What some may view as a minor event has become a real fault line in our marriage. While we were driving recently on the Massachusetts Turnpike and going highway speed in the middle lane, my husband opened the passenger-side window and tossed a banana peel into the road. I immediately expressed my disgust, telling him that I’m opposed to littering, that it’s a bad example for the 13-year-old we had in the car and that I, as the driver, would be the one to receive the ticket. What if everyone started tossing leftover produce on the highways? It’s slippery, dangerous and just dirty.
My husband’s response was that the banana peel would biodegrade, and he said, “I’m an adult, so I’ll do as I want.” I responded that the peel wouldn’t biodegrade on asphalt. When we arrived home, I sent him an article outlining why this is dangerous and unacceptable behavior. (It could lure animals onto the road, putting them in danger. And it’s considered littering and carries a fine.) I also sent him the Massachusetts law that stated this was illegal. His only comment was, “Don’t you have anything better to do with your time?” He refuses to acknowledge that he made a mistake or change his behavior. We’ve reached a deadlock on this issue. What do you think? — Teresa, New York City
From the Ethicist:
Tossing that banana peel out of the car window was wrong, for reasons that you expressed at the time, and for others too. Yes, it will eventually biodegrade (even on asphalt, which isn’t a sterile environment), but not necessarily anytime soon. Bird lovers warn us that pesticide-treated fruit peels can be bad for the critters who eat them. And does nobody remember the discarded peels in Paul Verhoeven’s movie “Spetters”? Things go very badly for the motorcyclist who gets them in the face. You might now be tempted to slam this article on the breakfast table — or text your husband a link to it — and say: “See? The Ethicist agrees with me.”
But this isn’t a story about the proper disposal of banana peels; in this matter, your husband is no longer claiming he’s in the right. Two things seem to be going on. First, he’s evidently sensitive to criticism (maybe especially from you, his spouse, and maybe especially when voiced in front of the kid). His pride has been wounded; he doesn’t want to reward you with the concession you seek. Given this dynamic, the only surprise is that a “fault line” didn’t open up earlier.
Second, though, he’s complaining that you’re making a very big deal out of a minor misdeed. Here your pigheaded polluter has a point: not about your initial response so much as about your fully researched insistence on your rightness. Spouses make mistakes. It’s fine to point them out, fine even to be annoyed when they won’t own up to them. In a functioning relationship, however, you know when to drop it and move on; you don’t insist on a full admission of guilt. Facts matter, but from an ethical perspective, kindness counts too. To the extent that your spouse is feeling beleaguered in this way, slamming down a newspaper, physically or digitally, will just confirm his judgment and raise tensions further.
If you really are finding yourself alienated from your husband, you might want to consider couples counseling. Both your response and his suggest that there may be deeper problems in your relationship. A marriage that’s on solid ground shouldn’t slip on a banana peel.
The previous question was from a reader who discovered that their late father had been discharged from the military in the 1950s for “homosexual tendencies.” This reader believed themselves to be the only person in the family who knew this secret, and wrote: “My mother is in her 80s and is in poor health. I’ve decided not to tell her what I’ve learned; I see no possible benefit to it at this point in her life. But should I share this revelation with my immediate siblings once my mother has passed? If the situation were reversed, I would want to know.”
In his response, the Ethicist noted: “In September 2021, the Department of Veterans Affairs made it clear that service members who were discharged owing to sexual orientation are to be considered veterans, and may be eligible for the various associated benefits. … But the terms of your father’s separation don’t tell you much about him. Perhaps the imputation was without grounds. Perhaps he was bisexual. … Not knowing your mother, I won’t second guess your decision to not tell her. Maybe she knows much more about your father than you realize. Or maybe what you’ve learned would come as a surprise to her, and she wouldn’t know what to make of it. Generally, people are entitled to the truth about significant matters in their lives. But what you have here is a scrap of information whose significance is hard to evaluate. In the meantime, try to secure whatever veteran-survivor benefits your mother may be owed.” (Reread the full question and answer here.)
The letter writer should tell their mother. She may already know — and she may be able to clarify and add more information that would answer some of her children’s questions. If she doesn’t know, learning about this may answer some of her own questions. Being in her 80s doesn’t deprive her of her rights as an adult to fully understand her life experience. — Debra
I love that the Ethicist’s answer informs the letter writer of uncollected benefits! What a terrific revelation and opportunity to share the findings with the siblings in a noninflammatory light. — Lisa
The surviving-spouse-benefits application process was lengthy and complex when I applied on behalf of my mother more than 10 years ago, but it was definitely worth all the trouble. It paid for a quarter of her assisted-living costs for over six years. Contest the discharge, and fight for the benefits. — Phyllis
There is in fact a very clear reason not to share this information with your family: You would be outing your father. Even though he has passed and you’ll never get the true story, it is always a disrespectful thing to do. He wanted his sexuality private for a reason. Keep his secret, and cash his pension. — Eloise
As a veteran U.S. Navy personnelman, I personally discharged quite a few “gay” service members who simply were unable to adapt to military life or were ready to leave. While this program hurt our lesbian, gay and bisexual service members and impacted mission readiness, it also provided a “loophole” for those who wanted a different life and were willing to take a less-than-honorable discharge to get it. The writer’s father might not have been gay or bisexual. We’ll never know, and outing people is never right, even if we did know. — Ember