I love my boyfriend very deeply, and we have an awesome relationship but as a person I struggle to bring up criticisms of others in my life without "downplaying" what I'm trying to communicate.

For example I have a friend that is always late to any plans we make together, and after it taking me years to bring it up, I ended up apologizing for being too negative. This kind of thing happens because I avoid the confrontation for so long that by the time I bring it up, whoever is at the receiving end doesn't think I'm serious. Can't blame them since I'm not doing a great job of communicating to them what the problem is.

I am trying to improve upon this, so I am planning on doing so for the issue described in the title of this question.

My boyfriend, as much as he is my soul-mate, is pretty gross.

Here's the major issues:

  1. His apartment is constantly a mess
  2. He doesn't brush his teeth much at all, he only does it if I finally get the courage to ask.
  3. He mostly wears clothing that he has had for 7+ years that doesn't fit him and is worn thin or has holes/stains. He also rarely washes his clothes.

The list goes on. I cannot explain how it feels to go on a date that I spent 2+ hours getting ready for, only to see him show up looking and smelling like he just rolled out of bed.

To clarify on the 3rd point on the list, his outward appearance to the world is far less important to me than the problems with his cleanliness. I have minimal concern for what other people think of his looks. I find him extremely handsome and sexy, provided he is meeting these extremely basic hygienic standards. However, when he (often) does not meet those standards my attraction to him is lowered.

His lack of effort is particularly evident on a date or special occasion which would normally be an opportunity to look and smell good or at least adequate for me. He loves that I put in special effort to my makeup, perfume etc for those occasions, and beforehand will sometimes ask something along the lines of "Doing any fancy makeup tonight for our fancy date? Yes? Can't wait to see it!" so there is no chance that he is oblivious to the "tone" of the occasion. I think that one should put a little effort into being attractive to your partner so that they feel special and important, which is why I put in the thankless effort I do, as well as feeling good for myself. The hygiene and visual points may seem different at first, but they are in fact very similar because if neglected, they both send the message that I am being taken for granted.

This all seems to relate heavily to the topic of emotional labour and I am completely lost in navigating it.

I have sheepishly brought these topics up in the past, but since having expectations is a pretty new experience for me, I am unsure of what expectations are reasonable and what is too much. If i refuse to kiss him until he brushes his teeth, he has taken it quite well so far and will do as I request, but then just continues to skip it every day following until I bring it up again.

I am not interested in being his mother and if I don't see eventual improvement I will leave him, but not without at least trying everything first. He is my best friend and he is so good to me, so it would be heartbreaking to have to end things over something so basic and simple to most people.

I am 25yo female, from Canada.

How can I be more assertive in convincing him to take better care of his hygiene?

  • 11
    Are you confident that your boyfriend is completely unaware that you dislike these habits of his? Thinking of the recurring no-kisses-until-teeth-brushed example; does he have any learning difficulties (forgive me for asking)? Has anyone else ever remarked on his negligence to him? – Kozaky Jun 14 at 9:47
  • 9
    If he really goes days without brushing his teeth, that's not just a hygiene issue, it's a health issue. Are any of his habits (or lack thereof) bad enough that his doctor or dentist have commented to him? Or does he never go to those either? – David K Jun 14 at 13:57
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    Just because no one else has mentioned it, and we can not tell from your question. Does he have the income to be spending on new clothes, deoderant etc. this sounds alot like me in my 2nd year of uni. at one point it was toothpaste OR food. and as much as i didn't want to smell, i didn't want to go hungry either. (while things are fine now, i find i will wear shoes/clothes well past the point most would throw them out, because it became habbit) – user17020 Jun 14 at 14:18
  • 25
    It is worth noting that "holes and (permanent) stains" =/= bad hygiene so this is more of an appearance thing. Not brushing teeth and showering is a hygiene thing. The two should be handled slightly differently. One can be more easily discussed from a health POV, the other from an opinion POV. – josh Jun 15 at 11:04
  • 10
    Out of curiosity - this has probably been the case since you learned to know him, and you are deeply in love with him so why has it become a problem now? Also, you are aware that you want to change him which is something that is a danger sign! This may work if you are open about this being a problem, and you can discuss this as adults. "Can we reach common ground? Would you actually prefer to have a clean apartment if somebody else did it? (a maid, not you) Would you prefer to be stunning with me?" Also figure out what you are willing to live with so you know up front what is at stake – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Jun 15 at 14:14

11 Answers 11

up vote 10 down vote accepted

These things are not important to him. If they were, he would do them. You can try and convince him that these things are important but that is a difficult road that can easily lead to you giving up.

