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How to Navigate the Stress of the Family Holiday Road Trip

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What is the key to surviving the holiday family road trip with your spouse?

I’ll never forget throwing my two-year old daughter’s stuffed animal out the car window or the image of “Furby” tumbling end over end on Interstate-10. Definitely not one of my finer parenting moments!

Killing Furby started after my mother-in-law so thoughtfully gave our two-year old daughter, Taylor, a Furby for Christmas. If you’re thinking, “What’s a Furby?” then let me introduce you to one of the most annoying inventions in the history of toys!

Furby is an electronic stuffed animal that resembled a hamster or owl-like creature. It was the “must have” toy back in 1999. I’ll admit that the round, furry little guy was cute, but it talked non-stop: “Do you want to play?” “How are you?” “Tell me a story” and “Sing me a song.” The thing wouldn’t shut up!

During the 15-hour drive back home from Phoenix to Springfield, Missouri, I literally started to lose my mind. Every bump in the road or movement in the car made Furby speak. I think the final straw was Furby blurting out, “Show me a dance” in that squeaky, high-pitched voice. “You want to dance,” I yelled, “Let’s dance!”

I must have lost it because I don’t completely remember how Furby ended up on I-10. I remember methodically rolling down my window and then watching that white ball of fur tumbling down the highway. But what happened in between is still hazy. What finally jolted me out of my homicidal rage was when my wife, Erin, started yelling at me and Taylor screamed, “Furby come back!” And who said holiday road trips are boring?

The Driving Wars

“Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house we go…” The old poem by Lydia Maria Child sounds great and a family road trip can be fun, adventurous and it can facilitate great conversations (we call this windshield time); however, driving for long periods of time can also create awkward moments of silence, arguments over speed, choice of music or poor driving skills, and conflict between family members crammed together. As a matter of fact, the rental car company, The Hertz Corporation, polled its drivers and discovered that the most common causes of in-car battles between couples is getting lost and bickering over directions. So, what is the key to surviving the holiday family road trip with your spouse?

1. Decide if the issue is a “big deal” or a “little deal”.

First and foremost, when in conflict, you need to determine if the issue must be dealt with immediately or if you can talk about it at a later time. The way that Erin and I put this into action is to decide if the problem is a “little deal” or a “big deal.”

I love the Ecclesiastes 7:21, “Do not pay attention to every word people say…” You can’t make a big deal out of every little annoyance, frustration, or offense. Instead, you need to decide if what your spouse is doing is worth “paying attention to.” For example, if your spouse is driving too fast, you need to decide if it’s something that you can ignore. Pick your favorite expression like the Frozen song “let it go” or “don’t sweat the small stuff” — use whatever helps you give your spouse grace in that moment. Fight for your relationship and not on these minor issues: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience…” (Colossians 3:12). 

When it comes to determining “big deal” or “little deal” around driving issues, something that has really helped Erin and me is to differentiate between a “safety” issue and a “preference” issue.

If it’s a safety issue, in other words, if you are feeling unsafe, fearful or scared by something that your spouse is doing behind the wheel, agree that the passenger will make a “gentle” request for the driver to stop doing whatever is making you feel unsafe. Erin might say, “I’m feeling unsafe, will you please slow down.” Her responsibility is to make the request as calmly as possible. However, let’s be honest, usually when Erin is feeling unsafe, she panics with an alarmed yell or some type of exaggerated body movement. I know that a “gentle request” is probably not realistic but calmness is the goal nevertheless.

As the driver and her husband, my responsibility is twofold. First, I refuse to take her panicked yelling personally. I simply accept it as self-preservation and that she isn’t being critical of me. She’s just scared. This certainly isn’t easy but I try not to reply back in an angry or sarcastic way. Secondly, I immediately respond to her request. I’m serious! Erin and I have made it a road trip rule that if she feels unsafe, whether I agree with her assessment or not, that I will respond immediately (slow down, back off, ask for directions, stop texting, etc.) and without attitude. For the sake of an enjoyable road trip together, it’s important to respect the safety concerns of your spouse no matter how ridiculous they seem to you. However, if your spouse who is driving won’t listen to your safety request, then control what you can control — close your eyes, look away, ask if you can drive, or do something that doesn’t require you trying to control the driver.

On the other hand, if the argument is focused on a “preference” issue (e.g. speed limit, lane choice, music, parking spot, temperature, schedule, turn signal usage, route choice, asking for directions, etc.), accept that you are different and agree to disagree. You both have your own driving styles and preferences and as long as there aren’t safety issues involved, allow whoever is at the wheel to make the call. Stop commenting on, criticizing, or nagging about your spouse’s driving preferences and let go of the need to convert your spouse to seeing driving as you do. Again, control what you can control. Bring headphones, a blanket or jacket, or a navigation unit if you don’t like your spouse’s preferences.

2. Protect your holiday road trip from conflict.

Arguments, bickering and disagreements can spoil a drive because it intensifies emotions and you can’t relax and enjoy each other. Refuse to allow conflict to overrun your road trips. Instead of allowing anger and hurt feelings to ruin your time together, interrupt the argument and call a time-out. Put into practice 2 Timothy 2:23, “Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels.” Erin and I try our best to let go of the little annoyances and talk about the big issues at a later time (unless it’s a safety issue). Honestly, it might take us a few minutes to be able to reengage after an argument or hurtful comment, but we are very committed to protecting our road trips from getting hijacked by “foolish and stupid” arguments. We definitely don’t want our relationship to end up like poor Furby—tumbling end over end down the conflict highway!

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