Families lead incredibly busy lives, especially with the advancement of technology and growing occurrence of both couples working full time. 

In 2013, the share of married-couple families with children where both parents worked was 59.1 percent. The hustle and bustle of life can push personal time to the side as family dinners disappear and date nights cease to exist.  This decrease in communication can make stressful situations worse.      

For Tamara Afifi, a professor in the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Department of Communication Studies, understanding the underlying causes of discord and finding ways to improve relationships make her job studying family communication both challenging and rewarding.

 “One person’s stress can have a rippling effect on the entire family in a matter of seconds.  That’s what intrigues me about stress, the social nature of it,” Afifi said.

“The idea is that if you manage your stress on a day-to-day basis by investing in your relationships, when stressful things happen you’ll communicate better,” she added.  “It also argues that couples in families that tackle stress as a unit, who are a team in their approach to situations in life, are better able to handle stress and are more likely to invest in their relationships to begin with.”

Afifi is currently testing her Theory of Resilience and Relational Load (TRL).  This theory suggests 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.  Afifi suggests using four techniques every day to help reduce stress and strengthen partner relationships:

1.)    Hug your partner

2.)    Say ‘I love you’ to your partner

3.)    Do something thoughtful for your partner.  It can be as free and simple as telling your partner he/she looks nice today.

4.)    Spending 15 minutes of uninterrupted quality alone time with your partner.  This means no kids or phones.

Afifi family

This last technique may sound easy, but for parents with kids, it can be difficult to find 15 minutes of quality alone time with each other. Peeling away from a smart phone, iPad or computer for any length of time can be challenging, too.

Afifi is sure to practice these techniques herself when not at work.  In her spare time she can usually be found spending time with her kids and husband, either at home or on fun road trips. 

“To me there is something always intriguing about the family as a unit,” Afifi said.  “It’s the source of your greatest pain and joy, sometimes at the same time.  I get the most enjoyment out of being in families’ homes and working with them one on one.”

Families come in different sizes, from various traditions and with diverse parenting techniques. When she’s observing some of these families Afifi said it quickly becomes apparent that some are better at communicating than others, which has an effect on how they handle stress.       

“My question was, ‘What makes them different? -How did they already come to that interaction different?’” Afifi said. -“I think it’s the things that lead up to that stressful moment. -They’ve already been preparing their families for years so they handle that stress when it comes. Everybody has stressful moments.  Everybody gets down and has a really hard time.  But it’s how you manage that as a collective that I think is really interesting.”

By Shaina Tromp