Q: My fiancé does not brush his teeth in the morning. It took me a long time to realize it when we first started dating because we were long distance, but I slowly wised up when he finally moved to my city and into my apartment. It didn’t take an undercover operation to figure it out—it became pretty clear to me when his (really, really remarkably bad) morning breath never seemed to go away. Then I started paying closer attention and I realized I never heard him go into the bathroom and brush his teeth in the morning. I wouldn’t be so obsessed with this if his breath weren’t so remarkably foul. It repulses me when he tries to kiss me and I have to hold my breath. If we hop in the car to run an errand, I can smell it when the windows are up and have to ask him to put his window down.
(The weird thing is that he’s super vigilant about nighttime brushing. Like, I assume, every other good, honest, hardworking American, I every once in a while will crawl into bed before brushing my teeth and read a bit, and then get just too tired and cozy to get out again and end up falling asleep that way. It’s gross and bad, but no one except me has to face the consequences of that decision. But my fiancé will prod me awake and make me go brush my teeth before nodding off if he thinks I haven’t yet.)
It was really hard for me and embarrassing for both of us when I very kindly brought it up the first time. I said I thought it would be a good thing for his health, our relationship, and his professional life (I sincerely worry if it has an impact on his relationships at work) if he made sure to brush his teeth every morning. Had I been on the other side of that somewhat mortifying conversation, I’d like to think it would’ve whipped me into shape. But any efforts the conversation did inspire were short-lived, and now, three months before our wedding, I’m finding myself steaming and fuming every morning he goes another day without brushing his teeth.
I’ve lost my temper about it twice—once in the car when I made him take some gum, and once at the airport when I said I wouldn’t kiss him for the duration of our trip. Each time this happens, and also during the many other moments I’ve spent feeling frustrated and defeated about this, I feel like a mean mom. And I don’t feel like this should be my job.
I love this man so much, but I feel utterly hopeless on this issue. If asking nicely doesn’t work, what else can I do? I’ve tried pushing for him to go to the dentist (and considered calling the dentist ahead of time to ask him to use some scare tactics—very, very crazy, I know, but this is where I am with this right now). I’ve considered telling his mom (crazier?). I’ve considered withholding sex or kissing (which is actually sort of already happening involuntarily, when I’m so turned off I can’t bother). I want a calm, respectful, and kind way of getting what I need here, but I’m out of ideas. Any thoughts?
A: Dear Anonymous,
You mention that you already brought it up with him, which is great! But you also describe that conversation as being sort of embarrassing and uncomfortable. To which I wanna say: Brace yourself. Marriage gets very bodily, and I’m not talking about the fun, sexy stuff. Childbirth, aging, death… daily human life is a physical (sometimes gross) thing in these here meatsuits we’re given. That’s what “in sickness and in health” is all about; not just, “I won’t leave you if you have cancer,” but also, “I’ll change your diapers when you become incontinent (or at least hire a really nice professional and hold your hand).” So this teeth stuff, while admittedly gross, is just the beginning. Hopefully you can get to a point where you can say, “Yo, bud, your breath stinks,” without it being a big deal.
A little of that, plus a little of the equal and opposite, worries me. It sounds like he just sort of doesn’t care if you think he’s gross. You’re not making demands of his physical appearance, you’re not asking him to change who he is. You’re asking him to keep up a baseline level of cleanliness. His laziness (or whatever the hell it is) is outweighing how much he cares about what you think and say.
In short, it’s too embarrassing to talk about, but not embarrassing enough to fix? We can let it all hang out in marriage, but there are limits. You still have to be courteous and respectful of the other person’s comfort. Breathing hot rotting garlic breath on them is not that.
You’re probably like, “Right, Liz, I get it. But what do I do about it?” And the answer is, well, not much. It’s his body. He’s in charge of it. You can’t manually hold his mouth open and shove a brush in there (that’s hard enough with a three-year-old, let alone your adult partner). You want to be kind and respectful, and you were! And he sort of listened at first, but then mostly ignored you. So you don’t have too many options left. Something folks don’t often talk about is that marriages often have a few arguments that just never go away. Nobody likes to be a nag. But sometimes partners need to be reminded over and over. So you told him once, and the changes didn’t stick. Now there is no option but to bring it up again and again. And let’s be frank. This is some basic, tedious emotional labor that he’s foisting on you. You have to worry about his daily hygiene? Because, what, it’s not worth his five minutes in the morning? Because making you remember one more thing doesn’t matter? Because your needs don’t matter? I for sure don’t know, so you guys need to figure it out; otherwise you’ll still be dealing with this (plus more, presumably) when you’re seventy. If he still has teeth by then.
You listed some pretty good reasons for toothbrushing when you last talked to him (… as if anyone needed a rationale?), but maybe—assuming you have the patience—you can have a chat about another. Namely, it’s not just your minty-scented preferences: This is a serious matter of health. I don’t know what it is about dudes with their bodies, but I know way too many folks in relationships with men who won’t take care of their health, whether because of toxic masculinity (literally toxic), or laziness, or who even knows what. And oddly, your specific issue is widespread. (Who knew? Who wanted to know? MANkind, what’s wrong with you?)
Let him know there are serious reasons for concern. By marrying one another, we’re sort of charged with taking care of one another. So it’s really unfair to make that job harder for each other. How can you help take care of him if he’s letting the basics go? He’s making your life more difficult, more uncomfortable, more stressful, and more risky when he doesn’t take care of the simple things that keep his body running and healthy and (fine) smelling good. And he’s not taking care of you if he’s letting something slip that has natural consequences on your sex life and how much you want to be around him, talking to him, kissing him, breathing his air.
That’s what I would talk to him about. Yeah, you may need to have that conversation more than once. But hopefully, he’ll see that it’s just an extra five minutes in his morning to take care of his long-term health, to make you more comfortable, and to lay a foundation for more sex and more conversation. What’s the holdup, dude?
Oh, and tell him to never mention your toothbrushing habits to you again, because no. He has not earned that.
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