Dr. Val FarmerDr.Val
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Cowboys Don't Cry And They Don't Talk Either

June 16, 1997

I recently gave several presentations on stress and coping in the ranch country of Northwestern and North Central South Dakota. These ranchers were anything but jolly.

They had undergone the worst winter in their memory. They faced a seemingly unending series of killer blizzards, life threatening cold and wind chills, and paralyzing deep concrete-like snows. The winter began early and ended late with the worst blizzard occurring at the peak of spring calving season.

At times these ranchers were helpless to protect and feed their livestock. They lost control. Mother Nature was too furious and too powerful. Cattle herds were devastated with unprecedented death loss, calving losses and reproductive difficulties. People in this country take their responsibility to care for the animals personally. For some, their losses meant a financial wreck for the year and grave worry about financial survival.

Emotions ran high. Men and women were feeling fatigue, anger, guilt, fear, depression, despair, panic, anxiety and isolation. The drain of worry, preoccupation, stress-induced irritability and blame tested their relationships. People were driven stir crazy by the school children at home and their inability to leave and see other people.

It wasn't all negative as neighbors helped neighbors when they could. Families pulled together and enjoyed their enforced togetherness. Couples learned to appreciate each other's heroic gutsiness and courage as they dealt with incredible adversity.

Men and women handled the isolation differently. For women, the phone was a lifeline. They checked on one another and experienced the relief of sharing their feelings, concerns and losses. Talking about their difficulties and emotions came as easily as a flood swollen stream running down hill.

As we discussed the trauma of the winter, the most frequent question was about how men handle strong emotion. Male frustration came out often in the form of blame and anger - emotions to which many men in agriculture give free rein. Of more concern however, was how men bottled up their feelings and retreated into the privacy of their own thoughts and worries.

These are tough people, independent to a fault. The men have learned a rigid code of masculinity - hiding weakness and fear, being stoic and uncomplaining about problems and solving one's problems by oneself. They did not open themselves up to receive love and support from those closest to them nor did they offer much of a listening ear or an understanding heart.

This code of heroic self-sufficiency works well in tough ranch country but when a man loses control in a prolonged crisis, his normal coping skills are overwhelmed. His virtues become a liability.

The key to coping is talking. By talking openly, a man can invite the care and love of others into his life, have a sounding board to sort through his emotional turmoil, and engage his problem-solving response to solve dilemmas. By sharing the unknown, he starts down a path of gathering strength, resources and information and putting things into perspective.

There is one more thing. Fear and feelings of inadequacy blind him to the fact that his wife is in crisis also. What does she need? Her psychological makeup is grounded in a need to feel connected. Emotional isolation feels terrible. Her husband's emotional withdrawal drives her crazy. She takes on a double burden - her own stress plus worry about her husband's coping ability.

Ranch women complain they are left alone with their own fears and need for support. They have a need to talk things out in order to understand. Being traditional females, they are denied their opportunity to comfort, nurture and soothe their husband. It creates doubt and frustration about their identity as a loving marriage partner. "If you can't even get close and support one another during a time of crisis, then what is this marriage all about?"

Some women become angry when their men refuse to talk about their distress. They find this lack of closeness difficult to share with others because it is so personal. It reflects on their adequacy as a female.

She is lonely - lonely for the togetherness that marriage is supposed to provide. She wants to cry out for help, for attention, for someone to take care of her, for someone to share the trauma of what is happening to herself and her family. She has to be strong for others and strong in a crisis. It would help so much if she could be nurtured in turn.

There are two lonely people. The other is her tough hyper-masculine husband. He chooses his loneliness out of a misguided sense of always needing to be strong and finding solutions by himself.

What a man needs during a time of crisis is to get back in control. Having a confidante and turning to others for help is the quickest and best avenue to recovery. A woman needs the same thing. She also needs to feel connected, loved and confident about her primary relationships.

The best thing a man can do for a woman in a time of crisis is to offer her the emotional support she craves. Doing this is simple - talk and listen. He plays the key role in relieving her trauma and setting in motion her coping skills. It is a manly thing to do.