May 2019

Keys when "married" to farm stress

This is the third article in a series from the ISU Extension and Outreach Dairy Team on Dealing with Farm Stress. More farm stress resources.

Marriage + Farming = Good Luck

which may over or underestimate the difficulty of raising a family on a farm but research shows couples are pretty satisfied with their choice to farm. Keeping marriages healthy is key because healthy kids come from healthy parents and healthy parents come from healthy marriages. There is compelling evidence that healthy marriages have beneficial social and economic impacts for both parents and children, including physical and physiological health (Ola & Mathur, 2016).

The aim of this article is to share tidbits of advice on marriage communication, much of which was adapted or taken from "The National Extension Relationship and Marriage Enrichment Network" (NERMEN) and the Healthy Relationships program.


is much more than words as non-verbal communication is as important as verbal since 65-85 percent of message is often non-verbal. When simply texting or emailing versus calling or meeting face to face, know the message can drastically change. Facial expressions, eye contact, gestures, touch, volume, posture, and proximity of personal space can all impact how the message is received.

Communication is full of "Bids for Connection" - as kids and spouses constantly make bids to connect in relationships for affection, attention, and help.


How a spouse or child responds often separates happy couples and families from unhappy ones. How you "turn" is an important fundamental to any type of relationship.

  1. Turning away - ignoring the bid and continuing what he or she was doing…
  2. Turning against - can’t you see I’m busy…why do you want to waste your money…
  3. Turning toward - well that sounds like fun…I’m happy you considered us…that is interesting but are you sure we can afford it? (NERMEN)

Make it a point, and practice, as repetition makes a habit, to turn towards family and friends to invite them to share more, with genuine interest. If not a good time, still turn toward them and share why. Use positive words and tone.

In our bids for connection, we send messages. Below are unhelpful messages that many give:

  1. Giving Advice – "what you need to do is…there’s an easy fix for that…why not do it this way…"
  2. Talking about YOUR feelings and experience rather than validate theirs – "I felt the same way when…"
  3. Making their pain seem unimportant – "You’ll get over it…life will go on…It’s no big deal…"

Versus Helpful Messages to practice:

  1. Acknowledge their THOUGHTS and FEELINGS – "It seems important to you that…"
  2. Invite more discussion – "I want to understand more/why/how…what difference will it make"
  3. Acknowledge that the pain or confusion is REAL –  "You must feel awful" "Tough situation"


Healthy marriages tend to have arguments and at times, even conflict when challenging each other. Struggles can increase marital bonding as couples work to know each other better or experience a tragedy or turbulent time together. Conflict can also fester and divide.

Be "conflict careful" around kids as kids often imagine (think the worst); magnify (make bigger than it really is); and internalize (it’s my fault) why mom and dad aren’t getting along. As a result, kids might act out; turn inward; have trouble concentrating or interacting well with others; and/or have poor academic or other performance.


Speak and Hear skills are BOTH important. Below are Speak Skills when sharing thoughts, feelings and concerns:

  1. Start with positive words/tone at ratio 5:1 or 20:1
  2. Carefully select words, tone and body language – Gentle and non-threatening
  3. Explain how you feel and think, using details – Use "I" statements and name specific behavior that concerns you or how it makes you feel- "I feel/think…when you…say or do…"
  4. Avoid the trigger words - you always and you never - turns conversation into fights
  5. Keep it brief, allowing your partner to paraphrase (repeat) or validate what was heard.

When listening to another, Practice "HEAR" Skills when someone shares thoughts, feelings or concerns:

  1. Honor the other - valuing and respecting with genuine interest (eye contact) for their thoughts and feelings, not focusing on your response
  2. Accurate empathy - understanding and imagining how other is feeling and respecting feelings as real and valid
  3. Allow difference of opinion - even if you don’t agree - listen without judgement or sharing how you feel, unless asked
  4. Repeat to confirm understanding - "I heard you say…I understood you feel…I think you wish…"

how to increase joy

Not all conversations go well. Some conversations need a time-out and some need a chance just to do over. When conversation goes negative, below are some ideas when couples or family members just need to Hit the Brakes and Repair some things that were done or said!

  1. Common ground – "Let’s try to tackle this together" accept differences, show respect
  2. I need to calm down – "Can I take that back?" or "Can we think for five minutes then talk?"
  3. Sorry – "Let me try again…Forgive me…I didn’t think of it that way…"
  4. Get to yes – "I see what you mean…Can we compromise…Agree to Disagree…"
  5. Stop action – "Arguing is only making it worse…Can we write feelings in a letter?…Can we time out?"
  6. I appreciate – "I see your point…we are both saying…I know this isn’t your fault…we both want what is best…"

learn/practice communication

In addition, at times conversations just need a longer, soothing break – take 20 minutes, think positive thoughts with no blame, and avoid triggers that invoke negative language.

But, not all marriages or other relationships make it or have the best interest of the relationship in mind. Before relationships get to "irretrievable damage", spouses can be on the lookout for "Signs of Relationship Troubles" as highlighted by John Gottman, Relationship Researcher:

  1. Criticism – self right, other wrong – "you always.. you never… why can’t you ever…"
  2. Defensiveness – "you’re the problem, ignoring other, yes-but…, not true, you’re the one…"
  3. Contempt - name calling, rolling eyes, hostile humor, sarcasm, mockery – are poisonous!
  4. Stonewalling - conveys disapproval, distances oneself, disconnection, silence, mumbling, removing oneself physically (85 percent of time it is the males who use this strategy)

These signs highlight a need for possible outside help, a facilitator, friend or counselor who might highlight these troubled habits for the good of the marriage.

communication is key

Farm couples and members that can’t share thoughts, feelings, budge, give an inch, say they’re sorry, or acknowledge wrongdoing - tend to drive a wedge that only goes so far before it splits. In the larger farm family, think about these Seven Biggest Disagreements in Farm Family Communication and how they play out in your farm family.

  1. Decision-making* – who makes them and who is included?
  2. New ideas for change – is change a threat or improvement?
  3. Money-spending policies – who decides who spends?
  4. Time-off policies/vacations – where are your priorities?
  5. Family and business goals – Loyalty to farm vs. spouse?
  6. Managing farm employees – which boss do I listen to?
  7. Role of spouse(s) – what are the expectations?

* Who makes the decisions is the ultimate!
Adapted from Dr. Ron Hanson, Univ of Nebraska

Top 10 skills to communicate to each other

  1. I love you - appreciation
  2. I’m sorry let’s work it out - forgiveness
  3. I hear you saying… - listening
  4. You make sense to me because… - validation
  5. I imagine you must feel… - expressing empathy
  6. I would like this - what would you like? desires
  7. Thank you for - gratitude
  8. Would you please do this? - most are not mind-readers
  9. I am feeling… - responsibility to share ideas/feelings
  10. I forgive you… - acceptance, it goes both ways.

So, if married to farm stress, renew your vows and your commitment.


Larry Tranel, dairy specialist, 563-583-6496,


Larry Tranel

dairy specialist
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