the farmer's wife

Stronger in the Broken Places by David C. Treadway, Ph.D.

The weather is a hard teacher in Lawrence, Nebraska. We see fields crackling under feet with the brown and brittle husks of the drought-killed corn, the muddy pools in the frontyard filled by the prayed-for rain that finally comes in buckets, delaying the spring planting, and a September frost that freezes the harvest. We watch Juanita and Darrel Buschkoetter slowly ground up by their desperate struggle against the elements and themselves. We watch them persevere.

All marriages are like a Calder mobile; a delicate array of checks and balances that sustain us and constrain us.  As we watch the Buschkoetters' story unfold, we wonder what are the forces that bind them together, and can they overcome the elements that are pulling them apart? "Marriage is hard work" and "Love doesn't conquer all" are basic reminders that I teach my clients year in and year out. Juanita and Darrel show us the precariousness of their marriage and in so doing hold up a mirror to all of us. What does it take to make a good marriage? Why do some people who have so much fall apart and why do some people who have so little hang tough?

All marriages are like a Calder mobile; a delicate array of checks and balances that sustain us and constrain us. As we watch the Buschkoetters' story unfold, we wonder what are the forces that bind them together and can they overcome the elements that are pulling them apart?

Like most of us, Darrel and Juanita began with love and a dream. As we watch their dream smashed by the years of drought, we see their love severely tested. Darrel is reduced to sighs, slumped shoulders, and bitter mutterings at the end of his fifteen hour work days. Juanita withdraws, complains, and cries as she struggles to maintain her sense of family while she cleans other people's toilets.

As they sink into the world of food stamps and secondhand clothes, it becomes apparent that their respective families aren't very supportive of them, they're isolated from and indebted to many of their neighbors, and their independence is lost to the FMHA that takes over the management of their operation. No matter how hard Darrel works, he feels like a failure as a farmer and a man. No matter how hard Juanita works, she feels like she's a failure as a wife and a mother. The couple is also experiencing the wrenching stress of the realignment of their relationship. They both seemed to want a traditional fifties family life and yet their circumstances push Juanita into working outside the home, going to school, and taking over the finances. Just as it's been for millions of couples across the country in the last thirty years, these changes in their relative power and hierarchy are extremely threatening to both of them and the survival of their marriage. But as Juanita reminds us, "Necessity is the mother of invention," and Darrel and Juanita keep slogging away at their life just as they hacked at the dead corn stalks in the field.

The elements that sustain Darrel and Juanita go to the heart of what it takes to make a marriage survive. The most important line in the marital vows is for better and for worse. Darrel and Juanita are able to join forces in the face of adversity. They're bound together with a kind of "us vs. them" mentality. They also are able to sustain an empathy bond. Darrel appreciates the sacrifices and disappointments that Juanita is experiencing and Juanita deeply understands how hard Darrel is trying and how little support he seems to get from his family. They also were able to use counseling as a couple which allowed them to see the stress induced by their circumstances rather than blaming each other. The couple is sustained by the rhythm of their everyday life, their children's routines, the length of the backbreaking days, their sheer exhaustion, and their faith. Unlike many couples, they don't seem to have unrealistic expectations that their marriage should always feel nurturing or romantic. They're more like soldiers in combat; they don't have the luxury of feeling the extremes of their own deprivation. They just keep on keeping on.

Considering the endurance, courage and commitment that this couple shows during their ordeal, it may have come as a shock to many viewers that their worst crisis comes after the harvest of the bumper crop. Actually, this is not an unusual phenomenon. Most soldiers don't crack in combat, but afterwards when it's safe to let their guard down. It isn't until after they know that they will be able to save the farm that the simmering tensions between Darrel and Juanita explode. With some success achieved, they finally have the opportunity to confront the incredible harshness of the lives they've been leading. Apparently Darrel loses his temper again, but this time Juanita packs up the kids and moves out for a week. Everything they both have worked for is suddenly shattered.

Yet it is often through jarring crisis that marriages are able to grow and change. In the course of the two and a half years of having their struggle respectfully acknowledged and appreciated on camera, both Juanita and Darrel have grown. She has become strong enough to confront Darrel's temper and controlling behavior, and he is able to accept responsibility and get help. Her increased independence, his taking over his Dad's land, and the relief generated by the bumper crop were all key ingredients in both precipitating their marital crisis and giving them the strength to get through it.

It's actually in this marital breakdown that we see most directly the therapeutic impact on Darrel and Juanita of the filming project itself. Like good therapy, the filmmakers have been focusing on the strengths of each member of the couple and have been non-judgmentally empathic with both Juanita and Darrel about their frustration and pain. The filmmakers, in the act of bearing caring witness to this gritty young couple, may have helped them hang in there when other couples under the same extraordinary stress are broken and end up divorced. It would have been very difficult after almost three years of filming for the couple to throw in the towel. Instead Darrel takes the very hard step of going to a group for abusive men and Juanita takes the hard step of recommitting to life on the farm.

As much as I believe that the making of this film, for all its intrusiveness into the Buschkoetters' life, may have been ultimately therapeutic, I am also concerned about how that success will be received in the small town of Lawrence, Nebraska. Given how respectful the filmmakers were, I certainly hope that consideration has been given to how to support this couple and their children in the wake of the film's showing. However, I suspect Juanita and Darrel Buschkoetter will find a way to weather the media storm just as they have fought through the droughts, floods, and frosts on their farm. With equal measure of steadfast love and dogged determination.

Watching the Buschkoetters' story unfold reminds me of Hemingway's line "That which doesn't break us makes us stronger in the broken places." Juanita and Darrel are strong folks who get stronger. And they showed us the blood, sweat, and tears it sometimes takes to hold a good marriage together. It was a gift to all of us.

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