Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Farm Debt Brings Marriage Problems

April 2, 2001

These are the best and worst of times in rural North America. Best for some and worst for most. The marriages of many farm families are strained. Farms are under terrible economic pressure.

"When debt comes in the door, love goes out the window." To understand this can happen, let's visit the farm of True Landlover and his wife Nota.

True and Nota Landlover were well matched at the start. They both had farming backgrounds. They were both comfortable and satisfied with their rural lifestyle. True and Nota farmed in partnership with his father, True Blue Landlover, until his father passed away a few years back. The farm is in its fourth generation of Landlovers.

True enjoyed being his own boss. He enjoyed nature. To him, the soil was alive.

The soil responded to his nurturing hand and, in turn, yielded its bounty. Best of all, they were raising another generation of children on the farm. This was a great way to live - except for the prices they received. Up until lately, the good years more than made up for the bad ones.

Coming off a bad year, True kept his "farmer" optimism alive. "This year will be different. This is the year we get caught up. Prices will get better. They have to."

The trouble was they didn't - and they didn't. The farm was now sinking in debt. Nota had taken a job in town and her income was covering the family living expenses and cushioning the farm. She looked at the farm with more objective eyes. It was draining their resources. She also heard many of the neighboring women complaining of the same thing. Her faith in farming was gone.

Nota grew resentful. She tried to talk to True about getting out of farming. She might as well have been talking to herself. He had faith. She didn't. She did not respect his blind optimism that was driven by emotion.

They quarreled. They argued. They fought. They grew apart. When they stopped sharing their dreams, a lot of life went out of their marriage. Then there was something else to argue about - her job.

Nota enjoyed her job. She poured her energies into her job. She enjoyed the friendships, the challenge and the excitement of it. She grew in confidence and self-esteem. She found herself meeting and mixing with the public well. It was very stimulating.

It was also a relief to be away from the farm. True was mired down with anxieties and worries. The farm was all he wanted to talk about. He was depressed and depressing. In his gut, he was starting to lose confidence in himself, but chose not to share that with his wife.

True made matters worse by criticizing Nota's job and her lack of involvement on the farm. He grew jealous of her time and attention and resented doing her farm and home responsibilities because she was gone.

His negative comments were met with a chilly reminder that he and the farm were dependent on her income. It was a standoff that simmered and brewed until True exploded one day. Nota was scared by her reaction. She didn't care how he felt. The feelings that were supposed to be there weren't.

Now what? He wasn't an ogre, an alcoholic, a wife-beater, or a skirt chaser, but honest and faithful - a good man being overwhelmed by forces beyond his control. Was it fair of her to force him off the farm to keep their marriage together? His place was on the farm. Hers wasn't. She tried being optimistic about farming but couldn’t do it. She saw what was happening.

She felt trapped. The farm crisis had brought out how different they really were in the things they wanted from life. They were pulling in different directions. To her, the family came first, not the farm.

Was Nota lacking in commitment or was True being too inflexible? Was she withdrawing her support and willingness to fight just when he needed her the most? Or was he so single-mindedly attached to farming that he was blind to reality? Wasn't it her duty to be honest with herself and her husband and to give feedback about their situation?

But was she right? Maybe the Landlovers were still in farming for a reason - their tenacity to keep on plowing.

Who would understand that something like a farm could actually drive this couple apart? There didn't seem to be many other explanations for their trouble. Their differences about the worth of farming became apparent when debt came in the door.

Friendly advice. True consulted a wise relative and was given the following advice: "When your wife goes to work, be interested in her job. Support her growth. Share in your conversations what she is doing and share her world. Be enthusiastic and pleased with the excitement that it brings into her life. Don't fight her on it. You'll lose.

"Grow yourself. Be flexible and adaptable to change. Don't bury yourself in your crops and livestock. It is true that you were born a Landlover but you can do other things. Have faith in yourself and do not be afraid of the unknown. Don’t sell yourself short.

"Manage your stress. Lighten up. Talk about your true feelings. Listen to your wife. Try to understand and care about her feelings. Put her and the family first and you’ll come out on top, no matter what happens."