You Have Road Rage? That’s a Red Flag!

A black and white draw image of an open mouth is on the right. On the left, there is a twinkling gif of the words, "...that's a red flag!"
That’s a Red Flag! is a miniseries about the warning signs we look for in queer dating & relationships.

There’s something irresistibly satisfying about a group of close friends talking about our worst exes, comparing and contrasting our phantoms. It’s catharsis, maybe. Or a bonding ritual. Or a way to try to make sense of things. Red flags are always easier to see in hindsight, with some remove. Red flags, when gabbed about in a group, become patterns. And patterns are useful, because they provide control. They provide an arc. And yeah, real life isn’t that simple or explainable. But it’s satisfying to pretend, right? To tell yourself, well, they did X, so it tracks that they would then do Y.

When I told friends about my ex cheating on me, they shared their own stories about their exes cheating on them. Many of my friends had almost the exact same experiences. An affair between the person and a mutual friend. Months and months of lies and gaslighting that were worse than the act of infidelity itself. The cheating is so rarely the point.

Our exes were different, but they’d done the same thing to us. And we found that there was only one thing those exes shared in common before their affairs began: They all had road rage.

Clearly, anyone with road rage will eventually cheat on you.

Clearly, I’m joking.

But there was something there, we decided, reminiscing on the various shapes our exes’ road rage took. There’s such a pointlessness to road rage. It doesn’t change anything. It can have dangerous consequences, depending on who it’s directed at. But that was one of those things our exes had in common: a lack of awareness about consequences. Like they were untouchable. Like they could just hit the gas, the horn, and fly through life wildly. According to studies, people with road rage tend to be impulsive, angry, anxious. Other studies point to just how common it is.

Consistent road rage was such a tangible, obvious red flag. And yet, from the passenger’s seat, it just seemed like any personality trait, like something you either had or you didn’t. I got frustrated at mundane things, too, didn’t I? It’s so easy to convince yourself road rage exists in a vacuum, that it’s merely people blowing off steam, misplaced or projected anger. Like screaming into a void.

Only, a void isn’t a physical container hurtling down a path at high speeds. It seems like road rage is one of the most acceptable forms of anger, but it fucking shouldn’t be! Sometimes I talk about road rage, and people are like “oh, yeah, sure, everyone gets mad while driving sometimes.” But it’s not the same. Whether you’ve experienced it yourself or from another, I think you know that when I say “road rage,” I don’t just mean little moments of frustration, a middle finger here and there. I think you know exactly what I’m talking about.

I never felt unsafe with her in the driver’s seat, even when she screamed at other cars. I didn’t feel scared. I felt drained. I felt completely out of my body. I didn’t know how to respond or react to someone yelling at a hunk of metal. The unbridled, unfiltered anger that emitted from her was like an earthquake, impossible to see coming, disorienting. I went quiet and numb. It made me inexplicably sad, and then I didn’t know how to explain it, so I just pushed it down and away.

I’m not angry at YOU, she’d say.

I know, I’d say. And that was true. I knew it wasn’t directed at me. But it felt bad in a different way, to be a passive observer of these outbursts.

If road rage is just an impulse, just an inconsequential tantrum, then why have I never even come close to experiencing it?

I don’t think this makes me better than anyone, just like I don’t think road rage automatically makes someone a bad person. Red flags aren’t about labeling people bad. Relationships aren’t math. If someone does X, then maybe they’ll do Y, but maybe they don’t do X at all, and they’ll still do Y. Maybe there are a thousand other variables to consider. It felt satisfying to talk about our exes, to pathologize their driving behaviors and squeeze them into a discernible pattern of behavior. Not fair, not productive — but satisfying. But what really mattered wasn’t our exes’ actions at all. It was that we found a place of familiarity, of connection with each other. I always thought it impossible to explain the way I felt in the passenger’s seat, and with them I didn’t have to.

Red flags are a choice, really. A choice to walk away from something. A choice to never feel that way again, earthquaken and fragile.

Feel free to share your own red flags in the comments!

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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Orlando. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 863 articles for us.


    • I appreciate hearing how road rage effects the passenger. It’s something I wasn’t able to consider because of my autism. I’ve gotten so mad that when someone brake checked me I striaght up rear ended them on purpose.(typical dude bro, trying to get around him no matter what I did, he makes a moving road block, I was alone in the car.), I got so mad that I was like “I’m not playing your game” that I straight up hit him on purpose. Like any thought of consequences didn’t matter because I was literally blinded by my own inability to work through my own anger at him/the situation. Neither car was hurt btw. He was just whiney about it. I won’t get into it because I don’t remember it that well but we definitely yelled at each other. I feel like I wasn’t myself, and had been going thru a high stress month where I already had several “autistic meltdowns” that month. Makes me wonder what the venn diagram of mental issues and issues that manifest as road rage looks like. (We could all probably use more therapy lol)

      Its hard for me to think about how my wife feels when I am stuck in the moment like that. (That’s part of the autism, can’t connect A to B). Like I get that I’m lucky because I actually got a diagnosis and and establish a dialog and work on stuff. Instead of it being some part of my personality, it’s actually just my rigid thinking caused by autism like 99% of the time lol. But also being open to working on it helps. I feel people lack that last part.

      • Yikes. Respectfully, this is a lot of rationalizing via an autism dx. There may be significant overlap in symptoms and presentation, but you do not exhibit road rage behaviors as a direct consequence of having autism.