Instead, and I realize this is very hard, you need to make it clear that these things are important to you. These are key hygienic & appearance values (at least in North America to my experience) and many people share these values with you. It is not unfair to expect them. Finally, don't focus on the behavior (you need to brush your teeth) but on the outcome (your breath is terrible).

  • If you dress nicely for a date and he shows up in clothes with holes in them then either refuse to go on the date or clearly state that it is embarrassing to be at a fancy place with him when he is dressed as he is.
  • If his apartment is a mess then refuse to visit him at his apartment.
  • If he does not brush his teeth refuse to kiss (as you are doing) and remark on the fact that his breath is terrible.

After pointing these things out you can always offer to help. You can also try and be friendly about it but it is important the message is clear and not muddled. Relationships are hard, but if you fall into the trap of enabling instead of empowering then you are not really fixing the problem and it will rear its head eventually.

  • 1
    Great answer, and I'll add that it will be easier for you and more effective for both of you if you remain firm and be consistent with your asks. If you have to decide to enforce the "no brush, no kiss" policy every time it comes up, that will doubtless become tedious and an emotional burden. – bluescores Jun 21 at 18:01

I really like your question, mostly because it somewhat relates to our situation (me and my girlfriend, now wife).

I was similar to your boyfriend. I was clean, but simple. Too simple. On very rare occasions I would get ready, or dress somehow special. And I didn't need to: I was living very close to my faculty (5 min) so I was waking up 5 mins before I would go, in order to sleep more. I was wearing ugly shoes, folded clothes, and most of the time I had my hair messed up. You know why? Somehow, it was convenient for me - less effort.

So, there are a couple of reasons why your boyfriend might not be doing what you expect; maybe not all of them will apply to him, but for sure some of them will.

  1. He is convenient. Just as I was, and as for me it seemed of low importance to spend time in order to look good or take care of myself, it could be the same for him.

  2. He might consider his hobbies more important. Again, I was here. For example, when I was playing video games, but I knew I had to go out in over an hour, I was getting ready in the last 5 mins, while the other 55 I was playing.

  3. He doesn't see dressing up for your date as important as you do. You get yourself ready because for you that moment is something special. For him it is also special, but not to the same extent... because he probably has some moments when he's getting ready, or some events. Again... I was here.

What should be done?

My wife really helped me in that, and she did it by telling me (exactly what you do now), showing me (by doing those things for herself) and sometimes doing it for me. After a while I started thinking like her: before I go out of the house, I should check that my clothes are fine, that I smell good, etc.

But you have to make the first steps for him. I remember when my wife bought me some really nice and comfy shoes: I had argued with her, refused, and maybe even yelled that I didn't want them (yes, like a child...). That was because I was comfortable with who I was and my style, with my clothes, my shoes; I was used to it and didn't want to change it. She still bought me the shoes... after a few days I dared to admit that it was a great choice and I said thanks. But she did an effort, or two... she simply pulled me out of my comfort-zone.

Another thing (Mafii mentioned in his answer) is to include him in your activities. Use both: we should do and you should do. Ask for his help in some of the things that you need to do for yourself and when you finish, you can add: "now, let's make you ready!"

Another thing: these lines have to be said with a warm tone, maybe even in a joking manner, but start doing as you speak, so he can see at the same time that you really want to do it.

EDIT:

As Criggie said in his comment, positive reinforcement does wonders:

You look good in that shirt!

or

I love the way you smell!

  • Even if the dressing up is not as "special" to the boyfriend, it does not mean the date is somehow less special. It's a communication issue, first and foremost. – jpaugh Jun 18 at 20:28
  • 6
    Simple is one thing, not brushing teeth for more than a day is nasty and disgusting. – qsp Jun 19 at 6:22

Include him in these activities. Take initiative. Ask him to go brush teeth together. And then both brush teeth in the same room.

About clothing, ask him wheter he wants fresh clothing that fits him better and is more comfy, and then propose a shopping center where you'll head together, and show him stuff that you think will look awesome. Gently push him to buying these.

Make it a together, not him. Most people with bad hygiene just don't care enough or don't have much self-discipline and -initiative. Helping them over that will most often not make them mind, and enjoy what you do together..

A few years ago, we were out to dinner and a bunch of Prom Kids (ick) came in. The girls had clearly spent hours and a lot of money on this. The guys were wearing wrinkled suits and Sports Ball mesh-back caps, turned backwards (of course).

Not cool.

A lot of us clueless guys sometimes don't realize that we're not putting in the same (or appropriate) level of preparation as our partner. It's not about not caring so much as being oblivious.

