With summer here, it’s time embrace the freedom of the open road. But once you’re actually on the road, it’s common to feel trapped. Cars are argument incubators. Be it blow-outs about what’s on the radio to frustrations about flat tires, annoyances abound on car trips This makes sense: When stuck in such tight quarters, our animal instincts make us get territorial.
“When we’re in a car, it’s a confined space,” said Aaron Anderson, owner and counselor at the Marriage and Family Clinic in Colorado. “Oftentimes, we have to share cup holders, the licorice that we brought with us on the trip. After so long of that, we begin to feel like our territory is being invaded, and we try to do things to create boundaries.”
Creating boundaries means arguing. Arguments won’t help the situation but, even as Anderson, a mental health professional with a long history of resolving relationship conflict, admits, road trip fights are inevitable.
“I don’t think you can avoid them, but you can certainly work with them so that they’re not as challenging,” Anderson said.
But while you can’t stop car arguments altogether, you can minimize their damage. Here’s advice on how to make the best of common car fight scenarios.
The “You Went The Wrong Way!” Fight
An hour ago, your wife’s navigation app said to take the interstate but you brushed her off saying the kids would enjoy the scenic route more. Now, the traffic is backed up for miles and your wife has steam coming out of her ears.
What it’s Really About: Control. “That comes back again to that territorialism,” Anderson said. “The driver says they’re the one who’s going to make this decision because they’re driving. The other partner or the one in the passenger seat is also exercising their territorialism by saying, ‘I’m in this car too, dammit. I want to have a say over this.’”
Why it’s Silly: Things are going to take as long as they take. There aren’t 100 different roads to every destination on earth, so you’re often limited in how strategic your navigation can be.
Advice for Ending it: If you’re driving, be diplomatic but firm about directions. The buck stops with the driver. “The driver knows how they drive and what they feel most comfortable doing, so the driver probably needs to be the one that does make those decisions,” Anderson said.
Do You Know Where You’re Going?
You’re out of cell phone range on a road where you haven’t seen another car in hours. You’re sure you’re heading to the lake house but your family doesn’t share your confidence, which boils your blood.
What it’s really about: Trust.
Why it’s Silly: The trust issue could have nothing to do with the trip. “It could be any number of things, but lack of trust, I think, is underlying that,” Anderson said. “Where that lack of trust comes from, that’s another can of worms. Maybe something happened in the relationship in the past where the partner doesn’t trust the driver. That could be their own personal history, where, their dad got lost all the time on the back roads when he was driving.”
Advice for Ending it: Because the lack of trust may have only a glancing relationship with what’s going on in the moment, some self reflection could help. “Ask yourself, ‘Why don’t I trust them? What is making me bring this up right now,” Anderson suggested. “Then ask, ‘Is this really so important? If I don’t give them directions, is it going to be a disaster? What’s the crisis here if I don’t give them directions?’”
Can You Stop Following That Guy So Closely
The car ahead stops short and your whole family jolts forward when you slam the brakes. It’s clear to you that the guy’s obviously a moron who can’t drive. Nonetheless your spouse insists it was your fault.
What it’s Really about: Your shitty driving.
Why it’s Silly: It’s easy, almost instinctual, to get mad when someone tells you you’re driving angry, but maybe they have a point. You could have been driving aggressively without realizing it. Driving is stressful, especially when your family is in the car, and the stress might make you drive more aggressively to assert control.
Advice for Ending it: If someone complains about your driving, try to be understanding instead of defensive. They’re not questioning your judgment or ability; they’re expressing their feelings. “It’s nice to be courteous to the passengers in your car, if you’re the driver,” Anderson said. “They don’t have control in that situation, so it’s good to be courteous.”
For The Love of God, Please Change the Radio
With podcasts, satellite and terrestrial radio, streaming services and books on tape, modern couples have a wealth of options for in-car diversions. The problem is that all of them suck—except the one you want at that moment. And if your spouse doesn’t want to listen to the fly-fishing podcast you’re demanding, the drive is going to seem intolerable.
What it’s Really about: Territoriality again.
Why it’s Silly: How could anybody be upset about when you’re playing choice Barenaked Ladies B-sides?
Advice for Ending it: Take turns with the tunes. “You and your family can agree you’re going to listen to the husband’s station for an hour, then you’ll listen to the wife’s station for the next hour, and then listen to oldest daughter’s station for an hour,” Anderson said.
