The marriage counselor sat behind a marred, wooden desk and peered through the computer screen at my husband, Charles, and me. He looked to be in his late 60s to early 70s, medium build, dark-hair, glasses perched low on his nose, otherwise nondescript except for a penetrating gaze that read “don’t B.S. me.”
He leaned forward and said: “What brings you here today?”
“Here” was the makeshift office in the second bedroom of our downtown Baltimore condo on a frigid January morning. Charles and I scrunched our chairs closer together so that both of our faces appeared on the monitor.
Charles flipped his hand toward me, his way of saying “you can answer him, I’m only here under duress.”
I said: “irreconcilable driving differences.”
“Would you care to elaborate?” the counselor asked.
I did not want to squander our 45-minute “hour” with superfluous background, so, as succinctly as possible, I explained that Charles and I, like so many others, were struggling with cabin fever because of the pandemic induced quarantine. When the cold weather swept in and wiped-out outdoor dining and socializing options, we yearned to escape to south Florida. But we were afraid to fly until we were vaccinated — and driving was problematic.
We are not a road trip couple.
I am about the journey. My husband, the destination.
Before Charles buckles his seat belt and adjusts the rearview mirror, he enters the address of where he is going — even if it’s the gym where he’s worked-out twice a week for 23 years. And he puts it in both his car’s navigation system and Waze. He compares the results of the two systems to determine which one spits out the quickest route. Once we’re underway, if he picks up the scent of a backup or slowdown, in a panicked voice he’ll say to me “check Waze for alternative routes. Hurry up!” He will change course for a 2-minute time differential.
As if he were Mario Andretti, he grasps the wheel at 10 and 2, leans forward and presses on the gas. White-knuckled, I cling to the armrest, shut my eyes and pray like I did when I rode on Space Mountain in Disney World.
I plead, to no avail: “Please slow down. We’re not in a hurry.”
Charles does not converse with me when he drives. Rather, like a sportscaster at the Preakness, he maintains a running monologue, except his subject matter is the reckless “idiots” on the road. “I can’t believe that guy. Did you see that jerk? He just pulled out and changed lanes without even looking.”
I don’t care — that is not the jerk I’m concerned about.
It’s even worse when I drive and he’s the passenger. He cannot handle my laissez-faire style. Within minutes of the start of our sojourn he’ll say something like “I can’t believe you stopped at that light. It just started to turn yellow. You could easily have made it through.”
“I know, but I didn’t want to. We are not in a rush.”
Moments later: “Why aren’t you passing this guy? He’s going 50 in a 55.”
It’s not worth it. I do not want to subject myself to his ridicule.
I let him drive — and subjected him to mine.
I waffled at the thought of driving together for 18 hours. I either had to accept a trapped winter up north or withstand the trek with my husband. Which would be worse?
That’s when I had the idea of consulting a marriage counselor for a “few times” to put our driving dilemma to rest. To my surprise, Charles relented.
The therapist probed and prodded. After hearing us out he said, “This is a common issue. I hear it all the time from otherwise happily married couples. The solution is straight forward: It is up to the driver to make the passenger comfortable.”
Charles rebutted: “But I never go more than 10 miles over the speed limit.”
“If it makes your wife uncomfortable, you need to slow down.”
I thought, “I love this therapist.”
After a few sessions Charles agreed to drive, as he put it, “unreasonably slow and passive.” In turn, I agreed to stop back-seat driving, relax and refrain from spewing excited utterances like “watch out!”
We drove to Miami.
Charles was amazing. He maintained the speed limit and didn’t get (too) angry when I asked him to slow down. We limited ourselves to six hours of driving a day. We stopped in quaint cities like Charleston, where we ate shrimp and grits at an outside bistro. We walked through the cypress trees in Savannah and explored the Spanish architecture in St. Augustine. And just south of Jacksonville we had lunch on the porch of a Cracker Barrel and played that triangular peg game.
It’s been six months since the road trip. On our way to dinner last night, Charles drove through downtown Baltimore weaving between double-parked cars, pedestrians crossing mid-street and bicyclists oblivious to our presence.
“Charles, please slow down,” I said.
He sat up a little straighter, ground his teeth, clutched the steering wheel and said “I am fine. How much slower do you want me to go?”
Before I answered, he eased his foot off the gas.
I leaned over kissed his cheek and said “Thank you. I love you.”
“I love you more,” he said.
Laura Black (www.laurablack.net) is an attorney, businessperson, author and speaker, who focuses on the challenges of midlife-plus women with humor and affirmation.