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My husband won't brush his teeth.
May 30, 2014 11:37 AM   Subscribe

My husband goes for days at a time without brushing his teeth. Since talking about it doesn't seem to help and I can't control his actions, what can I do to make things better for myself?

We are in our late 20's and we've been together for about 9 years, married for 3 of them. It's important that I tell you how wonderful every other aspect of our relationship is, and almost every regular issue we have is my fault due to bad habits acquired growing up in a negative environment (defensiveness, interrupting, etc). My husband is very kind, thoughtful, and loving. He's patient with me and my faults. He is generous and has been exceedingly understanding about my job search struggles and recent career change. He has an excellent job, he is brilliant, and he works very hard. We fit together perfectly ideologically. We have enough interests in common to feel comfortable and enough separate interests to keep things interesting. When we disagree or have an argument we sincerely work to be respectful and productive about it. He's mindful of feminist and LGBTQ issues (which is a rare trait in my experience). I love traveling with him, having conversations...even just being in the same room as him makes my day better. In short, my husband is a stellar example of a partner, someone who I could never hope to or want to replace. I love him more than anything. Any "DTMFA" type advice is not going to be helpful.

I didn't realize the seriousness of his tooth brushing situation until we lived together, and that was after dating for several years. He doesn't have other hygiene issues and has always showered daily. His breath was bad on and off. He always had mints on hand so I thought he just had an unfortunate bad breath issue, but I later learned that he uses mints instead of brushing his teeth. He still uses mints to cover it up. The mint helps for maybe 10 minutes but the bad breath always returns, never mind the health issues that can come of not brushing one's teeth, especially since he just keeps adding sugar. I love kissing him but I can't handle it when his mouth smells. If I ask him about tooth brushing because of his breath and he has brushed his teeth he gets understandably demoralized and frustrated. He might brush his teeth once in a while but the buildup of smell and bacteria before that means that his breath still smells. It smells when he's asleep too, so much that sometimes I can't sleep facing him and have to angle my face away from his mouth when we cuddle.

Full disclosure, I'm not perfect in this either, but I always brush my teeth at least once a day. I had very good dental habits in college and have since gotten lazy. Today I'm starting a very strict regimen for myself hoping that he'll just follow suit. I don't know what else to do. We've tried talking about it and it works for a few days but then he stops again. He wants me to tell him when his breath is bad so he can brush his teeth and he brushes them whenever I ask, but when I do ask it's awkward and/or it hurts his feelings. This is especially problematic since this usually happens when we are about to be intimate and talking about this issue turns us both off. In addition, I don't want to have to remind him all of the time like a parent would because I don't want that kind of dynamic in our relationship. This whole issue is really affecting my libido. I'm having some trouble anyway because of depression related to the job situation I mentioned above, so this ends up being the nail in the coffin. Every time I start to muster up desire and think about acting on it I realize that he hasn't brushed his teeth, I just can't make myself be intimate with him if he hasn't, and starting up the whole please-brush-oh-now-it's-awkward cycle seems too challenging. So then I don't do anything. It's like I've ended up associating thoughts of sex with negative emotions about the teeth issue. I also feel guilty badgering him about it since he is so amazing in every other way and I should be grateful.

Mefites, what can I do? Is there some way to either make myself get over this or make it less unpleasant for myself? Have you discovered any highly successful strategies for long-lasting changes in behavior? Am I being unreasonable? Have you ever dealt with this issue? How will I get my future kids to brush if their dad won't? How can I set this issue aside to refocus my libido?

Thanks for reading.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (76 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
Can you just tell him "you should always brush your teeth before we have sex"? Is the problem that he can't remember?
posted by mr_roboto at 11:43 AM on May 30 [1 favorite]


Is there some way to either make myself get over this or make it less unpleasant for myself?

Honestly, I think this is one of those rare situations where it isn't you who needs to compromise but he who really needs to change. This is a serious health matter and not just a personality issue. Wanting your husband to practice a modicum of good oral hygiene is far, far from being unreasonable. It's critical for both of your future health and happiness.

