About Tamara Afifi, Ph.D.: Tamara D. Afifi is Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). Dr. Afifi’s acclaimed work at the intersections of interpersonal, family, and health communication has appeared in the field’s leading journals, including Health Communication, Human Communication Research, Journal of Social and Personal Relationships and the Journal of Applied Communication Research. Her collaboration with Shardé Davis, “The Strong Black Women Collective Theory: Determining the Prosocial Functions of Strength Regulation in Groups of Black Women Friends,” received the National Communication Association’s (NCA) Golden Anniversary Monograph Award.

Dr. Afifi is a Distinguished Scholar of the NCA. Her influential scholarly contributions have been recognized with accolades including the Berscheid-Hatfield Mid-Career Award from the International Association for Relationship Research, a Gerard M. Phillips Award for Applied Communication from NCA, and a John Garrison Memorial Award from the Interpersonal Communication Division of the International Communication Association. Dr. Afifi is also an accomplished editor. She formerly served as Editor of Communication Monographs and is a guest editor of the 50th anniversary special issue of Human Communication Research.

Alongside her roles as Professor and Chair, Dr. Afifi is Affiliate Faculty at the Center for Aging and Longevity Studies at UCSB. Prior to becoming faculty at UCSB, Dr. Afifi was Professor at the University of Iowa and Associate Professor at Pennsylvania State University. Dr. Afifi received her Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, her M.A. from North Dakota State University, and her B.A. from Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota.

Interview Questions

[MastersinCommunications.com] May we begin with an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you become interested in interpersonal and family communication and particularly how family members communicate in a variety of stressful contexts, from divorce, to economic hardship, to natural disasters?

[Dr. Tamara Afifi] When I was a Master’s student I was interested in organizational, instructional, and interpersonal communication. I was not quite sure what I wanted to focus on, though I got the most enjoyment out of studying interpersonal communication. Then I took a family communication class for the first time. It was a course on children and divorce taught by Paul [R.] Amato, who is a very well-known divorce researcher. That piqued my interest in the area of divorce and got me started in that area.

I studied divorce in a number of different contexts, and I realized that my main academic passion was not divorce so much as stress. I became invested in understanding how family members manage stress, how they communicate stress with their family members, and how that impacts their physical, mental, and relational health. Once I realized that was my primary interest, it totally changed the way that I study family communication.

[MastersinCommunications.com] One of your influential contributions in this area of research has been the “Theory of Resilience and Relational Load.” Could you introduce us to the key concepts of reliance and relational load and how your work positions them as related? What common assumptions about relational resilience does this framework help challenge or nuance?

[Dr. Tamara Afifi] A lot of what we do as academics is based on personal reflection. I was a caregiver for my mother-in-law who had Alzheimer’s disease. My husband, who is also my colleague, and I were both professors at the University of California, Santa Barbara. We loved it there, but my mother-in-law was very ill. My husband comes from a more collectivistic family. I really loved his parents. They were like my parents too. I knew that we needed to go to Iowa to care for them.

When we went there, we were parenting two pre-teen daughters at the same time. There was a lot of juggling between caregiving and parenting. It really became essential for me and my husband to be proactive about maintaining our relationship to combat the stress of caregiving, having full time jobs, and trying to balance everything.

I had already studied resilience for a long time. The move to Iowa gave me the opportunity to do a deep dive into the literature and examine its gaps. If you look at that literature, it is very atheoretical. There is a lot of research on factors that promote resilience like personality, social relationships, and information. Resilience really comes from a combination of these things, and there was not much work that connected these dots. Resilience involves how you communicate, and it is connected to your psychology and your physiology. It is also cyclical, which can be a critique of the theory but is also one of its strengths. Everything impacts everything else. The way we communicate affects us physiologically and psychologically, which affects the way we communicate. This cyclicality mirrors the complexity of real life.

-> One of the key aspects of the Theory of Resilience and Relational Load (TRRL), then, is relationship maintenance. People who actively maintain their relationships for prolonged periods of time not only manage stress better, but they can also proactively guard against it and mitigate how often it occurs. We can never prevent stress completely, but we can head it off before it becomes too negative. If we know that something stressful is about to happen, being kind to your family members and proactive about maintaining your relationships will help you weather the storm.

