Your car may be the best place to strengthen your relationship. So this spring, use these tips to hit the road with your gal
Traveling may teach
you about yourself, but traveling with her may teach you even more: “You never really know somebody until you’ve spent hours in the car with them,” says Rachel DeAlto, a New York-based relationship and communication coach. Why? For starters, sitting 2 feet from someone for hours on end advances the dynamics of any relationship—whether a friend or a girlfriend.
But even if you’ve been together for years, drive-time can help strengthen your bond. “Sustained attention such as you would find on a long road trip encourages you to talk about your relationship, and that alone can improve it,” says Matthew D. Johnson, Ph.D., director of the Marriage and Family Studies Laboratory at Binghamton University in New York.
Key to the automotive dynamic is that there are fewer interruptions while trying to hold a conversation than in, say, a restaurant, or even your living room. The only distraction is really the background noise of the car—which may not be a bad thing. This low-level sound and the steady pace of driving may help you concentrate on the conversation at hand and have a soothing effect, says Carrie Keating, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Colgate University in New York.
Another major advantage: Talking without looking at one another. A 2013 study in Psychological Science found that holding eye contact during arguments or persuasion can actually make the listener less receptive to both the message and the messenger. Why? Eye contact can come off as aggressive when you’re talking passionately about something. Sitting side-by-side but looking straight ahead helps defuse that tension.
So how can you use your hours on the road to your advantage? Check out these tips on how to have the most honest conversation in the car.
Watch your posture
Sitting in a car naturally makes you moody: Joint research from Harvard and Columbia found that low-power poses—like sitting down with your arms crossed—lowers levels of testosterone, reduces your feeling of power, and increases your levels of the stress hormone cortisol compared to high-power poses like standing. Your play: offset the killjoy of sitting by keeping the conversation flowing and mood upbeat.
This can also help avoid sending mixed messages to your travel companion: “When you’re in a car, even if you’re excited, your posture mimics that of being depressed—sitting, hunched, arms folded,” says Blake Eastman, body language expert and founder of New York-based research firm Nonverbal Group. “This can be confusing for the other person in trying to gauge your mood.” Check in with her if you’ve both been quiet for a while to make sure everything is alright. And pull over for a stretch—standing up and moving around can be a good mood-changer, Eastman adds.
Even though you’re confined to your own seat, holding hands or touching her leg—easier and more natural gestures while driving than in most other circumstances—can help strengthen your bond, Eastman says. “When you touch someone, it releases neurochemicals that create a bond with you and that person,” he explains. It also tells her how exactly you feel: A 2011 study from DePauw University’s Touch and Emotion Lab found that while women are better at communicating certain emotions than men, both genders are equally able to convey sadness, embarrassment, love and gratitude with a simple touch to the forearm. “Touch can help break any barrier of tension or confusion, so make an effort to mirror your actions with your emotions and conversation,” Eastman advises. This means whether you’re talking about where she grew up or why things have been off between you lately, holding her hand can help reassure her you’re interested and supportive.
Beyond talking, sharing new experiences can bring you closer together, says Johnson. Luckily, road trips are ripe for novelty: Take the scenic route or stop at cheesy roadside attractions, he suggests. Not only will this keep the trip fun and exciting, but it’ll give you new things to talk about. Download the Roadside America app (roadsideamerica.com) to find wacky places—like the world’s largest ball of twine or a bar covered in pennies—wherever you’re driving.
Ask cliché questions
It takes time to learn all the history and personality traits of somebody, but being stuck in a car can speed that up, says DeAlto. “Guys sometimes feel like they need a list of prepared questions as a guide for conversation, but that doesn’t come off as natural,” she adds. Stick to the basics: Women are more comfortable answering the cliché questions right away. But ask questions you actually want to know the answers to: What sports did you play growing up? Why did you go to school at that university? What do you like to do on the weekends? Can’t think of any conversation starters? Turn to apps like Q Road Trip (doyouq.com) that help generate conversation starters for the car, DeAlto suggests.
Disconnect for the ride
We’ve become conditioned to turn to our phone when we’re bored, but one of the biggest blocks in conversation is electronics, says DeAlto. “Alter your environment so the only thing that’s happening is the conversation the two of you are having—which means no phones,” she advises. In fact, a 2012 study from the University of Essex in the UK found that when people are having a conversation, simply having a cellphone visible—without anyone even using it—caused participants to feel less connected and close to their partner. Researchers speculate the gadget reminds us of the wider network we could be connecting with, keeping us from focusing on the people right next to us.
There can be pressure to pick the right song, but if you’re in the mood for it, she probably is too: Researchers at Stanford studied activity patterns in different people’s brains and found that despite their differences in musical preference and experience, they all had relatively the same response to certain songs. An earlier study by the same team found that melodies can help the brain pay attention, while the pauses between songs help your memory process and record everything that’s going on. Keep the music on low while you’re chatting, or take turns sharing songs to get to know her personality. Need some suggestions? Try one of Spotify’s pre-picked road trip playlists.
Hit the big topics
Car rides can be a great place to talk through complicated problems because you have nothing but time and can’t run away from the issue, says Johnson. Bring up the elephant that’s been in the room for weeks, but be sure it isn’t too heated: The driver has to use part of his cognitive resources for driving, and research shows we’re not as good as multitasking as we think, especially when it comes to emotional topics, Johnson says.
Stick to single-decision topics: Whose family you’re going to spend Christmas with is easier to talk through than trying to iron out every detail of your wedding plans. And stay positive: “Even if you’re not the greatest communicator, we’ve done studies that found your relationship can still benefit from a discussion by staying positive and interested,” Johnson adds. Airing your grievances with minimal anger and a soft tone can help avoid damage to the relationship, he says.
Plus, talking about heated topics in the car could help reduce emotional contagion—or the infectious nature of emotions, adds Keating. We often mimic one another’s anger or disgust, but without being able to see the other’s face, you’re less likely to get as worked up. If you’re discussing something emotionally charged and remaining relatively calm, it’ll rub off on your partner, and matching one another’s body language gives you a sense of togetherness, she says.