I would try to appeal to him on a level beyond the mere breath issue. Not brushing his teeth for days is going to cause major problems down the road - including expensive and painful oral surgery. Not flossing has even been linked to cardiac problems due to plaque build up.

Can you ask him to go to a dentist? Perhaps a check-up might scare him enough into taking the five minutes it takes to floss and brush. It's also one of those things that once you're into the habit of doing it, you wonder how you ever lived without doing it.

I don't know - if I were you, this is one of those things I would probably put my foot down on, so to speak.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:43 AM on May 30 [41 favorites]


I'm not clear on why he won't brush his teeth, and knowing that might provide some clarity. From what you have said it does seem like he's willing to do it if you remind him. Is it just, then, that he doesn't remember? Because that can easily be remedied by setting a reminder on his phone and making it an unskippable part of his daily routine.

If your husband is truly as good of a partner as you describe, I would just let him read this post. The only thing I can think is that he just doesn't realize what an enormous deal this is for you. And to be clear, you are one hundred percent justified in your feelings here. It seems ridiculous to the point of silliness that he is willing to let something as easily remedied as five minutes of daily dental care cause such a big issue in your relationship.
posted by something something at 11:44 AM on May 30 [9 favorites]


I agree with something something, let him read this post. This is obviously a big deal for you, and it's affecting your sex life. He needs to change.

Toothbrushing is such a simple thing to get in the habit of, even just a one minute brush once a day when he goes to the bathroom in the morning would make a huge difference and is a super easy change to make. I wouldn't suggest trying to get him to do the whole nine yards of flossing and mouthwash, just building up a regular habit.
posted by mymbleth at 11:49 AM on May 30 [1 favorite]


Depression is frequently associated with a disinterest in performing oral hygiene.
posted by Lorin at 11:50 AM on May 30 [20 favorites]


I get my daughter to brush her teeth by showing her pictures of rotten teeth. Try this one of Shane MacGowan.
posted by waving at 11:51 AM on May 30 [3 favorites]


I grew up in a dysfunctional environment where my parents didn't model good hygiene, so mine was pretty bad until my teenage years, an experience I know I shared with my brother, who (instead of my parents), helped me understand the expectations of taking frequent showers, using deodorant, and brushing my teeth. You would be surprised how many people enter the military or college with these challenges.

Changing my habits had to be something intentional, but also something I "hacked" to work for me. Being shamed didn't help.

So first question, what was hygiene like at home for him, before he met you?

Second, is this a question of tooth brushing being painful or unpleasant for him? If so, maybe switching methods might help. I switched to a toothpaste that didn't make me gag as much when I brushed, and using a waterpik-flosser was easier for me also.

When was the last time he saw a dentist? Can you take him to someone who deals with scared patients routinely, and who won't shame him?

Have you asked him what methods he thinks would help him do this, intentionally, and change his habits? How did he successfully pick up other new habits, or continue good ones he learned earlier? Him saying you should remind him cannot be the method. It really doesn't matter what he does, as long as it works. He could reward himself for 100 straight days of brushing his teeth with a cool day trip or a new video game; he could set an alarm to flash a picture of a tooth-decayed mouth every night at 10 PM. He has to take responsibility for his change.
posted by mitschlag at 11:52 AM on May 30 [4 favorites]


First of all, even aside from the grotendous hygiene, can you encourage him to switch to sugar-free mints? It's a tiny band-aid on a sucking chest wound of a problem but it's better than nothing.
posted by elizardbits at 11:52 AM on May 30 [2 favorites]


The mind boggles. Tooth brushing and flossing is important because not only will you keep your teeth, but it can stave off other disease as well. It's not negotiable.

Morning and evening teeth are brushed. If you have to call out in a cheery voice twice a day, "Toothbrush Time!" Then so be it.

You can also say, "Toothbrush Time" before sex, especially if something garlicky or oniony or otherwise objectionable was consumed at dinner.

