Tamara Afifi is a Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Iowa. Prior to coming to Iowa in 2013, she was a professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara and The Pennsylvania State University. Her research focuses on communication patterns that foster risk and resiliency in families and other interpersonal relationships, with particular emphasis on: (1) information regulation (privacy, secrets, disclosures, avoidance, stress contagion), and (2) how people communicate when they are stressed and the impact of these communication patterns on personal and relational health. Her research examines how environmental factors (e.g., divorce, refugee camps, natural disasters, balancing work and family, chronic illness, obesity, daily stress, the Great Recession) interact with family members’ communication patterns (e.g., conflict, stressful disclosures, social support, avoidance, verbal rumination, communal coping) to affect stress, adaptation, growth, and physical/mental/relational health. Her most recent research explores the influence of parents’ communication patterns on adolescents’ and parents’ biological stress responses (e.g., stress hormones). She uses a variety of quantitative and qualitative data collection methods (e.g., quantitative lab and field studies; observational coding; surveys; physiological and biological data; interviews) and data analysis techniques in her research.
Professor Afifi is the editor elect for Communication Monographs. She has received numerous research awards, including the Young Scholar Award from the International Communication Association in 2006 and the Brommel Award for a distinguished career of research in family communication from the National Communication Association in 2011. In addition, she received the Franklin Knower Article Award in 2004 and 2012 from the Interpersonal Communication Division, the Distinguished Article award in 2013 from the Communication and Social Cognition Division, and the Distinguished Article Award from the Family Communication Division in 2008 from the National Communication Association. Her research has appeared in over fifty news outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, Men’s Health, the Huffington Post, Psychology Today, and Family Circle. She is also incredibly passionate about teaching and has received several teaching awards, including a university-wide Distinguished Teaching Award from the University of California Santa Barbara in 2009.
Professor Afifi is currently testing a new theory she developed called the Theory of Resilience and Relational Load (TRRL). Building on the Theory of Emotional Capital (e.g., Feeney & Lemay, 2012; Driver & Gottman, 2004), the TRRL assumes that when people communicate in ways that validate their relational partners/family members on a daily basis, they accumulate positive emotional reserves, which helps preserve their relationships. TRRL argues that relational partners and family members who have more of a communal orientation toward stress, and life in general, are likely to invest in their relationships and build emotional reserves through repeated communicative maintenance strategies. When people maintain their relationships, they then likely communicate more effectively with each other when something stressful happens. Specifically, they appraise relationally stressful situations from a more secure mindset and use communication patterns that uplift their partner and preserve the relationship. More secure appraisals and behaviors during stress are likely to foster resilience and possible growth, minimize perceived and physiological stress, and promote health.
Couples/family members who lack investments, and/or whose standards or expectations for investments are unmet, are likely to engage in more threatening appraisals and conflict behaviors when they are stressed. More threatening appraisals and communication patterns can deplete a person’s cognitive, emotional, psychological and relational resources, and exacerbate the stress. If the depletion continues for long periods of time, it can wear away at the relationship, creating what she refers to as relational load. Resource depletion and relational load make individuals in the relational system more susceptible to poor mental, physical, and relational health. Unlike the traditional notion of allostatic load, which examines the negative influence of chronic stress on multiple biological stress response systems in the body (see McEwen, 1998, 2001; McEwen & Stellar, 1993), the TRRL suggests that relationships can become fatigued and experience relational load due to chronic stress and repeated “hits” to one’s emotional, psychological, and relational resources. Depletion and relational load make it less likely that individuals will perceive a communal orientation and invest in their relationships. Relational partners must continuously calibrate and use communicative maintenance strategies to reduce the propensity for relational load and replenish their personal and relational health. Thus, stress and resilience become a continuous process of feedback loops. She is currently testing the theory in families with an adolescent with a chronic illness (Type I diabetes), families with an adolescent who is obese, long-term dating relationships, colorectal cancer patients and care-givers in rural Iowa, and fast paced families.