How do I help my partner not terrify me in the car?
November 28, 2010 8:23 AM   Subscribe

My partner is a goddamn basket case when he drives. It makes me really upset. How do we figure out a way to get from point A to point B without anyone freaking out?

My partner, who is a kind and thoughtful person in every other respect, is a very stressed-out driver. It's not aggressive or rage-ful driving per se - rather, he's constantly monitoring and commenting on the actions of those driving around him, getting upset, yelling a little, generally being a tight little ball of stressy anger the whole time he's behind the wheel. He thinks every action of cars around him are related to him in some way - that clueless drivers in the left lane are slowing down on purpose to mess with him, that the white van up there has been slowing down and speeding up every time they see him, on and on. Occasionally he will tap (hard) on his brakes or perform some other dramatic action that skates on the edge of aggressive/unsafe.

This drives me nuts. I tend to absorb the emotions of those around me, and to me the car becomes a hostile, angry place to be. I don't want to talk, I want to shut my eyes and crawl inside myself until we get wherever we're going. This annoys him - he feels like I'm being dramatic.

How do we figure out how to make car trips work? Things that *haven't* worked -

- me driving instead. He thinks I'm a bad driver, and his constant instructions stress me out, too.
- me ignoring his outbursts, stopping whatever I'm saying, and waiting until he's calmer before continuing. He feels like it's overreacting and making the situation worse.
- me telling him that he can't change the actions of others on the road, he can only accept it and modulate his response to it. It's a given, so why stress about it? Or otherwise laughing off his crazy theories about what's going on the road. This works better than anything else, but it still irritates him that I'm lecturing him while he's performing the Important Act of Driving.

So, hive mind, I guess my question is twofold - 1) *am* I overreacting? Is this normal driving behavior and I should just ignore/otherwise be okay with it? and 2) if not, how do we come to a peaceful resolution on this stuff so we can be in a car together without anger or stress?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (31 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Some people are just that way in traffic. It doesn't do you or the situation any good for YOU to stress out about it, too. So try to ignore his craziness.

If you really feel he's an unsafe driver, then you should drive, though, if you think you're better.

If you find you can't ignore him...iPod and headphones will do the trick.
posted by inturnaround at 8:42 AM on November 28, 2010

Not overreacting - that kind of behaviour in a driver would annoy the hell out of me as passenger. Also, he seems to have no appreciation of how significant an impact this has on you or if he does he doesn't care enough to modify his behaviour.

Do you know why he's so stressed about all things driving related? The answer that would probably give you a more positive angle to approach it from.
posted by koahiatamadl at 8:47 AM on November 28, 2010

I tend to keep up a running narrative when I drive, which sort of helps me process and anticipate the actions of others. I don't always speak aloud, though. Maybe he needs to do this so he can concentrate?
Taking things personally just seems like a symptom of our entire culture though.

Can you wear headphones and listen to music, rather than his stream-of-consciousness script?
posted by Ideefixe at 8:59 AM on November 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't like driving with other people like that, either. But from his perspective, he feels as if he's absorbing other people's emotional intentions, as well, and it stresses him out that other people are being unfair to him. The difference, I think, is that he's wrong about what those intentions are, so it's an issue of perceptions and incorrect information. I read an interesting article that suggest that learning to interpret the intentions in others is vital to our development. If we learn to interpret intentions incorrectly in a particular context, it leads to reactions that are not appropriate to the situation.

I'm not sure how to reeducate that, but I think that is what's necessary. For some reason, he interprets acts of aggression where there probably aren't any (or not as often as he thinks). I've seen many people do this, and not just in the car.
posted by SpacemanStix at 8:59 AM on November 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

1) Definitely not normal.

How does he handle other issues in life? I'd suggest therapy (seriously) for this as it my be the tip of an unknown iceberg. The road-rage-esque braking and other unmentioned acts scare me personally - I wouldn't want this person on the road with me, or be in the car with them. Ppl like this usually have other issues and it's all vented in one place.

2) Be kind but firm - tell him he's a crazy driver, and you refuse to ride with him when he's crazy. You'll drive, and he has to shut up and take it. Or he has to drive normally.

Maybe have him take a driver's ed course? (has he ever taken a course? they are very helpful)

(thanks for letting me play amateur psychologist)
posted by jpeacock at 9:00 AM on November 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

It may be stress from other parts of his life that are finding their outlet on the road.

