Will you be a Master or a Disaster During the Holidays?

by Edison de Mello, MD, PhD

The holiday season can be fun, loving, restful. It can also be very challenging as we gather with family members with whom we may have some unresolved issues.

A study by Psychologist John Gottman and Robert levenson found that most long lasting relationships come down to 2 basic traits: Masters and Disasters. Although the study focused on married couples, I believe that the research can be applied to any relationship.

The couples were hooked up to electrodes and asked questions about their relationship. As they spoke, the electrodes measured their blood flow, heart rates, and how much sweat they produced. They were sent home and followed up six years later.

From the data, Gottman and Levenson separated the couples into two major groups: the masters and the disasters. The masters were still happily together.  The disasters had either broken up or were chronically unhappy in their marriages.

The analyzed data showed clear differences between the two groups. Although the Disasters looked calm during the interviews, their physiology told a different story. Their heart rates were quick, their sweat glands were active, and their blood flow was fast. The researches found that the more physiologically active the couples were in the lab, the quicker their relationships deteriorated over time.

Why physiology? Disasters were on the fight-or-flight mode. Having a conversation with their spouses physiologically felt like “facing off with a saber-toothed tiger. They were prepared to attack even when talking about everyday mundane stuff.

By contrast, Masters showed low physiological arousal. They felt calm and connected together, even when they fought. They had created a climate of trust and intimacy that made both of them more emotionally and physically comfortable”.

Gottman and Levenson believe that Masters have developed the habit of scanning social environment for things that they can appreciate and say thank you for. Thus creating an effective culture of respect and appreciation. Disasters on the other hand, are scanning the social environment for their partners’ mistakes. So which one will you be during this holiday season: Master or Disaster?