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How To Fight Safely With Your Partner In The Car

Most couples have bickered or argued while driving. The car may be a rare opportunity for you and your partner to talk. You might find that you both speak more freely strapped in, not looking at each other. Whatever the reason, if having more serious or even slightly charged conversations in the car works for you, there's not a problem.

However, some couples really struggle to fight safely in the car.

Scary car fights look like:

  • Intense emotions that may impair your driving

  • Power struggles over pulling over vs. continuing on the drive

  • The passenger feels unsafe

  • One or both partners feel trapped, like you can't get away from the fight

  • Visible signs of swerving, speeding, or erratic driving

No argument is worth the risk of unsafe driving. If this pattern is a problem for you and your partner, here are some things to consider.

Assess The Problem

Before jumping to solutions, you'll first want to figure out what exactly is happening and why. Why do car fights get out of control? What happens for you and your partner that leads to escalated conflict while driving?

Some common reasons for heated car fights:

  • You lack adequate time outside of the car to connect and discuss concerns. Driving might be one of the only times you have solitude together.

  • Driving or being a passenger is a trigger for one or both partners. You feel extra stressed or anxious while driving or being driven.

  • Car fights happen after dates. This might be due to disappointment or hurt feelings if the date did not go as expected. Or it might be because you consumed alcohol on your date (if this is true for you, please start taking an Uber instead - you might find you don't fight, and you'll also stay safe).

In a calm moment, outside the car, sit down with your partner and talk through the reasons car fights tend to happen for the two of you.

Plan Ahead

Next, create a plan together for the next time you're starting to fight in the car. The goal is to interrupt intense conversations much earlier so that you can stop before things get scary.

Your plan might sound something like:

"Ok, so next time we're fighting in the car, even if it's just a small argument, I'm going to say, 'Yikes, I think we're getting in a car fight again. I want us to stay safe. Let's stop talking till we get home.' Does that work for you?"

Decide together what language you will use. Make sure you're both on board with the plan so that no one is surprised the next time a car fight starts up.

Practice The Plan

The next time conflict arises in the car, use your plan! Say the words you agreed upon. If your partner resists, stick to the script. Remind them that you're trying something new, that you will talk when you're not driving anymore, and that you both want to stay safe in the car.

Don't worry about solving the problem you're discussing or resolving the fight. The bar here is low - get to your destination safely. Then you can figure out how to resolve the conflict effectively.

Tricky Situations

You might have a few "what ifs" in your mind as you read this. Some of the common ones I hear about as a high conflict couples therapist include:

The passenger demands to get out of the car in unsafe places (like on the side of a freeway).

The key here is to balance safety with the passenger's freedom and autonomy. As the driver, it is not your job to decide whether or not your partner stays in the car with you. If they say they need to get out, don't try to convince them that this is not reasonable. Instead, focus on where the next safe option is for them to get out. This sounds like, "Ok, I hear you, you want to get out. I will take the next exit and pull into the gas station."

The driver doesn't think they are driving erratically, but the passenger feels unsafe.

In this case, the passenger's opinion gets priority. Even if you think your partner is being over the top, if they tell you that your driving worryies them, take that seriously. Make any modifications they request (like slowing down), offer to pull over somewhere safe and cool off, or let them drive.

As the passenger, try to express your concerns non-judgmentally and without further rattling the driver. Shouting, "jeez, what are you thinking?" is not going to improve their driving, so rather than further escalating, make a clear, calm request. You might say, "hey, might just be me, but I'm feeling like your driving is impacted by the fight. I know we're on the freeway, but could you take the next exit and pull into the first parking lot we see?"

Your kids are in the car

With kids in the car, it is even more important that you drive safely and model appropriate conflict skills. If you know that fights often escalate in the car, the best course of action is to prevent yourself from fighting altogether. Agree in advance that you will NOT fight in the car, period. Stop fights from happening by listening to fun music, family friendly podcasts, playing "I spy," or basically doing whatever you need to do to not fight. If you still struggle to stop yourselves from fighting in the car, have one parent sit in the back with the kids and don't talk to each other. Conflict in front of kids can be perfectly healthy as long as it is calm, safe, and includes resolution, but the car is not a good place to risk it spiraling.

If your relationship is high conflict, the car may be just one of many places that you struggle to resolve arguments. But because car fights can get so dangerous, it's a good place to start changing your practices.

If you want more from me:

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