Another key aspect of the theory relates to my research on communal coping. Communal coping is when we share a stressor together and proactively attempt to solve it together. A related concept that I included in the theory is called communal orientation. Communal orientation is the psychology behind communal coping. Do you feel united with your family members and relational partners? Do you feel like a team in combating stress and the challenges associated with life in general? Does this person have my back? Do I feel like I can tackle anything with them?

These two parts of the theory actively feed into each other. The more we maintain our relationships, the more unified we feel. The more unified we feel, the more we want to actively maintain our relationships. All of those things affect the way we communicate when we are stressed and the way we appraise stress. The better our communal orientation, the more we appraise our stressors as shared, which makes us less likely to blame our partners for our stress and more likely to share that burden and responsibility. This, in turn, affects our mental, relational, and physiological health, and mitigates what I call relational load.

Relational load is, in some ways, a fancy term for relational burnout, though it is not quite that simple. Relational load is the chronic wear and tear of conflict and stress on a relationship, on your emotions, and your cognitive ability to think through things. It affects every aspect of a person. It is like when you have had a bad fight with someone and you feel tired afterward and like the relationship has become a big burden. When those types of fights happen quite often and you feel like you cannot be there anymore for your partner, that is relational load.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Are there insights from this line of work on resilience you feel are especially important in our current context, defined by the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, the proliferation of natural disasters, and economic hardship?

[Dr. Tamara Afifi] We have a really great COVID-19 data set. We surveyed 3,500 individuals who were married at the very beginning of the pandemic when people first started quarantining. They were not sure what was happening or how long it would last, and overall they were not too concerned about it. Then, as things progressed, fear began to set in.

It was a four-wave study. We studied them for three months, and every two and a half weeks we gave them a new survey. What we have mainly examined so far in looking at this data is what people bring to stressful interactions and how relational histories can set the trajectory for how well people function. What you brought into the pandemic in terms of how well you maintain your relationship and your feelings of communal orientation set the stage for how people were able to weather the storm of COVID-19.

Our research has very firmly solidified the findings of the TRRL thus far. People who were doing better before the pandemic found that this crisis really strengthened their relationship. People who were not doing so well found that their relationship often saw a deep decline. This dataset then helped confirm what you might intuitively think about relational dynamics during COVID.

One study we hope to publish soon that works from this dataset looks at the give and take of relational maintenance. When I provide maintenance to my partner, and receive that in return in the pandemic, what does that do? We found this really is cyclical. In the context of the pandemic, when I give maintenance to my partner and receive it from them, it motivates me to keep maintaining my relationship. It also leads to greater feelings of unity. That is what the TRRL would suggest, but now we have evidence to demonstrate it.

[MastersinCommunications.com] In recent work, you have looked to virtual reality devices to benefit individuals with cognitive impairments and their families, as in your publication “Using Virtual Reality to Improve the Quality of Life of Older Adults with Cognitive Impairments and their Family Members who Live at a Distance.” Could you provide us with some background on your interest in using Virtual Reality (VR) to improve the lives of adults experiencing dementia and other cognitive differences? What are some of the benefits of these technologies, and are there any important limitations to their utility that you would highlight?

[Dr. Tamara Afifi] Anyone who knows me well knows that I am not actually very good with technology [laughs]. I am what organizational communication scholars would call a late adopter. Still, I end up using a lot of technology in my research as a tool to study stress and resilience.

As someone who was a caregiver for people with dementia, I have seen the way that people write them off. They think, “Oh, this is a death sentence and there’s nothing we can do for them.” I wanted to provide a sense of joy to people with cognitive and physical impairments and let them thrive despite their impairments.

I partnered with a start-up VR company out of MIT about six years ago called Rendever. This company’s technology is especially useful because you can use it at a distance with family members. We give the older adults a headset that we work for them. It is wireless and light. We put the headset on them and connect them with a family member like an adult child who lives at a distance. We sync the headsets together, and they can hear each other through a speaker in the headset.

