One of the overlooked team players on the family farm is the son-in-law who is married to the successor, the daughter of the founders. Let’s consider some of the dynamics that you need to be aware of to help understand what is going on for the son-in-law (SIL).
Why the SIL behaves the way he does…
SILs are often caught between a rock and a hard place. Many are working hard to stay employed on the farm and stay happily married. They are doing their level best to please everyone around them and may deal with this in unhealthy ways, such as drinking or working too much.
When an SIL is directly involved in the farm, he is naturally computing how much he can move things to his favour without risking the chance to be the long-term business partner. He wants to protect his interests and yet be fair to the older generation. He also knows that if he wants his children to be the future heirs of the business, he has to have a viable farm and a legacy of good communication.
The SIL may not have the emotional support system he needs beyond his spouse. His wife is his lover, friend, and business partner, and sometimes mediator. Smart SILs preserve healthy friendships or mentors outside of the farm business, so they have a circle of support beyond the immediate family.
- From the Manitoba Co-operator: Farming’s In-Law factor
Sometimes SILs do not have the emotional capacity to deal with the frustrations and stress of fitting into a new family business. It can be difficult for them to find resources or a listening ear. It’s important that they manage their stress well, or the marriage and their mental health — and ultimately the farm — are at risk of failure.
How is the SIL perceived?
The SIL may be embraced as a great asset to the farm and to the family, or he may be judged as incompetent, compared to the son of the founder, or deemed not worthy of the daughter whom he married. Each family gets to choose whether they will bless or curse the in-laws. Divorces on farms do not have to happen, they are the result of choices. The founders’ perception and treatment, for example, play a huge part in what is experienced by the SIL. Folks who have their minds already made up about other family members, have what I would call “filters of perception” that cloud what they see or limit what they see in the other person. If the SIL is perceived as capable and included in the family without judgment, things are more likely to go well. SILs who are harped on by nasty mothers-in-law (MILs) and fathers-in-law (FILs) are at risk of experiencing extreme stress in their marriage.
We all need to be conscious of the biases we are bringing to the table and how we are treating other people. Author Marilee Adams encourages us to have a learner mindset, rather than a judger mindset (Adams, Change Your Questions, Change Your Life: 10 Powerful Tools for Life and Work 2009). She suggests the helpful questions: “What assumptions am I making? What am I responsible for?” (For more information, see her website at www.inquiryinstitute.com.)
In the web of family relationships, the SIL may find himself caught up in the triangle of indirect communication between the FIL, the MIL and his wife. He can also find himself compared to the son or in competition with the son. In some instances, it can help to directly address statements or behaviour that indicate comparisons with the son are happening. For example, an SIL could say to his FIL, “When you compare me to your son, I feel unappreciated (disrespected, frustrated, etc…). If you have a concern about something I’m doing, I’d gladly discuss it. However, I need the comparisons to stop now.”
Some SILs choose not to compete with other family members. In terms of competition, it’s hard to run a race against someone who has defaulted the race. You can choose to stop competing. You don’t have to keep up with your brother-in-law, other family members, or the Joneses. The SIL can choose to say, “That’s fine if that’s what you’re doing, but I’m going to do my own thing.”
Tools for SILs
- Self care: Making sure that you are taking care of basic physical, emotional, mental health, and social needs. If you are not sleeping well due to stress, have a sleep clinic check you out or seek other treatments.
- Friendship beyond the farm: Be sure to set good boundaries for time away. Go hunting, fishing, skiing, etc. with your buddies from high school or college.
- Honouring the timelines agreed to: Nail down deadlines at your regular business meetings and have a process for accountability. You might want to engage your accountant or farm coach for accountability.
- Courageous conversations: Make sure conflict is being dealt with openly.
Consider an exit strategy if this doesn’t work. What are your options? Update your resumé and polish up your marketable skills.
Questions for the founders to encourage your SIL:
- Are we being clear with our expectations?
- Are we economically fair?
- Are we showing appreciation?
- Are we being respectful?
- Can we ask the SIL how things are going for him?
- Are we giving the SIL power to act on things that are important to him?
Having more harmony on family farms means paying attention to better communication and conflict resolution. This spring has been hard for many folks who have struggled to get a crop in. Release relationship stress by being proactive about how you respect each other, and listen for what the other person is needing.
Show appreciation to your father and father-in-law this month. Embrace your son and son-in-law with respect. You’ll be amazed what respect and appreciation can do to encourage the heart of your business.