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The Top 5 Reasons Couples Argue in Cars

Posted by Marc Michelsen on


How do you feel about car journeys with your partner? Maybe you look forward to time together with no other distractions – or perhaps the mere thought of it sends your stress levels rising.

In one European survey, a third of respondents said they found their other half was the most stressful passenger to have in the front seat. (You might be interested that one in five said their mother had that honor – putting them in second place.)

So why is the car such a battleground for some couples – and is there anything they can do about it?

The reason behind the rows

Most of us drive our cars without even thinking about it. It’s an everyday event. But, says marriage and family therapist Daniel Dashnaw, our nervous systems know better. They recognize that travelling at speed in a heavy metal box is a dangerous activity.

“Driving requires a stressful state of heightened awareness as we scan our surroundings for threats,” he explains. “When we’re driving, we’re in a defensive mindset. The mere act of driving is a hidden stressor.”

Conversely, as a passenger, you might find you’re more relaxed than usual – which means you and your partner’s nervous systems are already at odds when you set off.

What do we argue about?

We carried out our own mini survey to find out what caused most rows between couples on car journeys. Our sample comprised 100 respondents, 50 men and 50 women, all aged between 22 and 65 and of various nationalities. Their answers indicated the top five causes of arguments during a car journey are as follows:

  • Driving too quickly (or too slowly): Perhaps unsurprisingly, a whopping 80% of those surveyed said speed was an issue when it came to in-car bickering. Not sticking to speed limits in built-up areas, going too fast along winding roads and driving too slowly on motorways were the most common triggers.
  • Refusing to ask for directions: Getting lost might be less of an issue these days thanks to GPS and Google Maps, but no system is foolproof. While we hate to perpetuate stereotypes, we have to tell you 36 out of the 50 women we asked said it drove them crazy when their other halves refused to stop and ask for directions, compared to just five of our male respondents.
  • Criticism: As a passenger, if you think the driver is braking too late or in the wrong gear, do you say so? You’re more likely to if it’s your partner – leading to more in-car disputes. But at least some people know it’s irritating; one 42-year-old man told us: “My wife rarely uses the handbrake and I can’t help pointing it out, even though I know she’ll say I’m a back-seat driver and we’ll end up rowing.”
  • In-car entertainment: Some people like to listen to music during a car journey while others want to talk or even travel in silence. Whether there is in-car entertainment or not is a common cause of arguments – and that’s before we try and agree what it should be or how loud it is!
  • Road rage: Nearly all respondents (86%) said they’ve ended up arguing with their partner over aggressive reactions to other drivers’ errors. Tailgating, leaning on the horn for long periods and making insulting hand gestures have all provoked rows between couples.

What can you do about it?

If you find you and your partner argue frequently when you’re in the car together, it’s worth looking at ways to stop it happening. To begin with, you need to analyze what causes most of the rows. Obviously, it’s best to do this when you’re both calm rather than in the heat of the moment. You’ll communicate better and are more likely to find any underlying cause; for example, your partner might complain you’re going too fast because they’re scared.

Once you know why you’re arguing, you can work on solutions. If you fight about whether or not to listen to music, you might introduce a rule that the driver gets to choose; if they prefer silence, the passenger could use earbuds to listen through their phone or other device.

You can also agree to recognize fights as they happen, which can defuse the situation and help you both calm down. Something as simple as one person saying, “Oh – we’re doing it again” and each of you staying silent for a couple of minutes can work well.