My mother and father are still together after 50 years of marriage. They are good, church going people who are very community minded. They show love by acts of service and are often kind and generous to other people. But the way my critical mother treats my largely passive father is toxic, and I recently took the opportunity to stand up to their behaviour in order to reverse the negative effects it has had on my own life. Here's how it panned out:
Recently my parents and I all attended my maternal aunt's 90th birthday party, along with my maternal cousins, my two older sisters, and all their husbands/wives and families. We spent the weekend in a lovely guest house in the country and since it was a long drive for my aging parents, they asked me to give them a lift there and back. I am a little apprehensive because I know the way my parent's behaviour often triggers me, but I see it as an opportunity to connect with them and spend some additional quality time together.
The two-hour drive to the guest house is relatively uneventful, with occasional friendly chatter and lunch at my parents' favourite cafè on-route.
However, I am starting to notice the pattern in my parents relationship that often upsets me: my mother “corrects” everything my father says, in a way which sounds critical and belittling to me. His reaction is to withdraw and shut down in response to this criticism; a common trait I particularly dislike in myself.
Initially, I just witness what is happening and my internal reaction. But over the course of the weekend as I notice more and more incidents where my father says something that my mother thinks is foolish, wrong or otherwise in need of correction, I become increasingly agitated.
In my ideal world, all the years of therapy and emotional healing that I've had would insulate me from the effect of this and I'd be free to let them relate however they choose without me being triggered.
But in the real world, I'm not that enlightened. Not yet, anyway.
The formal party on Saturday night goes well and for the most part everyone has a great time during our extended family weekend in the country. Yet within me is a growing resentment towards my mother for the way she is treating my father, and towards him for his passive response. On the last evening I have a bad headache and retire early.
The next morning, I am feeling pretty groggy after a bad night's sleep. I still have a headache and I am not looking forward to driving my parents home again. When I wonder what the headache is really about, I sense that deep down I'm really angry. Having had poor experiences of the way anger was handled by my parents when growing up, I developed tremendous shame about being angry and repressed this normal emotion so hard that I rarely even felt angry as an adult. Instead, it came out as headaches, anxiety and fatigue.
I cannot remember as an adult ever telling my mother that I am angry with her, and I suspect that this is just the tip of a deep iceberg of resentment still trapped deep in my psyche and physiology. A voice inside tells me it's time to face my primal fear around my parent's relationship and reveal to them for the first time the full extent of my anger about it.
I have occasionally tried to tell my mother the way her behaviour impacts me, but she has always brushed me off, dismissed my feelings or generally avoided the conversation altogether; leaving me feeling even angrier, more hurt, and with no emotional resolution.
So I know I'm probably in for the fight of my life and I'm physically shaking before the conversation has even started.
We are all packed and seated in the guest-house lounge ready to go when Mum says “OK, let's go!” cheerfully. I reply firmly: “There's something I want to talk to you both about before we get in the car to drive home.”
“Oh no”, my mother groans resentfully, “Do we really have to?”
My father looks concerned at my request, but doesn't say anything.
My voice is shaky, but assertive: “Yes, it's important to me. Are you open to talking?”
“Look Graham, we've had a lovely weekend, do you have to ruin it now?”, Mum says angrily.
“I'm not ruining the weekend; I just want to talk about what's bothering me.”, I reply as my body begins to shake even more.
“Oh... All right then”, says my mother unconvincingly. Nevertheless, it is at least a verbal buy-in.
“I've noticed a pattern in the way you both communicate this weekend that I've found disturbing, and I'd like to talk about it to make sure it doesn't continue on the drive home.”, I say as clearly as possible.
I can see that they really don't want to talk about this, but I know that not being heard will leave me feeling upset on the two-hour drive home. It's time for me to stop avoiding my own fear around upsetting them, and confront the issue.