Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

What Is Behind A Farm Couple's Divorce

February 7, 2011

She was the "bad" guy in the eyes of most of the community. She could understand it. Her marriage didn’t look bad from the outside. Her close friends and family, who saw the way it really was, were supportive and stood beside her through the divorce.

The decision to divorce was the hardest thing she had ever done in her life. First, there was the absolute loss of hope that her husband would ever change or that the marriage would ever be good. She had been through too much and had seen both her and her husband’s best efforts fall short.

What went wrong? It would have been easy to blame many aspects of farming for her problems, but she didn’t. She knew the cause was a breakdown in communications. If the relationship had been strong and rewarding then the challenges and hardships of a farming lifestyle would have been manageable.

When the joy and sense of common purpose went out of their relationship, then the stress and busyness of farm life was wearing and exhausting. The farm added strain to an already troubled relationship.

A tough image. Her husband somehow needed to hide his feelings of insecurity and weakness, even from her. The mental toughness he needed for farming seemed to carry over to personal relationships. His need to be "right" and in control was so strong that he had trouble being open to her influence or listening to her. It seemed as though admitting to problems would be absolutely crushing to his self-esteem.

His pride also made it difficult to seek help for their marriage, while there was still a chance. As she looked around in her community, she couldn’t remember a single man who ever went for help without being forced into it.

The farm comes first. His priority was always the farm. It was rarely the marriage. The hay, the calves, the machinery - everything else came first. Her husband meant well and would make promises, but something always seemed to come up. He was so caught up in what he was doing!

It was one thing to be supportive of him and the farm but she didn’t feel the same support for herself and her priorities. She felt on shaky ground when she challenged him with her ideas about marriage and family responsibilities.

She felt she was expected to ignore the bad and to make all the adjustments. It didn’t help that the community attitude was that men could be excused for hard drinking, general insensitivity and a skewed sense of their lives coming first.

Impact on children. Her husband was a good father. Her unwillingness to take the children away from him and the farm was her biggest obstacle to divorce. It was not fair to him. It was not fair to the children. It was not fair to the grandparents. But when she honestly looked at the unhappy prospect of their future life together, she still felt divorce was the best solution.

It seemed he could accept almost everything about the divorce except the children not being raised on the farm. He had to reject that in order to justify his existence and all the sacrifices he had made to keep going in farming. He threatened a custody battle to keep the children in that mythical world where their happiness and development would be assured.

Facing her own fears. Another fear she faced was her lack of self-confidence about making a living and managing a family of her own. There was not enough cash flow from farming to provide decent support for her and the children.

She was reluctant to jeopardize her husband’s career by forcing a sale. His family’s feelings and ties to the farm were so intense that she could not bear to inflict further pain by exercising all of her rights.

But in the end, she faced the issue squarely and left feeling relieved, more than anything, just to be away. It was time to grow up. She had to learn new things, take on new responsibilities, earn a living and to make a good life for the children by herself. The move, the job finding, the childcare, the financial responsibilities and anticipated loneliness were paralyzing and overwhelming.

It took a combination of utter hopelessness about her marriage and tremendous courage and faith in herself to decide to divorce. Her religious beliefs argued against it. She did feel guilty. She did feel like a failure. She did feel sorry for the hurt she was causing. She did feel the pain of her children. She did feel weak and inadequate. Despite all of this, she did it anyway.

What could have made a difference? She wished she had been more assertive in the beginning of their relationship and established give-and-take communications in their marriage. Her complaints and feelings were not taken seriously until it was too late.

She had seen many examples around her of beautiful farm marriages built on partnership and communications. But for herself and for many others, farming seemed like a male-dominated world full of rationale for one-sided relationships and unfulfilling lives for women. Correcting that one-sidedness early might prevent some women from going through the painful experience of divorce - or accepting a few meager crumbs of marriage when a banquet is possible.