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on opening the bad breath dialogue

My first serious relationship ended over something at once utterly trivial and entirely insurmountable. Sure, a lot of things were bothering me towards the end. But the one detail I remember most keenly is the most unimportant, and probably the only one we didn’t pore over in agonizing detail in an attempt to salvage our relationship: his bad breath.

I’m horrified, years after we finally called it quits and retreated back to our respective holes, that I never said anything to him about it. At first it seemed like a small omission, but the longer I went without mentioning it the more my aversion to his mouth became just a part of our experience together (I won’t overwhelm you with details, but I definitely don’t like doggy-style as much as he thinks I do). How easy would it have been to just say, yo, please brush your teeth or you can’t make out with me?

For me, not that easy. I was young, somewhat shy (if you can believe it), and embarrassed; for him, for me, and for the fact that our relationship wasn’t just perfect to begin with. Asking him to change felt like an accusation:  You are doing this wrong! And worse, like a condemnation of our relationship: You are preventing this from being perfect! But worst of all, asking him to brush his teeth felt like an impermissible criticism of his body, tantamount to calling him ugly or fat. I cared so much about him, I felt like I should be able to look past this mundane detail.

Years later, I can recognize that my boyfriend’s decision to not brush his teeth was not merely a personal choice; it was a sexual choice, a choice to introduce a smelly mouth into my life as well as into his. At the time, I preferred to let our relationship fester and die rather than say something confrontational. But what I didn’t realize was that healthy sexual relationships involve conversation about sexual practices, and yes, that includes personal hygiene choices.

If you have a bad-breath-bugbear in your sex life, don’t let it scare your relationship to death. You might be dreading the conversation in which you admit to hating or being uncomfortable with something your partner brings to your shared bed. This could be anything from a lack of cleanliness, to substance usage, to that totally gross thing your partner does with their tongue. If this sexual practice is the white elephant in your room, it might be time to acknowledge its presence.

It’s natural to have anxiety about broaching the subject, especially if this is something you’ve been sitting on for a long time. Try to remember that this is ultimately productive, even though it may seem hugely disruptive. You’re not breaking up with your partner; you don’t want to break up, which is why you’re bringing to their attention something that is problematic in your relationship. Don’t be horrified that your partner didn’t intuitively know you would want something that you aren’t getting, or dislike something that is making you uncomfortable. These things may seem obvious to you, but that’s because you have the inside scoop on your own preferences; you get to be inside your head and body! Your partner may have different standards of hygiene or different learned sexual behaviors. But if they are a caring lover they probably are really interested in your preferences, and any insights you can give them into your experience will ultimately be received with gratitude.

So once you’ve sat your partner down on the edge of your twin extra-long bed, how can you make this dreaded conversation feel less confrontational? The best thing you can do is couch whatever negative sentiments you have to share (the things you don’t like or wish would change) in positive feedback. Give your lover something to replace their unwanted behavior with, and emphasize that you are sharing this out of a desire to be closer, not as a punishment or declaration of war. After you’ve confessed to your discomfort, suggest that you add something relevant but positive to your relationship. If the concern is hygiene, suggest you shower together. If you don’t like that one thing your partner always does in bed, maybe this is a chance to suggest some other options. And you can try to make this conversation as productive as possible by remembering that you may nevertheless be saying things your partner does not want to hear, so try to have this conversation at a time when you are not in a work crunch, and not when during or right before you are planning on having sex. Your ideas might take some time to percolate.

Even if you don’t have a smelly mouth problem in your relationship, initiating a dialogue like this might yield unexpected confidences and deepening trust. If you display confidence discussing preferences with your partner, they are more likely to respond in kind (and you’re less likely to be on the receiving end of a bad-breath-breakup that you didn’t see coming). If you think/suspect/wonder if your partner might have something festering, help them divest themselves. “Do you like it when I…” questions can go a long way, especially when dripping in adverbs and parts of the body and disjunctions. “Do you like it when I blank your blank or would you rather I blank your blank” gives your partner options they might not have known they had: from clothes on or off, sweaty from a run or fresh out of the shower, kinks or vanilla. Let them know that because you care about them, its okay for them to want something from you, and that you won’t be offended. Any feedback is your partner telling you: I want you to be able to please me better, because I want you. You can love someone and not love their bad breath, so get rid of one but not the other.