“I wanted to ask you for a favor, if you don’t mind,” he says.
“What’s that?” I say.
“I need to pick up my car tomorrow,” he says.
“And you want to know if I can drive the other car home,” I say.
“Yes,” he says.” “Well, that, and if you can stay behind me and follow me. Make sure I don’t break down.”
Ah, I think. That’s a bigger ask.
The car is an hour away. And there are several sections of highway in between here and there that sometimes get unpredictable, especially on the weekends.
But while it’s a bigger ask, it’s also a really understandable one. The car in question has been fixed up extensively, a project car. But it’s over 30 years old. And I get why he wants me to tail him home. Especially in 90-degree weather, when cars of a certain age are prone to overheating.
“I hate following people when I’m driving,” I admit. “But I’ll do it.”
“It won’t be so bad,” he reassures me. “It’s mostly highway.”
“Highways are actually worse in some ways. People passing and getting wedged in between.” I pause. “But I’ll do it. We’ll get your car home.”
Following a Friend in Your Car Changes the Way You Drive
A few days later, I’m sitting behind the wheel while he gets into the car in question. Following him closely as he pulls away. I do my best to stay close, and most of the time I succeed, save for one time we’re forced into a zipper merge by oncoming traffic. But it seems like he slows a few miles per hour and encourages the interloper to pass him, and I speed up and close the gap.
As I come up on him, I see him flash a thumbs up sign in his rear view at me. I flash one back.
We’re doing fine, but on my end of things, it’s a long drive. The way that I’m driving is completely unnatural. I’m typically a chill person when I drive. All else being equal, I normally go about 5 over, which to Cleveland drivers (who, by and large, speed at default) is fairly conservative. And I typically hang back from the car in front of me a bit, leaving generous stopping distance. If I see someone trying to merge on to the highway, I alter my speed slightly to facilitate that merge. Same with changing lanes. If someone signals, I make minor adjustments to help them do so safely.
I tend to position my car in a way where I stay the hell out of people’s blind spots and give them enough room so if they do the wrong thing, they won’t hit my car.
I’ve been driving for over 20 years, and while it could change one day, as of this writing, I’ve never had an accident.
But when I’m following my friend, I am forced to morph into a completely different driver. Because I’m trying to stay close enough so that another driver won’t be tempted to squeeze in between us, I feel like I’m tailgating the entire time. And when people pass me, where I would normally fall back a little bit to let them slip right in front of me, I can’t do that while I’m following the lead car. Instead, I’m accelerating and protecting that gap, forcing them to pass both of us or not at all.
It feels awful. Unsafe. And antisocial.
On the surface roads, I feel pressured to follow my friend out into turns whether or not there’s enough time that I would normally make them.
My new role results in my driving like a maniac because I’m terrified of being separated from the lead car.
And apparently I’m not alone in this. It’s a pretty standard phenomenon when it comes to drivers who are following another car. Studies have found that people who are following other cars drive more dangerously in order to keep the first car in sight.
Thankfully, my friend is driving fairly conservatively, and it isn’t nearly as bad as other experiences I’ve had in the past. Before the advent of cell phone GPS, I was often following band mates out to gigs on dark deserted country roads and desperately trying not to lose my way as they zoomed ahead at speeds that seemed truly irresponsible.
But it is still unsettling.
And over that hour, I have plenty of time to recognize the feelings of anxiety and realize that I’ve felt them before in a different context.
A Package Deal Seemed Safer, Too
This state of hypervigilance and unnatural behavior reminds me of the early days when I was new to polyamory and dating with my preexisting partner in an arrangement where we were a “package deal.” Essentially, this meant that we only dated people together or not at all. It worked well for my first polyamorous relationship (a triad with a friend of ours who had been polyamorous for much longer than we had)… well, until it didn’t.
The person we were dating together admitted that she really didn’t have much chemistry with me, and our triad broke up. Because my other partner and I were a package deal, this meant that his relationship with her was also over. Just like that.
The only problem with this was that there was no other reason for them to break up. The two of them actually cared about each other. A lot. They made sense. They worked. Even if she and I didn’t. And it crushed me, seeing these two people I cared about (as I had loved her romantically and even post breakup considered her a close friend) both sad and missing one another.
