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Couples and Driving: Six Tips to End Arguments

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Couples have many normal types of arguments that can be productive, but one of the most pointless types of arguments is about driving. Driving arguments are senseless because they are avoidable and easily settled when couples are committed and respectful of each other.

Many couples spend a lot of time together riding in a car. Frequently, couples alternate driving, but it is not unusual for one partner to like to drive while the other prefers to be a passenger. It is also common for men and women to take different approaches to driving. Disagreements occur. Arguments can be avoided.

Disagreements take the form of comments or criticisms about speed (too slow or too fast), changing lanes, tailgating, road rage in mild to severe forms, rolling stops, the best route to get where you are going, and other preferences or differences between couple’s driving habits. If one partner engages in long phone/texting conversations in the car, it can leave the silent partner feeling ignored. Even conditions such as temperature control, listening choice, and volume level can be issues when couples are together in a car, especially for long periods of time.

Absurd debates about which way is better, faster, shorter, less traffic, and more convenient can often set couples up for conflict. When advice, GPS, maps, and asking for directions are ignored, getting lost becomes laced with rounds of I-told-you-so’s. These arguments are undesirable and unnecessary.

Preventing and settling all driving arguments is important for safety reasons and to preserve respect, peace, and pleasantness. So why do couples offer negative/constructive comments about the other one’s driving? Two reasons stand out above all the others: Safety or fear, and simply the I-know-better-and-am-right rationale.

Years ago, my husband and I recognized that neither of us felt comfortable with the other’s driving under all road and traffic conditions. Rather than have repetitive (and often petty) debates, we set up our own rules of the road, which became our private pact that, without question or challenge, we would respect the safety concerns (and, unfortunately, sometimes spontaneous outbursts) of our partner when riding together. We agreed to agree that any type of driving which made one of us uncomfortable (or downright scared) needed to be changed immediately.

We declared we were always free to offer a kind and gentle comment requesting a change in the manner of driving. We recognized that, on occasion, one of us might also panic and freak out with an alarmed yell because the driver of us cut a car off too closely on our side or didn’t see the hazard we saw. We accepted this instinctive response as an automatic, well-intentioned response to be forgiven at once. No angry retort was acceptable.

The request for change can be about anything of a driving nature. We have promised each other to interpret any comments from our partner as self-preserving and not critical of us. We made decisions to refuse to take offense or consider the other as controlling if he/she requests a change in our driving. If the driver begins to get testy at a comment made, the other offers a soft reminder of our rules of the road. The conversation ends smoothly. Smiles of support are offered in honor of our private collusion to end driving arguments.

We figure that despite our comfort with our own driving, our partner deserves the utmost of respect from us by driving in a way that also leaves him/her comfortable. It is a really simple concept. The driver is free to briefly explain or defend, but still obligated to yield to the more conservative approach.

Conditions inside the car are equally possible to negotiate. Neither of us smokes so that was not an issue, but we seldom feel temperature in the same way. We have learned to prepare in advance. Other than one of us being in a thermal snowsuit and the other being stark raving naked, keeping jackets or blankets in the car easily solves the temperature issue. We avoid window wars and the battle of temperature controls. We both keep comfortable.

Any courtesy limits to phone/texting conversations are important to discuss. To listen or not to listen can be a question for couples to resolve while riding in a car. When I am driving alone, I rarely talk on the phone or listen to anything but the sound of my own thoughts. My husband will normally talk on the phone or listen to music, the news, or radio talk shows. When we are together in the car, my preference is to focus on conversation and not be distracted with anything else.

His focus is different. When my husband wants to hear the hourly newscast or a sports game/show of special interest, I yield graciously to his preferences. Likewise, he lets go of his routine habit of always having the radio on while in the car. We limit phone and texting. The compromise works for us.

Our rules of the road are summarized as six tips for ending driving arguments:

1. Get rid of your thin skin about comments on your driving.
2. Offer comments about your partner’s driving with a non-critical and request-like tone, spoken mainly to address your safety concerns.
3. Agree to disagree about general driving practices and let go of the need to convert your partner to seeing driving as you do. Accept the change and don’t pester for conversion or obsess about being “right.”
4. Work out standing agreements in advance regarding smoking, sound, phone/texting, and temperature.
5. Defer to the driver’s navigation decisions, but after the driver consults the
other for ideas and preferences.
6. Routinely respect all safety concerns that your partner expresses (no matter how ridiculous they seem to you) and change your driving immediately without attitude.

Make a personal pact about your own rules of the road along the lines of these six tips. You will find your driving arguments can disappear just like low gas prices.

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About Dr. Coach Love

  • Joanne Huspek

    Easy for you to say. You’re not married to a driving instructor! :-)

  • Dr. Coach Love

    Thanks, Joanne. Great point, but even driving instructors can be driven to higher ground:)

    Dr. Coach Love

  • Mike O’Connor

    Good article, but I’m not sure I agree with your point (6) – Routinely respect all safety concerns that your partner expresses (no matter how ridiculous they seem to you)..

    This is surely one-sided: the partner who expresses any safety concerns always ‘wins’ the argument by default, which leaves the other feeling that his/her concerns are not even worthy of consideration.

    Isn’t there a point at which the ‘please drive more safely’ argument breaks down? You could imagine an extreme example, say at a T-junction, where the more conservative partner insists that the road is clear in both directions as far as the eye can see before turning left or right. While this is certainly safe, it could drive the more driver insane, waiting as one merging opportunity after another passes by..!

    At what point is it fair to expect the more conservative partner to compromise also?

  • Dr, Coach Love

    Mike, thanks for weighing in on this. Your T-junction is a great example. Driving arguments are generally about feelings and not statistical safety issues. The hypothetical couple probably did not pull over at the intersection to research accident statistics on the junction. The driver doesn’t feel safe and acts on those feelings— while the passenger feels insane/impatient/aggravated/etc. because of perceived ‘hyper safe’ driving choices. People don’t always experience a sense of safety under the same circumstances. The T-junction doesn’t dictate how motorists drive. Drivers do.

    And even if the argument involved a statistics discussion, feelings about safety and actions taken (look both ways until there is no car in sight or not) may still not match. That is, even if the conservative driver believes the statistics, they still may not feel safe without extra precautions. Their choices may drive the other crazy. Feelings are feelings.

    All six driving tips will not be helpful for everyone-especially people who perceive the outcome as Win-Lose and those who feel a need to be right and have others agree with them. While a ‘feel safe’ reaction to the ‘statistics’ is OK, too, the #6 agreement in advance is that feelings of fear and cautiousness trump ‘insanity’ and impatience. Any agreement in advance can serve a couple better in the long run.

    The idea is that these driving agreements (or any agreements) are crafted through compromise with consideration given to the feelings and opinions of both parties. Agreements are reached based on feelings of fairness from both parties. If unfairness surfaces, the partners can also trade a driving decision for a compromise on other issues as needed. The benefit is that these driving safety differences don’t have to be constantly rehashed and debated in the moment.