This allows them to engage in reminiscence therapy. We take them back to childhood homes of the past, and they share memories of growing up in that household. We can take them to their hometowns where they got married. A lot of the work with older adults with different types of dementia revolves around the way that many of them can remember the past while they might not be able to remember short-term information like what they had for breakfast. We use the past as a stimulus to evoke positive emotions. They tend to love it because it is VR, so they feel like they are on safari like when they were young, or in the old house they used to live in. There is a lot of joy and a lot of storytelling and laughing.

They can also do more traditional VR adventures, but we primarily use the technology for reminiscence therapy and to engage them in narratives about their pasts. We record the older adults using VR and observe different levels of engagement. Essentially, we are using VR as a relational maintenance tool to help them maintain relationships with their adult children when they do not get to see them very often. Our pilot study found that this can reduce social isolation, improve rates of depression in both the older adults and their children, and improve mental health and quality of life, in addition to bringing families closer together psychologically. The project is less about the VR than it is about what the VR can do to help build family relationships.

Now we are using it in 20 different senior living communities in Santa Barbara, Ventura, and Boston in a clinical trial, and we will know the results from that in about a year. In the clinical trial we are comparing VR to Zoom. We were worried older adults would not like using Zoom with their families, but they like it a lot. Many older adults are hard of hearing, so Zoom and features like FaceTime allow them to read lips. COVID introduced Zoom to a lot of senior living facilities, and that has had very beneficial impacts for them.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Another key focus of your research has been on communication dynamics of disclosure and secrecy. For example, your co-authored piece “Venting to Unify the Front: Parents’ Negative Relational Disclosures about Their Children as Mediators of Coparental Communication and Relational Quality,” argues that parents’ negative disclosures about their relationships to their children can have positive impacts on co-parenting relationships. Could you discuss this thread of your research and some of its important or surprising findings?

[Dr. Tamara Afifi] That piece is a co-authored work with Paul Schrodt, and our work together often explores children’s feelings of being caught between their parents. Divorce research is really important for many reasons, partly because divorce can have a negative impact on children. Not always, though. One of the key findings across this body of literature is that children whose parents have a conflicted relationship who stay married often tend to be worse off than children of parents with a conflicted relationship who get a divorce.

The issue is less divorce, per se, than how parents communicate with each other and with their children. Parents want to try to create relational rules where they do not talk negatively about each other in front of their children, but this does not always happen. We study multiple family members to examine systemic communication amongst the family.

In the piece you mentioned, we discuss a slightly different angle on these dynamics. We found that when parents vent to each other about their difficulties with their children, it actually fosters connection between the parents. As we have seen in studies of secret keeping among children, when people reveal negative feelings or things that they have kept secret, it can actually bring them closer together, and the impacts are not as negative as they might expect. Disclosures can often build cohesion.

[MastersinCommunications.com] In addition to your prolific career as a researcher, you are also an acclaimed editor. For example, you edited Communication Monographs from 2016-2019 and will be guest editing the 50th anniversary issue of Human Communication Research. Would you tell us about your experience and perspective as an academic editor and your plans for this forthcoming special issue?

[Dr. Tamara Afifi] I loved being Editor of Communication Monographs. Being an editor plays upon our skills as academics. We love the publishing process. We love writing. At some point in our career, I feel like many of us strive to become editors because it feels like what we were meant to do. I loved reading the different articles submitted to the journal, and I feel like I grew as a person and an academic by reading other people’s work.

Of course, there is the other side of it: the relentless side, where you take the journal with you everywhere you go. You take it on vacation, and it does not stop. Still, I thought it was a wonderful experience. We have a lot of excellent submissions to our top journals, and you get to know a lot of people and the work that they are doing.

I have also always enjoyed putting together special issues, so I am very excited to be a part of the new special issue of Human Communication Research. We received about 170 submissions, which is incredible. We accepted longer abstracts rather than full papers, which I think increased the number of submissions. That was our goal. We wanted people to take a minute to think outside the box and bring us innovative ideas that pushed the envelope. That is what they did. I think we have the cream of the crop that represents the best and most innovative ideas about the future of our discipline.