No one's feelings are allowed to be hurt if their breath can knock a buzzard off a shit-wagon.

We go to the dentist twice a year, we get our teeth scaled and polished and we brush and floss like we're supposed to.

Husbunny is from Kentucky and he's mastered ALL of this. So I'm here to tell you, it can be done.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:52 AM on May 30 [12 favorites]


It's possible that your husband's bad breath is due to cavities or gum problems.
When was the last time he went to a dentist for a regular checkup and cleaning? When did you go? do you have a dentist? Can you make appointments for both of you?
posted by mareli at 11:53 AM on May 30 [2 favorites]


If he will do it when reminded, could he set a reminder alarm on his cell phone or other device? That would take the onus off of you.
posted by harrietthespy at 11:53 AM on May 30 [2 favorites]


Do you have a routine for going to bed/getting ready in the morning? Mr. Kitty and I pretty much have a rhythm for who water picks first, who uses the electronic toothbrush base first, etc. Maybe setting up a standard routine for who brushes when, like he has to brush first before you get the tooth paste?

It may be a bit infantilizing, but not brushing your teeth everyday is a pretty childish thing too.
posted by Suffocating Kitty at 11:54 AM on May 30 [2 favorites]


Apparently my father had this problem when he and my mother married. All throughout my childhood she would bring him a toothbrush with toothpaste on it in the morning, and then he went to brush his teeth. She says she did the same thing at night. Not the best solution since it puts you in charge, but it worked for them. (Just make sure to tell your kids its not normal so they don't ask at a sleepover why the mom didn't bring the dad his toothbrush, that was embarrassing.)
posted by Nickel Pickle at 11:55 AM on May 30 [38 favorites]


Well, I'd be much more willing to let him get upset, hurt, defensive, etc. That doesn't mean you've done a single thing wrong. You're really being too "nice" about this, where "nice" actually means "doormatty", possibly because as someone with a shitty childhood, you're convinced that he's great and you're bad so any problems or bad feelings must be due to you being bad. Well, it's just not true, obviously, because he's making you miserable right now.

Anyway, here's your script, and you should say this with a decent amount of anger and frustration evident in your voice:

"Dude, seriously, you need to brush you teeth every day, it's disgusting, I don't want to have sex with you at all, I can't even sleep in the same bed as you half the time. You're not allowed to make our shared environment disgusting like this."

Then if he says anything besides "you're so right, I'm really sorry" go with:

"And no, I'm not going to remind you nicely or tiptoe around it. You act like I'm being an asshole when I do you the favor of talking to you kindly. I'm sick of it. I've been beyond patient with this. And, frankly, I'm not your mom. Get it together already."

If he gets all upset or defensive or shirty with you, try:

"I have no idea why you're acting as though I'm wronging you when you're the one who is imposing on me. I get that this is embarrassing, but it's not my fault and it's so easily fixable that you are the only one responsible for the fact that you feel shitty right now."

Then you should NOT try to comfort him, instead you should go out and do something you like. He'll live.

Then if he doesn't start brushing his teeth you should repeat the above statement(s) as applicable until you are so sick of repeating it that you divorce him. At no time should you comfort him or apologize.

Oh and make him sleep on the couch, jesus. Seriously, you should not bear all the ill effects of this inconsiderate and thoughtless behavior.
posted by the young rope-rider at 11:55 AM on May 30 [86 favorites]


I can be really bad at changing/developing habits, and dental hygiene used to be one those bad habit things for me, stemming from when I was a kid and was awful about it. When I wasn't brushing my teeth daily, I didn't have a good reason for it or a feeling that brushing more frequently was a bad thing. A part of me would have loved to just magically find myself brushing my teeth twice a day.

So I can tell you that in all likelihood he is in part genuinely on board with the idea of changing this habit. It seems absurd that it's not as simple as Just Doing It, but the way our brains work can be pretty absurd, and the complicated mess of shame and guilt and habit that come into this stuff is often a lot more overwhelming than the rational desire to make a change.

