“Look Graham, I've said what you wanted me to say. Can we please just go now? What more do you want???”, she says in exasperation.
Mum's promise may just be an attempt to placate me, but it's probably the best I'm going to get. Besides, if she says she's sorry and offers to change her behaviour, then it's up to me to forgive now and move on.
“Yes, you have Mum”, I admit, “But now Dad is clearly very angry, and I'm not leaving until we're all at peace with this.”
By this stage Dad is out in the foyer yelling “He's gone berserk!, He's gone berserk!” and asking reception to call a taxi to take them to the train station for the trip home.
I actually laugh. Part of me can see the funny side of this: the three of us going head-to-head in the lounge of a guest-house over an issue that's as old as I am, and my angry, frightened, learned-helplessness father desperately yelling to strangers in the foyer for support.
“Come back Dad”, I ask, “Let's all sit down and sort this out so we call all drive home happily.”
This issue of my mother's criticism of my father in front of me cuts to the core of my wounding as a man. My nervous system has been conditioned to respond with terror to this specific mixture of threats: criticism, conflict, women being upset, men losing control of their anger, and the fear of getting hurt and/or abandoned. All my neuroses wrapped up in this one argument, and although my parents say it's no big deal to them, it's a huge deal for me.
The taxi arrives and my parents pile in for the trip to the train station. At this point, I am most upset that they are leaving before we have the chance to sort things out; which just leaves me hanging with a whole pile of unresolved feelings.
As the taxi is about to pull away, I feel powerless to stop them leaving. It's that same terrible feeling I had around my parent's fights as a kid: I felt powerless to stop them fighting and it seemed that my feelings didn't matter. All I can do is reiterate the most important points for me: “Mum, I'm grateful for your commitment to stop criticising or belittling my father in front of me. Dad, I'm really disappointed that you're running away like this.”
Anger brings out the side of me that wants to hurt the people who have hurt me and I want to goad my father into manning-up and staying to sort out the conflict with me. Instead he mutters “I'm not running away...” as the taxi drives off.
I am very shaken after all of this, and in no state to drive. We haven't reached closure, so I still have a lot of emotion running. From past experience I had no reason to expect that we would reach closure, but I still choose to treat my parents as capable. This has been the most assertive I'd ever been with them and part of me feels extremely energised; I can see now why they find their arguments so exciting.
I'm in no state to drive home, so I go for a long walk to work off the angry energy. On the way I phone a transformational coach friend of mine with a deep insight into the emotional trauma that conflict brings up for me, to debrief.
During the call I express some of the residual anger I feel towards my parents, and am surprised to connect with a strong sense of grief over my father's unwillingness to stand up to my mother. I feel the pain of all the times in the past that he failed to man-up and protect me from my mother's criticism nor to engage her in a way that would resolve their issues; thus exposing me to years of frightening arguments during my childhood.
After a long telephone debrief, my friend asks "Would you like some feedback?"
I panic. "I'm feeling really vulnerable right now.”, I say hesitantly. “This has been the most challenging conversation of my whole life, and I would prefer not to hear any criticism of how I've handled things. "
“I have no criticism for you” he says, and I'm so touched by these words that tears flow freely from my eyes. “It's always clumsy at first when you take these kind of steps”, he continues, “and I honour your courage in being willing to go there.”
Eventually I calm down enough to drive home safely, feeling proud of myself for being assertive and staying centred in the face of my inner child's greatest fears.
Finally standing up to my mother has silenced my inner critic and changed my life, as I'll explain more deeply in a future article. Do you have a critic in your life that it's time for you to stand up to?