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9 ways to improve your farm marriage

LinaDes/Getty Images illustration of man and woman with confused love between them
FARM STRESS: Stress isn’t unique, but farm stress might be. A few decisions can make or break you. There aren’t any off hours, you don’t leave the job when you walk in the door, and your co-workers are often your family — for better or for worse.
What’s a story from 1991 got to do with your marriage in 2020? More than you might think, when you consider ag in the ’80s and the past few years.

Editors have an old saying that good stories bear repeating.

Back in June 1991, Prairie Farmer published an in-depth story on marriage: “How farm couples can enrich their marriages.” Indiana Prairie Farmer editor Tom Bechman developed and wrote that story, based on interviews with Janet Ayres, a Purdue University specialist in community development, and Paul Doriani, a former Franklin, Ind., pastor, plus data from an exclusive Farm Progress survey. The idea was to look at how farm marriages were faring following the 1980s farm crisis and the financial turmoil it threw farm families into.


“In the early 1990s, as things were just starting to turn around, a farmer I knew well suddenly found himself divorced,” Bechman recalls. “They seemed like the model family, but one day, his wife just said, ‘I’m done.’

“The farmer was devastated, and he felt part of it was because he ignored her and took her for granted.”

Like any good farm magazine editor would, Bechman decided to write about finding help for farm couples suffering from years of prolonged financial stress — before it was too late. The story, it turns out, captured a lot of timeless advice, especially for farm couples today who may find themselves on the back end of several years of poor commodity markets, trade wars and a global pandemic.

Here’s a look at the nine enrichment tips from that 1991 story:

1. Don’t let your problems talk to you. Working long hours and having more people in the house, and maybe caring for aging parents, too — that puts stress on a marriage relationship. Accept that you’re under pressure, and don’t jump to the conclusion that the marriage is bad.

2. Feelings follow actions. Treat your spouse like you love them, whether you do in that moment or not. It’s not hypocrisy; it’s commitment. Remember that doing things together (especially things that make you laugh) is the most powerful relationship-builder, because you’ve done something good together. That creates positive associations with the other person, which helps you see them as part of your enjoyment in life and not just part of the problem.

3. Inventory the good stuff. Recount the good things you’ve shared together, and name the monster you’re facing now. It’s easy to think, ‘We were never in love anyhow,’ but it’s rarely true, and sometimes it takes a friend to help you see that. Remind yourself why you were attracted to the other person in the first place. Surround yourselves with friends who are good for your marriage, and don’t avoid the people who will be honest and give you some tough love.

4. Have a common goal. Especially if you don’t both work together on the farm — and a lot of people don’t these days — you still need to work toward a common goal, even if it’s making ends meet.

5. Make a distinction between business and personal. The business world has rules about when you go to work and when you take lunch and when you’re done for the day. That’s a lot fuzzier on family farms, but everyone still needs space for their personal life — especially young couples.

6. Accept that there’s pressure. Maybe you can’t expand like you want. Or raise the cattle you want. Or you may even have to stop farming. Accept those things as a couple and face them together. Don’t look to someone outside your marriage to escape your problems. Face your problems honestly.

7. Divorce rarely improves finances. Four factors come into play when you walk into a banker’s office: character, collateral, cash flow and earning capacity. Divorce negatively affects three, and the fourth is a wash.

8. Get help early. Don’t wait. And don’t think one dose of premarital counseling will carry you for 30 years. You don’t take one course on pesticide safety and call it good for the rest of your career. Look at enrichment weekends and conferences. Marriage counseling isn’t just for people with problems, and staying married doesn’t just happen. It takes intentional work.

9. Build a spiritual foundation. Talk to God. Pray separately and together, if you can. Praying is a matter of talking and including God in the conversation. Thank God for your spouse. Finally, focus on the positive. When you talk to your spouse about problems, talk about good things, too.

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