Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Marriage And Farming Don't Need To Clash

June 18, 2007

Farm Pressures. Perhaps there is no other profession quite like farming that challenges people to be disciplined and to keep life in perspective.

Farmers react to weather, and must organize and attend to demanding work that is just outside their doorstep. Plus there is always the stress of marketing, financial record keeping and management, mechanics and repairs, keeping up with technology, and coordinating with employees and partners. Add a little male ego and a strong work ethic to the mix and you have a recipe for making work the dominating subject of one’s thoughts, priorities and emotions.

Farm women have equally busy lives with their contributions to management and farm work. Record numbers of farm women have entered the workforce for personal fulfillment and/or to complement the farm income and to meet their family’s financial needs.

Husbands and wives are also committed to the responsibility of parenting and family life as well as meeting each other’s emotional needs. Those roles are more meaningful than their respective work and business lives.

Having infants, preschoolers, teenagers and elderly parents who need care can add to the emotional stress, physical work and time demands of already busy lives. Emotional strain is amplified when there are marital problems, struggles with farm debt or children with health, learning, emotional or behavioral problems.

Multiple roles. It doesn’t stop there. Farmers are usually members of a tightly knit rural community with many other roles and obligations to fulfill. They are also friends, neighbors, relatives, church members, organizational members and leaders. Children’s activities are compelling and involving. Driving many miles to and from off-farm jobs and to school, church and community functions also takes time.

To a certain point, multiple roles are beneficial. Each of these roles can be satisfying in its own right. Lived in balanced, life on a family farm and in a rural community is rewarding. However, pushed beyond certain limits, overload and stress occur.

Research in other settings indicates that five roles are optimal for well-being. With few people and the many interpersonal connections in rural communities five roles are usually automatic and more than that, likely. It requires commitment, organization, planning, clear priorities and good personal stress management to pull it off and to keep life under control. Learning to say no is a necessity in an environment where there are so many positive and worthwhile demands.

Making it all work. How do men and women deal with the dilemma of integrating a hands-on, management intensive, labor-intensive home-based business or businesses with marriage, family and community life? How does life fit together? How much priority does the farm assume? Are important family needs being met? Is the farm a catalyst for close relationships or a point of contention and division?

Farm life can be great. When successful, it is the basis for the strong affection farm families have for farming, raising children on a farm, a close partnership between husband and wife and enjoyment of their rural communities, relatives and neighbors.

How to pull together.

- Work hard, play hard. Plan for family fun and leisure, "couples" time, time away from the farm, hobbies and personal interests to replenish your energy. It needs to be scheduled or it will not happen. "All work and no play makes Jack and farming no fun at all."

- Lighten up. Having a light-hearted, playful and humorous approach to life can reduce the stress load immensely.

- Manage your stress. Control your emotions, blame, anger and frustration. Don’t let work related stress spill over into your family relationships.

- Have a cooperative attitude. Husbands and wives need to be flexible in their gender roles and cooperate willingly around issues of sharing the work in the home and childcare. Be respectful of each other’s demands and coordinate schedules reliably with each other.

- Make your greeting special. Having a "good greeting" is important as the couple reconnects after they have been apart. The non-verbal warmth, smiles and eye contact plus an active interest in each other’s day make this the most important 10 or 15 minutes of the day. Spouses need to set their mood, compartmentalize their work stress, and shift to a nurturing mode as they re-establish their couplehood at the end of a workday.

- Simplify life where you can. Say no to things that don’t fit with your main goals. The choices you make may be in making your volunteer work compatible with your spouse’s and children’s needs and activities. Family time is at a premium.

- Make your marriage close and intimate. Get to know the details of your spouse’s life. Be curious and interested. Be supportive and interested. Give encouragement and comfort. Aggressively try to please him or her and meet important needs. Avoid criticism and conflict. Share your personal thoughts and feelings.

- Care about each other’s work. Make your farming partnership a true partnership. Make joint decisions. Share the dream and the challenges. Stay unified. A wife’s off-farm job shares equal billing and deserves the same kind of support, interest and encouragement. When each other’s work lives aren’t shared or understood, tensions grow and emotional distance is created.

- Be loyal. Put your own marriage and family first, ahead of obligations to parents or perhaps a brother and his family. Don’t let others dictate the agenda or major decisions in your life.

- Find spiritual meaning and uplift through faith and service to others. It is how we think about life and the meaning we give to events that help set our emotions. Serving others puts life in perspective.