Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Seven Likely Causes For Farm Divorce

February 21, 2011

Farmers tend to have fewer divorces than the general population. The positive reasons have to do with solid religious values, community and social support and family togetherness prevalent among farm families.

There are practical considerations too. The economics of divorce is costly in terms of dividing non-liquid farm assets that may jeopardize the viability of the farming operation. Keeping the family farm for the next generation also adds to the level of commitment.

In the past, many women have chosen to stay married despite personal unhappiness and destructive marriage interactions. In this era, farm women have higher expectations of marriage for themselves and for their families. They are much more assertive about their rights to have their needs met and to be treated with dignity and respect. Many feel personally empowered and many have off-farm employment. They have alternatives to a relationship that is perceived to be destructive and hopeless.

What are destructive patterns that lead to divorce? From my experience in working with farm families, here are seven reasons that may be somewhat unique to agriculture and rural communities.

1. Lack of acceptance and respect in the relationship. The husband feels the marriage should benefit the farm and by extension, himself. He doesn’t do his part to meet his wife’s or children’s needs. He doesn’t regard her as a true partner. His priorities are dominant. The basic role imbalance and entitlement is taken as normal and natural.

In his desire to be a successful farmer and get his work done, he is often a rigid perfectionist who feels he is right and justified in what he says and does. He can lose his temper, judge, criticize, control and verbally abuse his wife. His uncontrolled temper and unrelenting harsh judgments are frequent problems and causes of farm divorces.

2. Workaholism. Farmers can have powerful reasons and needs from childhood to prove themselves to themselves and the community. Workaholism can be an avoidance coping strategy as much as alcoholism. The farmer lives a workaholic lifestyle that ignores important personal, marital and family needs.

Having the home and business in the same location presents unique problems. Many tasks in farming are need driven. The work is compelling and demanding - the work is never completely done. The differing expectations on the importance of work and family life are in sharp conflict. The battle of how to balance priorities runs a destructive course.

3. Alcoholism. The farmer who is an alcoholic or committed drinking buddy spends his free time in bars and with his friends. He is untrustworthy and unreliable in meeting personal needs. Alcohol, his status among his friends and his need to socialize in alcohol-related settings come first. He may be Mr. Nice Guy with everyone else but the family feels short-changed.

4. Poor boundary setting in family business. A young farmer is under the thumb of his parents and is

afraid to assert himself to obtain a fair and respectful working relationship. His wife grows increasingly dissatisfied with the unfair treatment, the ill-defined business arrangement and his parents’ intrusiveness and lack of respect.

She complains that he should do something about it. She objects to the lack of control they have over basic factors in their lives. Her voice isn’t being heard and neither is her husbands. They clash about his lack of assertiveness and become angry with each other.

In other situations, the husband’s primary loyalty may be to a brother or his father as his true partner. His wife feels excluded and resents that her priorities and feelings aren’t taken into account.

5. Unrealistic demands and unhappiness with farming. A city-raised woman may not adapt to the demands of farming, isolation, rural social demands or distance from her family. Her husband’s criticism or lack of patient support makes the situation worse. She wants to leave. He feels betrayed by her inflexibility and lack of commitment.

6. Debt and stress problems. A debt crisis brings out depression, anxiety, anger, guilt, and other stress reactions. A farmer's lack of positive coping and inability to pay attention to his wife and the family takes its emotional toll. She can feel alone, angry, discouraged and worn out by the struggle to keep a farm business which seems to her to be the cause of much unhappiness. Her off-farm income is used to keep the farm going. They grow apart in their goals.

7. Too much neediness. A mama’s boy is charming, but after he marries he expects to be treated and taken care of just like he was at his mama’s home. Oldest and youngest sons are sometimes favored in farm families. They grow up getting away with a lot and being given too much - more than is ever expected back. It is hard to get beyond the self-centeredness and into a giving, reciprocal relationship.

The opposite may also occur. A boy who was treated with harshness and had a cold, unresponsive mother may fully expect the woman in his life to meet his unfilled dependency needs. He is needy, insecure and demanding - so much so that he has a difficult time meeting his wife’s needs. He comes first because of the big hole he is trying to fill.