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The in-law factor: communication is key

History shows that the first recorded marriage was in Mesopotamia about 2350 B.C. The first conflict between in-laws probably happened later that same year.

It’s natural for some struggles to arise during the transition and expansion of families. However, with open minds and a willingness to do the work, in-law relationships don’t have to be dysfunctional and can actually be wonderful.

The key, says Elaine Froese, is open, honest communication and plenty of it. Froese is a professional speaker, certified coach, author, farmer, mother, and mother-in-law from southwest Manitoba, Canada. She’s an expert on family farm succession and conflict resolution, and she has worked with farm families for more than 30 years.

In her book, Farming’s In-Law Factor, Froese and co-author Megan McKenzie share insights on how farm families can achieve harmony. The book was inspired by men who would come up to Froese while attending one of her seminars.

“They’d ask, ‘What do I do with my daughter-in-law? She won’t move to the farm and doesn’t see things the way we do,’ ” Froese says. 

For cases like this, the book includes a section on the culture of agriculture, which is especially helpful for new family members who didn’t grow up on a farm. In addition to helpful hints for what each member of the family needs, the book includes worksheets and tools families can use to find out what’s working and what isn’t working between farm business partners who are also family.

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The Earlier, the Better

Ideally, many of the issues farm families face when a child gets married should be addressed by all parties well before the wedding day.

For the engaged couple, Froese recommends, “Do self-awareness work. Go for premarriage counseling. Understand what your love languages are. Do that deep and intentional work about how you want things to look, and create a code of conduct for the future.”

Partners need to continually work on strengthening communication and being accountable to each other, and should hire outside facilitation to help them formulate a process if needed, she says.

While the new spouse entering a farm family often has worries about being accepted and made a part of the operation, Froese says parents can be terrified of who this person is and what he or she wants from the farm. She says rather than letting those fears fester, they can be addressed and the farm protected with “good communication, good culture, and good contracts.”

It can be difficult for parents to separate from their grown children and see them as adults, whether they’re a farm family or not. The best thing parents can do, Froese says, is allow the child to build his or her own life. For the successors, it’s vital to have each other’s back. “There’s a reason for ‘leave and cleave.’ You cleave 
to your spouse and that’s the foundation of strength,” Froese says.

Once a child is partnered or connected, Froese says, “Your son or daughter has made the choice to have a life partner or spouse. You don’t have a choice anymore. Your choice is to bless rather than curse, and to encourage and build up. The other option is not going to give you what you want.”

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Practice Direct Communication

The married child is often the go-between for his or her parents and spouse, but three-way communication isn’t effective. Froese says the concept of “flattening the triangle” is imperative in conflict resolution. “You don’t want he-said/she-said, so my first tip is having direct communication with the person you’re having a conflict with,” she says. “You don’t want to go through a translator.” 

Often, Froese says, the best way to begin is for the child and spouse to sit down and have an open, honest discussion, addressing questions like:

  • What do you want me to do differently?
  • How can I help you be heard?
  • What would you like as a solution?

Then the couple should sit down with the parents. She recommends figuring out the best approach first. “Some people don’t think well on their feet so I’d write things down and give yourself a script,” she says. 

For example, a daughter-in-law might list things she wants her in-laws to understand about her. She might include things like not wanting a garden like she’s expected to, or wanting the in-laws to follow certain rules when caring for grandchildren. On the other hand, the mother-in-law might include things in her script like a desire for boundaries when it comes to child care so she doesn’t feel like a day care provider.

“Come without judgment, ask for what you need, ask what they need from you, and ask what you can do to make your relationship better,” Froese advises. “Don’t make assumptions, but come from curiosity in the conversation. Wording matters, and saying, ‘I’m curious why I haven’t been allowed to be a part of the family business meetings,’ feels less like an attack.”

Once the question is asked, it’s important to really listen to the response. Perhaps the parents didn’t think their daughter-in-law had any interest in the meetings. On the other hand, if the answer is that women aren’t allowed at business meetings, Froese says that’s not today’s culture and a shift in mind-set is needed. “That was then,” Froese says. “This is not 1960 or 1999. It’s 2022, so why are we not working together?”

Daughters-in-law in those situations face a Catch-22. “If they go off and get another job, they’re lambasted for having no interest, but they aren’t given a chance,” Froese says. Once again, the child is caught in the middle in cases where parents aren’t willing to budge. “I’ve had clients who had to leave because it was clear there was never going to be a connection. Parents were given the opportunity to shift and they didn’t, so the child and spouse left.”

Of course there will be bumps in the road. “Make quick repair. Don’t let conflicts simmer and boil and explode. Deal with them and nip them in the bud,” Froese says. “Be a direct communicator, and if you need something, ask.” Once a conflict has been resolved, both parties need to let it go. 

Establishing a solid farm succession plan early will help avoid conflict in the future and save decades of resentment and stress. “I have 40-year-old successors [as clients] who don’t own anything yet,” Froese says. “The daughters-in-law worry that if something happens to them they’re in trouble. They have no security because, ‘You trust your parents that someday this will be yours.’ The son’s role is to not to keep procrastinating. Procrastinating and conflict avoidance are killing agriculture.” 

You Don’t Have to Do It Alone

Froese has been coaching farm families through transition for decades. “The key essence of what I do is help people find harmony through understanding,” she says. “Counseling is about recovery. Coaching is about discovery and moving forward. Everybody gets to show up and choose their response and be kind and figure out what behavior needs to change to make the family farm a better culture.”

While she does see clients locally, Froese also holds online sessions with clients as far away as Australia. “There’s no reason why farm families can’t get the help they need,” she says. Another advantage to online meetings is that they can be recorded and played back later, giving everyone the ability to review and process what was said.

“As a coach I try to empower families with new language. Communication empathy and positivity are my superpowers,” Froese says. “We’re all on this journey together so let’s just lift everybody up.”

Learn More

Visit FarmFamilyCoach.com to order Farming’s In-Law Factor or Froese’s other books, to see her schedule of upcoming events, and to learn more about her coaching and farm succession services and online courses.

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