[MastersinCommunications.com] In 2021, you became Chair of the Department of Communication at UCSB. Would you discuss your work in this role and your goals for your tenure as Department Chair? Are there important ways in which your research career or work as an editor informs these goals or your approach to working in this position?

[Dr. Tamara Afifi] Being an editor definitely helped me become Chair. When I was an editor, I luckily did not have many difficult experiences. Sometimes when people do not get a manuscript published or get a revise and resubmit it can produce negative emotions and hard feelings, and they will let you know. But that happened maybe twice when I was editor, and when it did it was not too bad.

Working as an editor helped me develop a thick skin, a sense of professionalism, and the perspective that you are always judging the work and not judging people. This mentality helped me when I was becoming Chair. Your goal as Chair, especially in an amazing department like at UCSB, is to always do what is in the best interest of the department and to separate your individual concerns from that. Anyone who is Chair is bound to hurt someone’s feelings at some point. That is par for the course. I think a good Chair keeps in mind that their goal is to better the department and communicate that to people.

At the same time, you have to have good relationships with the people you work with. I think and hope I have those quality relationships. I can talk things through with my faculty, and I know that my faculty have my back. I work with the best scholars in the world, and they have always been supportive of me in addition to being really nice people. If I am going to be Chair anywhere, I feel like this is the best department to do it in.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Do you have advice you would give to students interested in interpersonal and family communication, and perhaps more specifically in studying resilience, who are considering pursuing a graduate degree in communication studies?

[Dr. Tamara Afifi] My advice is, first, that you have to figure out what you want your career to look like. Are you more interested in teaching or research? If you are interested in research, there are multiple tiers of that. There are R1, research intensive institutions and R2s, which are primarily Master’s and undergraduate universities. You need to find your identity. You might not know what that is until you get your first job.

My first job, for example, was at a teaching institution, which I loved because I am passionate about teaching, but I realized I was also passionate about research. I did not realize that until it was not the focus of my job anymore, and I was hanging onto doing research for dear life. At USCB, there is a balance of teaching and research, so I can teach the things I love while also studying the things I love.

My advice for those people interested in research is simply to read a lot. I read widely across disciplines and talk to colleagues across disciplines. This helps you ground your ideas. They do not completely come out of the blue. They are building on other things, like how the Theory of Resilience and Relational Load builds on the theory of emotional capital.

Read a lot and find models for writing. My models for writing were people like Alan Sillars, who to me was one of the best writers in family communication. I also modeled his research. I loved the way he thought of families as systems, and the way I do my own research embraces looking at families from a systems theory perspective. Find people you want to emulate with respect to writing and conducting research, then think outside the box.

I do not do my research exactly like anyone else because I let the question drive the method. I trained with Dr. Judee Burgoon, whose research is very lab-based and observational-coding-based. I combined this training under Dr. Burgoon with survey-based research with dyads and families and created my own approach. I do a lot of field studies with families where I go into the home, record conversations, and do observational coding. I take hair, blood, and saliva samples to test for chronic stress levels. I look across scholars and think about what I can grab from these methods and perspectives that will help me better my own questions and research agenda.

I think people often just do what has already been done because they do not think they can do anything different. I would push students to do the opposite. What is the best way to test this phenomenon? If it is not being done in our discipline, look elsewhere. If it has never been done, then break the mold. Do something different.

Thank you, Dr. Afifi, for sharing your insight on family communication, interpersonal communication, health communication, and communicating during times of crisis!

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About the Author: Ben Clancy (they/them) is a critical scholar and creative living in Chicago with their partner, child, and other wildlife. They are a PhD candidate at UNC Chapel Hill in the Department of Communication, where their research focuses on the politics of communicative and artistic technologies. Ben has an M.A. from Texas State University, has worked as a research fellow for the Center for Technology Information and Public Life at UNC, and is an alum of the Vermont Studio Center residency in poetry writing.

Please note: Our interview series aims to represent the diverse research being pursued by scholars in the field of communication, which is often socially and politically engaged. As a result, all readers may not agree with the views and opinions expressed in this interview, which are independent of the views of MastersinCommunications.com, its parent company, partners, and affiliates.