None of that is your fault, and it's his problem that he needs to fix. You both probably sort of know that already. But part of the difficulty for him is that as something he hasn't fixed already even though he knows he should and partly wants to, it's a point of personal shame and something he'd rather just sort of Avoid Avoid Avoid instead of tackling head on every day.

I'd recommend intentionally choosing a time that's not prompted by a foiled-intimacy situation or other specific teeth-related interaction to try and just lay out that it's important to you that he make this a change, that you understand that it's hard to change a habit, and that you're willing to work with him on helping make it into a habit. That might mean, if this is something that would work for the two of you, just planning openly with him to remind him once or twice a day to brush, as a no big deal this-is-just-the-thing-we-have-to-do-right-now thing. Building it up as a daily routine thing separate from the triggering moments that involve bad feelings for the both you and just keeping at that for a long time until it really is second nature may help get over the hump.

Also, approach it realistically as something where really eliminating bad-hygiene-related breath stuff is going to take longer than a week of daily brushing. Brushing, flossing, and mouthwash will help immediately to some extent and more over time but there'll likely be some lingering bacteriological stuff that will be helped most by (a) long term consistent oral hygiene and (b) getting to a dentist for a cleaning and attention to any lingering issues with cavities and such. Dental problems, even not terribly visibly obvious ones, can contribute pretty seriously to stuff like bad breath, and it can be a recipe for frustration to try hard to build up good dental hygiene habits at home but then be bothered by persisting mouth grossness because of unfixed dental issues.
posted by cortex at 12:00 PM on May 30 [15 favorites]


Can you get to the bottom of why he doesn't brush his teeth? OK, he forgets, but for most people that's such a part-of-everyday-life thing that it makes me think it's selective memory and there is something about it he doesn't like. If he's never been good about it, he may very well have some serious gum inflammation that makes brushing painful. Try to get to the bottom of his issue with it, and get him into a dentist if at all possible--if he's willing to get a good deep clean, it may help him to 'start fresh' and get back into the habit (it may also scare him straight if the dentist gives him some real-talk about why failing to brush your teeth is not OK).

As far as what else you can do, you said two things that stood out to me:

hoping that he'll just follow suit

I don't want to have to remind him all of the time like a parent would because I don't want that kind of dynamic in our relationship


You have to get over your feelings about this if you want it to change. If he won't do it on his own, you can't just be a passive bystander "hoping" he'll come around. Also, you're not his parent, you're a team. I'm sure you support each other in lots of ways, and if you remind him to brush his teeth every day in a gentle and loving way (e.g. "I'm going to brush my teeth now--why don't you come over and brush with me and we'll talk about our plans for the day"), that is totally reasonable. I grew up in a household where I often heard my dad talk complain about my mom being a nag, and now as an adult I have to fight the tendency to assume that anything that I nicely ask my spouse to do for the harmony of our relationship is going to be interpreted as bitchy nagging. So when I found myself in a situation very similar to yours, I realized "This isn't going to happen without some help from me" and I made a point to view it as just that--help. So I went about applying light, consistent pressure, warmly making it clear that it was very, very important to me that my loved one take care of X, encouraging them to do it with me, and doing the Shamu thing in giving VERY positive reinforcement when they did so....AND it worked out. I don't have to bug that person about it, and that was something we were able to overcome in our relationship. I think you can too--it just requires him figuring out and being honest about what the issue REALLY is, and you realizing that encouraging him to do something that greatly benefits his *health* is OK because you care about him, and that's really all it needs to be about.
posted by lovableiago at 12:03 PM on May 30 [3 favorites]


Yes, please have him read this thread.

The thing about teeth is that it's all kind of okay, the not brushing and not flossing, until it isn't. (Except that it's grossing you out, obviously, and for that reason alone he should be doing it.)

When you're younger and you have good teeth, skipping dental hygiene can be okay.

But here's what happens: his teeth will decay, and then he will need fillings. Maybe gum surgery. Maybe a few root canals.

