Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Stopping The Slide Toward Divorce In Farm Marriages

February 2, 2009

Here are two letters I received from readers in the Midwest. I’ve disguised any identifying details to preserve anonymity. I have received several more emails from readers whose marriages are on the brink of divorce or who are unhappy with their husbands’ relationship with their adult children.

I am a 57 year old teacher, married to a 62 year old crop farmer in western Illinois. We have four grown children not living at home. We have been married for more than 32 years.

The farm personality traits that you described in an article fit my husband and his family "heritage" with an uncanny sense of accuracy. It also seems to me that the anger that my husband can display when irritated at things not going his way, has magnified as he has grown older.

This past fall, I was ready to leave my marriage. The emotional stress that my husband’s temper and his lack of tolerance have really taken a toll on myself and also on our children. At times, it can be a huge wedge in his relationship with our children.

As a mother, who deeply cares for her children, I find the pain of this almost unbearable at times. I fear for the future and the relationship my husband will have with his children as well as myself.

What would you recommend as a step in this solution to solving this problem? My husband is very resistant to seeing a counselor. Any help that you can provide would be greatly appreciated.

The second letter goes like this: My husband has a lot of the same characteristics that you referred to in your article about being raised in an alcoholic home. I am nearing retirement age, and would like to figure out how I can tolerate living like this in the future.

He is a very charitable man - to other people, of course. He doesn't physically abuse me - he just says things that make me feel like I would be smart to get out - and let him try to replace me (which he sometimes threatens to do, whenever I complain about something).

Our 38th anniversary is coming up and I'm surprised that I've lasted this long. I don't feel like celebrating - with him - anyway. So many of our neighbors have gotten divorces - it's scary.

Could you write an article about how to salvage a long-term marriage that might not last into the retirement years?

Recommendation A: A heart-to heart talk. You need to help him understand on an emotional level the pain he has inflicted and how you feel about him and the future. Describe in detail the destructive impact of his disrespectful judgments and/or temper outbursts on you and the children. Call attention to the loss of your feelings for him and the likelihood of divorce if the marriage doesn’t change. Be clear about time frames and the certainty of your actions so that he takes you seriously.

He will likely be defensive, blaming or argumentative. Remind him that all you want is for him to listen

and summarize your feelings in a caring way - there will be plenty of time for him to give his side of things at a later time. If he "gets it", then he will need to go through the door he just opened and follow through on the changes you are looking for. Meaningful and heartfelt apologies will bring healing to your heart.

Remind him of the bond and connection you once had and how you need to have that back again. He will need to invest time and energy into pleasing you and to show that he really wants you in his life.

If the conversation doesn’t go well and he doesn’t hear you, have a letter prepared to hand him with your feelings and worries described in graphic and alarming terms. Some men may absorb disturbing news better by reading than by listening - a skill they haven’t used too much in the marriage.

Counseling may or may not be a part of the solution, but if not, he will need to come up with his own plan that is strong enough to solve the problems.

Recommendation B: Create pain and distress. Sadly people don’t change until they have to - and they don’t go for help until they are in significant distress. You have to create the conditions where he realizes he has something to lose by not addressing your very real concerns.

I believe under the right conditions, a separation or threat of a separation will dramatize the reality and gravity of the situation. Living alone, facing the financial pressures involved, watching the adult children side in with their mother, and the social repercussions within the family and community will not be pleasant to face.

Don’t wait until your feelings are gone before separating because then it will seem like such relief to be away. Act while you still care. If any child has your husband’s ear, maybe he or she will also reinforce your message that his behavior is indeed the problem and he will have to change to save the marriage.

Going for counseling may be one of your conditions for reconciliation. Or a demonstration of meaningful change - enough to recapture your hope that your marriage can be free of destructive behavior and can meet your emotional needs as well.