Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

In Farming, Daughters-In-Law Also Share Responsibility

February 17, 2003

Many daughters-in-law feel the pain and confusion of living in a close family arrangement where she and her husband are dependent upon her in-laws to be fair and respectful business partners.

Moreover, this pain and confusion extends to a lack of sensitivity by the in-laws to the personal and social autonomy of the young couple or family. Abuse of power, lack of respect and poor communications/problem-solving skills can make family farming miserable.

However, this is a two way street. The potential for inflicting pain goes both ways. Many times it is the parents who feel abused and trapped by aggressive and unappreciative adult children/business partners.

What advice do I have for a daughter-in-law entering a family farm or ranch enterprise?

Be patient and learn. You are entering a family and occupation that have powerful, established ways of doing things. Your husband is used to it and has trust that things will work out. Draw him out and get him to explain why things are done a certain way.

If you can, draw out your in-laws on the history and logic of how they see things. Understand what you are dealing with before attacking or criticizing them. They may not be the problem. It might be your own struggle to adapt and accept the reality of the lifestyle and occupation you are in.

Be accepting and appreciative. Accept your in-laws as loving, well-meaning people with a few faults and imperfections of their own. Just like a marriage, there are aspects of their personality that you have to put up with and not try to change.

Be respectful, appreciative and courteous in your interactions with them. They are making major sacrifices to make this business arrangement possible. Acts of thoughtfulness and appreciation are small ways of giving something back.

Get involved. Learn and take part in the family business if you aren’t being included. Insist on being a part of major decisions and discussions. Give your interest, enthusiasm and support to farming. Be a true partner. If you hold back and stand on the outside, there will be so many farming or parental aggravations that eventually farming will seem like an enemy to your marriage.

Give good counsel. Sometimes it is your husband who is the problem. His approach to family farming may be all take and no give. In his zeal to have things his way and to farm exactly how he wants to, he is demanding and disrespectful.

One role of a spouse is to be a gentle and loving critic of problems he or she sees. Marriage benefits by a second set of eyes and ears to assess reality. You may observe patterns of communication that are flawed.

As a daughter-in-law, you may need to talk sense to your husband and help him understand how to approach and negotiate with his parents instead of being domineering and self-willed. Help him with his blind spots and weaknesses. Sometimes a daughter-in-law is a godsend to her in-laws in her efforts to be fair and provide needed guidance.

Tone down his or your need to have everything at once. Your own family or farming goals shouldn’t be at the expense of your in-laws needs. Family farming is about fitting in and making things work for everyone.

Work out loyalty issues. Your husband should be your emotional base of security and support. His primary loyalties should be to you. His sharing too many confidences with his parents may undermine that security of your own relationship.

Don’t take out your frustrations on his parents. If you straighten out boundary issues with him, what his parents do or don’t do won’t matter as much.

Don’t fight your husband’s battles. In matters involving both families, don't fall into the trap of bringing up problems or trying to change things. You’ll end up the bad guy. Your in-laws will accept conflict coming from your husband easier than from you.

Work out your agreements and ideas in private. Your husband should take the lead as an enthusiastic and committed spokesperson with his own family.

Don’t let problems fester. Anger and resentment build when important problems aren't addressed. Problems are avoided or denied. Unresolved conflict and past hurts are the biggest downfall in family farming.

Just like marriage, family business partners need to work out problems to make their relationships succeed. By bringing up problems in a family business meeting and talking them through, you can negotiate and solve vexing problems and differences.

Most parents will work on problems if they know what they are. Give them a chance to show they can. Trust that communication actually does work.

Don’t use the grandchildren as emotional blackmail. Whatever your dispute may be, don’t withhold your children’s access to their grandparents. That relationship should be independent of business conflict. Those relationships are too precious to be used as a tool for manipulation or as revenge.

Splitting up may be better in the long run. Sometimes it's nobody's fault. The goals are too different. The adult children have goals, methods, ideas and timetables that don't fit with being in a partnership. Sometimes personalities don't match well. Too much conflict adds additional stress to an already stressful profession.

Splitting apart preserves a good family relationship. Getting away and on your own may be the best solution for everyone concerned.