Regardless, if he refuses to change his behavior, he doesn't get to dictate to you what your reaction to it should be. He can EITHER stop driving like a lunatic OR he can have a passenger who zones out for the length of the ride for the sake of her own metal health.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 9:01 AM on November 28, 2010

I force my mother to sit in the back seat when she's a passenger in a car with me, because her nervous, angsty reactions make me a more nervous, angsty driver. It works because she can't see shit from back there to react to or comment on.

Him in the back seat with a magazine or you in the back seat with an iPod might work. It seems kind of not very social, but since your socializing in the car seems to consist mainly of annoying each other, it might be better that you don't.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:02 AM on November 28, 2010 [6 favorites]

Added bonus to back seat scenario? Endless "Home, James" jokes.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:02 AM on November 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

One point of clarity: it's not a matter of reading other peoples' minds correctly, but learning to not filter non-verbal driving activity through a filter of knowing what other people are trying to do. Some people are just really bad drivers. I'd suggest that if possible, your partner read grumblebee's excellent post on this issue.
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:05 AM on November 28, 2010

I don't think you're overreacting to him, it seems like he's overreacting to other drivers. Do you have to ride with him? I mean, if his driving frightens you, and your driving aggravates him, then maybe the solution is to not ride with him. I wouldn't want to ride with someone who drove like that!

I'm teaching my kids to drive right now and the main thing I'm trying to get them to keep in mind all the time is that you just never know what the other driver is going to do, either because of their skills or their distractions or their fatigue or their emotional state or their road-rageyness or whatever other thing is going on. It's vital that no matter what's going on with other drivers, they have to be on top of their skills/distractions/fatigue/emotions (and whatever inclinations they have toward road-rageyness). People are crazy, and you never know what degree of crazy you're dealing with when you flip someone off or play brakes-games with them or whatever on the road. If there's any place where it really doesn't matter if you're "right" and the other guy's "wrong," it's behind the wheel of a car moving down the highway. Be safe ... just because your partner won't put your safety first, it doesn't mean you can't.
posted by headnsouth at 9:06 AM on November 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

It sounds like he has a problem, and you're probably not overreacting. He's not getting the message that there are aspects of driving that he can't control. He needs to get that message, and probably not from you since you tried. However, it sounds like his driving style is basically setting him up to get impacted by other drivers. Nobody else on the roads is as prepared, attentive, thoughtful, and courteous as they could be. And there is a difference between a thoughtless act and a malicious one, and the thoughtless ones far outweigh the malicious ones.

Depending on his maturity level, he might benefit from a defensive driving class, or anger management.

Is there another influential person in his life that could give him feedback?
posted by germdisco at 9:09 AM on November 28, 2010

Always make sure to leave more than enough time to get wherever you're going. Trying to "beat traffic" and pick out the incredibly complex path-of-least-resistance is what causes most of my crazy driving, and can cause the perception that someone has acted maliciously to prevent me from gaining the spot in traffic that is rightfully mine.

If I have plenty of time to get where I'm going, I find it much easier to chill out in my own lane, even if it's going slower than the one next to me for a little while. I don't have to be constantly monitoring the situation to find a way to hack it, so I notice a lot fewer people being assholish.

I found myself much more capable of driving calmly right after returning from a 2-week camping vacation that saw very little traffic or stress. I also found myself responding better to stressful situations at work and at home, as well. I'm going to make a point of taking time off when life's stresses build back up again, if even marginally possible,
posted by kitarra at 9:50 AM on November 28, 2010

Whether it's "normal" is completely beside the point, and you and he should focus on working out a way of not driving each other nuts. But sure, some people drive this way, using the running commentary to keep themselves focused on the road and attentive to hazards, and verbalizing to vent some of the stress. Even the apparent narcissism can be a useful part of defensive driving, since the question you need to focus on while driving is always "how might this be a danger to me?" (In the rest of life it'd seem hostile and self-involved to keep asking that; on the road it's a very useful obsession.) Driving obviously creates a lot of stress for him, and this could be a way of managing it. You're responding to the emotional content, but it might be that this actually helps him be a safer driver.

But it's hard to say for sure what's going on, based on your description. The angry brake-tapping you mentioned seems like a (very) bad idea; if there's other aggressive behavior that goes along with it, then it's not a matter of him using talk to manage emotions and keep focused on driving defensively, it's a manner of unmanaged stress and emotions causing him to drive aggressively, and in that case it needs to be dealt with very differently (first, by getting him to stop the dangerous driving behavior; second, by finding him new ways to manage the stress that don't lead to it).