Stop Driving Too Fast
Driving fast is thrilling, and that should be obvious. After all, we don’t watch Fast And The Furious movies for the acting. So when the highway opens up, it’s time to see what this Toyota 4Runner can do. But then your killjoy spouse reminds you that your kids are in the car with you and “Highway to the Danger Zone” has to go off the radio.
What it’s Really About: Again, control.
Why it’s Silly: We mentioned you’re driving a Toyota, right? There’s a carseat in the back. This isn’t NASCAR.
Advice for Ending it: If your passengers are getting upset, slow down. Then wait for them to fall asleep and push it.
Did You Need to Pack Everything We Own?
It’s only a four-day trip but still, your spouse packed a metric ton of clothes, toys and supplies. Despite the complex game of luggage Tetris you played for an hour, you have a bag on your console and a kid’s toy on your lap.
What it’s Really About: Anxiety and desire for control.
Why it’s Silly: Overpackers want to prepare for every situation that may arise, even though it’s impossible to foresee all possibilities.
Advice for Ending it: Grin and bear it—within reason. “As long as there’s enough room,” Anderson said. “If there’s not enough room, then the person who packed heavily has got to take some stuff out.
Daddy, Billy’s on my Side of the Seat Again
Putting kids together in a car for a long trip is like a sloppy chemist working with volatile substances. An explosion is sure to happen. The only real question is when.
What it’s Really about: Struggling for hierarchy.
Why it’s Silly: Despite the vying over position and power, the reality is more Leave it to Beaver than Game of Thrones.
Advice for Ending it: Don’t end it. Anderson suggests getting all non-interventionist up in this whip. Look at the moment as a skill-building opportunity. Let your kids figure out how to solve the problem on their own. “That’s actually healthy for kids,” Anderson said. “It teaches conflict resolution. It does teach how to get along in a group environment.”
Stop Yelling at the Kids!
Despite the advice in the previous paragraph, not every parent is going to want to follow Star Trek’s prime directive when their kids are arguing in the backseat. Kids can be really annoying when they fight — blowing your top seems natural. But in an enclosed environment, this isn’t always the best option.
What it’s Really about: Differences in parenting philosophies.
Why it’s Silly: You’re sitting in a car with your family on a vacation. This is neither the time nor the place for this fight.
Advice for Ending it: This may be a fundamental disagreement requiring a real discussion, so it’s best to not end it. But while you shouldn’t end it, you should do your best to defer it for a moment when your kids aren’t hanging on every word.
“If it is a larger topic of conversation that comes up more often among couples than just in the car, then the way to address that wouldn’t be in the car,” Anderson said. “Talk about that away from the kids. Talk about that in your bedroom with each other. Talk about that with a therapist even. Save it until afterwards. That shouldn’t be talked about in front of the kids.”
Turn The Air Conditioning Down. I’m Freezing!
Getting the temperature right in the car shouldn’t be hard. And yet it feels like you’re presiding over the breakup of Yugoslavia, with aggrieved parties making incompatible demands and refusing to compromise.
What it’s Really About: It’s a reaction to confinement. Tensions that have been long simmering are being forced to a boil by tight quarters. “Because you can’t leave, anything that’s been left festering, you’re kind of forced, in a literal way, to address it,” Anderson said. “You’re trapped and you can’t go anywhere. That starts a fight too.”
Why it’s Silly: You’re arguing about air. That’s a step away from arguing about literally nothing.
How to End it: You might not be able to end it, actually. It’s a byproduct of being in a car with the people who know you best for long periods of time. There’s no perfect temperature when the environment you’re all stuck in is compelling you to fight.
Get Off The Damn Phone!
It’s never fun to hear half a phone call. When it’s happening in the seat next to you, it’s excruciating. If you’re driving, you probably turned down the radio to accommodate this conversation, so there’s nothing to distract you from it.
What it’s Really About: To a degree, it’s about alienation: they’re doing something private while in your presence.
Why it’s Silly: People are allowed to be on the phone. It helps to pass the time and the conversation might provide valuable information.
Advice for Ending it: Suck it up and focus on the road. Remember you’re in close quarters and liable to annoy each other. “If you respond to every single annoyance that comes up, it’s going to be a really long car trip,” Anderson said. “Pick your battles. If this is something that’s really important to you, go ahead and bring it up. Otherwise, just recognize that this is one of those annoyances and it’s going to be even more annoying if I do bring it up.”