Relationship + Independence Day traffic = Oh no.
Happy Fourth of July! Doing anything fun for the weekend? Like, for instance, getting into a car with your significant other tonight to drive somewhere with a beach or some beautiful nature…just like everybody else? And then you’re idling on I-95 for hours, you’re out of podcasts, and one of you is quietly seething that if you’d just taken 78 West you could have avoided most of this traffic, even though it looked longer on the map, and you always ruin things you never listen to me I hate you.
We’ve all been there, and while getting into fights is something that happens to all couples, they’re particularly annoying if you are stuck in a metal box in the middle of the highway with no bathrooms in sight. Traffic can’t be avoided, but with some planning and emotional honesty, maybe your fight can be.
Samantha Burns, a relationship counselor and dating coach, says it’s no surprise fights happen in the car. “Traffic can be a stressful and anxiety-inducing situation, especially if you’re the driver and splitting your mental attention between the road and your partner,” she told ELLE.com. Stress makes your brain go into fight-or-flight mode, and instead of being able to take a walk or do something else to calm yourself down, when you’re stuck in a car “you’re left with engaging in the argument or ignoring your partner, which can be just as damaging.”
The thing is, long car rides can also be wonderful times to reconnect, whether it’s with deep conversations or listening to albums or podcasts you both enjoy. And ultimately, we never stop being children who need games and toys and songs to distract us from how little control we have over the world around us. Pick out books on tape to listen to in advance, bring a crossword puzzle and call out the questions, or play the same games you played as a kid. “It sounds silly, but can be a good distraction from the mundane scenery or tense conversations, and will get you into a playful state of mind,” says Burns. “It’s also important to pack plenty of snacks and water since hunger can get the best of you, and it’s never fun to deal with a hangry partner.”
“It’s also important to pack plenty of snacks and water since hunger can get the best of you, and it’s never fun to deal with a hangry partner.”
Unfortunately, the best-laid plans, etc., etc. You may yet run out of snacks, or reach the end of your playlist, or entered a slightly wrong address into your phone only to discover you’ve been driving for an hour in the wrong direction. At home you can yell, go to a different room and take a breather, and then revisit the conversation with clearer heads. But you don’t have the luxury of a door here, so you need to be proactive if you feel you’re about to snap.
As always, safety first. Fighting and driving is a recipe for disaster, so pull over if you need to. But no matter what, “take a mental pause and rate your current frustration on a scale from 1 to 10. If you’re over a 5, you could be approaching an explosion or shutting down and ignoring your partner,” Burns says.
If that’s the case, say so. “It’s essential to communicate that you’re feeling overwhelmed and need a few moments to calm down so that you can really listen and respond without the conversation escalating.” Don’t just shut down and pretend everything is fine until you’re both so stressed from the tension that the fight is 10 times worse than it should have been. What? Who does that? Not me, never.
Once you’ve communicated that you’re overwhelmed, cool off by listening to some music (Burns suggests a comedy album or podcast to shift the mood), or talking about experiences you’ve shared that make you feel connected, like “the first time you slept together, your wedding day, or the epic vacations you’ve taken together.”
A lot of the frustrations that lead us to snap at each other during long car rides are out of our control. We can’t make the traffic move faster. We can’t catch the ferry we missed. We can’t suddenly be somewhere else where there are no outside stressors. Admit you’re frustrated and that things aren’t perfect, and see what you can do to make things better for the moment. And honestly, just buy that extra pack of string cheese before you leave. It’ll be worth it.