In any case, this isn't the real issue. The backseat-driving commentary when you drive is clearly unacceptable regardless; you can and should just tell him to cut that out. If he'll accept that, then you can just do most of the driving yourself, and in exchange try to moderate your own reaction to his driving chatter. Also, when he drives, why not try taking part in the discussion a little? Complaining about bad drivers around you can be a cathartic us-against-the-world bonding experience, and you can try to use a gentler touch — inject more humor to moderate the anger he's showing. This might help you not to feel traumatized by it as though you were the target of the vituperation, and it might help him to see that you're not withdrawing or totally disapproving, just looking to shift the tone of the discussion. Maybe it'd help just to try to get him to be funnier, more jokingly mocking, and thus less outright angry, about other drivers.
posted by RogerB at 9:53 AM on November 28, 2010

(Jan, is that you??) Seriously, this could have been written by the wife of one of my best friends, a great guy who intermittently turns into a raging asshole behind the wheel, in exactly the ways you describe. And I too get very emotionally reactive to it, as you describe. So I sympathize deeply, and no, it is not normal, nor are you (IMO) in any way out of line in wanting this to stop. Sadly, I don't have any really good ideas for how to accomplish that, unless your partner has some motivation to change. The idea of getting a third-party perspective (feedback from another trusted/influential) person might help; I am that third person in my friends' situation, and sometime he'll listen to what I'm saying more than he will to his wife (perhaps since it's outside the context of any ongoing marital grar). The only other thing I've been able to do that has much effect is, in extremis, telling him this stops now or I'm getting out of the car and taking a bus/taxi home. (I've gone as far as opening the door, but haven't had to actually carry out the threat.) This of course is only feasible in situations where transit alternatives actually exist--YMMV. Again, I commiserate, and hope you find a way to address this.
posted by Kat Allison at 9:57 AM on November 28, 2010

What is with that aggressive brake-tapping? It sounds like HE is driving the way he fears everyone else is driving - so it's like confirmation bias. He drives that way, therefore he is sure that others are driving that way, too.

Is there a defensive driving class that you both could go to? Not the traffic-ticket type, but the kind where you actually drive around with an instructor.
posted by CathyG at 10:00 AM on November 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Have you told him straight up "I love you but this narrative stresses me out to the point where I don't want to ride with you when you're driving?"

Hearing something like that helped reinforce for me (the driver) that driving was not all about me, and if I was anxious (nervous, angry, whatever), I bore some responsibility for calming myself, even if my partner was a rock and willing to put up with a lot. Behaviors that I found calming but stressed him out were off the table, and a helpful side benefit is that he has provided positive reinforcement along the lines of "It's really nice to ride with you now that you're less anxious."

It's okay to set limits for yourself - it doesn't make you a bad partner, and might help him break a cycle that's only working for one of you.
posted by deliriouscool at 10:02 AM on November 28, 2010

I felt the way your partner seems to feel for a long time, and the main thing that helped was moving to a city where I didn't ever have to drive. I took a multi-year break from even so much as backing out of a driveway. Then, when I went back to it, I found myself much more relaxed behind the wheel. Even in crazy New York City traffic. Now I actually enjoy driving and have a more relaxed attitude about it than anyone I know.

That said, my road-ragey stressball behavior was directly connected to a hatred for driving that I would readily admit to. So I was a great candidate for a car-free lifestyle. A lot of people love their cars and heavily identify with driving culture, and would never be able to admit "I hate driving and will do anything I can to stop ever doing it." But if he can? I'd start there.
posted by Sara C. at 10:08 AM on November 28, 2010

Separate cars. Even when you're going to the same place.

Also maybe if you broach the subject of getting a second car, he'll begin to accept what a large problem this has become.
posted by hermitosis at 10:22 AM on November 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

It sounds as if the things you've tried have all been ways for you to unilaterally manage his behavior or convince him that he is objectively wrong. But he doesn't want to be managed, and you are not objective. Insisting that your position is right and his is wrong is an invitation to conflict. Have you tried telling him how upsetting you find it to ride with him, and asking him to moderate his own behavior for your sake?

Regardless of how senseless it is, these behaviors are solving some sort of emotional problem for him, and at least part of the reason he's resistant to change is that he's scared to do without this crutch. You can tell him how you feel in these situations, and you can ask him to change, offer encouragement and even refuse to ride with him without disrespecting him or his feelings. Assert your own boundaries. There's no need to prove his cosmic wrongheadedness to anyone.

