02/14/2013 05:19 EST | Updated 04/16/2013 05:12 EDT

Could Your Marriage Survive a Cruise Ship Disaster?

In this image released by the U.S. Coast Guard on Feb. 11, 2013, a small boat belonging to the Coast Guard Cutter Vigorous patrols near the cruise ship Carnival Triumph in the Gulf of Mexico, Feb. 11, 2013. The Carnival Triumph has been floating aimlessly about 150 miles off the Yucatan Peninsula since a fire erupted in the aft engine room early Sunday, knocking out the ship's propulsion system. No one was injured and the fire was extinguished. (AP Photo/U.S. Coast Guard- Lt. Cmdr. Paul McConnell)

A bad vacation makes a good story. Don't believe me? Notice your co-workers' glassy stares as you ramble on about how perfect your all-inclusive was. Now watch them spring to life as you start talking about what went wrong. How your plane sat on the runway for four hours while a screechy toddler sang the theme to Dora the Explorer 10,000 times. How your "luxury" suite had crusty stains on the bed-sheets. How a tropical storm swept in. How you had your passports and money stolen from your in-room safe. How the hotel's chambermaid or concierge openly flirted with your spouse.

Bumps in what should be a smooth road are unavoidable. And as most of us know, sometimes the journey -- even an unexpected and unpleasant one -- can have more to offer in the long-term than the destination. Admittedly, that's going to be a tough sell to the 4,000 passengers on the Triumph. No doubt there will be tales of sickness, bathroom horrors, food shortages, conflict, belligerent people, and filthy living conditions. But I'm going to guess that there will also be stories of unlikely friendships, teamwork, human kindness and good-humour even in the face of a costly vacation gone wrong. Adversity teaches us who we are and how we treat others when the chips are down.

But it isn't just vacations that go wrong. Weddings do, too. There are rained out beach services, brides falling into swimming pools, grooms passing out, jilted lovers crashing the ceremony and projectile vomiting from bad roast beef suppers. Such events might make horrible weddings, but they make fantastic YouTube videos and memorable stories that you'll someday share with your laughing kids.

But what about when things go wrong in a marriage? Vacations and weddings are one thing -- they're relatively short-term events with a known beginning and end. Even when disaster strikes, you know you'll be sleeping in your own bed fairly soon and normalcy will return. The same can't be said of marriage. When an unanticipated problem comes up, there is no itinerary or plan to fall back on. Spouses don't know whether the situation will ever improve.

Adversity in marriage also teaches us who we are, both as individuals and as a committed couple. Whether the marital disaster is an affair, in-law troubles, money problems, competing ideas about priorities or expectations, nasty fights or just feeling like you're falling out of love, spouses have to ask themselves some important questions. Is this going to make us stronger or tear us apart? Are we going to turn toward or away from each other? Are we going to hurt each other or help each other through this?

How we cope with a crisis, whether it's being stranded on a smelly cruise ship or dealing with a relationship problem, is a personal choice. In such high-stress and emotional situations, it is natural for people to turn on each other, focus entirely on their own needs and start dishing out blame. It is less natural for people to support each other, keep perspective and work together to resolve the issue. Yet when it comes to a marriage crisis, it is essential to the long-term survival of the relationship that spouses choose a path of empathy, perspective and problem-solving. The way a couple approaches their problems -- whether as friends or as enemies -- will determine whether or not they will be able to move past them.

When your partner makes a mistake or you find yourself in the middle of a marriage disaster, how do you tend to handle it? Do you immediately try to blame him or her while absolving yourself of guilt? Do you make him or her feel worse about the situation? Do you act with self-interest, self-pity or self-focus? If so, good luck keeping your marriage afloat.

The next time a problem surfaces in your relationship, try a different strategy. Approach your partner and the problem with empathy, insight, patience, humility and a sense of partnership. Practice some self-restraint and keep your perspective. Problems come and go. Smart, loving spouses approach them as opportunities to demonstrate who they are and how much they love each other.

After all, if any experience is about the journey, it is the marriage experience. It's up to you how you approach the bumps in the road. You can let them throw you into the ditch, or you can navigate around them together and see where the road leads. If you choose the latter approach, it is far more likely that the trip will be worth your while, even -- and sometimes especially -- when it veers off-course.

Visit Debra Macleod at


Cruise Ship Adrift