Among their family and friends, Karen Morales and her husband, Ken, are notorious for their fights. Not at home, or at parties, or anywhere else but in the car. She's the self-admitted instigator, letting him know that he's driving too fast or too slow. That he's not signaling his intent to switch lanes, then yells at drivers for not letting him in.
"He zigs, he zags, he rides the bumper of the car in front of him," she says in frustration. "Other times, he leaves too much space. The bottom line is, he's an angry driver and I'm a control freak."
On one particularly memorable night, as Ken was driving through the Rocky Mountains toward their Evergreen, Colo., home with his parents in the back seat he became so angry with Karen's pestering that he put the pedal to the metal, tearing up the mountain road. His mother and father joined in with angry advice to slow down. Too late. The engine blew, forcing the four of them to spend the night in a funky roadside motel, crammed into one tiny room.
"That was fun," Karen Morales recalls dryly.
Sound familiar? There are enough car fight stories out there to fill a new car showroom. Everyone has one.
Yes, there are those who say they never fight in the car, but that's because some accommodation has been made to prevent it. Stacy Barker, from Beverly Hills, Calif., says she solved the problem by driving alone whenever possible. Lisa DeBacco of Avon, Conn., sits in the back seat and stays oblivious to her husband's driving by playing video games on her smartphone, never looking up. Lynette Kittle of Colorado Springs, Colo., says she simply prays from departure to arrival.
Although even marriage counseling experts tend to say argument-inducing driving is a "guy thing" prompted by gender-related control issues, many women fess up as well.
"I'm the speed demon/risk taker, and my husband is the scaredy-cat/schizo behind the wheel," says Eve Young, who lives in northern New Jersey. "He says I terrorize people when I come up behind them on the highway. I say sightseers should stay out of the left lane."
Tina Tessina, author of "Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting About the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage" (Adams Media), believes that, most commonly, car fights are the result of a "culture" of fighting in general.
"It's not so much control as power," Tessina says. "Both want to be right.
"If you're fighting in the car, maybe you aren't allowing enough time to talk outside of the car, so everything comes spilling out when you have a captive audience. Try talking about your car arguments at a time when you're not in the car."
That mindfulness is critical to having safe trips without distractions that can cause accidents, agrees couples mediator Laurie Puhn, author of "Fight Less, Love More: 5-Minute Conversations to Change Your Relationship Without Blowing Up or Giving In" (Rodale Books).
Often, she says, couples are fighting about pride. "You need to recognize there's no solution to this argument," Puhn says. "When you realize that, literally laugh out loud. That's how you can take pride out of the picture. Laugh at yourself for having that same silly argument for the 10th time."
She adds, however, that sometimes it's OK to pick your battle. "You need to ask if this is a battle in which you're fighting to reach a solution that is practical. If it's after the fact, if it's a minor issue and it's hypothetical (such as the path you took to get home), let it go, unless it's safety issue."
Marriage counselor Sharon Gilchrest O'Neill, author of "A Short Guide to a Happy Marriage" (Cider Mill Press), says her own fears over driving issues run deep.
"I had a dad who always drove too fast, and my sister and myself and my mother were always really afraid. My husband drives very fast, so that's one of the things I ask for from him. Not over 80. He just can't do it.
"If I see that dial hitting 80, he'd better back it off."
The road to sanity
Marriage counselor Sharon Gilchrest O'Neill offers these solutions for couples with mismatched driving habits:
Identify the deal breakers: Each driver defines, as objectively as possible, the top two driving behaviors that trigger fear in the passenger seat. Those can include, for example, tailgating and speeding. Each then agrees to improve those behaviors, and not to complain about any others.
Share the road: Second, split the driving 50/50, so at least half of the time each partner will feel safe and in control. Agree to bite your tongue the other half of the time.
Here are some tips from psychotherapist Tina Tessina when arguments in the car travel beyond driving issues:
Don't participate: Disagreements always require two people. If you don't participate, your partner can't argue without you. Yes, you're trapped in the car for whatever length of time the trip takes, but you can be silent and just let your partner rant, if that's what's happening.
Discuss recurring problems: To resolve recurring problems, discuss related decisions and find out what each of you does and does not want before making important decisions. If you argue about at-home stuff when you're in the car, make the car off-limits to arguing, and discuss the issue via email so you don't fight.
Seek to understand: Make sure you and your partner understand each other's point of view about the last argument before you tackle another drive. You should be able to put your mate's position in your own words, and vice versa.
Don't focus on who's right: Struggling about who's right causes arguments; it doesn't solve them. If you find you're arguing about which one of you is right, then switch to "OK, so what will solve the problem."
Try a different pattern: Squabbles often occur because you're following automatic habit patterns that lead to a problem before you know it. Using (the previous guidelines) will help you overcome negative habit patterns you may have built that lead to arguments or bickering in the car.