So even though it was difficult (still feeling the sting of rejection and disappointed that she didn’t feel for me what I felt for her), I said to hell with the package deal. And told them that they should date without me.
This took a lot of convincing — they wanted to make sure I really meant this dramatic reversal. But after repeated reassurance that I was on board, they began to date one another separately without me. I continued to see him, however. And our former triad became a V.
Even then, our package deal rule seemed to be in place. This one person was treated as an exception. However, as the months wound on, my male partner began to meet other women he clicked with who for whatever reason weren’t even a possibility for me to date (often the reason was that they were straight). He’d grow frustrated, and I’d have a moment of quiet crisis where I’d feel a sting of insecurity as I contemplated feeling left out again, as I had when that first triad converted into a V.
But then I’d remind myself that while that was difficult for a few weeks as I worked through feelings of rejection and worry that it meant that no one would want to date me ever (a fear that turned out to be 100% not true),that it had all worked out fine long term. And after I reminded myself of this, I’d say aloud to my partner, “You know, go for it.”
And little by little, “exception” by “exception,” the former package deal became a thing of the past. I even went on to date people on my own, and I reveled in being able to do so autonomously.
Autonomy Was Scarier in Theory, But Actually Felt Safer When I Got There and Made Me More Secure Long Term
It wasn’t nearly as scary as it had seemed in theory: Both of us dating folks on our own and open to dating folks together if and when it made sense, instead of forcing a package deal situation on every fledgling relationship before people really even had a chance to get to know us. Being happy for the relationships that worked, the happy V’s that sprung up, instead of viewing the only acceptable outcome to be a triad.
As the months wore on, I actually found myself growing more secure in my relationship with my preexisting partner, not less. I knew that we chose to be with each other even with other folks in the picture. And I also really began to believe — in a way that was a complete 180 from how I’d spent most of my life viewing relationships — that the best relationships are hard to screw up.
True,there are relationships that are extremely difficult to keep going and fragile. That essentially need emotional martyrdom from one or both parties to survive, but that fragility and propensity for problems meant that they were actually bad relationships, or at least ones that I didn’t actually want to be in. And I came to realize that it’s not a failure if and when those bad relationships end.
When I realized this, I changed. Instead of treating every relationship I had like it might be a bad relationship, like one that needed constant protection, and basically tailgating the other person to make sure I never lost sight of them, I began to feel that it was best to do my own thing and let the relationship fail or succeed on its own terms. Sure, this meant that I would have more relationships that didn’t make it. But I came to realize there were worse things in life than to lose a relationship that wasn’t really working for me. That following people closely might seem safer in theory but often raised my risk for accidents.
And I also realized I could very well lose sight of that car in front of me for a minute or two, but so long as we were both going the same place and taking roughly the same route to get there, it would be an easy matter to reunite.
Next Time I’d Rather Just Know the Basic Route So I Don’t Have to Worry About Losing Sight of the Other Car
We get home more or less uneventfully, although my hands are strained from clutching the wheel. And I’m exhausted from the sustained attention I had to exert to keep from rearending his car.
“Great job,” he says, as he climbs out.
We trade observations about the few times people darted in between us and how we both handled it, in our respective cars.
I tell him I felt a huge sense of relief when we got to the final highway, when it was clear where he was going because there weren’t any alternative routes. “At that point, I knew that even if I lost you, there was really only one way for you to get there. Even if I fell behind, I could drive the one way back here. And keep an eye out for your car on the shoulder basically in the event that you were broken down.”
He nods knowingly. Starts to perform some minor maintenance on the car after the trip.
As he does, it occurs to me how much less stressful the trip would have been if I’d just talked it out with him before we went, the basic route we were going to take, so that I knew which highways he was going to drive down in the event that I lost sight of him. I make a mental note to do that the next time I’m helping him move this car.
And as I do, the parallels between this and how I manage relationships (the occasional check-ins and management of expectations balanced with doing our own thing the vast majority of the time) occur to me, and I laugh.
Some people really do swear by package deals and following a friend in your car, saying that they’re safe and easy. And maybe they are for some people. But it’s never worked that way for me. Both fill me with such profound dread.