It’s a relationship quandary that comes up again and again on advice columns and internet forums: What do you do when you’re in love with your partner, but their bad hygiene is pushing you away?
At first, questionable grooming habits — whether it’s a spotty shower schedule, unbrushed teeth, dirty clothes or unkempt hair — might seem like superficial things you should try to ignore, particularly when everything else in the relationship is going well. But know that your concerns or frustrations are valid and worth addressing.
“Poor hygiene can have a big impact on relationships,” Kurt Smith, a therapist in Roseville, California, who specializes in counseling men, told HuffPost. “Obviously, it can affect attraction and physical intimacy, but communication as well, as it can become a source of regular conflict. Ultimately, the issue can impact the level of connection and love felt between a couple.”
Smith said this is a problem that’s come up among his own clients. He counseled one couple in which the husband generally took good care of himself but put off a dentist visit to fix a decayed tooth for a long time.
“His wife complained about his bad breath because of it and didn’t want to kiss or be close to him as a result,” Smith said. “This led to intimacy and communication problems.”
If this situation sounds at all familiar, read on. Below, therapists offer advice on how to handle this sensitive issue and others like it.
Personal hygiene isn’t just a personal issue.
You care about your partner, so it’s understandable that you’d want to avoid saying anything that might embarrass them or hurt their feelings. Certainly, no one wants to hear that their body odor or bad breath has reached a problematic threshold. Even so, if their bad habits are affecting you, it’s worth speaking up.
“The way we take care of our hygiene is also a way we show respect and love toward our partner,” Smith said. “When you look at it this way, then it is a topic that should be discussed because it’s a relationship issue, not solely a personal one.”
When you bring it up, come from a place of curiosity — not judgment.
“If the relationship is established and the hygiene issue is new, approach it head-on but with kindness, compassion and curiosity,” Nicole Saunders, a therapist based in Charlotte, North Carolina, told HuffPost.
To get the ball rolling, say something like, “I love how good you smell when you get out of the shower, but I noticed you haven’t been doing that as much lately. Is something going on?”
“The goal would be to gently open up a dialogue and gain some understanding,” Saunders said.
“Ultimately, the issue can impact the level of connection and love felt between a couple.”
– Kurt Smith, therapist based in Roseville, California
However, if it’s a new relationship and your hygiene standards just aren’t compatible, then that might be a deal-breaker for you.
“There is no shame in desiring a partner that prioritizes self-care,” Saunders said. “If this is very important to you and you meet someone who doesn’t care to shower for a week or wears the same underwear four days in a row, it’s totally OK to decide to keep searching for a better fit based solely on that difference.”
Changes in your partner’s hygiene could be tied to mental health struggles.
Atlanta clinical psychologist Zainab Delawalla pointed out that mental illness can affect personal hygiene at both ends of the spectrum. For example, a person with obsessive compulsive disorder may be overly preoccupied with cleanliness and showering, while someone with depression might neglect these practices entirely.
“If you notice a change in your partner’s approach to personal hygiene and it’s accompanied by a lack of motivation to engage in other activities or social withdrawal more generally, help your partner get in touch with a psychologist or a psychiatrist who can assess whether these changes are part of a mental disorder,” Delawalla said.
When initiating the conversation, make it clear that you’re concerned about their well-being. That will help minimize any shame they may already feel about not properly taking care of themself right now.
“Try to approach it broadly without focusing on hygiene specifically,” Delawalla said. “Like, ‘You don’t seem to be yourself lately. I wonder if talking to someone might help.’”
If that’s not the case, you can be more candid about how their habits are affecting you.
“Tell your partner that it hurts you that they don’t put much thought into their grooming choices and makes you feel as if your presence or acceptance of them is being taken for granted,” Delawalla said.
Smith took a similar approach with the aforementioned couple he was counseling, advising the wife to focus on how her husband’s tooth issue was diminishing her physical attraction to him.
“Addressing the subject is one way we show we love them and want to help them become a better version of themselves.”
“We shifted [the wife’s] communication with her husband from nagging him about going to the dentist, which he obviously didn’t want to do, to how his bad breath negatively affected her interest in sex, which he did want,” Smith said. “This changed his choice from doing something his wife wanted to choosing something that gave him what he wanted. And it worked.”
Having these conversations — as uncomfortable as they may be — is actually a sign of a healthy relationship.
Know that strong relationships should be able to withstand this kind of honest feedback and communication.
“Addressing the subject is one way we show we love them and want to help them become a better version of themselves, even though they may not receive it that way,” Smith said. “Often later on they will, though.”
“I Love You But” is a series that offers advice on how to love someone when you don’t love a big aspect of their life ― from their sex and sleep habits to their pets.