My concern is divorce. Within a few miles’ radius of our farm there are so many divorces. And these aren’t all young people. Some are 20- and 40-year marriages.”
Elaine Froese is tired. She’s just come home from a speaking tour and is heading to the U.S. for another gig, but as she speaks, the passion for her work erupts in the intensity of her voice and her obvious concerns for farm families. With her newest book, Farming’s In-Law Factor, Froese takes on a sticky issue that hovers in the psyche of many farms, but often goes unaddressed: what do we do about the in-laws?
Is the new daughter-in-law trying to take over Mom’s jobs in the house or field? Does the mother-in-law treat her like she’s not good enough for her son? Or the father-in-law hangs on to power like it’s the air he breathes? Did the son-in-law actually jump into the brand new tractor before the wedding dance was even over?
Fictitious scenarios, but Froese says she hears such concerns all the time and they threaten the stability of the marriage and ultimately the financial future of the farm.
“Farming is a unique culture,” Froese says. “It’s a lifestyle and a culture. Its complexity is increasing as is the complexity of families as marriages break down and result in new configurations.”
Put that together with the monetary consequences of screwing up and you get a “fear around loss of wealth from the older generations who need protection against spousal breakups,” she says. The best way to preserve the farm legacy, says Froese, is to build relationships that support the needs and foster the growth of all family members in order to avoid the kinds of issues that cause divorce in the first place.
A home economist, formerly with Alberta Agriculture, Froese holds coaching and conflict resolution certificates, has published on various farm success issues and is a sought-after speaker. As a seed grower with a successor and now a daughter-in-law, there’s pressure for Froese to practise what she preaches.
Co-written with Dr. Megan McKenzie, who has experience with conflict resolution in some of the most troubled places in the world, Farming’s In-Law Factor is a “road map for getting out of the muck,” Froese says. “It’s transformational in a way.”
The book’s authors identify some of the negative patterns and tendencies amongst farm families. “Silence is a form of violence,” says Froese. “You can’t resolve things when you can’t have a conversation. It’s a kind of emotional blackmail.” Vague or broken promises cause problems of trust. Things need to be written down and deadlines set. An imbalance of power can leave some family members feeling underappreciated and resentful. Or a lack of financial transparency amongst farm partners might cause uncertainty and stress.
Communication is vital. Does everyone who wants a voice, have one? Are expectations realistic? Does the older generation provide opportunities for real participation both physically and financially on the farm? Is everyone clear on roles? Are family members being allowed to pursue their passions?
The key to it all, says Froese, is respect.
With chapters dedicated to each type of in-law — mother, daughter, father, sister etc. — no one escapes examination. But in the end the authors provide a tool kit to help identify problems and work out solutions and cartoons throughout the book help to lighten things up.
And if a couple or family has tried everything and it’s just not going to work out, there’s a chapter to address that as well.
In order to avoid that sorry end, Froese has some advice to prevent divorce on the farm. “When a new member arrives the key is to be kind, to be gracious and to adapt. Take on a learner mindset, not a judger. Be open to self-reflection and feedback. And communicate what works for you and what doesn’t and what you would like others to do differently.”
And on pre-nup agreements, Froese is a definite yes, particularly in a second marriage or if a first marriage is into a multimillion-dollar farm where the newlywed might already have 10 years of equity under his belt. It’s often something new couples don’t want or think necessary, but “don’t risk it,” Froese says, because beyond the emotional devastation, there are very real financial consequences for the farm in the case of divorce or family breakup.