How to Argue in a Car Without Killing Each Other

Jumping out of the moving vehicle is not an option, or so we're told.

Arguing in a Car

Three months ago, my wife and I converted our aging pickup truck into a camper, sold everything else—house, cars, motorcycles, vast and swaying towers of furniture—and set off with our 15-month-old daughter to roam the country for a year. Some days we wake up in a clutch of Rocky Mountain peaks, some days on the soft sand of Atlantic dunes.

Beth Bowman

It's been a beautiful and wondrous three months. It's also been a (very pretty) version of hell. It's a rare thing for my wife and I to be more than 15 feet apart. Our living quarters are tiny; no point in the whole space is more than six feet from the toilet. And there's the stress: worrying about where we'll stay; the vagaries of the weather—freezing temperatures, howling winds, deep mud, impassable desert tracks—and knowing that in our old truck with 305,000 miles burning on the odometer, each sweep of the crank pushes us closer to some unknown mechanical calamity.

Beth Bowman

My wife and I have been together, off and on, for some 14 years—married for seven of those come June. We know how to fight. When we were younger, we'd come at each other sideways, trying to draw blood. The fights were about competition, not construction. There's more at stake now. When we lock horns it isn't to wound, or win, but to keep at the business of building our lives together. It's harder in a space this small—a space that seems designed for friction and frustration. There are no rules for the way we're living, but there are rules of engagement. These are probably universally applicable, and are in no particular order. —ZB

Don't avoid the fight: That doesn't mean court the thing—it means communicate. Be open and honest about what's weighing on your mind. Don't sit on it. Don't build it larger than it needs to be.

Timing is everything: Picking the battle often matters a hell of a lot less than choosing the battlefield. If it's been a long, hard, trying day for you, it's almost definitely been the same for your spouse. Nobody wants to crack open an argument when everyone's tired and hungry. Breathe. Have a beer. Make dinner. Broach the subject only when things have settled.

Know thy (real) enemy: Are you pissed that the towel is on the floor again, or are you more bent that the assholes in the campsite next to you are blaring pop-country music at midnight? Don't put your frustration where it doesn't belong.

Let it breathe: Just because you're sharing an area smaller than a walk-in closet doesn't mean you can't give the other person some space. There's nothing wrong with silence.

Know the "why": Think through the situation. If you don't understand what's wrong, or why you want to rip the camper door off its hinges, your spouse won't, either. It's okay to be pissed for no reason; it's not okay to be pissed at someone for no reason.

Be respectful: Always.

Since Zach's situation is unique, and extreme—though illustrative!—we also reached out New York City-based couples therapist Jean Fitzpatrick, L.P., for 10 more tips on how to argue better in the car. —AD

  1. In a car, the danger is that partners can feel cornered or held hostage by an argument. Better to use a long drive to make deposits into your emotional savings account—create a memory by stopping at a scenic overlook, enjoy an audiobook together, share a hope or dream.
  2. If there's something urgent you want to discuss—like your fears of visiting the in-laws whose house you're driving to—talk about that before you put your key in the ignition.
  3. For both relationship- and road safety, car talk should be calm. If you must raise a tough topic, check with your partner first to see if they're ready to talk, and avoid overwhelming them by limiting the conversation to 15 minutes.
  4. Avoid criticizing or attacking your partner. Instead, use the "observation and request" format: state your concern as neutrally as possible, then follow up with a constructive idea on how you'd like things to go differently next time. Let's say the start of your trip is unexpectedly delayed because your gas tank is empty after your partner drove your car. Saying "we need to stop and get gas; next time you use my car I'd appreciate it if you'd fill it up again" works better than, "I can't believe you were so selfish and let my tank go down to the last spoonful!"
  5. Avoid "kitchen-sinking." If you and your partner have agreed to discuss a particularly tough subject, stay on topic. Don't bring up related areas you find upsetting, or offer an armchair analysis of how your partner's dysfunctional childhood contributed to the problem, or point out how much better you behave under similar circumstances.
  6. Focus on problem-solving a manageable issue, not on listing complaints.
  7. Don't try to tie up all loose ends during the ride. Remember that over 60 percent of couple conflicts are never fully resolved. Know when to let it go.
  8. Practice self-soothing. Keep the disagreement from spiraling out of control by knowing when to call a time-out so you can listen to soft music, meditate, or even pull over and take a walk.
  9. Remember that a conflict is a creative opportunity. Listen carefully, express yourself calmly, and practice compassion, and you can turn your disagreement into deeper understanding and more effective teamwork.
  10. If you're planning on discussing a tough topic, have a "safe word" that means it's time to stop, even before you get in the car. When either of you feels that anger or being overwhelmed may derail the conversation, use the safe word and postpone the conversation until after the trip.