His criticisms of your driving, however, seem to call for another sort of response, even if they're arising from the same basic place. I would have no hesitation asking him to zip it. If he can't manage to keep his trap shut, he should either promise to see a therapist within 5 business days, or get out of the car and walk.
posted by jon1270 at 10:22 AM on November 28, 2010

Even the apparent narcissism can be a useful part of defensive driving, since the question you need to focus on while driving is always "how might this be a danger to me?"

I'm on board with this. At its heart, defensive driving requires some degree of assuming the worst of the people around you. That doesn't mean assuming that they have it personally in for you. What's being described here crosses that line, and that sounds to me like confirmation bias and self-perpetuating bad habits.

Therapy? Seriously? I'd go with the defensive driving classes -- perhaps take them together, saying "driving's starting to stress the both of us out, let's see if we can make it less stressful" -- just to recalibrate his perception of Bad Stuff on the road. If you're somewhere where there's a potential insurance discount for completing advanced driving classes, even better.
posted by holgate at 10:23 AM on November 28, 2010

My husband is just like your partner. I deal with it by reading a book or browsing on my phone to keep my attention on something other than what's going on around me. I tried an iPod with headphones, but I could still see all the asshole-ish things he does while driving, so it didn't really help.

Occasionally, we drive separately even if we're going to the same place.

And every time I get in the car with him, I remind him that I'd rather not die that day, so if he wouldn't mind keeping the fucked-up driving maneuvers to a minimum, that would be great. Sometimes it even works.

He's gotten a little better after a) the birth of our child, and b) he's gotten older and mellower in general. Maybe time will help you too?
posted by SuperSquirrel at 10:25 AM on November 28, 2010

+1 on the anger management or other therapy. Driving classes don't cover it. They put little or no focus on the emotional issues some people have while driving.

It's a control thing and therapy to help him come to grips with it would probably result in the best outcome.

Meanwhile, you do the driving and insist he STFU about it is probably the most immediate way to change the situation. You have every right to INSIST he respect how you want to handle the driving. And to do so without commentary.
posted by wkearney99 at 11:11 AM on November 28, 2010

I was him in my 20s. I was a GOOD driver. I prided myself on being able to navigate through even the worst traffic. I knew "my" city like the back of my hand. I knew if I should take 4th street or just brute force through 2nd. Or sometimes the waterfront, and cut up later. I knew which lane to be in that would move the fastest past this part of the freeway jam, and when to switch to another lane.

Then some jackass would do something I didn't expect, and it would "cost" me my advantage! Infuriating! This lane won't be faster like it's supposed to be if you leave a giant fucking three-car space in front of you and let everyone else in! Fuck! Or you! You can't let every last pedestrian who looks at you from across the park into the crosswalk or you are NEVER GOING TO MOVE YOUR CAR AGAIN.

One day, on a meduim-light traffic (crowded, but high-speed) day on I-5, I saw this old George Carlin-looking hippy dude putt-putting down the 2nd from right lane at about exactly the speed limit. Calm as the buddha, just be-bopping down the road. It occurred to me that he was going almost as fast as me, but he sure was enjoying it more. I decided to follow him. It was probably the most peaceful driving experience I ever had.

Now I imagine I'm on a train. I choose a lane, generally the 2nd one (because the on-ramp-merge-challenged idiots who steer right for me no matter how much room is in front or behind me is one of the last things that can infuriate me, just on principle) and stay there unless there is some REALLY compelling reason to switch. And just follow the guy in front of me. And listen to the radio. I'm that George Carlin-looking dude. Turns out, it doesn't really add that much time to the drive, either.

So I guess I'm seconding kitarra. Have him do an experiment where you take a long drive, all in the right-hand lane, driving exactly the posted speed limit (which will be considerably slower than average. If not, go 5 MPH slower.) No passing allowed, unless you are slowed down by someone for at least 5 continuous minutes. It will be very stressful for him at first, as he sees opportunities to go faster everywhere, but he'll start to relax, and be able to drive and still have a conversation with you, and not have to be hyper-vigilant about the most efficient way.

