Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Regulating Stress When Driving As A Couple


Almost every couple has a car story- be it good, bad or ugly.

Romance unfolds in cars. Given the privacy, small space, music, heat or lack of it, cars invite emotional connection and events to remember- the first chance of intimacy, the car you both loved, the road trips you cherished.

 If you are a couple, you also know that as relaxing and romantic as being in a car with your partner can be – there is the other side. Driving together can go from cherished to challenging- sometimes in the same trip!

  • “Didn’t you see that guy- he almost hit us.”
  • “I didn’t cause the traffic!”
  • “I want to get there alive – what is the speed limit?”
  • “Why get a GPS if you won’t follow it?”
  • “You put our lives in danger because he cut you off?”

In fairness to anyone who can relate to the comments above, driving in this culture is stressful. When you consider the number of interacting factors that add to the situation, it is amazing that any couple takes up the challenge, much less enjoys it.

Compounding Factors

  • There are the external factors like the destination, the time, the distance,the car’s performance, the reaction of other drivers,the road conditions etc.
  • There are the differing emotional feelings and expectations triggered in each partner by the reason for the trip- be it a vacation, a family visit or a medical appointment.
  • There are the internal factors i.e. the pre-existing physical and emotional state of each of the partners, often exacerbated by the fact that only one is in “control of the driving,” regardless of where the other is sitting or what they are saying.

Clearly, the situation is complex and given that no one can control all of these factors, an important area of focus for partners is the handling and regulating of their emotional reactions as individuals and as a couple.

Styles for Regulating Emotions

Researchers tell us that people have different styles for regulating their experience and expression of emotion. Often partners are not only reacting to the road condition or the tension about the family visit, but the way in which each regulates stress.

Some use concealing strategies. They suppress their feelings and try not to react to the situation. When they are cut off by another driver, they try not to react. They may grip the wheel and hold it in. Initially it may work. The problem is that ultimately, they actually experience increased physical stress. Without verbalizing the feeling it may eventually show as irritability to their partner or ruminations that leave both hostage to a negative mood.

Some use adjusting strategies. This is the person who decides in the face of dead stop traffic to change the plan. They may be quite upset by the traffic. They may even use a few choice explitives. Primarily, they try to regulate their impatience or rage by problem solving.  “Ok, we are not going to meet them at the restaurant- let’s call them and meet them at the show.”

 This style can be of benefit to both partners as long as it is not presented in a way that dismisses the feelings of the other i.e. “ Why get so upset – we will just change the plan” is very different then “ This stinks but let’s do what we can to make the rest of the evening work.”

Some use tolerating strategies. This is the person who is very comfortable and accepting of emotional situations as they unfold. In face of the mistaken directions that result in the missed flight, they just accept the situation. “I guess we will end up in Florida tomorrow.”  

This is not so much a passive stance but a choice about how much energy to expend in situations that can’t be changed. It can be mistaken as a non-response by an anxious and angry partner who finds the calm reaction intolerable. ” Do you even want to go to Florida?” Clarification always helps.

Value of Mixed Styles

Emotional Researcher, Stefan Hoffman suggests that concealing, adjusting and tolerating are all valuable strategies in different situations and that successful regulation of stress may involve the ability to be flexible in using them. Partner differences, when respected, can capitalize on this repertoire.

Antecedent-Focused Regulation Strategies.

 Differing from stress-reducing strategies or styles, some strategies can be used to pre-empt tension and stress before it erupts. These can be very valuable in the short term like “driving together.”

 Mission Focused– If you are headed out on a “date-night,” do not use the drive to the restaurant to discuss the bank account or to clear the air from an earlier fight – it does not clear the air –it contaminates it. If the only time you have to talk is in the car – plan a time to go somewhere to talk instead of driving and discussing complicated or difficult subjects.

Preparation– Planning ahead by giving yourselves extra time, directions, maps, phone numbers, etc. alleviates potential stressors. Music and audio books to be shared to divert attention from traffic or the strain of driving also serve in this way.

Recognize the Context- Central to the tension between couples when driving is the reality that a car is a confined space. No one (hopefully) is just getting out to clear their head or walk it off. That said, it is crucial to build in other opportunities for constructive disengagement- for the pause button to diffuse an argument. Sometimes the passenger partner brings an iPod, book, puzzle, or phone game to escape if needed.  Sometimes the driver has a certain CD, sports station etc.  that predictable engages and even relaxes him/her.

Re-frame Behavior- Giving each other psychological space in the car is invaluable. If one or the other says they really can’t talk about something upsetting – this is the time to listen. In this context, postponement of discussion, even silence may be a constructive step toward diffusing feelings – not a dismissal. It is very helpful when a partner can explain that he/she may be able to discuss this at a later time and actually does. It builds  trust in regulating patterns. 

Making Meaning- While not easy to consider when you are in the midst of it, much of the anger that unfolds between couples when driving is a secondary reaction to anxiety. Her anxiety about other drivers unfolds as angry criticism of his driving. Overlooking her anxiety, he is either insulted by her lack of trust or retaliating with anger. Neither is simply sharing their feeling or validating the other’s. “Don’t mind me – these cabs are making me so nervous.”  “I know what you mean, but we will be fine.”

Recognizing the Dangers- Road Rage and DWI are both illegal and potentially lethal circumstances for any individual or couple. They represent a break-down or lack of regulatory strategies.

  • DWI- Many couples protect each other with a designated driver or plan for a ride if they have been drinking. If this gets challenged by one, it is the courage of the other to come up with alternatives or a call for help that can be life-saving.
  • Road Rage- What makes road rage frightening is that those who get involved feel justified in their violent reactions. It is perhaps not surprising that researchers, Llynne Roberts and David Indermaur (2008) have found that two-thirds of drivers who perpetrated violent forms of road rage have been victims of similar crimes. For the partner who sees increasing evidence of this, it is worth addressing it out of the car and perhaps with the help of a professional.

  Use The Best of Your Srategies TogetherKeep on Collecting Car Stories…Try to Make Them Romances.

For Further Reading

Roberts, L,& Indermaur, D. (2008) The “Homogamy” of Road Rage Revisited. Violence and Victims, Vol.23, No.6.2008