Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Seven Ways Farm Marriages Get In Trouble

May 21, 2007

Farmers tend to have fewer divorces than the general population. The positive reasons have to do with solid religious values, community/social support and the family togetherness prevalent among farm families.

There are practical considerations too. The economics of divorce are costly in terms of dividing non-liquid farm assets that may jeopardize the viability of the farming operation. A decision to divorce also negatively impacts the prospects of keeping the farm in the family for the next generation of farmers.

In the past, many women have chosen to stay married despite personal unhappiness and destructive marriage interactions. In today’s society, women have higher expectations of personal happiness from their marriages and are sensitive to how a poor marriage impacts their children. They want to be treated with dignity and respect and are assertive about having their needs met.

Many feel personally empowered to be independent if their marriage becomes destructive and unrewarding. Many have off-farm careers and have other alternatives if they lose hope for their marriage.

What are some common patterns that lead to divorce? From my thirty plus years of practice in working with farm families, here are seven reasons I think cause farm marriages to collapse.

1. Lack of respect. Farming is number one. Marriage should fit in with farming and not vice-versa. His own ego is an extension of farm success and so his perspective is self-centered. He doesn't do his part to meet his wife's or children's needs. His priorities are dominant. The basic role imbalance and entitlement are taken as normal and natural.

In his desire to be a successful farmer and get his work done, he is often a rigid perfectionist who feels he is right and justified in what he says and does. He can lose his temper, judge, criticize, control and verbally abuse his wife. His unrelenting harsh judgments, disrespect and lack of consideration erode love and intimacy. There is little nurturing of the relationship to counter-balance stress and emotional reactivity that grinds away at the marriage.

2. Workaholism. Farmers can have powerful reasons and needs from childhood to prove themselves to themselves and the community. Workaholism can be an avoidance coping strategy as much as alcoholism. The farmer lives a workaholic lifestyle that ignores important personal, marital and family needs.

Having the home and business in the same location presents unique problems. Many tasks in farming are need driven. The work is compelling and demanding - the work is never completely done. The differing expectations on the importance of work and family life are sharp focus. The battle of how to balance priorities runs a destructive course.

3. Alcoholism. The farmer who is an alcoholic spends his free time in bars and with his friends. He drinks to relieve stress. He becomes less and less trustworthy and reliable in meeting marital and family needs. Alcohol, his status among his friends and his need to socialize in alcohol-related settings come first. He may be Mr. Nice Guy with everyone else but the family feels short-changed.

4. Poor boundaries in family farming. A young adult farmer doesn’t assert himself in terms of getting respect and fairness while working under a critical and controlling father. Their relationship is one-sided and obvious to the daughter-in-law.

She chafes both at her husband’s inability to confront problems and her perceptions of the in-laws intrusiveness, disrespect and poorly defined business arrangements. She complains and clashes with her husband, sometimes even directly with the in-laws or withdraws into a state of depression.

5. Unrealistic demands and unhappiness with farming. A city-raised woman may not adapt to the demands of farming, its isolation, rural social demands or the distance from her family. In some situations, her lack of flexibility, commitment, and a self-centered inability to work with other family members becomes the main problem. She insists on having her way in an environment that requires partnership and give-and-take.

6. Debt and stress problems. A debt crisis brings out depression, anxiety, anger, guilt, and other stress reactions. A farmer's lack of positive coping and inability to pay attention to his wife and the family takes its emotional toll. She can feel alone, angry, discouraged and worn out by the struggle to keep farming. Her off-farm income is used to keep the farm going with little results to show for it. In their stress-filled lives, the couple grow emotionally and physically distant from each other.

7. Childhood histories. After the courtship and honeymoon are over, a mama's boy expects to be catered to. Oldest and youngest sons are sometimes favored in farm families. They grow up getting away with a lot and being given too much - without much being expected in return. Selfishness and entitlement prevent real love from taking root.

The opposite may also occur. A boy who was treated with harshness and didn’t have his affectional needs met may fully expect the woman in his life to meet his unfilled dependency needs. He is needy, insecure and demanding - so much so that he has a difficult time putting his wife first. He comes first because of the big hole he is trying to fill.

It can happen the other way too. A daughter can be a "Daddy’s Little Princess" with feelings of entitlement and self-importance. If she has been raised without feeling loved, she can be needy, dependent and demanding with distorted ideas on how relationships work.

If you are bothered by any of these problems, talk them through and get help. They’ll only get worse with time.