Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Putting Farm First Causes Marital Problems

April 28, 2006

Some farmers are unfailingly good to their neighbors - they would give them the shirt off their back - yet have precious little kindness for their wife and children. It's a mystery to the women exposed to these domineering and unfeeling tactics at home. These men are often pillars of the community while they knock down pillars at home.

Motivation. These men are driven by their farm work. The farm comes first. They feel responsible. They see themselves as an extension of the farm and their wife and children as an extension of themselves. They are as hard on themselves as they are on the family. There's no time to meet their personal needs or nurture the emotional needs of the family.

They are also perfectionists. They have impossibly high standards and have difficulty delegating responsibility to others. Mistakes of others draw their instant wrath. Much of the unkindness they show has to do with the impatience shown when the farm work misses a beat because of a mistake.

They are critical. They have tempers. They are always right. Attempts to communicate with them end up in arguments.

They are poor listeners. They hear things the way they want to hear them. They think they know their wife's feelings better than she knows herself.

How did they end up that way? The farm carries much mythic and emotional baggage. It is a legacy received from the previous generation and must be preserved at all cost for the next generation. To say this is an entirely selfless effort is not true. The farmer feels he is judged in the community by ownership of land. He derives prestige and identity from how hard he works and the perception of his farming skills in the community.

The farmer can justify farm work as having a compelling priority. The confusing part is that sometimes he is right. His mindset is that everything he does or wants to do is important. He gets out of meeting social and family needs "for the good of the farm." Also with home and business being in the same location, he can go full bore in the evenings and on weekends. He doesn't know how to shut down. In the privacy of the farm, he gets away with being a ramrod and a boss.

Childhood experiences. The other part has to do with being exposed to a domineering father or mother and not having his needs met as a child. He was probably used and abused as a child. His parents, usually the father, were not respectful and considerate in relating to him. He also observed the dynamics of a dysfunctional marital relationship played out in front of his eyes.

This example of power and control in relationships was viewed as normal and natural, one that he could justify as an adult.

The inner pain and shame growing up in a family where one didn't get much love or approval is buried and hidden away. The way to get approval and respect from others is through hard work and success as a farmer. Work is the answer. The farm is their monument to themselves and proof positive to their parents living or deceased that they were OK.

Steep price. What kind of price does a farmer pay for adopting the farm as his first love at the expense of his wife and family? He is lonely and isolated. His constant criticism drives his wife away. He deprives himself of emotional support and her ideas and valued thoughts.

By living such a driven and hostile lifestyle, he may have more health problems. His emotions are expressed largely through anger, aggression and avoidance. He may numb his inner pain with alcohol, which making his impatience and temper problems even more explosive.

The result is that he has a poor marriage, alienated children, and a farm built up with their painful memories. It is a big price to pay for following the idea that people should serve the farm instead of the farm serving the people.

What can a woman do who is caught up in this situation?

- She can find an outside source of support through a friend, minister, counselor or relative. She needs to be strong - strong enough to confront her husband and make it stick. She has to be different enough that when she confronts him with ultimatums or consequences she is believable. Going for counseling may be a needed step in this process.

- She gains power by finding other sources of esteem and worth such as a job, friendships, and hobbies that provide satisfaction independent of the marriage. By making herself happy, she sets the stage for correcting the flaws in the relationship.

- She confronts her husband and insists on going for counseling. Counseling should make connections between the unkind behavior and childhood family experiences. Part of counseling should deal with teaching listening skills. It will help him hear and understand his wife's emotional pain.

This is no easy task for someone who has a hard time filtering out his own opinions and emotions. This man will need to learn the basics of empathy and service to others. He will learn to give love instead of expecting it as a right. Yes, unkind farmers can and do change.