“Are you really saying you'd cut off contact with your son just because you're unwilling to stop criticising your husband in front of him? Seriously?”, I counter.
“Look Graham,” Dad says angrily, “You can't dictate what other people do. We've been relating like this for 50 years and it's not about to change. You've got problems, and it's time you grew up and sorted yourself out. Don't go telling us what to do!”
He's got a point there: My biggest problem is that in the past I haven't stood up for myself; but that's changing now. It is time I grew up and that's exactly why I'm having the conversation.
We grow up by confronting our emotional issues in the present moment when they get triggered, by learning to deal with the inevitable conflicts in our relationships as they come up, and by facing the uncomfortable situations we used to avoid.
Dad is clearly very angry at being drawn into conflict over this; a conflict he's been avoiding for 50 years. He stands over me menacingly, clenching his fists and hissing through his teeth. My inner child is terrified by his aggressive stance but the adult voice inside me thinks: “What's he gonna do? Hit me right here in the lounge, like he used to hit Mum? He's 82 now. He'd probably break something, and it'd most likely be something in himself.”
It's common in toxic families for other abuse victims to turn on the whistle-blower, so I'm not surprised when my father displaces his anger at my mother, towards me.
Still, that doesn't make it any less frightening. My limbic system is triggered as I feel my deepest fears of conflict and abandonment; but I know if I just breathe, I'll survive.
I'm very tempted to start firing back with some hurtful criticism myself. But since my primary aim is to heal my own internal wounds around criticism and conflict, I need to avoid saying anything I'll feel guilty or ashamed of later. Instead, I stick to expressing my feelings and needs as assertive as I can.
“Look, let's all sit down and get this sorted out so we can go home in peace”, I say. “Mum, I'd like you to commit to not criticising or belittling my father when I'm around.”
I am so triggered that I can't hope to remember what is said accurately. No wonder most of my parent's arguments over who-said-what in a previous argument were so pointless. Accurate recall is one of the first things to go when we're in fight-or-flight mode.
What sticks most in my mind most though is when my mother says sarcastically: “Look, I'm sorry. I won't criticise or belittle him in front of you any more. In fact I won't say anything in the car on the way home. Is that what you want me to say?”
My mother's begrudging apology doesn't sound at all sincere and feels manipulative, which makes me even more angry. Although I'm not really ready to hear it, she is at least verbally agreeing to my request.
“Thank you Mum, I'm grateful for your promise to stop criticising and belittling my father in front of me, and I intend to hold you to it. This isn't about getting you to say the right thing just so we can get in the car and go, it's about sorting the issue out so we all feel it's resolved. I'm glad you've agreed to my request and I intend to hold you to your commitment.”
I'm still really pissed off though.
I can also see that Mum and Dad are also still very angry. So we're still a way off sitting comfortably in a car together for two hours yet.
“Don't you see that you're doing exactly what you're criticising your mother for?”, says Dad.
There is some truth in that, since everything is a projection and my parents are just mirrors to me. But he's only partly right: Rather than just delivering more belittling, personal criticism, I am being very specific about the behaviour that is triggering me, and I'm owning up to the emotions involved. It's the difference between being assertive and being aggressive in a conflict.