By Val Farmer, Published August 12 2011
Val Farmer: Farm hardships require openness and support“My husband is so discouraged. I’ve never seen him so down and defeated. I try to get him to talk, but he clams right up. He is watching our promising corn and soybean crops dry up and stressing out. What can I do to get him to talk? How can I help him?”
Those questions are on the minds of many farm and ranch women, especially in the Great Plains of the United States and extending east to the corn belt. Not only do they feel the lack of rain but also the drought of words and feelings.
Fighting battles alone. What an obstacle masculine pride is! Why must a man feel like he has to fight and win his battles alone? Why can’t he share his fears, his doubts and his feelings?
Where is it written that a man has to be strong and perfectly in control at all times? Where did he learn he must protect a woman from reality? Is not she, too, capable of strength, courage and judgment when faced with challenges? Both are feeling alone when it doesn’t need to be that way.
Farm women, when deprived of information, trust and companionship in life’s hardest moments, bear an even a greater burden of stress when their husbands selfishly and self-indulgently keep their own counsel. A wife is willing and able to share the burden. Instead, still another burden is thrust upon her – one that leaves her feeling helpless, bewildered and also alone.
Confront the wall of silence. What can you as a farm woman do about it?
Don’t be afraid of your husband’s reactions to your feelings. Insist on honesty. Insist on feelings. Insist means “confront” if necessary. Share your anger and hurt when he excludes you. Sometimes things have to get worse before they can get better. For some men, it will take a hard-nosed approach until you’ve made your point and established communications.
Maybe the problem isn’t him but with your underestimation of his ability to handle your feelings. He is not a little boy incapable of meeting the responsibilities of a mature, adult relationship. He may be down but he is not all that fragile.
Use listening skills. What comforting and encouraging words can a woman give when she is shut out from facts and feelings? A husband may need help in learning how to express feelings. Perhaps what might be required is gentle, probing, non-defensive listening skills to get at his feelings.
In counseling, a good interview technique is “humzzle.” “Humzzle” means asking questions in a humble and puzzled way. The listener takes on the responsibility for not understanding and asks the same question again in a slightly different fashion, making the speaker explain himself or herself again and again.
“I didn’t get that. Help me understand.” “You lost me. Tell me again how ...” “I’m confused. Are you telling me that ...?”
“I may not have heard this correctly, but did you say ... ?”
Ask open-ended questions. “How do you feel about that?” “What is it you are planning to do?” “What comes next?”
Don’t take silence as an answer. Wait patiently, and if you have to, ask your question again.
Active listening requires empathy, reflecting back feelings and understandings, probing questions and restraint from judgment and advice giving. Remember your goal is understanding, not correction or gaining ammunition for an attack. Helpful and consoling words will be believed if the speaker first believes you understand the problem.
Deal with discouragement. A discouraged person needs hope. Your husband needs to believe there is a way to work out the problems. The effective listener takes the facts and feelings and with new understanding redefines the situation in more hopeful terms.
It is a conscious effort to look for the silver lining, a new plan of attack, a new perspective of the same old problems, or even the painful search for a new dream. Without honest confrontation with reality, without enthusiasm and faith, without flexibility to accept life on its own terms and make the best of it, you and your husband won’t be able to generate the hope needed to overcome your mutual discouragement.
If you do get at his feelings, you may not like what you find. He may be denying reality, feeling guilt or anger or failure or even blaming others. His self-confidence may be in tatters.
Open communications will speed the healing process along to where he can take a positive, constructive approach to his problems and himself. It takes loving patience and gentle redirection to deal with negativism.
Take action. Strong families look for the positive and communicate effectively in a problem-solving manner. Depression and discouragement are overcome by action. It is extremely important to define your problem in such a way that you feel you have control over the outcome. Perhaps at this point, even waiting and praying can be a conscious strategy.
Planning together has a powerful unifying effect on a marriage. It joins your hearts and minds in a common quest as you take turns supporting each other. To get to this sacred place where joys and struggles are truly shared, you will have to get on the same side and fight this battle together.
Getting your husband to talk is the first and toughest hurdle to overcome. When you fight a battle with someone at your side it changes everything! Fight the dragon of drought together.
Val Farmer is a clinical psychologist specializing in family business consultation and mediation with farm families. He lives in Wildwood, Mo.