Farmers, Cowboys, Boundaries

Posted on September 4, 2014


I remember years ago hearing a comparison of the “farmer” and the “cowboy” views on life.  This has nothing to do with agriculture or raising livestock.  It is rather a metaphor for different ways of approaching life.  A quick web search produced nothing of value so I can’t look it up, and I can’t credit anyone.  The way I remember it is this.  In settling the frontier, the farmers and the cowboys brought a different mindset to the process.  The farmer is all about establishing roots.  Find a place to call your own and build a life there.  Farmers value stability and security.  The cowboy wants to be unencumbered.  Don’t fence me in.  Let me be free to go where life takes me.  Cowboys value freedom, spontaneity, and adventure.

With whatever counsel you get, you always need to consider your source.  Freud believed in the therapist being a blank screen on which the client projected.  I don’t think that is necessarily possible or desirable.  If you deny your biases, they have more power over therapy than if you just acknowledge them.  So in writing this, I admit that I am a “farmer” to the core of my being.  I am a simple man.  All I ever really wanted was a wife, 2.7 kids, a house in the suburbs, and a job.  I am blessed to be able to say that I have gotten what I wanted from life.  But this is the farmer mentality.  It is all about putting down roots.  There is comfort in stability.  Boundaries are my friends.  I can be spontaneous if you give me about three weeks’ notice.

I would suggest that marriage is more of a farmer’s institution than a cowboy’s institution.  It is about committing to one person to be partners for life.  It requires accountability to another human being.  It requires living with boundaries.

Sometimes what drives a couple into therapy is when one is a farmer and the other is a cowboy.  This creates its own negative cycle in which the more the farmer wants accountability from the cowboy, the more the cowboy tries to shake off the shackles of accountability.  From there it escalates to the farmer starting to investigate what the cowboy is doing, and the cowboy starting to feel violated by the intrusion and starting to hide things.  The more this goes on, the more the cowboy begins to withdraw (it does not feel good to be fenced in) and the more the farmer feels distressed by the cowboy’s withdrawal (it is frightening to have your partner pulling away).  If this is sounding familiar, farmers might want to read “Hula Hoop and the Five Guarantees” (, and cowboys might want to read “Infidelity Redefined” (  You both might want to read Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend.

So here’s the thing.  Intimacy requires a significant amount of transparency.  Marriage requires living with some boundaries.  Your partner should be able to turn to you for comfort and support.  You should be accountable to your mate.  This does not mean giving up your voice in the relationship.  It does mean living with some fences (picket or otherwise).  It is unhealthy for your partner to be snooping, but your partner does deserve to know where you go and what you do.  My position is that if something is distressing to your partner, you probably ought to not do it.  If you have to hide what you are doing, it will come out eventually with the lie usually doing greater damage to the trust in the relationship than the damage done by the actual event.

If you value your autonomy, your mission should be to make your partner feel secure.  The more securely attached a couple are, the more autonomous they can be.  Translated, that means that if you know your partner is there for you, that your partner is trustworthy, that your partner will accept your influence, you are substantially less distressed when you and your partner are apart.  As Sue Johnson has often observed, secure attachment and autonomy are not opposites, but rather they are two sides of the same coin.  Secure attachment is good for the relationship and even good for your health (which is another story).

If this is really becoming a problem in your marriage, you may want to get some help to work it out.  As Oscar Hammerstein II pointed out, “The Farmer and the Cowman should be friends” and perhaps can learn to be happily married to each other.