About 40 years ago the divorce rate of farm couples began to increase, and now is about the same as for non-farm couples. Some rural sociologists blamed the farm crisis of the 1980s for elevating what was previously a lower divorce rate for people living on farms and ranches.
It is well known that financial stress – such as many farm families experienced during the 1980s, or at other times – is associated with increased risks of spouse abuse, child abuse, family fighting and divorce.
Relationships can be damaged by farm financial difficulties. In my work as a provider of psychological services to farm people for the past 33 years, I have observed the most common reason farm families seek counseling is to deal with relationship problems that have arisen due to financial stress.
Breakdown of the marital relationship is the most common relationship problem, followed by parent-child problems and difficulties with adult parents. Anxiety issues, depression, substance abuse and other diagnosed problems occur less frequently among farm families, and in the order listed.
There are many reasons, of course, why farmer marriages end in divorce. Rather than concentrate on the reasons why farm couples seek to divorce, I want to focus on the impact of divorce on the partners and their children and ways to reduce the negative impact of divorce.
The unique social and financial aspects of farming make it harder for farm families to separate. Division of the farm property is complicated by emotional ties to the land, animals, equipment and any farming heritage that either person brings to the marriage, such as taking over a farm or ranch that has been in the family.
When the property division accompanying divorce involves a farm that has been in the family for more than a generation, usually the spouse whose predecessors made it possible to own or rent the land is the one who feels the greater attachment to the land. This person feels emotionally indebted to ancestors and wants to retain the property for continued use and to pass it along to successors.
Blame for the marriage ending often gets entangled with the property settlement. One or both spouses may seek compensation for what they feel are sacrifices they made to purchase or operate the farm or ranch.
Sometimes one or both partners may seek retribution for what they feel are wrongs committed by the other spouse. A spouse’s extramarital affair, excessive involvement by the partner in farm responsibilities or blame for debts are examples of such wrongs.
Blaming by a parent about the other is especially hard on the children. They feel they have to choose sides. The children who hope to take over the operation someday may feel they have to be allies to the parent who inherited, or stands to acquire, the family farm or ranch.
Children don’t want to be caught in the middle of an argument between their parents. They just want their parents to get along. They don’t want to show more allegiance to one over the other, unless there is good reason, such as victimization in abuse of some type.
Arguing about the property ownership can be removed from the divorce settlement. A prenuptial agreement regarding ownership of farm assets can simplify the division of farm property. It is a good idea for people who plan to farm after they marry to consult an attorney or farm business expert to explore the “what ifs.”
Most farm couples don’t want to devise a prenuptial agreement before the individuals marry. At the time of marriage, they want, and expect, to make their relationship work and they usually don’t want to consider sticky issues that imply their partnership might not succeed.
When farm people enter their second or third marriages, however, they are almost always eager to develop a prenuptial agreement. Having substantial assets at the time of marriage, whether inherited or earned, increases the likelihood of developing a prenuptial agreement.
It is important to remember a prenuptial agreement can be modified if both partners agree, even after they marry. Having the property division mostly worked out before any unforeseen marriage dissolution is a good premarital plan and can be a useful step toward setting up the estate plan.
Seeking assistance from an experienced divorce mediator, professional counselor or legal advisor is helpful when the divorcing partners have no prior agreement to the property division or child custody. Engaging in structured settlement meetings helps bring the blame issues into the open so they can discuss them in the presence of a neutral third party.
The mediator’s job is to ensure civil discourse and equal opportunity by both parties to present their claims and rationales. If there is no mediator, the divorce judge usually takes on aspects of this role.
It is best for partners who plan to be agricultural producers to have a business and prenuptial plan before they marry. It should be part of their marriage preparation.
Michael R. Rosmann, Ph.D. serves on the adjunct faculty of the University of Iowa, lectures across the United States and abroad and owns a row crop farm in Harlan, Iowa. He is also a founding partner of the nonprofit network AgriWellness, Inc.
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