Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Breaking Through Denial During Hard Times

February 1, 1999

During February and March many farm and ranch families will be coming to terms with the reality of facing another season with great anxiety and uncertainty. This is not the time for wishful thinking or for avoiding the bills, budgets or the lender.

The thing that farmers and ranchers do best is trouble shooting and problem-solving. With the day-to- day challenges of production agriculture, a farmer or rancher has no equal. It is when they have to deal with the gloomy reality of markets, high operating expenses, and rapidly escalating debt that they may be paralyzed into inaction.

The commitments, goals and emotions that underpin rural life run deep. Emotion interferes with rational thinking. The situation may call for radical changes, changes that one does not want to make. Usually the unwillingness to deal with reality is on the side of the family where the land has been passed on from previous generations. Most of the time it is on the male side of the family.

So what do you do if you are a farm or ranch woman and your husband can't bring himself to deal with the real problems?

  • Talk over the big picture as you understand it. If there is some key information you don't have, ask about it and insist on getting to the facts. Let him know that you expect his reaction to what you have said. Give him a couple of days to mull it over and then approach the subject again.
  • Use good listening techniques. Don't try to solve problems in anger. Both of you need to understand each other's perceptions and judgments of reality, and communicate that understanding. Be quietly persistent in dealing with the topic, not in an angry or forceful manner.

If you, as a couple, have difficulty communicating - being angry, bringing up the past, changing the subject, interrupting, walking off, not getting through, criticizing, blaming, etc. - you may need a third party to help you gain skills before you can solve problems together. Here the financial crisis has highlighted a problem that perhaps needed addressing all along.

  • Know where you stand. Get the books and financial records in order. There is nothing like facts and figures as a dose of cold reality. Let your husband explain his best scenario of meeting the debt crisis. Based on what you know, give him your idea of what the options might be. From your perspective, let him know what decisions need to be made right away. Get his reaction. If he objects, ask him to explain what will or won't work from his point of view. If you have gotten him this far, you've opened up a dialogue.
  • Ask for a financial consultant. You need a second opinion of your status and options. Sometimes the opinion of the lending agency is distrusted and having another opinion makes the problem real.  There are many financial and mediators that may be contacted through the state department of agriculture. Projections can be worked out for basic enterprises for the coming year. Your consultant will have ideas on what options you might have to restructure, defer or mediate the debt.  The consultant will gently help him realize if his plan will or will not pencil out. If your husband's plan is based on "blue sky" assumptions, it will someone else asking the hard questions and not you. If his plan has a chance, maybe you'll be the one that will find renewed hope.
  • Agree to disagree. If you have the wherewithal to go another year, establish a time line in which you both agree to work on his plan. At the end of that time you can sit down with the new facts and figures and decide what comes next. By then perhaps he may be able to see if all his hard work and anxiety has made a dent in the problem.
  • Get help. If your husband is depressed, suggest a visit with a professional - a family doctor, minister, good friend - someone that will help him express his feelings and get further help. A depressed person often can't make good decisions until their depression has been lifted. If your suggestions fail, insist on getting help and make the arrangements. Part of the problem with depression is that the depressed person has become immobilized and needs someone to take charge.
  • Be honest about your feelings. If your not happy with the farm or ranch lifestyle and finances, explain carefully about what you need. If you, your marriage or your family is suffering, explain why. Your happiness counts and he needs to figure you into the solution.
  • Talk over your basic goals. The farm and ranch is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Someone is going to have to sacrifice. If you have goals in common, you can work together, support each other, talk and solve problems. When your goals are different, you'll be pulling against one another, no matter how loving or skilled your communication might be.

Leaving the farm or ranch is a huge decision that may take more than a year to make. Start the dialogue early so that no matter what you do, you can go through the crisis together. Express confidence in him and his abilities. Help him dust himself off and get going again.

There are four things couples need to make it through a financial crisis: love, faith, flexibility and communications. Someday you'll look back and be grateful for those days when you pulled together as a couple. It will strengthen your bond.