Your wife is a fantastic mom. She works hard, she supports you, she’s your best friend. But then you hop in the car, and you hate her. First she’s telling you to slow down (again). Next she’s on your case about something unrelated to driving and impossible to accomplish from behind the wheel. Then she’s too busy checking emails to attend to your screaming toddler in the back seat. It takes serious self-control to prevent escalation.
Why do you hate your wife when you’re driving? One reason is that you’re already on edge because, whether you realize it or not, driving safely is stressful. “If you’re the one driving, your nervous system is usually activated whether you realize it or not,” Ian Kerner a psychotherapist specializing in couples therapy told Fatherly. “You are constantly scanning the environment and having to stay aware of sudden movements, obstructions and dangers. When you’re already in a state of hyper-vigilance, it’s very easy to get triggered or irritated.”
Indeed, fury behind the wheel is a nearly universal phenomenon. A 2015 survey found that 1 in 3 Irish drivers consider their significant others the most stressful people to have in the passenger seat, and a 2010 British survey found that almost 70 percent of people have an in-car argument at least once a month.
The passenger, on the other hand, tends to be more relaxed. Which gives him or her time to focus on just the sort of things that infuriate the driver. “We all bring our own temperaments to driving,” Kerner says. “The passenger is a bit at the mercy of the driver, and the driver may go too fast or too slow for their partner’s liking.” The upshot is that you and your wife’s nervous systems tend to be in two different places when you’re driving.
Another common reason for strife is that a husband and wife may have two different goals in mind for a car ride.
“One of you, usually the woman, may view it as the perfect time to talk about something,” Suzanne Phillips, a psychologist and couples therapist, told Fatherly “She thinks, ‘Ahhh, we can finally discuss how we’re going to handle this issue with our teenage son.’ Meanwhile, you’re thinking, ‘Ahhh, I’m going to put on some music and relax.’ So when she brings up the issue and you say you don’t want to talk about it, she may accuse you of never wanting to talk about it.”
This scenario can go other way too. Perhaps you want to use the car ride to talk, but your wife won’t get off her phone. “This is especially an issue now with cellphones,” Phillips says. “Women are generally more likely than men to be texting or talking on the phone. When someone’s on their phone constantly, it is extremely dismissive of the other person and can make you feel like she’s not interested in you.”
Sometimes, fighting in the car is habit more than anything else — and so fixing it is a matter of breaking a cycle of insensitivity between partners. “As soon as you both get in, she may think, ‘here we again go with him racing and taking risks,’ while you’re thinking, ‘here we go with her talking on the phone the whole drive’,” Phillips says.
It doesn’t have to be that way. “Many couples enjoy car rides as a side-by-side activity,” Kerner says. “It can be a chance to relax and listen to music together or even have a good talk.” The question is how to get there.
For starters, try to be sensitive to the environment that you’re in. “If the drive is difficult due to traffic or inclement weather, don’t corner your spouse or trigger their defenses,” Kerner says. This also means respecting each other’s personalities and temperaments. “Some people feel like the car is great time to talk because they have a captive audience — captive being the operative word,” says Kerner. “But for others, especially if you tend to avoid conflict, being confronted or talked to while held captive in a car feels very distressing.”
And if things are getting heated? Take a deep breathe. “If one person can hit the pause button and ask, ‘what are we doing?’, most couples will stop arguing,” says Phillips. “Say, ‘you know, we’re both just nervous from traffic. We still have a long way to go, so let’s just relax or change the topic and make it a good drive.”