    • No, nik is dead on. This article is not well written, objectively so for points that nik made. This article is actually profoundly stupid and reads more like click-bait than an actual article. Honestly, I don’t know what they mean by road rage at this point because the author didn’t even try to convey what they meant it as specifically. I can’t help but think they intentionally left it vague so that people would simply mindlessly nod in agreement, similar to how horoscopes are intentionally written so that anyone could apply it however they see fit.

  1. omg yes!! I’m so glad I’m not the only one who felt exactly this way about partners with road rage. I had one who yelled SO much in the car I didn’t want to drive with them but had to because I lived in a city and didn’t have my own car at the time. It made me so anxious. They didn’t cheat but it was super scary because it was like a full Jekyll/Hyde situation the moment they got into a car and I’d always feel like I had no idea who they were anymore!

  2. this was so validating to read! driving with my ex who had road rage (and many other types of rage) was so anxiety inducing and I had the exact same response that you described. thank you for posting this

  3. “It seems like road rage is one of the most acceptable forms of anger, but it fucking shouldn’t be!”

    Honestly there are so many things around driving where something that endangers people’s lives is treated as something normal, expected, understandable, a quirk at best. I’ve heard people laugh at speed limits, joke about how they’re off on the ice and might kill someone, treat drink driving as nbd, talk as if the urge to kill cyclists and pedestrians is normal. How is any of this normal?

  4. I’m not even disagreeing, but I do wish we would start defining things more clearly⁷ because idk, but it seems like the queer/lgbtq community in general takes terms and runs with them and their meaning gets diluted. Like gaslighting is a specific thing and now it’s used for so many other situations where “disgareeing” would’ve worked. “Gatekeeping”, too. So like, yeah maybe we know what you mean when you say road rage but there are absolutely people who will read this and think, ah yeah, my ex who used to honk at people was a terrible person and the sole reason our relationship failed.

    • I don’t think it’s the author’s responsibility to control for every possible (mis)reading of their work. Kayla did a good job clarifying that she didn’t mean a partner who honks at people is likely to ruin a relationship.

      “I don’t just mean little moments of frustration, a middle finger here and there.”

      I’m also not sure what this has to do with people misconstruing the term gaslighting? Do you actually think queer people are more likely to start calling all undesirable driving habits “road rage”? Idk this comment just didn’t seem to be supported by Kayla’s actual writing!

      • Saying what you don’t mean isn’t the same as saying what you do mean, and also, literally saying, you know what I’m talking about doesn’t explain anything. I think it’s a writers responsibility to explain what they’re talking about, that seems to be the writers only responsibility. I don’t know why you took such offense to that idea?

        • Hmm, I didn’t take offense, but I do still disagree. Kayla is a really talented writer and I think she made a deliberate choice not to go into detail about the specifics of her ex’s road rage but rather to talk about the implications of her road rage on their relationship. And I think she made it very clear that she’s NOT saying bad driving ruins relationships.

          So no, I’m not offended, but I really do think your point about Kayla’s choice not to expound on the specifics of road rage leading to a “gaslighting” style misunderstanding/misconstruing is completely off-base. It feels like a bad faith reading of what I thought was a well written essay about personal experience.

  5. I’ve had to deal with this more from my parents than from partners, but yes. I definitely think this type of persistent, explosive road rage tends to come out of people who don’t take personal responsibility for their own emotional regulation and behaviour. Eg the old “you made me feel x so now I will lash out at you instead of calming down and talking about it, because I don’t have a choice about how I behave once I start feeling x”. After witnessing how those patterns played out in my parents’ behaviour towards each other and their children, it’s a really major fucking red flag for me.

  6. OOF. Yeah, the idea of sharing space (a small! Enclosed space!) with anyone who experiences explosive anger they do not (or are not able to) control scares the heck out of me. I spent my early twenties in the company of too many dudes with anger problems. It feels very scary and out of control and I wouldn’t even want to ride in a car with a person who road rages, let alone date them!

  7. driving is like, the most dangerous thing so many of us do all the time. when you think about it, it’s bizarre how normalized it is. how dangerous it is, every day.

    it’s so much more dangerous than so many of the things we’re actually scared of.

    i don’t get road rage, but when i’m driving is one of the only times i experience true anger. but i’m actually a very safe driver, sometimes annoyingly so, i think. so i’m usually angry at drivers doing even more unsafe things like speeding and swerving through traffic.

    i would immediately break up with someone who drove recklessly. casually put my life in danger? no thanks. over.

  8. I felt this in the pit of my stomach. My dad had a lot of road rage when I was young, and an explosive temper to go with it. Once, I remember my mom being so scared that she laid on the floor in the back of the car.

  9. Little late to the comment party, but all of this reminded me of my mom’s “road rage”. Except it wasn’t rage at the road or other drivers. She would get mad at me and then start yelling at me and telling me what a bad kid/teenager I was. I was trapped in the car right next to her and it was the most helpless feeling. I remember envisioning in my head just opening the door and trying to roll out all while she was raging. If I had a partner that had bad road rage, I don’t think I’d be able to psychologically handle it.

  10. I am a few days late to this but I love the thoughtful reflection on what red flags are and aren’t, and about the stories we tell about relationships. Things I’ll be chewing on for a while. Thank you for your wisdom, Kayla!

  11. I also used to often aggressive on the road, but recently became calmer and in general began to drive by all the rules. In addition, now I no longer have problems with paying for toll roads because before I had a glitchy transponder because of which I often overstayed the fare and then I still had to pay fines. That’s when I was really angry =). But luckily I found a good app called Uproad which helped me solve all these travel-related issues. For example, yesterday I was just driving through the outerbridge crossing and with this toll I was able to quickly and easily pay the toll, so now there are no fines and it already helps to be calm on the road. So start with at least something small.

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