Reality, fiction and lyrics suggest that romance unfolds in cars. Given the privacy, small space, music, heat or lack of it, cars invite emotional connection and events to remember.

Not Always Paradise By the Dashboard Light    

If you are in a relationship, however, you also know that as romantic as being in a car with your partner can be – there is the other side. Driving together can go from good to bad to ugly in the same trip! 

  • “I want to get there alive – what is the speed limit?”
  • “ You know going this slow is not only torture, it is dangerous!”
  • “ Are we trying to get into an accident?”
  • “Why get a GPS if you won’t follow it?”
  • “I didn’t cause the traffic.”

Too Much, Too Little, Too Late

The reality is that when you add road conditions, car conditions, passengers, traffic, and the feelings and expectations associated with a car trip, driving can be stressful. It is actually amazing that we all continue to take on the challenge.

Stress Regulation Styles

Given that no one can control all of these factors, we might think of driving with our partner as an opportunity for separate and mutual stress regulation.

An important but overlooked step in this stress regulation is recognizing and accepting that you and your partner may have different styles for regulating the experience and expression of emotions. Knowing the pros and cons of your own style and recognizing your partner’s may serve you well on the road.

Do Any of These Feel Familiar?

Concealing Style: These are the people (drivers or passengers) who suppresses their feelings and try not to react to the situation. When they are cut off by another driver, they grip the wheel and hold it in. When their partner critiques them, they ignore it. Initially it may work, and if the situation gets easier they may be fine – no need to revisit. More commonly, however, they suffer because they are holding back stress. In the best of situations they recognize they need a break. Sometimes a partner helps by suggesting a diversion- making a stop to stretch or eat or turning on different music, an audio book, or a sports channel. Together they shift the set and the mood. In the worst of situations, the build up of suppressed feelings unfold as physical symptoms, irritability and negativity that dampen the trip.

Adjusting Style: This is the person who regulates emotions by changing the situation. This person decides in the face of traffic to change the plan. He (or she) may be quite upset by the traffic but he tries to regulate his impatience or rage by problem solving.  “OK, we are not going to meet them at the restaurant—We will meet them at the show.”

This style can be of benefit to both partners as long as it is not presented as the final decision with no need for mutual agreement. While some partners are thrilled the other person is problem solving—most like to feel that their presence and feelings matter. Often the partner has an additional suggestion, which improves the adjusted plan.

Tolerating Style: This is the person who is very comfortable and accepting of emotional situations as they unfold, a trait that works well for hanging on in the face of adversity. When she misses the turn that results in the missed flight, this person accepts the situation. “I guess we won’t be leaving today.”   When her idea is presented without consideration for the other partner’s feelings of stress or disappointment, this can be misread as passivity or disinterest.

“How can you be so calm? Do you even want to go to Europe?”

Clarification and attunement will help. It resets the emotional situation as it allows the other partner to feel considered and invited into the perspective – Why expend energy reacting to situations that can’t be changed?

Mutual Improvement of Any Emotional Regulating Style

Constructive Disengagement– Regardless of style, 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 his or her head or walk it off. If one or the other says he or she really can’t talk about something upsetting – this is the time to listen. In this context, postponement of discussion, even silence, is constructive disengagement- a step toward diffusing feelings. Planning to speak about it at a later time and actually doing that is a building block of trust and safety.

Meaning Making– 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. A sign that stress is outstripping your regulation styles is the escalation of anger. Pause, breathe, and self-reflect rather than blame. That pause if a gift.

Mutual Stress Regulating

It is worth saying that research tells us that there is value in the mix of the stress regulating 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.

A journey of one thousand miles begins with a single step and many steps of stress regulation.