It’s not news that couples often fight in cars. Whether it’s the non-signaling Nascar wannabe who zips across three lanes without signaling, the driver in the fast lane trundling along well below the speed limit, or the judgmental passenger, road trips can be rife with conflict. (Earlier this year, tragically, a man died after grabbing a steering wheel during an argument with his wife.)
But road trips can also be, as couples counselor and best-selling author Dr. Ian Kerner points out, “really relaxing.” He notes, “you can have a country drive or a family trip and it can be a lot of fun—a chance to listen to music and sing.”
For those of us whose road trips are more “When Harry Met Sally” than “The Sound of Music,” however, this is a daunting proposition. What’s actually going, psychologically, in a car?
Consider the driver’s state of mind, suggests Kerner. “Driving often requires a degree of hyper-vigilance, scanning the environment for danger and threats. You're using parts of your brain that are very easily activated.” Operating from this state of mind “can give you [a] hair trigger in terms of being activated—it can be hard to regulate your emotions.” If the kids are shouting or your partner is asking you something that you don't want to be asked, “you may respond from an activated place that you wouldn't at home.”
Kerner has talked to couples whose fights have resulted in one person driving off and leaving the other at the other at the side of the road. He notes that “in cars there can be a lot of distractions, both externally outside of the car and inside the car—music, or kids—so the main thing I keep coming back to is that when you're driving you're in this hyper-vigilant state.”
Here are a few of Kerner’s tips for avoiding escalating conflict on the road:
Drivers, just slow down
“I tell a lot of patients who drive very intensely or impulsively to slow it down,” says Kerner. For those who love to make “great time” on the road, this may be a challenge, but he suggests—having seen driving decisions result in accidents—it’s a worthwhile one. “Know you may get somewhere five to 10 minutes later, but in the end you may have a saner, more controlled experience.” (Not to mention the people around you.)
Breathe deep and listen to calming music
“There's a lot you can do to calm yourself as a driver,” says Kerner, whether it’s listening to music that soothes you—tropicalia over metal this week, maybe?—or being sure to breathe.
Make the car as calm a place as possible
You may not realize it, but the feel of a car can contribute to the conflict, says Kerner. If you’re a neat freak, and the car is a mess, “that can be very triggering.” Do whatever you can to create “a calm environment, whether it’s putting more thought into the music that's playing or the configuration of how people are sitting, or any aromatherapy, such as a deodorizer that has a calming smell.”
Avoid tetchy topics
“This may not be time to discuss the credit bill, renovations to the home, or your sex life,” says Kerner. Remember that a side-to-side conversation in a car is very different than one in which you’re looking at someone face to face. For women in particular, he suggests, “eye to eye or face to face contact can be connecting.” The opposite is true in a vehicle, and things can escalate because of it.
Use the GPS
“Using Waze or GPS eliminates a lot of problems,” says Kerner. “When you're driving, you're multitasking, you're very vigilant, you're aware, you have your rhythms. It would be intrusive to have someone who's a back seat driver. Someone in the passenger seat should be a passenger.”
Talk about “scary” driving when you’re out of the car
It’s OK to confront a difficult or “scary” driver directly, but try to wait till you’re out of the car and away from that heightened state. If you’ve just watched your partner dart across three lanes while loudly cursing, and this is a routine style of driving, “I would ask that person, ‘Listen, this is what I need you to understand, is that you scream a lot, you shout, you swerve, you shout at us, it's very terrifying. What can we do to make your drive more supportive, and can you please be mindful of these things?’”
Overall, he reminds us that studies have shown that couples who succeed in the long haul have a higher ratio of positive to negative interactions. “If you’re really getting into it” with your partner, he suggests, “really focus on your communication skills, and how you could express concerns to each other in a more positive way.”
And don’t have the conversation, he suggests, “in the Lincoln Tunnel at rush hour.” Fair point.