Then tell him that's how he has to drive if he wants to drive you somewhere. Leave a half-hour earlier. Go ahead and blame it on yourself, you're weird, ok. Just have him humor you when you're in the car. I bet he starts catching himself doing it even when you aren't in the car pretty soon, though.
posted by ctmf at 11:28 AM on November 28, 2010 [19 favorites]

Occasionally he will tap (hard) on his brakes or perform some other dramatic action that skates on the edge of aggressive/unsafe.

That is way over the line of aggressive. That is punishing people for their "misbehavior".

First, you need to figure out what his problem is. Is it behind-the-wheel-narcissism? Is it lateness? Is he in a race? Is he one of those people who simply can't feel comfortable unless they aren't following anyone? Only then will you have a solution.

Does he have a lot of near-misses behind the wheel? Sometimes a bad driver will self-correct by turning into this guy.

Also, do you have this problem with any other drivers?
posted by gjc at 12:40 PM on November 28, 2010

- me driving instead. He thinks I'm a bad driver, and his constant instructions stress me out, too.

Well, you think he's a bad driver, so WTF does his opinion have so much more power? Why is he able to demand change in your driving behaviour when you're behind the wheel, but your requests for the same are uniformly dismissed?

You behind the wheel is absolutely the only circumstance under which you have any control. "When I am driving, I am in charge of driving and you need to not try to drive while I am behind the wheel. I know it's hard for you, but those are the rules."

When he barks directions at you, remind him in a happy voice "No driving!" and carry on. If he persists, pull over. If he gets frustrated, he can walk.

There is actually no valid reason he cannot sit there without input while you drive. Despite the movie trope, hundreds of thousands of couples do this daily. I swear. This is an entirely reasonable level of behaviour to insist upon.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:31 PM on November 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

People like this are the worst and odds are good he's going to get you both maimed or killed. Defensive driving techniques do not include paranoid and narcissistic raving about other drivers. Tell him either he gets it under control or you never ride in the same car again.

Also, I second the notion that if he also is yelling nonstop while you are the wheel, the problem may run deeper than him just being an angry driver.
posted by r_nebblesworthII at 1:52 PM on November 28, 2010

Well, you think he's a bad driver, so WTF does his opinion have so much more power?

In general, the irrationally angry person tends to "win" conflicts with someone who's trying to be rational. This is not how it should be, but it is how it is.

I would never, ever ride with a partner who behaved like that while driving. I also tend to be hypersensitive to other drivers' perceived infractions while I am driving, and also quite shouty, so I have some sympathy for him, but I dial it way down when I am driving with the Largely Mythological Husband because he doesn't need to hear that. When I'm on my own, I kind of enjoy being all Jerry Stiller.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:00 PM on November 28, 2010

- me driving instead. He thinks I'm a bad driver, and his constant instructions stress me out, too.

Does he not understand the concept of someone else's emotions 'harshing his mellow'? I mean, in a way, your emotions are harshing his mellow, because he thinks you're overreacting.

In any case I got tense just reading this and I think your driving is the most direct solution. But he has to get on board -- you're bothered by this enough to write an AskMe for it, so the first step is for him to recognize it really bothers you, and let you drive the car.

After that, he can use this as a wonderful opportunity to let other people be in charge, and to mind his own business. He won't be good at it all at once. He'll have to work on it. But first he has to be willing to work on it.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 2:53 PM on November 28, 2010

If he's like me, and I do this all the time, he's just doing color-commentary. I've actually thought of putting cameras in my car and doing a video-blog about driving around that consists only of my commentary. The ins and outs of driving. Getting to a Seymour level might be a little concerning, though it can be fun to get out a little angst like that. Not saying it's good, but fun. Bring it up sometime when you two aren't going to be driving any time soon.
posted by rhizome at 3:00 PM on November 28, 2010

The concept that changed my driving the most was this silly little study where EVERYONE said they were awesome drivers who obeyed all the rules and never inconvenienced others and they all also said they make mistakes. So suddenly that dipshit pulling out isn't an elitist fuckwad who thinks his beamer is too special, it's just a dude fucking up and misjudging a gap, just like me. It really helped. I still get pissy sometimes but there's a much more positive intent to my driving.

(I still vividly imagine beating up people who nearly rearend me when the baby is in the car though)
posted by geek anachronism at 3:16 AM on November 29, 2010

Can you (audio) record him during a typical drive and then play it back for him when he's in a different mood, so he hears what he sounds like? Chances are, he doesn't think its as bad as it is in his head.
posted by softlord at 7:56 AM on November 29, 2010

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