Since you've been pretty passive in the past - not a criticism, I can totally relate to that - it may take a real, in your face (but not mean), not-possible-to-dismiss-or-misinterpret statement like:

"I expend a lot of effort getting ready to go out, and it would mean a lot to me if you would do the same. I know this stuff doesn't come naturally to you, but it's important to me."

In my case, way back when, that was enough to wake me up. If you live together, pick out some clothes for him and lay them out on the bed. (I know you shouldn't have to do that, but if you want to date a model who already knows how this stuff works, then move on and find one.)

As far as brushing teeth goes - well, not everyone brushes their teeth three times per day. However, I wouldn't expect my wife to kiss me if I smelled like the beer I had 30 hours ago.

Based on very limited information, it sounds like he's just a little oblivious, not intentionally dismissive or apathetic. Making your point, kindly but clearly and firmly, may go a long way to improving the situation.

How can I be more assertive in convincing him to take better care of his hygiene?

Prepare for failure (sounds like you are) and regression. You may be fighting these battles forever. If your partner is willing to budge but regresses habitually, are you willing to nudge them perpetually?

Ask yourself and your partner why. Ask why of the answer. Ask why again. Find the root cause of this behavior. Attack that root cause.

An example dialogue...

Why wear old clothes?
I hate shopping.

Why do you hate shopping?
It takes too much time.

Why do you think it takes too much time?
After working 10 hours a day, I have no energy and just want to play fortnite.

Why are you working 60 hours?
I'm paying off $83,000 in student loans.

Why not take a deferral for economic hardship?
It's unsecured debt through a private bank.

Why does that matter?
They don't allow deferrals. If I don't pay, them get a judgment against me and garnish my wages. If I work less, I don't get to eat.

From this point, you can find a way to make clothes shopping take less time or make a financial plan to free some of your partner's time. Maybe daily exercise will raise their energy level so they want to do more things. Maybe you can look into the deferrals thing. Alice and Bob repeat this process in 5 years when they buy a $240,000 home on $65,000 income and regress. Then in 16 more years when taking loans for kids college.

Ultimately, learn more about your partner, learn how to help, and be prepared for regressions. Keep asking why even after you find one way to help. Prepare to repeat this battle perpetually.

I suggest that you talk with him clearly before taking any steps. Hygiene is important, but not as important as the love of your life, so before taking any huge decision just talk with him.

  1. Meet him and just share what issue you have with him (necessary issues only). Do not tell him to change his whole lifestyle
  2. Tell him to be more clean. Wear not branded but at least clean clothes
  3. I feel such a thing will be an issue for him in his future also, so try to make him understand from future aspects too, because in the outside world people judge you from your clothes only at first glance
  4. If he doesn't have a good financial situation, then you also have to understand his problems because you can't expect from him to wear nice clothes all the time if he is not financially stable
  5. About brushing, try to tell him the downsides (health-wise) of not brushing your teeth
  6. Even if he is only ready to change a few things about himself, then it's still the start of change. Do not expect him to change completely in one day; such things take time so you have to be patient And try to change things one by one, don't try to change everything at once
  7. Some personal advice: do not give up easily because it looks like you love him a lot so do not give up

Best of luck dear. Hope everything will be fine for you. Enjoy

  • 5
    Welcome to Interpersonal.SE! I've suggested an edit to format your numbered points and make it much easier to understand what you're trying to say, I hope you don't mind. IPS operates differently to other StackExchange sites, so I suggest you take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about it. – F1Krazy Jun 15 at 11:05

Use economics.

Everything has costs and benefits, and people (while not perfect Homo Economicus), often if not always choose to do what gives them the most "win" (benefit-cost). The tricky part her is those two are not universal, and each person has different costs and benefits figured out using their own personal utility function - often, not even consciously.

Thus, the generic answer is: either raise the cost of what you want to stop, or raise the benefit of opposite behavior.

This can be achieved either by changing explicit costs/benefits, OR, by changing their utility function calculation.

The problem is that, even within the confines of your specific (and great) question, the specific answer will be "it depends".

Let's look at both situations.


1. Actual personal hygiene - teeth.

Unless your bf is somehow deeply special, there's no big explicit cost to brushing teeth (as usual with IPS, you should ask, not assume - maybe he's one of the pretty rare people with a gum problem that makes brushing teeth extra painful. But let's assume he's normal). The main cost is to remember doing so.

So, the problem in this specific case is with the utility function - he simply doesn't assign nearly a high enough value to brushed teeth.

