Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

When Brothers Farm, Wife Is Odd Man Out

July 2, 2007

I get a lot of letters from women who are frustrated with family farming. They are lonely and angry. They decry the lack of communication and loyalty. They feel frozen out of the farm by family dynamics that seem to be more powerful than their marital bond. The following example is typical although it could just as easily be involved with parents and a son instead of brothers.

A farm woman asked about what she perceived as a lack of loyalty, emotional intimacy, and respect she was experiencing with her husband. Her husband and his older brother have been farming partners since just after the woman’s marriage. In her opinion, many decisions have been made that put their family in an unfair financial position. She cites many, many examples of one-sided deals or being kept in the dark.

There has never been open business communication between the families, even though she has requested it. She meets resistence from all parties including her husband.

Her husband spends considerable time and work improving his brother’s home and farm site while projects around their place are neglected. She is busy with an off-farm job and ends up either having to live with unfinished projects or having to do them herself.

She complains her husband is too passive and won’t confront problems regarding her concerns about equity. She doesn’t feel in control of her life and destiny. She feels all the cards are in her brother-in-laws’s hands and her husband seems unwilling or unable to confront him. She is afraid that her children are growing up seeing his passiveness and are starting to adopt negative characteristics about taking initiative in their own lives.

Her angry feelings are eating her alive. She would like her husband to listen to her instead of treating her like a "whiney" wife. Instead she gets arguments or else he shuts down. She feels alone and overwhelmed.

My advice:

1. Equity. Work toward improving your own equity position in farming instead of making a good living. Personal goals about the future will energize both of you and unify you as a couple. If the brother and sister-in-law are the only ones gaining equity, something is basically wrong.

Any disparities in equity from when your husband entered farming should be addressed and resolved so that land rentals are handled 50/50, profits are handled 50/50, equipment is owned 50/50 and the farm becomes a true partnership. Those early obligations should be met so your husband isn’t always in a one-down position. The expenses should be shared fairly and labor inputs by each brother should be equitable.

Labor given to the brother’s enterprises should be compensated or reciprocated.

2. Unified goals. It is important for you and your husband to talk through your own goals in farming. Once

you are unified, you can approach the other family and ask about their goals. Then you can evaluate if the two sets of goals mesh. The other family needs to know what your needs and concerns are.

The key to any negotiation is solving the other party’s problem as you solve your own. Without communication you don’t know how close together or far apart you might be.

Your own goals could include: 1) being more involved with the farm, 2) working toward your own equity position, 3) your husband needs to be involved in decision-making so he can feel more independent and responsible, 4) have regular family business meetings, 5) make housing decisions that benefit your own family and 6) to see your children develop a sense of entrepreneurship and control by watching you as a couple work and plan for the future together instead of observing passivity and dependency - or frustration and loneliness.

3. Loyalty and intimacy. Most of all, you want a feeling of emotional connectedness and true partnership with your husband. His relationship with his brother seems to be requiring all his loyalty and farm-related communication leaving you "out in the cold". You need to the "insider" in his life, a true partner in the executive team that governs farming and life. You need to be assured in the confidentiality of your bond and what you discuss isn’t shared with your brother-in-law without your permission.

You need to know more about your husband, what he thinks, what his day is like, his feelings, his relationship with his brother, what frustrates him. You, not his brother, need to be your husband’s emotional confidante and outlet about life. You need this for your own sanity, for your marriage and for your sense of control about the future.

You want to be listened to and to able to influence key parts of your life through deep communication and negotiation. Most of all, you want to be put first in his life and feel cared for instead of taking second fiddle either to the farm or to his bond with his brother. Use the chapters in my book, "To Have and To Hold", on how to listen and communicate on an intimate level.

4. Communication and negotiations. Once you have formed a united front, then approach your brother-in-law and sister-in-law and discuss clearly and firmly the changes you need to be able to work together. They may welcome the open communication and the chance to plan together. You spouse needs to be the main spokesperson in these meetings.

If you get that far and run into roadblocks, I suggest a mediator to help you work out your differences.