The Ethical Dilemma: Till Death Do Us Part?

Experiencing an ethical dilemma? Need advice from a humanist perspective? In the spirit of the New York Times “The Ethicist” or Slate’s “Dear Prudence,” Humanist Network News is proud to introduce “The Ethical Dilemma,” an advice column by Joan Reisman-Brill.

Send your questions to The Ethical Dilemma at All inquiries are kept confidential.

Till Death Do Us Part: I’ve been married for more than 25 years. My wife is pathologically disturbed. One minute she’s normal, the next she flies off into a hysterical, screaming, crying rage that goes on for 24 to 48 hours, then it wears off and she’s normal again. During the time of her rages she’s totally irrational and threatens divorce and suicide. Between episodes, she’s engaging and lovely. We’ve spent thousands of dollars on therapists, and I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s futile, her emotional problems are not curable. To compound matters, she is physically disabled.

On one hand, I feel I must stick with my wife and take care of her. I’m thinking about the wedding vow, “in sickness and in health.” But am I ethically bound to put up with these outbursts and stay with this woman until one of us dies?

–Praying for the End of Time

Dear Praying,
You’ve heard that statistic, half of all marriages end in divorce. That means that for every person who hangs in until death, an equal number opts out. I wonder how many lives are saved, literally as well as figuratively, by choosing not to endure until despair, emotional and physical exhaustion, or violence claims a spouse. In a world where people leave each other because one puts on a few pounds or doesn’t put the cap on the toothpaste, you have been enduring random rages that last for days and trying everything you can think of to help your wife, but with no success. Yes, you made a vow, but so did all those people with the extra pounds and the uncapped toothpaste, and they decided to move on. And here you are, having spent your prime years coping with a woman who is only intermittently a good companion, trying but failing to repress thoughts of escape.

I would suggest getting some professional help—not just for her, which you’ve been doing, but for yourself. It sounds like a question of who gets sacrificed for whose benefit, but the situation may be wearing both of you down to the point where neither of you will benefit. You need to address your feelings about the prospect of abandoning her, breaking a promise, and what would happen to her without you. You need to weigh those against aching to pay attention to your own needs and desires, including the desire to enjoy your life without cyclical sustained outbursts and the perpetual caretaker role. There also may be a co-dependent dynamic to your relationship. By reliably being there for her, you may be enabling your wife to lose it periodically; but if your relationship were altered, she might find that she is able to keep it together because she has to.

You made a vow that was first instituted centuries ago when people didn’t live as long, and rarely had to worry about sustaining promises beyond 25 years. “Till death do us part” is an ideal, but in reality even the strictest religions (and you may have been raised in one of those) usually allow people to slip the bonds of matrimony under certain circumstances. It’s not just about what you owe her, but what you owe yourself. Focus on what you want out of the rest of your life–the only life you’ve got. If that includes continuing to care for your wife and enjoying her lucid interludes, embrace that as a fresh and free choice you are making. But if everything in you wants to make a run for it, do all you can to make it as kind a cut as possible. And then take good care of yourself.

Suicidal Thoughts: While watching TV and reading the newspaper at the same time, I saw a show where a woman went into a tailspin of guilt because an ex-boyfriend begged for a second chance, she said no, and he committed suicide. And then I was reading about the English nurse who apparently killed herself after she was pranked into putting through a phone call from someone posing as the Queen of England. It’s making me wonder what responsibility other people have for someone’s suicide.

–Are We Our Brother’s Keeper?

Dear Keeper,
Suicide can be the outcome of terrible punishment by others. It can also be a terrible act meant to punish others—the uncooperative lover, the inattentive or overly attentive parent, the boss who said, “You’re fired.” And it is, as they say, a permanent solution to what is often just a temporary problem. But survivors are left to spend the rest of their lives asking themselves what they could have done differently that might have yielded a happier outcome.

Certainly, we all need to be on the lookout for signs that a person is in distress, and take action if we think we see such signs. And if we fail, we should certainly feel remorse, but turn it toward doing better—by being more sensitive and effective if a similar situation arises, by talking to our children and friends about what happened and finding better ways to prevent it.

Suicide is a very extreme and extremely complicated response to unpleasant situations. A circumstance that’s unlivable for one person is no big deal for another. Sometimes people take their lives for no reason anyone else can understand, and often with no warning anyone could detect. The English nurse apparently didn’t lose her job or even receive a reprimand, but the pranksters have expressed remorse for the unanticipated adverse effect of their supposedly harmless joke. A college student jumped off a bridge after his roommate posted a video of him having sex with another man (and the roommate was convicted of a hate crime and invasion of privacy). Meanwhile, Paris Hilton and Pamela Anderson went on to illustrious careers after (and because) their sex tapes went viral, something that would be devastating to most other women. And many people survive ordeals that would make the rest of us rather die.

Threatening suicide can be a nasty tactic to control another person: “Do this or that, or I’ll kill myself.” No one should allow another person to bully them this way, to stay in an unhappy relationship, to follow a despised career path, to obey untenable religious dogma. People who convincingly promise violence to themselves are apt to turn that violence on others. How frequently do we hear about not just suicide, but murder/suicide? How often do we wish those individuals had just done themselves in and left the others alone? If there’s nothing we can do to help them, people who threaten to kill themselves should be avoided, not appeased. And if they follow through, it’s appropriate to grieve and ask what could have been handled differently, but then the survivors should get on with their lives.

Suicide has been around probably since humans figured out how to kill, and so have laws, both religious and civil, against it. These laws are not only intended to prevent people from making a decision they won’t have the opportunity to regret and reverse, but perhaps even more importantly, to spare the living who would be harmed by such a death.

While suicide is almost always tragic, and it is often impulsive, selfish and hostile, a different matter entirely is suicide in the face of unendurable, incurable pain or disease–including psychological demons that can be just as deadly and intractable as a cancer or infection. In these cases, people are not only ending their own pain, they are trying to unburden loved ones from suffering along with them and depleting their resources–financial, physical and emotional. There are social and legal movements to condone suicide and assisted suicide in cases of irreversibly unbearable circumstances.

The fact is, unless you believe in an afterlife, or you have a life insurance policy that is void if you do yourself in, you can’t be punished if you successfully do away with yourself—but there can be tremendous consequences for those left behind. Recognizing that fact prevents some people from taking their own lives, but it unfortunately motivates others to do it. Survivors often bear some degree of responsibility for whatever drove the person over the edge, but rarely the entire blame. In the end, we are not our brothers’ keepers.

Joan Reisman-Brill is a writer based in New York City. She received her BA in English literature from the University of Chicago, an MA also in English lit from the University of Michigan, and an MBA in management and marketing from New York University. She has worked in public relations, marketing and myriad facets of writing and editing for nearly four decades. She has been steadily increasingly her humanist identification and activism at an accelerating rate, and while she doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, she welcomes this opportunity to tackle the questions.