The way to approach this is communication - other answers generally addressed the exact communication ways to do so in detail - you can explain the benefits of clean teeth to you (makes it pleasant to kiss), or disadvantages to unbrushed teeth (makes it gross to kiss; plus long term will cost tons of dental spending if you two are serious enough to worry about common finances).

Frankly, if he's being obstinate, considering low cost to him, I would actually go for a Trade War (yay! Modern topic reference on IPS!). Tell him you won't kiss him anymore unless his teeth are clean, since it grosses you out. If he asks why you never told him before, honestly explain that you were unwilling to start a confrontation since you like him so much. I know very few males who would willingly accept a trade of less tooth brushing at the cost of less kissing.

This approach applies to nearly all items of true personal hygiene like this, that are generally low-cost to the person (taking showers, wearing smelly unlaundried clothes, brushing hair minimally).

Also, hopefully it doesn't need to be said, but be sure that you communicate gently and not stick your foot in your mouth. Maybe he brushes often but has a gum disease or some other reason he has bad breath that is largely outside his control. Not the most likely explanation, but worth discussing gently before going into "brush more" mode.


2. Superficial looks - old clothes.

OK, this one is definitely a different situation, with different approaches. Here, the problem is that this is truly two wholly different subjective utility functions.

To him, the value of being dressed up is minimal. To you (based on "2 hours to get ready") it's a big value.

As such, even if the cost to both of you is about the same (at least order of magnitude), you evaluate it as "must, so worth it" and he "meh, not even remotely worth it".

The problem here is that, unlike situation #1, where the cost is objectively minimal, AND utility function - when properly explained - is reasonably objective - here utility function is truly, honestly subjective.

He may very well have a good point - he likes you for being YOU, and your looks for being your looks. NOT because you have made yourself extra better looking by adding nicer clothes (and, frankly, he can be one of the Aspergers people like me who honestly automatically normalizes the looks to adjust for nicer clothes bonus).

Not only does he possibly see no value in you being dressed up, he may even be offended or disturbed by your approach - something that you may not have considered before.

  1. If you care that he dresses nicely, you don't like his looks naturally, which means you have no future together, since couples don't see each other every day in their best look, but their worst).

    To put it into modern HR lingo, you don't care about his authenticity.

  2. If you care that much about nicer looks, you're likely to dump him for a fancy dressing GQ type man.

Now, neither of these may be true (or it may be but you don't realize that), but they are indeed, genuine worries - either conscious or subconscious. Without addressing them, your and his utility functions have no hope of being reconciled.

So, to discuss this and resolve it:

  • First, try to honestly evaluate why this is so important to you. Including the hard to palate but necessary self reflection of just why you care so much about yours and his looks. It may very well be that you dress up in order to make YOURSELF feel better, and this has nothing to do with him. Or it could be that you care so much about what others in society thing that you are ashamed of being seen with him. Or a bunch of other reasons. Be honest with yourself.

  • Second, once you know your own motivation, discuss it with him, and explain to him why this is important to you.

    E.g. "Honey, I network with a bunch of high status people, and my career can be negatively impacted by being seen with someone dressed like a hobo". OK, that stings, but it's honest and gives him an objective reason to care.

  • Third, try to see it HIS way.

    Maybe he finds clothes shopping excruciating (my SO does, so do I). Maybe he has a figure that is hellishly difficult to find good clothes for. Maybe he simply isn't aware that social networking requires an effort to look better (that is typical for Aspergers types). Maybe he was raised to be "authentic" by hippie parents and thinks dressing up is a lie.

    The point is, try to understand the reason for his utility function being so low.

  • Fourth, finally, try to negotiate.

    Other answers went into some detail here.

    Maybe you offer lower his cost of dressing better (Help him pick clothes. Clothes shop for him. Give him money for clothes, ala Pretty Woman in reverse).

    Maybe you try to let him understand why this has so much value to you (just remember, he may not share your views at best, and actively be hurt by them at worst - the very worst case scenario is, your views make you two genuinely incompatible as a couple long term).

    Maybe you convince him to raise HIS utility function. Explain how your brother landed important job/contract because someone was impressed by how he dressed. Acknowledge that society sucks this way, but that is how the world works.

    May be you raise his benefit by offering something in trade (you dress up for me, I play some useless game with you I would otherwise prefer not to play). Or hell, by complimenting how sexy he looks in a suit and tie (it worked on me :) - especially if you demonstrate that in a way a guy will understand, not just say it :)

    May be you negotiate something in the middle. He dresses up for some specific special occasions, you dress down for "normal" ones.

I hope this answer is helpful because it's going to be a lot shorter than others.

