“Here's what I've noticed: often this weekend when Dad has said something, Mum you have responded in a way which sounds critical and demeaning to me”.
I can sense a rising anger in both my parents. My observation cuts to the heart of what is most destructive about the way they relate, and rather than talking ancient history where I can easily be brushed off for living in the past, I am now bringing it up in the context of the last couple of days which is more difficult for them to avoid.
“Dad, I'd like you to repeat back to me what you've heard me say, to make sure we're all clear what we're talking about”
Before my father can reply, my mother interjects: “Look Graham, I don't see why...”
I feel a rush of anger and adrenaline at my mother derailing the conversation before we've even really begun. My heart is racing as I raise my hand forcefully in a Stop! gesture: “Excuse me Mum”, I say angrily raising my voice over hers, “I've just asked Dad a question and I'd appreciate it if you'd be quiet until he answers”.
She raises her voice even louder: “You have no right to...”
“DO NOT SPEAK OVER ME! YOU WILL HAVE YOUR TURN IN A MINUTE!”, I shout back.
I'm shaking more in anger than in fear now. Finally all that anger-expression therapy I've been doing has paid off and the anger I used to repress is now available now to support me. It won't put up with my mother treating me poorly in an argument any longer.
She backs down, clearly outraged and readying herself for the next round of verbal combat.
“Well I don't remember the exact words”, Dad says, “but basically, every time I say something, she criticises me.”
I can hear the wounded child in my Dad's voice, and I'm grateful for his buy-in so far. “Thank you Dad, the exact words aren't important, that's good enough for me.”
“Now Mum, it's your turn”, I say, “I'd like you to tell me what you've heard me say”
She doesn't respond to my request, but instead heads off on a tangent of screaming criticism I won't even remember later. The argument escalates rapidly as the wounded child in my mother reacts to my observation of her behaviour as a deep criticism, and my father's fear of conflict with his wife displaces his anger towards me instead. He starts pretending that her verbal barbs don't hurt him, and that I'm the one whose behaviour is out of line. Everyone is triggered. Cue the loud shouting.
With the family secret now out on the table, my parents project their shame into attacking me verbally: “You've ruined the weekend!!!”, “Are you acting!?!”, “I'm your Mother!!!” Mum yells, in desperate attempts to avoid the subject. I find it challenging to keep the conversation focused on the issue of her behaviour, his response, and my feelings about it.
“Mum, I get really angry when you criticise and belittle my father in front of me. I don't care how you treat him when I'm not around... well, actually I do because I love you both, but I'm not willing to put up with it any more when I'm around. I'd like both of you to commit to stopping this behaviour in front of me.”
My body shakes as I feel my father's rage turning against me. His teeth glare towards me in anger: “Look, it's just the way we relate, and it's not likely to change. I've grown used to it, and it's time you did too.”
“Well that's fine for you”, I think, “But your behaviour impacts other people too, and I don't like it.”
I am tempted to mention the way it has affected other people, but I know that enlisting other people's support is likely to backfire because everyone else in my family is so afraid of confronting our mother about this issue. And besides, I'm confident enough now to know that when my feelings tell me other people's behaviour isn't safe to be around, that's enough to make me want to take a stand.
My parents both get up and start walking around the room excitedly, as they keep hurling insults and criticism my way to get me to back down so we can get in the car and drive home.
“Sorry, I'm not going anywhere until we all feel that this is sorted out”, I say as I stay seated in the lounge.
“Well you've ruined the weekend for us Graham!!!”, my mother says again, “We're 82 and we can't change now. If you can't stand being around the way we relate, all I can see is that we have nothing to do with you any more.”
I feel angry at the guilt trip and furious at the explicit threat of abandonment.