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

An Empty Nest, A Really Empty Nest

December 15, 2008

I have encountered several farmers in their 5Os and 60s who have been left by their wives. These women finally threw up their hands and wanted out. I have met wives in the throes of deciding how to preserve their mental health because of poor marriages. Their husbands have refused to come with them for counseling.

At this age, the nest is empty. The duties and responsibilities of mothering are largely over. The satisfaction of positive relationships with their children doesn't cushion the reality of a bad marriage once the adult children have their own lives. The verbal abuse of intense, self-centered farmers who haven't bridled their tempers is no longer tolerable. The lack of love and concern is painfully obvious.

How did their marriage ever reach that point? Let’s follow the adventures of Tyrant Big-Baas and his wife, Loyola Faithful Big-Baas.

Tyrant's priority was the farm. His crops, livestock, machinery, friends and neighbors came first. If he ever got off his high horse long enough to recognize a mistake, he would soon revert to his old ways. He was so caught up in what he was doing! He didn't really want to deal with her.

Loyola felt she was expected to ignore the bad and to make all the adjustments. Many farm women in her community offer excuses. "Men were men." The hard drinking, workaholism and general insensitivity were accepted as part of the lifestyle. Loyola put up with the stress and busyness of farming. There was enough there with friends, a nice home, the rewards of rural living and all the material comforts she could ever want.

Instead what she missed was the intimacy, the feeling that she mattered and that he cared for her. Tyrant wouldn't or couldn't listen to her. Farming was his deal. He was good at it. He didn't share the goals, the enthusiasm or the struggle of farming with her.

The mental toughness Tyrant needed for farming seemed to carry over in their relationship. His need to be "right" and in control was so strong that he had trouble listening to her and acknowledging problems. Admitting to problems was too crushing to his self-esteem.

Loyola voiced her unhappiness and complaints over and over again. Occasionally, she tried to win him over with love but that didn't work either. Tyrant could live with an unhappy wife. He had his farming. Loyola stopped doing little things for him. He didn't seem to notice. She threw herself into her work, friendships, church activities and volunteering. That was the way she coped.

Their intimacy and affection fell off. There was too much anger. Loyola's feelings of wanting to be close to him died. She was put off by his attempts to get close when things weren't right between them. He resented her rejection and didn't want to deal with her anger and complaints. Being busy was easier.

To get to the point of divorce, she went underground with her feelings. She stopped trying to change things. He had broken too many promises. She felt Tyrant was too self-centered to ever really care about her. Lastly, she felt that they couldn't solve problems together. Her hurt and anger intensified along with a painful loneliness.

Loyola worked through her feelings of guilt, her fears, her religious beliefs and the challenge of a failed marriage to her self-esteem. She considered the impact of divorce on adult children. She found that they were quite supportive of her intentions to leave.

She worried how a divorce would affect her husband and the farm. She cared about him in a sisterly way. But she could no longer invest her emotions and her affection.

A few times - count them on one hand - Tyrant responded to a marital crisis by making promises and being on his best behavior. This would last for a week or two and then he would slide back to being a demanding, irritable grouch. Tyrant's pride made it difficult to seek help for their marriage while there was still a chance. He flat out refused until he was served divorce papers. That got his attention.

Loyola was surprised by Tyrant’s tenacity about not wanting a divorce. To her, his desperate promises were just another self-serving attempt to pick up the apple cart and get back in control. Even if he sustained any real change, it would anger her to think that he could have changed during all those years but chose not to.

She didn’t want to try at this point. She had gone through too much in coming to her decision. Her feelings of love were gone. She had crossed a bridge and wasn't about to go back.

Sadly something could have been done sooner IF . . .

- she had delivered her ultimatums while she still had feelings for him.

- he had believed her.

- they had corrected problems instead of letting them build and fester.

- he realized he really wanted a good marriage.

- he had gone for counseling when she suggested it.

- they had both been trying at the same time.

Farmers, if your wife gives you this column to read, you are in trouble. Another bird is getting ready to fly the nest. At this point, she is still trying to make your marriage work. That might not always be the case.