Emotional Engagement

Divorce is a becoming a huge issue in Agriculture. 

The rule of thumb is that 50% of society divorces and the probability is over 75% if you run a family business.  The added stress of managing a business and working with in-laws can definitely have a negative impact on a marriage.  Although farming society is always laggard behind societal trends due to it’s conservative values, the number of farm divorces is quickly catching up to general societies.  I forecast that within the next decade more farms will become insolvent due to complications caused by divorce than the 80’s farm crisis!  Divorce is more likely to impact a farm’s solvency than all other risk factors combined!  

  Yet, I would argue that the fear of divorce is a bigger problem in Agriculture we’ve never discussed.  In the past, I have insisted on farms getting prenuptial agreements signed in the past and might still do so in the future.  But I could equally argue against the notion and here is why…

First of all, almost any honest lawyer (if they exist) will tell you that prenuptial agreements don’t always hold up in court.  The same lawyer arguing that a pre-nup is a legally binding agreement will two hours later for a different client will be arguing the exact opposite.  The law is grey on these matters. 

But more importantly, I am concerned about preventing the divorce from ever occurring to begin with.  A prenuptial is actually a big determining factor. 

When a bride or groom signs a pre-nup, they emotionally feel excluded from the success of the operation and emotionally detach.  You’ll often see that farms where a prenuptial is signed, the daughter in law isn’t driven to see the farm succeed because someday she might be shoved out.  She is more likely to seek out off farm employment instead of staying on the farm after having kids because she is looking out for her career instead of putting the equal effort into helping the farm grow. 

Often prenuptials are asked for, the week before a wedding.  Those moments never go well and for many couples is that start of where things go wrong.  It goes even worse, if it’s asked for after the wedding.  Much, much worse! 

  She will feel as an outsider to the family and the family farm. She may live on the farm but it’s her husband’s farm, not their family farm.   It will always be the spouses family business, not hers.

During tough times, she will stick with the marriage because of these factors.   If the bride grows to despise the farm and the in-laws because they made her sign a prenuptial agreement and other nasty events; then she might be keen to leave the whole mess behind. This kind of bride can become the farm’s worst enemy!

When I was in New Zealand, they were having a farm management competition.  I talked to one of the judges and I asked him what was your criteria for evaluation?" He says, "I talked to all the wives and that's how I made the judgment."  I said, "What do you mean?" I was really interested in management issues at that time and thought he should be judging based on Production or Return on Investment.  He says, "I know who's going to be the successful farmer in ten years time by talking to their wives. In the end, if the wife is supportive and really wants the farm to succeed, it will. But if the wife doesn't really care if the farm succeeds or not, she's not going to be kicking her husband out of bed at 5am when the alarm goes off.  She's going to allow him to hit the snooze button. It’s these things that makes a farm succeed.” 

I initially disagreed and thought that this was a chauvinistic statement. Now I think that is very true.  Whether the spouse is male or female, it doesn’t matter.  Just think about any of your successful farming neighbors and look at their spouses.  They might not get dirt under their fingernails but it is their level of emotional support, which gauges ultimate success.  

A small factor is indeed the spouse’s initial level of interest in farming prior to the marriage.  The bigger determining factor is how supportive the spouse is of the farm on the couple’s fifth anniversary.  Is it my spouse’s career or is it “our farm”?  

More often than not, when a couple gets married the “in-laws” are still involved in a business partnership with the son/daughter.   For most farms, the key-determining factor in whether the bride or groom stays engaged in the family farm is how the in-laws treat (or mistreat) the newlywed bride’s farm involvement. A pre-nup is definitely a good way to start things on bad footing.

So the real questions should be, how are we welcoming our daughter into the family and the family business?  Two years later, does she feel as a tight part of the family or does she feel like an outsider, temporarily residing on our property?  It’s this emotional connection that is going to determine the success of both the marriage and the family business in the long term.   

Instead of circling the wagons to exclude new brides from the business, the question every family should be asking prior to the wedding is how can you get the new bride emotionally engaged so that she loves the farm and the extended, as much if not more than the groom? 

If this is your philosophy, then you might want to reconsider your approach.  Are prenuptials the right way to welcome a bride onto the farm?