ADHD Partners - Driving Without Driving Each Other Crazy

It is with some humor that I say that a very sensitive area of conflict for many couples is driving.  Most commonly, the conflict centers around the poor driving habits of an ADHD spouse (and why they can't/won't change them) and who is going to drive when.  There is more here than meets the eye, though, so I thought I would explore it a bit.  If you have conflicts over driving, read on!

The Obvious - Driving Issues are Real
First, let me say that it has been documented that people with ADHD are, on average, not as good at driving as their (on average) non-ADHD counterparts.  Since these are averages, it means that it may not be true for any individual couple, but in general if there is conflict around driving you should assume there are real issues, not just "some worries in the mind of the non-ADHD spouse".  Here is an overview of research statistics put forward in Russell Barkley's book, ADHD in Adults - What the Science Says:

In one study, ADHD adults are significantly more likely than non ADHD adults to:

  • Drive with a suspended license (29% ADHD vs. 10% community)
  • Be cited for speeding (56% vs. 35%)
  • Crash while driving (35% vs. 20%)
  • Have any DMV citation (79% vs. 47%)

(p. 363)

In another study, ADHD adults had these "adverse driving outcomes" (love that awkward terminology!)

  • License suspended / revoked 2+ times  (34% ADHD vs. 16% community)
  • Drove without a valid license (57% vs. 35%)
  • Cited for reckless driving (31% vs. 13%)
  • Involved in 2+ crashes (29% vs. 7%)

(p. 369)

There is also evidence that people with ADHD handle alcohol even less well than people without when it comes to driving and are more prone to road rage.

Lest those of you without ADHD get too smug here, there were no significant differences in the latter study for incidences of being cited for speeding, being cited for DUI, or for being in only one accident.

Nonetheless, in general, people with ADHD are not as good at driving as their non-ADHD partners.

The Less Obvious - Control Issues
Underlying conflicts about the logistics of driving are the more insidious issues of control and vulnerability.  Many conflicts in ADHD-affected relationships are really around who is in charge of your life.  The non-ADHD spouse resents the millions of ways the ADHD symptoms impinge upon her life (more chores, less money, less affection, etc.) and the fact that her husband doesn't drive more responsibly is yet one more example of how his habits and symptoms affect her.  In this case, his driving increases her physical danger. 

For him, the control issues go in reverse.  She is constantly telling him how to live his life and communicating that he's not doing well enough.  He feels as if his life isn't his own.  Why should he drive differently?!  She can either "shut up or drive herself".

Driving becomes the ultimate place to play out this conflict.  The driver has complete and total control.  The passengers are vulnerable and powerless.  They can't just "walk away" from a speeding car as they might be able to do from a conversation that gets out of hand.  As a result, feelings of vulnerability around driving can make being a passenger exceptionally uncomfortable.

What do Do
There are several things going on at once in the driving conflict and detangling them can help you find a solution that works.  These are:

  • Safety issues
  • Control issues
  • Symbolic resonance

The statistics on ADHD drivers indicate that the safety fears of the non-ADHD spouse are legitimate and should be addressed.  I suggest making the following "driving safety rules" to which BOTH drivers will adhere, or something like them:

  • Set a maximum speed for highway driving that both spouses can live with
  • Set a maximum speed for in-town driving, such as the speed limit or 5 mph over it
  • Don't drive on a revoked license
  • Eliminate distractions - the driver should never talk on the cell phone, fiddle with the navigation system or read a newspaper while driving. The passenger can do this stuff or you can pull off the road.
  • Trade off being the designated driver when you might be taking a drink. No one should be driving drunk, and particularly people with ADHD shouldn't be doing so.
  • No tailgating

Setting and abiding by these basic safety rules means, in my mind, that the person in the passenger seat needs to control his or her desire to comment on the driving.  This might be hard to do, at first, but it's worth it.  Controlling nagging, snide comments and foot stomping (when you "slam" on the brakes on the passenger side of the car!) is a good reinforcement for the driver's good habits.  A non-ADHD spouse may be indignant at the idea that she needs to think about reinforcing good driving behavior, but remember that the ADHD spouse is coming from a different place from you.  It feels good to drive fast (very stimulating) and it doesn't bother him.  He's controlling it for you, and (if your kids are in the car) your family.  Show your appreciation of this.

Once you get past basic safety, then you move into control.  You may not like that your spouse changes lanes at the last minute right before the toll booth.  You can even make an argument that it's unsafe to do so.  But you aren't likely to get killed by it, unlike when you crash going 85.  Pick your battles and understand that it's not just about driving, it's also about autonomy and control.  Part of being in a partnership is respecting who each of you is - each person gives and takes.  He drives more safely for you on the important stuff.  You hold your tongue on the less important stuff.  (Sometimes, sitting on your hands helps, too!)

I know of at least two couples where the ADHD spouse's slow driving in residential areas cause friction.  The reasons these two men drive slowly are actually quite different.  One wants to save gas by not constantly speeding up and braking.  The other thinks there is a lot going on and he wants to make sure he sees everything and doesn't end up hitting someone or something.  Both are obviously legitimate reasons.  If your spouse drives too slowly sometimes, talk about the reasons why.  If it's a processing issue (lots going on), then he's likely to be a safer driver at the slower no one wants to hit a small child by mistake.  In the gas saving example, I view that as a good example of being autonomous.  This person happens to be my husband, and I've concluded that if he feels it's important to save gas, that's just as legitimate as my need to feel as if we're getting there faster.  When I drive, I drive the speed I want to and he doesn't complain, either.

Symbolic Resonance
If I suggest that couples consider that the non-ADHD partner take over more than her fair share of the driving I will, always, get someone who responds something like this:  "I'm tired of doing stuff for him!  Why should I have to take on one more thing because he doesn't feel like doing better?  I'm tired, too, and just want to knit for a while!"

This response is one that comes from the exhaustion and resentment of dealing with the overwhelming nature of ADHD.  Though it might be fine to drive any given trip, it's the thought that you have to add one more thing to your "to do" list that irks.  There is no consideration of who is the more tired, or the more competent at that moment.

I like to think of the "symbolism issue" as representative of both lack of control and lack of hope.  Lack of control sounds like this for the non-ADHD spouse:  "I'm tired of his imposing his ADHD symptoms and issues on my life and feeling as if I have no control" and "I'm tired of having her dictate what I should do all the time - I feel as if I have no control" for the ADHD spouse.  Lack of hope sounds like this:  "It's just one more example of why things will never change" (non-ADHD spouse) and "I'll never be good enough for her - why should I keep trying?" (ADHD spouse).

Being aware of the symbolic nature of your conversations is the first step in moving past old resentments and back towards the more solvable issues, such as safety and control.  Once you address the solvable issues, you can then start to move past the symbolic ones.

Taking the approach I've outlined above can help you navigate this complex web of safety, control and symbolic issues swirling around driving together.  To reiterate:

  • Agree to safety rules that apply to you both
  • Once the rules are in place and being followed, accept that the driver is in control in a way that no longer threatens you and cede control to the person who really has it (stop negative comments)
  • Move past symbolism by ticking this one off as "fixed". Don't continue to use it as a reason things will never work. In fact, consider using it as an example of ways to navigate future complex problems

If you continue to have conflict around driving, then 1.)  find a counselor and talk about control issues and behaviors and 2.)  check to make sure that ADHD  treatments are as good as they can be.  It probably won't be the logistics of driving skill that are at the root of the problem.