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: Tips For Couples Driving With Less Stress and More Safety

less stressful drivingAs 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.”
  • “Why get a GPS if you won’t follow it?”
  • “You put our lives in danger because he cut you off?”

Guidelines for Driving Out of This Holiday Season With Less Stress and More Safety

Account for the compounding factors–Driving involves external factors like the distance, time, car’s performance, the reaction of other drivers, time of day and road conditions etc. It also involves internal factors like the physical and emotional state of each of you. Make decisions based on as many factors as you can. Driving when you have taken prescription drugs or are exhausted can be as dangerous as driving and drinking.

Respect Driver vs. Navigator Roles- given only one of you is driving at a time try using your role to “ add value” to the other’s performance. She can’t help it if the GPS is crazed and there is no map. He is trying to control his reaction to the man who cut him off.

Respect Your Styles for Regulating Emotions – Research suggests that it is the flexible mix of different regulating styles that is the most effective in stress management.

  • 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.
  • 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 but 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.”
  • 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. This is not so much a passive stance but a choice about how much energy to expend in situations that can’t be changed.

Plan ahead to Pre-empt Tension and Stress

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 for New Year’s Eve or headed home after the holiday, do not use the drive to clear the air from an earlier fight – it does not clear the air –it contaminates it.

Preparation– Planning ahead by giving yourselves extra time, directions, maps, and phone numbers alleviates potential stressors. Music, audio books etc. can reduce the stress of traffic or the strain of long distance driving.

Recognize the Context- Central to preventing tension when driving is recognizing the reality that a car is a confined space. No one (hopefully) can just get out to clear their head.  Build in a 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 or sports station that predictably engages and even relaxes him/her.

Allow for Psychological Space- Give each other psychological space. If one or the other says they really can’t talk about something upsetting – this is the time to listen. Postponement of discussion, even silence, may be a constructive step toward diffusing feelings in the car – not a dismissal.

Making Meaning- Recognize that much of the anger that unfolds between couples when driving is a secondary reaction to anxiety.

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.
  • Many counties provided the phone numbers of cab companies willing to bring people home free of charge on New Year’s Eve. One Funeral Parlor in Rockland County New York offered free car service on New Year’s Eve – They said they would rather bring you home safely than bring you home to them!!
  • 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 have found that two-thirds of drivers who perpetrated violent forms of road rage have been victims of similar crimes. For the partner do your best to diffuse or contain what you can. Put the safety of both of you first- calling for help if needed.  If this is a pattern it is worth addressing out of the car and perhaps with the help of a professional at a later time.

Use Your Strategies As A Couple... And Drive Safely Together Into The New Year.

For more research and references – see blog ” Regulating Stress When Driving as a Couple.”

Photo by Alan Vernon, available under a Creative Commons attribution, non-commercial license.