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How long do you have to be married before you’re family?

Elaine Froese Published on 11 September 2014


A new daughter-in-law asked, “How long do you have to be married before you get to be family?” This powerful question is part of Jolene Brown’s book “Sometimes You Need More Than a 2 x 4! How-to tips to successfully grow a family business.”



I had the privilege of working with a well-adjusted farm family who sought my facilitation skills as an outsider to help them get more clarity about the farm’s successor and everyone’s expectations for the future vision of the farm. The mother tearfully asked me to read a special letter to open up the family meeting, which included the in-laws.

The hand-written, three-page note was dated by a young couple (now parents) almost three decades ago and had been hidden from the adult children until now. The intent of the letter was to be a guide to the parents to treat their family in a much healthier fashion than what they had experienced as a new couple on the home farm, too close to the founding parents.

I have their permission to share it – anonymously, since they really don’t want the neighbors to figure out who they are. Use their words of wisdom to craft your own note of encouragement to the next generation and set healthy boundaries for dealing with family conflict on the farm.

As parents we will strive to follow these guidelines, and if we have trouble doing so, we’ll have to think back to the first few years of our marriage and the trouble we saw.

1. Communication: If they are 5 or 20 years old, we must treat our kids as friends and always listen to them and encourage them to talk to us. Ask them “What they think,” “What happened?” or “What should you do?”


2. Respect each other and respect each other’s privacy. When they are young, knock before entering their bedroom, for instance. Respect the kids’ opinions – even if they disagree. Don’t pry or snoop.

When the family is out of school and possibly married we must:

  • Give advice only when it is requested
  • Remember that our way of doing things is not necessarily the only way
  • Accept their right to do things their own way … they are still learning
  • Share our experience as information, not as direction
  • Treat our children’s spouses as our children

If someone in the family wants to farm:

  • Encourage them to further their education first or try working at some other occupations for a while to compare and become more aware of life’s choices.
  • Respect and support their decision and remember – advise only when asked
  • If they still wish to farm and there is enough farm for two families, and you’ll be able to work together, then an operating agreement which recognizes individual contributions to the business must be drawn up with all involved parties not having any uncertainties.
  • If it is a married child (or soon to be) it will be their decision only whether to share the yard site, but tell them because of experience you would encourage them to have a yard of their own. The new couple having their own yard would lend itself to a quality relationship. We would give any assistance necessary to achieve this.
  • Management decisions must be shared from the beginning.
  • When the children show they are sincere about farming, we shall provide documentation to ensure their eventual ownership of the farm.
  • All points on the previous pages apply to this situation also.

Signed, Mom and Dad

Jolene Brown says, “The business must decide, ‘What, if any, is the business role of a spouse?’ In-law family members must express their wishes, if any, for inclusion or involvement in the business. It’s best clarified before the ring is on the finger.”

So what is your family’s code of conduct? What expectations do you have of the newlyweds on your farm team? How are you treating your successor’s partner, who lives with your adult child and is not married?


Divorce is devastating to a farm business, not to mention the farm family dynamics. Just ask the young farmer whom I spoke with recently. Many couples that struggle with in-law relationships early in the marriage don’t go for counseling to help them set healthy boundaries and clear expectations like you read in the letter above.


You might want to buy a copy of “The Language of Love and Respect” by Dr. Emmerson Eggerichs to encourage couples of all ages to embrace their new family. I give this book to farmers asking for help in building a stronger marriage foundation.

It is your farm, your family, your choice. Choose healthy behaviors and guidelines of respect. Tell your daughter-in-law you are thrilled she is part of the family, and show her love and acceptance in the way she likes to receive it. PD

Elaine Froese, CAFA, CHICoach, recently released her third book, “Farming’s In-law Factor.” It is available on her website .

Sometimes You Need More Than a 2x4! by Jolene Brown and The Language of Love & Respect by Dr. Emerson Eggerichs are both available on the respective authors’ websites. Photos from authors’ websites.

elaine froese

Elaine Froese
Farm Family Business Coach