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Published November 23, 2012, 12:00 AM

Mike Rosmann: Jealousy, resentment hurts farm families

Jealousy, anger and other unresolved family resentments can lead to strained or broken relationships among people with whom we might expect to get along.

By: By Mike Rosmann, INFORUM

Jealousy, anger and other unresolved family resentments can lead to strained or broken relationships among people with whom we might expect to get along.

Chronic anger, jealousy and ill will can contribute to earlier than normal death. Judging from the responses to one of my recent columns, family strife is fairly common among people involved in farming.

The column precipitated more feedback from readers than any other column thus far. Some people wrote to say thanks, but more readers wrote about unhappy farm estate settlements or other farm family matters they perceived as unfair.

Several people who contacted me said they “needed to get it off their chests” that they were treated unfairly as beneficiaries in a will or wronged by the executor. Some wanted to know how to deal with feelings of resentment toward family members. Others wanted to know how to deal with jealous siblings or in-laws.

Why are farm family disputes so stressful? Are their disagreements more intense than among people not involved in farming? I will offer a perspective that derives from working with many farm and nonfarm families as a counselor and sometimes as a mediator.

Disputes among members of farm families are difficult to resolve because of two important factors: 1) Farmers have an instinctual drive, called the agrarian imperative, to acquire land and resources to produce essentials for life – food, fiber and renewable energy; and 2) Farm family members experience intense sibling rivalry.

I don’t know of hard research data that indicate farm family disputes are more heated than those of nonfarm families, but my professional experiences with both types of families lead me to think farm family members develop stronger agrarian urges and sibling rivalry.

Like many animal species, humans have a basic need to acquire sufficient territory to produce the food and shelter required by their families and communities. Because of their instinctive agrarian imperative, nearly everyone who farms develops strong attachments to their land and livestock.

The agrarian imperative motivates farmers to hang onto land at all costs. The agrarian imperative instills farmers to work incredibly hard, to endure unusual hardships and pain, and to take uncommon risks.

Sibling rivalry among children raised in farm households is possibly stronger than for many other children because most of their important play, work and social activities take place in the same environment. Children who grow up on farms seem more competitive to me than others.

Sibling rivalry isn’t necessarily bad. Learning how to “hold one’s own” in a fight with siblings is a stepping stone toward developing self-confidence and learning one’s limits.

But when sibling rivalry gets out of hand and blocks movement toward understanding, compromise, and getting along, then this form of jealousy becomes an impediment. It keeps us from growing, finding peace and enjoying the full value of the other siblings. The Bible story of Cain and Able is an example of malicious sibling rivalry.

Jealousy, resentment and anger usually hurt the people experiencing them more than they hurt the people who are the objects of these thoughts and feelings. They trigger our biological alarm system. They can shorten our lives.

Adrenalin keys us up and is followed by cortisol discharge, which slows us down, but cortisol also makes us feel tired and encourages the accumulation of fat. Testosterone, which accompanies anger, has been shown to elevate our blood pressure in many (but not all) studies.

These body chemicals mobilize our minds and bodies for conflict, but they also can contribute to strokes and coronary events. They can have a dampening effect on our immune system, making us more vulnerable to infections, especially viral conditions.

How can we handle these negative feelings? I like to think of jealousy, resentment and anger as behaviors we can understand and manage.

It helps to know that disputes within farm families are intense because of our agrarian imperative and sibling rivalry. We should recognize that our opponents are motivated by the same urges.

Sometimes, separation of the partners in a family farm operation is the best solution. Some siblings get along better when not sharing equipment and responsibilities.

Telling ourselves that winning at all costs isn’t worth it also helps. What good is winning the dispute while shortening our lives because of stress and building long term enmity with family members? We will likely encounter these family members throughout our lives. Getting along is healthier than harboring ill will.

Learn to laugh. Laughter dissolves jealousy, resentment and anger. Laughter produces serotonin and norepinephrine, which are positive body chemicals that make us feel relaxed and promote well-being.

Looking at farm family disagreements as opportunities to make ourselves more adaptable is a positive coping approach. We can control how we allow ourselves to think of our family members.


Mike Rosmann is a Harlan, Iowa, psychologist and farmer. To contact Rosmann go online to: www.agbehavioralhealth.com.

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