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How farm couples can stay happy working together

  • 4.5 min read

As reducing the spread of COVID-19 has closed offices and workers are set-up at home, people are now experiencing something many farmers already do – work alongside a spouse. But farmers, just like everyone else, can easily overlook marital health, which may need some maintenance.

“One thing we don’t list on our balance sheet is health and the health of our relationships,” says Sean Brotherson, a professor and extension family science specialist from North Dakota State University. “It’s a low-cost but high-value priority.”

If a relationship turns sour, there’s a significant risk of a negative impact on the success of your farm business. However, the average couple waits six years before seeking counselling, says Merel Voth, a British Columbia counsellor and partner in a goat dairy with her husband, Barrie.

Relationship check

“Couples might want to check the status of their marital relationship daily, just as they do with farm stats like on a large dairy,” Voth says. “Others make it work doing it less frequently.”

Voth also suggests couples discuss their marriage by performing a SWOT analysis that assesses strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the marriage?
  • What do we hope for in the coming year from the marriage or see as opportunities?
  • Can threats be identified, and how can they be minimized?

Sources of stress

Brotherson says farmers tend to live in a culture of independence, especially when farms have unexpected, outside risks like new pests, trade matters and disease. Or, the current uncertainty brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Stress can also come from operating a legacy business, with years of family ownership riding on the current generation.

Signs of relationship stress include picking fights, a lack of satisfaction and communication difficulties.

“A producer’s identity is frequently wrapped up in the farm,” Brotherson says, motivated by an innate need to farm.

Signs of relationship stress to watch for include picking fights, a lack of satisfaction and communication difficulties.

Get in touch with your partner

Voth points out that in a new relationship, there’s a whole process of building a connection by learning about the other person. As a long-time couple, spending hours working together doesn’t necessarily amount to a meaningful connection.

It’s easy to take knowing a partner for granted, she says. When discussions that happen in a new relationship stop, like sharing intimate pieces of information, it’s much easier to lose the sense of connection.

Just ask

“Often, couples need to learn how to seek each other’s perspective, asking for what they need in a way that their partner can hear their request without feeling defensive,” says Voth.

She often sees busy couples withdraw from the relationship, creating a risk of fading friendship and love.

Manage conflict rather than resolve it

Voth says research states 69% of most relationship conflict is about perpetual issues never resolved.

She recommends framing these discussions with a partner with a fill-in-the-blank pattern: I feel (blank). I need (blank) by (blank).

For example, use:

I feel frustrated. I want to look at our farm budget monthly instead of occasionally, and I need that to start next week.

As opposed to:

I feel like you’re never willing to talk about our finances.

Framing the beginning of a discussion in that model will likely make the other person feel less defensive and lead to more successful communication, she says.

Focus on the positive

Voth recommends building a culture of appreciation. Keep the partner’s positive qualities in mind and find gratitude for their upbeat actions.

For example, recognize they always put on the morning coffee, rather than focus on them never making the bed.

“Take into account how you talk to your spouse,” says Julie Walkinshaw, a B.C.-based relationship specialist.

Always having the last word or winning discussions may feel good, but isn’t good for the relationship, she says.

Instead, work at conversations where partners paraphrase each other’s comments to check understanding. “I heard you say... is that what you meant?”

Walkinshaw adds that statements that begin with the words, “I feel” are best because it gives a window into the soul and heart of the speaker, and no one can argue with that.

Bottom line

A healthy relationship should be a low-cost but high-value priority in a farm business, especially when working side-by-side as a couple every day. Experts recommend doing a SWOT analysis to start talking about relationships. Also, watching for signs of stress like picking fights, lack of satisfaction and communication difficulties. Build a culture of appreciation and continue to keep communication flowing.

Article by: Myrna Stark Leader