Couples in Cars

This title should not be confused with Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars or James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke, because from what I hear from couples in counseling, too often when they are in their car they are not funny or melodic. They are not having a good time. More often, they are highly anxious or angry, or both, and may engage unpleasantly. 

There is a time and place for important talks. Psychologists could not have designed a more perfect test of how couples can talk when under stress than the car ride. Modern ethical considerations prevent us from putting two otherwise healthy grown-ups in a truly life-and-death situation, making one of them almost totally responsible for their safety, and the other almost totally helpless in controlling the outcome. Such are the conditions of a ride in the car. You are either in the driver’s seat or not. If not holding the wheel and the responsibility for controlling the car, you would be the passenger or one of the passengers, completely free to daydream or sleep or react and comment on your driver’s skill, intentions and implicate their personal worth as a human being. This is a setting ripe for physical or emotional disaster, and generally not for those important talks.

Think about how you feel when you are the passenger. Helpless? Out of control? Unsafe? Going too fast? Frustrated at the unnecessarily slow pace? If you are feeling pressured for time, and are driving, you can go as fast as you feel appropriate. In contrast, your passenger, whether or not they feel the same pressure, may not react as calmly as you. After all, how do most of us react when feeling not safe, at risk and without any ability to control a life and death outcome? Helplessness is not associated with rational behavior. 

Even people who may be generally mentally healthy can lose it with their partner in a car. Couples in difficult relationships are even more likely to demonstrate less than admirable behavior inside the confines of a moving automobile.

Sometimes reality counts. Is the driver really unsafe? Do they have a history of accidents or tickets? Are they one of those aggressive people who drive too fast, weave in and out of traffic, cutting off others, tailgating and flashing their lights to get slow drivers out of the passing lane? Is your partner a sufficiently safe driver? The answer to those questions influences the next steps. If they aren’t safe, that issue has to be confronted. Isn’t it crazy to get into a car with a truly unsafe driver, or simply tolerate feeling uncomfortable with a marginally safe one?

Confronting any issue with one’s partner can become a problem. The first rule is don’t bring it up in the car, no matter who is driving. Find a time and place that increases your chances for a good, non-defensive discussion.

Let’s look at a more nuanced situation. Your driver is, in your estimation, not terribly unsafe but also doesn’t drive in a way that makes you feel reasonably safe and sufficiently at ease. Try as you might to relax, you can’t help yourself from reacting in a way that is rather annoying to your driver. Although you may not have some neurotic issue generally with being a passenger, let’s assume that your driver thinks you do. That, I think, is a very safe assumption. Drivers of passengers who feel unsafe and anxious don’t say the problem is with their driving. More often, they accuse their passenger of being over-controlling. What then should the anxious and helpless passenger do? And, what is the appropriate role of the driver when their mate is feeling anxious, unsafe, and helpless? 

To be fair, important and valuable experiences can be had within the intimacy of a car. Couples, families, friends and even relative strangers can do it. But, conditions inherent in the context of sitting on thousands of pounds of inert material plus explosive fuel, that is going many miles per hour, and which is subject to the whims of irrational emotions and thinking, cannot be ignored inside the therapeutic confine. 

Our beliefs influence what we do, what we say and our non-verbal behavior. What do you believe? What’s the right thing to do? What are reasonable expectations in this situation? I’d love to hear your point of view.


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