And sometimes root canals fail. And then, you need tooth extraction, implants, and sometimes, jaw surgery.

How do I know this? Because I'm wiped out on my ass, $7,000 poorer, because I had to get JAW SURGERY this week.

Oh, and you stay awake for that, so you get to feel the drill boring into your bone, reverberating through your skull. And then you get a titanium implant drilled into your bone.

All of this will most likely happen at some point if he doesn't start brushing his goddamned teeth.

But I will say this: the 2-minute brushing I get from the Oral B has meant I only needed ONE implant, not six.

Don't compromise on this. It's gross, it's incredibly unhealthy, and you will be paying tens of thousands of dollars for dental care. That's food money, car money, vacation money, college money, clothing money. You'll throw it ALL away because he couldn't brush his teeth.

...trust an old lady with a throbbing jaw on this, please.
posted by kinetic at 12:04 PM on May 30 [36 favorites]


Buy him an electronic toothbrush?
posted by St. Peepsburg at 12:05 PM on May 30 [4 favorites]


For his own health and well-being as well as for you, he needs to be brushing *and* flossing every day, twice a day. It can be challenging to start new habits, but this one is so important for many reasons, not the least of which is his health and his wallet. Poor oral health is highly correlated with chronic disease and will eventually lead to needing very, very expensive dental and periodontal work (it's not unusual to spend tens of thousands of dollars fixing an unhealthy mouth and that's with insurance).

He needs to realize that every one of his friends, colleagues, career contacts, etc notice that his breath smells like rotting corpse. There is no mint that can cover the stench of a chronically unclean mouth. This lack of hygiene will not only cause problems in your relationship, but it will likely hamper his career. Not being able to take care of basics like brushing teeth will reflect poorly on him and people will not want to work with him.

He may have many reasons for not keeping him mouth clean, and many of them may have emotional roots. However, I'd bet that he also doesn't realize how awful it is to be around his mouth and how much it negatively affects how people think of him. Just because he's used to it doesn't mean that others don't notice. I used to work with someone who had very bad oral hygiene and believe me, everyone notices and it's a really gross thing to subject others to.
posted by quince at 12:14 PM on May 30 [12 favorites]


Dude... I don't think shaming, playing mommy, or anything like that will work, it'll just make him and you more frustrated.

This is something where I would not care about hurting his feelings. I would have one honest conversation with him where I said "I care about your mouth health but I can't make you brush for that, only you can do that. I do not want to be intimate with you when your mouth stinks. Brushing once before intimacy doesn't help when you've got a week's worth of funk in your mouth. You need to either start brushing regularly or use some crazy extra strength mouthwash before we kiss. I'm sorry if that hurts your feelings, but it's true. I am going to start telling you every time your mouth stinks too much to kiss you or have sex. I'm not trying to shame you but I'm also going to be honest that it is a huge turnoff. Now is the time to discuss it if you have any deeper hangups, fears, whatever about tooth brushing because otherwise I assume you just don't want to do it, and I can't make you, but then I don't want to be intimate either."

If he is upset at being told his breath stanks but won't do anything about it, then I would go to counseling over this.
posted by nakedmolerats at 12:16 PM on May 30 [4 favorites]


It seems like he expects brushing to make his bad breath go away and gets discouraged and stops brushing when it doesn't have an immediate effect. You might need to spell out for him that this is something that can take time to fix. If there's some underlying cause for the bad breath (bacteria, cavities, etc) then he really needs to look at brushing as just the first step, so that he doesn't give up when it doesn't immediately fix things.

You can also try to reframe reminding him as a sweet thing you do for him. For example, my boyfriend always brings me my floss at night (I don't have dental hygiene issues, I'm just lazy) and it's become a nice thing he does for me, rather than him acting like my parent. You definitely don't have to do this, he's a grown up after all. But if you want to help but don't want to feel like his mother, you can reframe it as an act of service that you do out of romantic love.
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 12:22 PM on May 30 [5 favorites]


This is a serious health issue, as others have described well, and I can't help but wonder if there are some potentially also serious mental health or development issues that underlie his behavior.

