Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Rural Romance Turns Sour

November 15, 2005

A handsome young man goes off to a land grant university. He is pleasant, personable, mild-mannered and considerate. He is able to share his feelings.

He is easygoing, attentive and gentle. He doesn't come across with a macho sense of entitlement or arrogance typical of the "Animal House" or "Jock House" male.

The young woman who dates him likes his sensitivity. He is someone to whom she can draw close. The magic of romance takes over. He has a neediness about him that is attractive and yet not too demanding. She fills a void in his life. He shows her love through great attentiveness and consideration.

This is a marriage made in heaven.

Not quite!

He is from a farm and has his heart set on farming. He has soil in his veins. College is something to be endured until he gets back to the farm. His purpose and direction in life is back on the family farm.

His wife-to-be is from the city. Her parents were typical wage earners who enjoyed a balanced lifestyle. Her parents made time for each other and for family fun and activities. Her own father was strong but not domineering. She enjoyed a mixture of independence and family closeness.

She didn't have a clue about farming and farm life but she did love her farmer. She did have some vague notions about the idealized family farm with its togetherness and closeness to nature.

She was ready for an adventure. She could go out to the hinterlands and make it as a farm wife.

It didn't take her long to figure out that she was in over her head. It wasn't just the cycle of farming, the long hours, the vagaries of farm income, the isolation or social obligations and the lack of work opportunities for herself that buffaloed her. It was the dynamics between her husband, his parents and the land.

The softness and gentleness of her husband seemed like passivity and weakness when he had to deal with his folks. Her husband was a junior partner in the farming operation with an emphasis on "junior".

This scenario is about domineering parents, but it could easily be a dominating older brother and his wife calling the shots.

Her husband is a dutiful, all around nice guy who wouldn't hurt anyone. He means well and tries very hard to please - especially his folks. He seems content with his passive role and tries to fit in as best he can.

He swallows his pride. He accepts his father's temper, tongue lashings, criticism, broken promises, and unilateral decisions without protest or complaint.

His parents regard the daughter-in-law with suspicion - as an outsider who doesn't understand the way things are done. She doesn't. She doesn't understand the family dynamics, the priority of the farm or the routines enough to challenge the system. What she does know is that she doesn't like how her husband is treated nor does she like how he fails to respond and stand up for himself.

He has figured out that the way to get the farm some day is by not rocking the boat. He didn't marry a wife: he added a family member.

He expects her to adopt to his "wait-and-see, everything will turn out all right" attitude. She does for a while. It may take a couple of kids and a few years to figure out how resistant to change her husband really is. The challenges of young children and dealing with the stress of everyday living occupy her attention.

Meanwhile she starts to believe the mistreatment of her husband has stymied his growth. He consistently puts himself, his needs and those of his immediate family in the back seat to parents wishes.

She doesn’t feel like she is being put first in his life. This is quite a contrast from her vision of what marriage and family life should be.

She puts the pressure on. "Stand up or else." Now this is a fight he is willing to join. He accuses her of not understanding his folks and not being patient enough. Sometimes he agrees with her and promises to solve things. But he never does. Finally she threatens to leave.

When push comes to shove, he'd rather lose her and the children than follow her off to unknown life in the city. His dream is the farm. He lacks the self-confidence or the desire to try anything else.

She goes. The folks are angry, bitter and relieved. The grandchildren are gone. That is bad. She is gone. That is good. They always knew she wasn't suited for farm life. They commiserate with their son. It was she, not him and especially not themselves that caused their marriage to break up.

Variations of this story are told to family doctors, attorneys, clergy and mental health professionals in rural North America. The land and the lifestyle have such a hold on people that it is put ahead of respectful relationships and the personal development of adult children.

The land is the whip. Trying to live the dream of a farming lifestyle and chasing promises and sweat equity compromise the integrity of children. Not only that. It is also fear, lack of options, lack of self-confidence and being subjected to a lifelong abuse of parental power that leave adult sons feeling helpless.

Instead of a marriage made in heaven, it turns out to be a love story from hell.