Mary has been married for many years and has a strong relationship with her husband. At work, Mary becomes attracted to a new colleague, Chris. Over time, she realises she would like to embark on an affair with Chris but the thought of doing so makes her feel tremendously guilty towards her husband. Mary has access to a pill that would medicate away the guilty suffering and allow her to pursue the affair guilt-free.
Within relationships, we owe each other certain behaviours. If a friend needs our help, we should give it. If a loved one is acting peculiar, we should work to understand why. Put simply, we should treat each other well; that is part of what it means to be in a relationship. Infidelity – where fidelity is an expectation – constitutes a violation to these obligations of good treatment. Since Mary’s husband wants her to be faithful to him (and presumably she has so promised through the marriage vows), if Mary has an affair with Chris, this deed would surely be an act of harm against her husband. I assume this to be true whether or not her husband has knowledge of the affair.
Aside from our actions, we also owe each other certain emotional responses. We should feel sad when a loved one is miserable or hurt; their achievements should make us feel happy. These emotions, like actions, are part of the connection to our loved ones; they are part of being in a relationship. Consider the following:
“To pity another, to assist him, is as if one were trying to save a drowning man. Standing on the shore, one cannot save him; one must enter the water, and one does so because one sympathizes with him. Nevertheless, one must not let oneself be carried away by the current, that is to say, one must not sympathize with him too much, for then both the one who is drowning and the one who tries to rescue him will be drowned.” – Ludwig Edelstein
Being in a relationship is a commitment to getting wet. One must enter various waters on different occasions, sympathising with them and feeling certain relevant emotions, though typically to a lesser degree than the other person. Failure to do so is a transgression to the relationship. Failure to feel sad when a loved one is upset is to let them down.
In Mary’s case, the emotion of guilt is, here, what she owes to her husband. This form of suffering is part of her commitment and connection to him. Aside from embarking on an affair with Chris, it seems that acting to remove the guilt she feels in this situation would constitute a separate act of harm against her husband. (Imagine if she did not feel guilty at all. In such a case, she would have failed her husband – there would be something wrong with the connection between them.) If she acted to remove the suffering – the guilt – she would be destroying something she owes to her husband on the basis of her relationship with him. For this reason, in cases like these, certain types of suffering should be seen as inherently valuable as a part of this connection between people – valuable as what we owe to each other.
Perhaps in this light we can better understand a quote from C.S. Lewis:
“We were promised sufferings. They were part of the program.”