation go nowhere, you may also end up replacing the negative feeling. A vicious circle ensues, where any attempt at conversation seems like a mountainous task.

Research on the substitution of feelings

Dr. John Gottman and his team studied 96 newlywed couples and observed this phenomenon where observers coded the discussion differently from that of couples in a conflict situation. Partners perceived the interactions negatively, although they did not appear to be negative for the researchers.

However, in some couples, the interaction went differently, where neutral, low-intensity negative messages were interpreted positively. In the previous two examples, the couple would have responded positively as “I know you love this restaurant” or “I miss our vacation too, so we should plan one soon.” Here was an annulment of the positive feeling where the partner responded positively to the neutral comment.

The reversal of the negative feeling was observed more in the anxious couples, while the substitution of the positive feeling was predominant in the non-anxious couples. Distressed couples perceived the messages negatively even when their partners shared neutral or positive behaviors. These patterns, along with other destructive patterns such as The Four Riders of the Apocalypse (Critical, Defensive, Contempt, and Defensive) and Emotional Development (as seen in other longitudinal studies by Dr. Gottman) continued to keep couples in the status quo of anxiety.

How does this pattern break?

Here are some ways suggested by Dr. John and Julie Gottman to get out of this cycle.

Communicate to listen. Your partner has emotional injuries. “You didn’t defend me with your parents!” “You weren’t there for me when I was sick!” “The first year of our marriage you despised me in front of my parents!” Now, these wounds of the past become a perceptual filter through which your partner evaluates you. Talk about these concerns until your partner feels listened to and healed.

Keep the four knights at bay. The four horsemen of the Apocalypse are destructive to any relationship. Although these patterns are often used as defense mechanisms, the words spoken leave a deep scar. Rather than root issues (e.g., unheard feelings, rejection, loneliness, etc.) that need healing, words of defense take center stage in the conflict. The sore feelings of the root remain unresolved, while the couples feel lost in endless discussions. Share these deeper feelings and needs instead of unleashing the knights.

Accept responsibility. Focus on vulnerabilities rather than argument logic. There is no right or wrong in the relationship. Only feelings count. Listen and understand. Accept responsibility for the role you played and that hurt your partner. Heal your wounds with acceptance and empathy.

Autocalmar. Take a 30-minute break when it is flooded until you feel calmer. Words spoken with stress only cause an escalation. Even if you walk away to avoid a stressful situation, it can be misinterpreted as being stuck. Keep your partner informed that you are stressed and need a break and let them know when you can continue the discussion to close it. Let your partner know about your vulnerability so that they understand how important it is to you and their partner. Also, set a time to reconnect.

Final thought

It can be overwhelming to break away from negative feelings and restore a functional conversation with your partner. Let a mental health professional help you.


Hawkins, MW, Carrere, S. and Gottman, JM (2002). Cancellation of marital sentiment: Does it influence couples’ perceptions? Marriage and Family Magazine, 64(1), 193–201.

Gottman, JM (2011). The Science of Trust: Emotional Tuning for Couples. WW Norton.

Gottman, JM and Krokoff, LJ (1989). Interaction and marital satisfaction: a longitudinal view. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 57(1), 47–52.

Gottman, JM and Levenson, RW (1999). What does change in marital interaction predict over time? Study of alternative models. Family process, 38(2), 143–158.

National Domestic Violence Hotline

If you are in an abusive relationship, you are not alone. Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-7873224. You can also visit the website.

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