Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Unkind Farmers

September 1, 1997

Back in the days when I was a regular contributor to the Farm Wife News magazine, the editor once proposed a column idea on, "Why farmers are so unkind." She had been getting feedback from her readers about lack of respect and consideration their husbands show them in their home. Outside of the home, these same men are often models of virtue and neighborly concern. Why the contradiction?

The column was never written. But I never forgot the question. Finally, I’m going to take a shot at answering it.

I think being unkind comes from a combination of being raised in a dysfunctional family and the farmer feeling that he is an extension of the farm and his wife an extension of himself. The farm takes priority over the needs of people, and he is the agent to see that the needs of the farm are met.

His thinking when it comes to the farm is presumed to be "right." It is automatic. It is gospel. He is the unchallenged expert in his own little kingdom. He is a workaholic who doesn’t meet his own needs, let alone those of his wife or family. Work comes first. His ideas about work come first.

His wife ends up feeling controlled, criticized, used, judged and manipulated. Heaven help her when she is asked to help him on a project. Her intelligence invariably will be insulted if she has a different idea or when she doesn’t perform to his expectations.

Either she suffers silently under her husband’s unrelenting need to be in control and to be right, or she rebels. She has a hard time loving her husband, who rarely seems to be pleased by who she is or what she does. She may become equally adept at dishing out zingers, putdowns and cuts.

In this contest of wills, every attack is a prelude to a counterattack. Even if her husband doesn’t voice his disapproval, she can read it in his body language, the tone of his voice, or his ill-disguised disdain for her ideas.

He feels justified. He is a good farmer and a good provider. The burden is on her to recognize his expertise and stop fighting him. He attacks her lack of commitment and understanding of what the farm and farming is all about.

That’s the farm part of the equation. What about the dysfunctional family part?

A boy raised with criticism and verbal abuse grows up to be a man with strong needs for love and acceptance. He missed the experience of having his father (or mother) love him for himself. His need to control and workaholic lifestyle are probably reflections of his father’s values and attitudes.

Now, as an adult, he is finally able to fight back and insist on the same privileges and prerogatives his father enjoyed. He exerts moral authority (criticism) over his wife with the same sure-handed (heavy-handed) conviction he saw his father use with his mother. Imposing values on others comes as normally and naturally as breathing.

Differences are threatening. His childhood memories tell him that differences have the potential to bring rejection and abandonment. He works hard at getting his wife to change and adopt his values.

He is preoccupied with how others might judge him by his wife’s behavior. He confuses her right to have tastes, style and opinions of her own with "correct" principles. Everything is fair game for criticism. There is little sense of understanding of the boundaries of what is appropriate to criticize and what isn’t. He meddles in areas where he has no right and feels justified.

The lack of love and respect he received as a child results in a self-centered need to coerce this care from his wife, since he doesn’t trust it will be freely given. He evaluates everything by how it affects him. This is maddening to a spouse who shares her deep hurts only to find that her problems make her husband feel more insecure and threatened.

This lack of empathy is communicated daily by his lack of attention to his wife’s interests and feelings, and lack of friendly concern for her well-being. Professions of love don’t mean much when negative comments far outnumber positive ones, or the lack of gentleness and responsiveness takes its toll. Their marriage suffers.

He is mentally rigid, angry and a poor listener. He assumes, interprets, disputes and mind-reads. He "knows" better than his spouse what she is feeling and thinking. She can’t win.

He has fantasies about what a wife should do and how, and fights hard to get her to see the light. He wants love, and he wants it on his terms.

He is a poor listener who interrupts, challenges and disputes feelings. He cuts off dialogue. He doesn’t learn or grow from her input. He is too busy trying to forcibly "win" the battle of who is "right," or to get her to do things his way. Then everything will be all right.

The farm gives a great cover for a man perpetuating dysfunctional man/woman relationships he learned in his own family. Women married to men like these have trouble communicating what is wrong because their efforts usually end up in arguments.