Kristen Farris, a doctoral student in the Communication Studies department at The University of Texas at Austin, has begun her dissertation titled, “Supportive Interactions and Psychosocial Outcomes in the Context of Rheumatic Disorders.”
The Hogg Foundation is supporting Kristen’s research through the Frances Fowler Wallace Award, which provides partial support for doctoral students for dissertation research on the cause, treatment, cure, and prevention of mental disease, mental illness, and mental disorders.
We recently spoke to Kristen about her research, which explores how romantic partners adapt to the recurring stressor of providing social support to a loved one who has been diagnosed with a chronic and (currently) incurable illness.
Tell us about yourself and your discipline, Communication Studies. At what point did you decide to make that your academic specialty, and what influenced that decision?
I took my first communication course as a sophomore in college, and it changed the trajectory of my career. It was an interpersonal communication course, and I realized the applicability of the discipline right away. That was 12 years ago, and I’m still really interested in trying to predict and explain human behavior in interpersonal relationships and during difficult life experiences.
Your dissertation is titled, “Supportive Interactions and Psychosocial Outcomes in the Context of Rheumatic Disorders.” What questions are you trying to answer with this work?
Whereas the current literature has emphasized the benefits of providing social support for a chronically ill patient, questions remain regarding how primary support providers adjust to these demands as their loved ones continue to need help throughout the course of their illness. My dissertation explores whether and how romantic partners adapt to the recurring stressor of providing social support to a loved one who has been diagnosed with a chronic and (currently) incurable illness. I’m also interested in whether this adaptation will promote better quality social support in return and how these supportive interactions influence both partners’ perceptions of relationship quality and their psychological and physiological health.
What led to you taking a professional interest in this particular topic?
I have always taken an interest in this topic, because I was diagnosed with a chronic illness when I was in the 8th grade. I began studying these issues from a theoretical perspective when I began my doctoral coursework several years ago in hopes of both increasing my own understanding of my experiences as well as helping other families and relational partners effectively cope with the stressors which accompany the diagnosis of a loved one’s chronic illness.
How do you think your research methods and approach will help you to answer the questions that you’re posing?
I think one of the most important aspects of the methods I use to study these phenomena is collecting data from both members of the relationship. It’s extremely important to understand the perspectives of both patients and their loved ones in the management of these illnesses, and I’m most interested in the dyadic effects of these supportive interactions. In the future, I hope to employ more longitudinal designs to explore these issues as social support and coping processes are not experienced as one sole event, but rather a series of interactions that take place over time.
Are there any suggested readings you can recommend for those who might be interested in learning more about the topic?
Two of my favorite books in this area that have really informed my work are Unending Work and Care by Juliet Corbin and Anselm Strauss and Good Days, Bad Days: The Self in Chronic Illness and Time by Kathy Charmaz. For peer-reviewed articles, readers can check out the following:
Brashers, D. E., Neidig, J. L., & Goldsmith, D. J. (2004). Social support and the management of uncertainty for people living with HIV or AIDS. Health Communication, 16, 305-331. doi: 10.1207/S15327027HC1603_3
Cutrona, C. E., & Suhr, J. E. (1992). Controllability of stressful events and satisfaction with spouse support behaviors. Communication Research, 19, 154-174. doi: 10.1177/009365092019002002
Donovan-Kicken, E., Tollison, A. C., & Goins, E. S. (2012). The nature of communication work during cancer: Advancing the theory of illness trajectories. Health Communication, 27, 641-652. doi: 10.1080/10410236.2011.629405