In an abusive relationship, abusive behaviour is used in the car to create fear and anxiety… and to gain power and control.
Abuse can be intensified in the car given the confined space, inability to escape and the added element of controlling the vehicle and risk to safety if the abuser is driving.
To give insight into the experience of abuse and driving, here are some of the common experiences of how abuse is used in the car.
The Explosive Rage
You can be out with the abusive person and everything can seem fine. You head back to the car to go home, and then as soon as the car door shuts WHAM the intensity of the verbal onslaught hits you like a ton of bricks. Swearing, yelling, name-calling. The shock of it seemingly coming out of nowhere intensifies the force at which you are being verbally abused.
You scramble in your mind to make sense of what has caused this verbal attack, tracing back over the last hour or so trying to pin point what happened whilst you were out together that aggravated them to the point of rage. They may claim it was the way you said something to them in front of a passer-by, or you belittled them in front of a friend.
The reality is their sense of entitlement and their need for control over the relationship (thereby you) and the situation. Any perceived slight- even having enjoyed yourself too much can be a perceived threat to the balance of the relationship – forms a situation where they need to re-establish their position of authority.
The abusive person will intentionally drive recklessly to maintain a position of dominance. This can be for several reasons. It may be something happened before the journey began – maybe you took too long to get ready or forgot something, or they couldn’t find their glasses or their friends changed the meeting time – which has sparked a perceived loss of control and the blame is placed on you. The abusive person will then drive way too fast or too close to the car in front. This will also be your fault, because if you hadn’t ‘made them late’ they wouldn’t have to drive that way.
They may drive recklessly because you’ve specifically asked them not to in the past. A bit like a stroppy child, if you’ve ever pointed out that you don’t like it when they drive a certain way, they will take this as you attempting to control them, and they will make a point of driving exactly like how you’ve asked them not to.
This can cause a huge amount of anxiety because you are caught between saying something, which will end up with a stubborn and persistent show from them driving even more recklessly, or you say nothing, and you sit with your anxiety and genuine fear for your safety in silence.
An abusive person may also drive more irresponsibly when the children are in the car. As though, they know your anxiety will be higher if the children are also at risk and therefore their statement of showing you who’s boss with their reckless driving will be even more effective.
Standard Road Rage
You’ve managed to get out of the house and everything is running smoothly, only for the abuser to get aggravated by someone else’s driving. It’s your standard road rage – many people get some form of road rage – but the impact in an abusive relationship is that all that pent-up rage that was instigated by someone else’s driving will now be refocused on you.
You feel yourself get more and more tense in the passenger seat as the abusive person’s anger builds… that feeling of trying to make yourself invisible so that you a) don’t make it worse and b) try to avoid coming under fire because you are now acutely aware of how fragile the situation is and that the abusive person may very easily go into a full on meltdown directed at you if you make one wrong move. It’s exhausting and hugely disappointing when you feel you’ve managed to avoid upsetting them, only for an external factor to upset the very fragile dynamic.
Constant Criticism When You’re Driving
The abusive person may also cause a huge amount of anxiety by how they behave towards you whilst you’re driving. They constantly remark and criticise the smallest of details about you’re driving. They breathe down you’re neck about driving faster, faster, faster, pressuring you to be the one to drive recklessly. Or they choose when you’re driving to be the time to start abusing you about some other incident and start demanding an explanation. They know your triggers and start to push them whilst you’re behind the wheel.
This is immensely difficult to cope with. Your brain goes into overdrive. You are trying to keep your attention on the road, but are also being hit by a rush of anxiety because you feel an abusive episode is building up and your body and mind are going into survival mode, trying to quash the impending threat of the abusive behaviour. This obviously has an impact on your driving, which creates further criticism, further tension, and a vicious loop ensues.
Driving to Cause Discomfort
An abusive person may intentionally ‘ignore’ medical issues whilst driving. Such as, if you have back issues, they will somehow drive over every pothole and over speedbumps without slowing the car. Or if you have travel sickness or need a rest break, they won’t be able to pull over for the entire journey.
Or if you are pregnant, you will be in genuine fear of your waters breaking in the car because they’ve made it very clear to you that you will be sorry if you make ‘a mess’ in the car. If you raise the issues whilst they are driving, they will probably call you crazy and tell you it’s all in your head and feign offence.
Reckless Acts of Endangerment
There are examples of abusive behaviour whilst driving which are just a complete disregard for safety and welfare, an intentional endangerment of safety. One such example is a couple who were holidaying in an old campervan. When they stopped at a petrol station, the abusive husband perceived the wife had slighted him. She got in the car, they had an argument, he then closed her passenger door, got into the driver’s seat and drove off. The husband then sped into a roundabout at full speed and his wife’s door flung open. She would have gone flying out of the vehicle if she hadn’t had her seatbelt on.
Of course, most people would not believe that the husband intentionally didn’t close the door properly and sped into the roundabout… Another example is speeding up then undoing your seatbelt and slamming on the brakes. There are also examples of intentionally swerving off the road. And drink driving.
This highlights the dangers of when the abusive person sees red when they have control of the car. In these moments, the top priority is their position of authority over you and the situation, and if that means physical endangerment then so be it.
The crux of abuse whilst driving is that nearly always, if you say anything, the driving usually gets even more dangerous. You sit with the extreme and genuine anxiety for your physical safety, as well as the intense anxiety of not having a voice and trying not to do a single thing that will provoke the situation and increase the risk to safety.
I can already hear people saying that the simple solution would be not to get in the car with an abusive person like this, but most of the time that’s not how an abusive relationship works. Most of the time, you don’t have a choice.