What has worked for me is having more empathy. I don't mean to suggest that you lack it, but I don't see any information about what is going on with him that makes him lazy about his hygiene. In my experience, the way you communicate to him your gripes about his hygiene is entirely dependent upon how much you understand his reasoning for his lifestyle. Maybe he likes to be that way, which means you bringing it up in any form could mean an argument. But maybe he is just forgetful or lazy from being tired or stoned(maybe? dont want to get too personal, but does he smoke weed or drink a lot?), there could be a lot of reasons. But right now you don't seem to be focused on the "why?" and instead are more focused on the "must solve now" and I think that tends to cause these sort of interpersonal tensions.

A lot is going to depend on whether he fundamentally agrees that things like having decent clothes and hygiene are important, and he's just lazy, and doesn't exert himself in the moment to get those done, or whether he really rebels against exerting any time or money whatsoever to be presentable.

If it's the former, you probably can get him into good habits. If you tell him "don't get into bed until you brush", you can likely get him in the habit after a few weeks. If you tell him "We're going out to dinner for my birthday, and you need to have something decent to wear" and he knows that not having clothes just means that dinner is replaced by clothes shopping, he'll probably exert himself to do it.

Basically, if he sees you as an opportunity to push him into doing what he knows is good for him, he'll likely reform.

If he's going to be a child, and insist that his behavior is totally fine, and you are a big meano for disliking it...there probably isn't much you can do, and there might not be much of along term future with him.

As well as the answers above, I would add two approaches :

  • First, use a tone that doesn't make a "big deal", by which I mean, instead of (say) "eww, your teeth are gross", try "snuggles after teeth! Off you go!", in a light tone. The advantage being, its low emotional stress and doesn't get tiresome or irritating if you have to do it quite a bit.

  • Second, be aware it could signify other things. For example, he may not see it as important. He may have a poor sense of smell and not have the reminder that jogs you each time. He may not have grown up in a peer group or with friends where he picked up the lessons that you did, so they might not be in his mind as they are for most people. He may see his wellbeing as fine, and that he doesn't need to do more. He might not easily identify with how you see it. For all anyone knows, he could have some kind of hidden disability that he,you and the world don't know of (unlikely but can happen) which makes it unusually hard to do some things.

But a good partner and friend is not that easy to find. If the price is a brief "teeth before bed, big boy!" or "These clothes!", and he can pick up other stuff fine, those might be a small compromise for an otherwise very good relationship.

But in any event, read up on "emotional labour", a closely related concept relevant to what you describe, and at some future time, show him and see if he can pick up the idea. Because you are right, you don't want to be a parent to him, and this will help you be aware of the limits, and avoid that .

  • So... Which side of this issue have you been on? Sorry to pick, but... Why are you saying what you're saying? – apaul Jun 17 at 4:25
  • "Side" isn't a helpful concept. I'm on the side of helping the OP to raise the issue assertively, but in a way that helps them to achieve what they want, and which doesn't assume (wrongly?) - clearly what they want. Nobody has suggested there could be many reasons why this is happening - it's often easier to be assertive if you can understand reasons why something may be happening. The relationship is described as desirable and good otherwise, so ways to work around the problem may fit the OPs goals better, but nobody has suggested questioning the premise and approach, to be assertive but ... – Stilez Jun 17 at 8:15
  • ... feel secure in using it to find a compromise instead of using it to argue. Last, what is described is closely related to emotional labour, so perhaps the OP will learn more that can help in this and perhaps even other similar situations, by researching that concept, if they have never heard of it. – Stilez Jun 17 at 8:17

You can be assertive, but in a way which is more likely to yield desirable results. Asking someone to brush their teeth is an easy 1-step process. But asking someone to improve their fashion, cleanliness and hygiene is a bit more complex. And perhaps you are still exploring how sophisticated his thinking is.

I can best describe it as a parent. If you say to a child "Tidy your room", those 3 words might be meaningless. If you say "let's tidy your room" and you demonstrate picking up the dirty clothes, putting the lego into the lego box etc etc they are more likely to know what to do in future.

In this chaps case, you might have to be explicit with the instructions. You decide what they are eg.

No clothes with holes or stains or smells.

No coming to bed without a shower and toothbrushing.

I'm only commenting on the elemental nature and explicitness of the instructions. I don't know how to sugar coat it. Perhaps some would say things like "I find it really arousing to kiss you after you've brushed your teeth" or "I like exploring your body with my nose/tongue and so please have a shower before bed.. I'll make it worth your while !"

If he fails to respond, then remove sugar coating. If he still fails to respond, then it might be time to move on.

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