Does he seem depressed in other ways? Does he have sensory integration issues (hypersensitivity to touch, scent, taste, etc) that might be making the experience intolerable? What exactly about this activity is so uncomfortable for him that he can't bring himself to do it regularly?

If the above strategies re: getting him to understand the seriousness of the situation don't work, maybe urge him to try therapy.
posted by epanalepsis at 12:23 PM on May 30 [1 favorite]


I was in a similar situation with my husband when we first got married. There were days when I could barely kiss him his breath smelt so bad. I don't think you are being unreasonable not wanting to kiss him if his breath stinks. I am not a shy person, so when my husband came in for a kiss with stinky breath I would react without thinking by going pheww you stink I'm not kissing that. It got him in the habit of cleaning his teeth, which made no difference, as I liked kissing him and he liked being kissed this then turned it into a puzzle we both wanted to solve together. It turned out the smell I hated was caused by his sinuses. He now uses a neti pot and takes allergy tablets and it has made a huge difference.
posted by wwax at 12:25 PM on May 30 [2 favorites]


If I ask him about tooth brushing because of his breath and he has brushed his teeth he gets understandably demoralized and frustrated.

This sentence really makes me wonder if something is up, dentally or medically. If there is, his reluctance to brush his teeth might have to do with discomfort related to that. Has he been to a dentist recently? If he has, has he had a medical checkup? There are medical conditions that can cause bad breath and/or gum sensitivity. And if any of that is what's happening, it needs to be dealt with first.
posted by gnomeloaf at 12:26 PM on May 30 [16 favorites]


I don't want to have to remind him all of the time like a parent would because I don't want that kind of dynamic in our relationship

If you don't discuss this with him like an adult, with no shaming or infantilizing, but with a certain degree of firmness about hygiene (would he ask you to perform fellatio if he never washed his genitals?), then you are introducing a dynamic that is exactly what you don't want: You are acting like he is a fragile baby bird who will break if faced with the truth.

Wouldn't you want him to help you develop a good habit to replace a bad one that both harms you and repels him? Wouldn't you want to do what it takes to both attract him and respect him? I think he probably ultimately wants you to be happy and attracted to him. I'll bet that you can help him develop the habit by reminders of some kind, and if you present the issue without cringing or acting like you think it will break him into pieces, then you will be normalizing the reminders and not shaming him or demeaning yourself. If that makes sense.
posted by janey47 at 12:27 PM on May 30 [2 favorites]


"you should always brush your teeth before we have sex"
Unless you plan to have sex twice a day, that obviously doesn't solve the real problem. He may have particularly decay-resistant teeth, but sooner or later this neglect is going to catch up with him, in the form of either very expensive dental work or a set of false choppers. It also increases risk of heart attack, stroke, Alzheimer's, diabetes, and more. (Source.)

If indeed he is "thoughtful, loving and kind", he will not put you through having to deal with those costs and risks. You need to put this into the form of "I statements" that frame all of this as a problem for you. It will be clear enough that it's a problem for him, too. But make the conversation about the problem for you. But don't focus on the bad breath you're having to deal with. Focus on the truly horrific things that are coming down the pike that YOU will have to deal with. And then, don't offer the solution. Don't say "this will all happen if you don't start brushing." Instead, ask him what the solution is. Then stop talking, no matter how tempted you may be to fill the silence.

Since you've avoided dealing with this, this approach might really be all it takes. But, it might not work. In the event he doesn't suggest and commit to a solution, you'll need to escalate, which is going to be: "I have a solution. I insist that we go to a dentist, together. And I'm then going to insist that you follow all the advice the dentist will give you, same as you would follow the advice of any other doctor."

