Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Marital Support During A Time Of Crisis

January 18, 1999

We are in another farm and ranch crisis. Prices for a wide variety of commodities hit record lows this past fall and early winter. There have been several weather related disasters during the late 80s and 90s. The effects were regional, though the drought of 1988 was national in scope.

Again many farm and ranch families are coping with a very bad year and trying to make sense of their finances and position in agriculture. They have a need to communicate deeply about goals and the daunting problems to be solved. Spouses need to offer comfort and encouragement to each other, as each individually seeks to cope with raw emotion, confusion and hurt.

I met with a group of farmers and their spouses in Langdon, North Dakota that were seeking more information about coping skills for tough times. During one part of the program, men and women split into separate discussion groups to consider the question, "What do men (women) want from their spouses during a time of crisis?

The conclusions they made were instructive and helpful as a springboard for other couples to discuss their own personal relationships.

What farmers want from their wives:

1. Understand your husbands' duties and pressures. Work on the farm involves more than driving a tractor or combine. Paperwork and reading have to be done on rainy days. Farmers need to keep abreast of markets and governmental regulations. They feel the need to keep up with weather and politics. Knowledgeable discussion and support on these matters help.

2. Help keep the finances under control. The grain check has to pay for production costs and other bills. Even though there may be money in the bank, it is accounted for. They want their wives to accompany them to see the lender for major negotiations.

3. Learn about the big picture. They also talked about their wives needing to see the big picture and understanding the long term investments related to farming. Many of the decisions a farmer makes today affects the future.

The farmers in the group acknowledged that farmers may keep this to themselves. As a result, they carry a large burden of stress by themselves. They recognize their own role in not sharing their feelings about what certain decisions mean.

4. Communicate more about financial, social and spiritual concerns. They want their wives to "walk" with them, be together in decisions, be open, be mutually helpful with duties, and provide a loving and supportive home environment. During a time of crisis, these farmers see a need to simplify life, back off on activities and look for emotional support.

5. Encourage good mental attitudes and spiritual strength. Men recognized the need to be alert for signs of depression. They discussed the natural tendency to feel sorry for oneself and their need to develop a hopeful attitude. They saw the time of crisis as a time when they, as a couple, come to God. If there is a tug of war, they want their wives to remember they are on the same, not opposite, sides.

What farm women want from their husbands:

1. Share the big picture. They want to know the big picture even though they may not want to know the details. Too much knowledge is scary, burdensome and not healthy. A woman has a host of other concerns keeping up as a "mother" and paying attention to other relationships. Also, when a wife learns the depth of a problem she may spend more time worrying. This may distract her from her other responsibilities.

It's embarrassing to be questioned about farm plans and changes from friends and neighbors and not have a clue.

If the woman is the bookkeeper for the operation, financial reality can be pretty scary. She wants to share this information with her husband and sense his openness in dealing with problems. Denial or avoidance leaves her alone with a painful reality she can't share.

2. Show respect. It is a sign of respect to take the time to fill their wives in on the significant developments and farm decisions being made. The husband should respect and be willing to consider his wife's opinion and be influenced by her.

She needs emotional support and a sounding board just like he does. Men need to detach enough from their own concerns and worry to show empathy and concern for their wives' lives.

3. Let me let go. "If it is his responsibility, I have to let go and trust him." There may be a division of roles that works efficiently for the family and the farm. Becoming too involved, especially when the involvement isn't appreciated, can drive a wedge between the couple.

4. Make spiritual activity a priority. The women discussed the need to pray as a couple. There was a lot of concern expressed about Sundays not being a day of rest and worship. They wanted their husbands' to take responsibility to help bring God into their relationship. The man of the family leading the family is a good example and practice for the family.

5. Support involvement in the community. Staying involved socially and maintaining friendships are important. So is community service. By connecting with the community the couple keeps their problems in perspective. It will take their mind off their own troubles so they can experience the joys of giving to others.

It was remarkable that men and women were essentially saying the same thing. "We need to go through this together."