Why Do So Many Couples Have Car Fights?

Do you ever wonder why you and your partner have so many car fights? Because human beings are so adaptable, we’ve accepted that moving down the road at a high rate of speed in a metal box that weighs about a ton and a half or more is an acceptable everyday experience.

Our nervous systems may be stupid, but they’re not that stupid. They know driving is a dangerous undertaking.

We may be unaware of what’s happening to our nervous system as drivers. Driving requires a stressful state of heightened awareness, as we scan our surroundings for threats.

When we’re driving, we are also in a defensive mindset. The mere act of driving itself is a hidden stressor on the nervous system.

But if you’re the passenger, you have a completely different experience. Your nervous system may actually be more relaxed than usual.

In other words, from the get-go, a couple’s nervous systems are typically in polar opposite states. And that is the underlying neurological reality behind most car fights.

Time Together…But Different Autonomic States… the Problem of the Relaxed Passenger

So as the driver, you might prefer to be silent, or listen to music. You may be completely unaware of why you need to chill; you just know that’s what you want. But your relaxed passenger might see this alone time as the perfect opportunity to process a stressful topic.

For some couples, car fighting is just a bad habit. Their nervous systems have become habituated around some perpetual problems. These problems may be based on certain habitual “car behaviors,” such as driving speed, different climate control needs, or other repetitive behaviors. Research tells us those female passengers often initiate car fights either by ignoring or distracting the driver by talking on their cell phones.

This relaxed passenger state often results in a mixed-agenda for how the couple would prefer to interact during the drive.

The Driver’s Stressed Nervous System

A recent European survey found that a third of drivers said their spouse was the most stressful passenger to have in the front seat.

And a decade ago, a British study of over 2000 participants discovered that nearly 70% of people had at least one car fight every month.

In this same study, almost 20% admitted that they had car fights at least once a week.

What’s interesting is that it’s common knowledge that car fights are dangerous. The same research showed that one out of four couples believed that car fights were a bad idea.

But it didn’t stop them from having them. Not one bit. Clearly, there is a mismatch of neurological states between the driver and passenger so profound that it trumps common sense.

How to Prevent Car Fights

The research suggests that marital car fights can be prevented. Here are some best practices for stopping your car fights:

  • Do a Fight Autopsy (but not while driving, of course). Have a fight autopsy conversation about the kinds of conflicts you have in the care while you’re at home and in an otherwise relaxed state. Be curious about each other’s experiences. Let me share a personal story about how to do that.

car fightsI must admit, I have a bit of a lead foot. When we were living in the Berkshires full-time, before we moved to Boston, it was a half-hour drive for us to get to either Pittsfield or Northampton.

Dr. K would say with an alarmed tone, “You’re speeding!” I would most typically respond, “No, I’m not!”

We unpacked this during a calm moment at home. I was less defensive and admitted, “yeah, I have a lead foot.” And she said, “it’s not that I’m mad at you…I’m actually scared.”

 I never realized that my lead foot was scaring my beloved wife. We had to create an intervention that worked with the facts of our car fights about my driving.

First, my lead foot was not going to change quickly. So when I was speeding, instead of saying, “you’re speeding!” she said, “I’m getting scared” instead. Because I had a chance to be a hero and help her not to be scared, I immediately slowed down and said, “thanks for reminding me.”

Did I speed less? Hell no. Was the experience in the car different for us? Absolutely. What used to be a car fight was now a way for us to connect emotionally.

More Ideas for Stopping Car Fights

  • Be Aware of Your Environment in a More Deliberate Way. Understand that the driver will be more stressed than the passenger. Another car fight Dr. K and I used to have is that I would instruct her on where to go as I was reading Google Maps on my Smartphone. Because it was sometimes glitchy, she would get information that wasn’t timely enough. She now used the Smartphone on her dashboard, and I was removed from the equation. Another car fight averted.
  • Try to Have Congruent Activities. Listen to music together. Or have a non-stressful conversation, or sit in silence. Don’t think that as the passenger, you get to set the agenda. Ask the driver what they want and accept influence from them.
  • Repair…Repair…Repair. If you do slide into a car fight, admit it. Breathe. Repair with your spouse and stop talking. “We’re doing it again!” Sorry, I’m just stressed from this traffic..can we change the subject or take this up when we get home?” Remember that the driver may be completely unaware of the fact that they are more defensive. Also consider all the deficits in these conversations; no eye contact, and a hyper-vigilant nervous system vs. a more relaxed nervous system. Hurt feelings don’t mean you did something wrong.
  • The Driver is Not a Captive Audience. The driver is…the driver. They have the sole responsibility of keeping all the passengers safe. Defer to them. I know you want to have that important talk, but you can get into it at home. This is neither the time or the place for stressful conversations. Remember that the partner in your head is also along for the ride. Don’t ruminate on the road. Try to be in sync with each other.

car fightsFinal Thoughts on Car Fights

Car fights are an excellent way for couples to skill-build. Instead of looking at your entire communication dynamics, you get to dive deep into one particular context, and hopefully make it better for both of you.

Explore what both of you want from each other both as drivers and passengers. Develop some new ways of communicating in the car that will reduce the possibility of another car fight.

If you have a hard time doing this on your own, consider a science-based couples therapy retreat.

Also, if you’re the driver, keep your word. If you say that you’ll have a conversation when you get home, don’t try to wiggle out of it.

Once your spouse sees that you keep your promises, they will relax in the knowledge that what you say in the car isn’t a dodge (no pun intended).

Are You Fighting in the Car Too Often?

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Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and couples struggling with conflict avoidant and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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