Finally, if that goes nowhere, the nuclear option, which would be to insist on counseling, together or separately, to get at whatever the real reasons are and to deal with them, with the stated ultimatem that if he refuses that step, he's looking at separate bedrooms, or a trial separation, or a divorce (you're going to have to choose). But at each stage of the escalation, it needs to be made very clear that any continuation of the status quo and any failure to deal with the problem is unacceptable.
posted by beagle at 12:29 PM on May 30 [3 favorites]


He needs to brush his teeth.

My husband and I never used to floss our teeth, even though dentists always say you should floss your teeth. ("Only the teeth you want to keep.")

But then my husband got a cavity (which is when he switched to an electric toothbrush), which turned into a root canal. It failed, so he tried root canal a second time, and then recently had it extracted and had to get a bone graft so he can eventually get an implant and have his tooth again. (And so his other teeth don't shift and/or rot.) All this will cost us $8k-$10k out of pocket and much pain over several years, with very, very good dental and health insurance. Now we floss daily. So maybe the financials will convince him?

(That is not talking about the other health issues bad teeth may cause.)

As far as bad breath goes: Yes, tooth brushing is necessary. But also diet and general health can affect that a lot. I had bad breath even when I brushed a lot, but then I changed toothpastes (to a hippie flouride-free one, which I don't recommend unless you know you have fairly strong enamels--read up on it yourself if you're interested--and even then it has to be this particular German brand) and drinking filtered/mineral water (no chlorine or flouride) and started scraping my tongue with an $8 tongue scraper. (Our pet theory is that you need to have a certain amount of good bacteria in your mouth to outcompete the bad smelly ones. When my husband needs to go on antibiotics, his breath gets pretty bad, even though he continues brushing and flossing.)

But not brushing teeth because of bad breath is like: Well, drinking water didn't help my health, so I'm going to stop drinking water. Even though maybe you're also not eating enough fruits and vegetables. You have to do *all* the right things, not just one.
posted by ethidda at 12:32 PM on May 30 [2 favorites]


Have you discovered any highly successful strategies for long-lasting changes in behavior?

Doing it together. In this case that might require that you change your brushing habits, too. Some people brush immediately after eating, others brush the same time(s) every day, etc. One model might work better than another for both of you to share, and if so, that might require that you change yours.

You mentioned that today you're "starting a very strict regimen," but you didn't mention what that was, and then conspicuously you said you're "hoping that he'll just follow suit." Based on his past behavior that seems unlikely to work, right? So try changing tack. Instead of you starting a strict regimen, make a point of doing it together.

Any "DTMFA" type advice is not going to be helpful.

You'll get it anyway. I already see the word divorce twice in this thread. Read with a thick skin. Do him a favor and don't show him this thread. Good luck.
posted by cribcage at 12:33 PM on May 30 [6 favorites]


I would certainly show him kinetic's and ethidda's comments!

The potential healthcare costs are staggering.

And the smell can't be helping his career, no matter how brilliant he is.
posted by jgirl at 12:38 PM on May 30 [1 favorite]


Well, if you can get him to hang out in the metafilter chat I'll try to convince him to floss. You don't even have to tell me who he is. I try to convince everybody to floss.
posted by bswinburn at 12:40 PM on May 30 [9 favorites]


I think asking him why he doesn't like brushing his teeth would be a good first step - ask him to really, really think about it. Is it some kind of buried power issue? Like, he unconsciously feels that he is "showing" a controlling parent by not brushing his teeth, or he feels that he has to be "good" in other areas but he'll be "bad" about his teeth to have some freedom? Is it that he doesn't like the feel of the brush or the flavor of the paste? Is it that his technique is really bad? (No, really - if he never learned to rinse well and has toothpaste left in his mouth or something, that is yucky.) Does it trigger his gag reflex? Hurt his gums? Is he just literally Not In The Habit?

If he wants to be better about it, this might be a strategy:

Optimize the tooth-brushing equipment for him - best brush (soft, firm, whatever works), best paste, convenient cup, electric brush if he likes that. Don't worry about the "best" from a medical standpoint right now, and don't worry about flossing right now. Those can come later when the habit is entrenched.

Do you get up at about the same time? If so, brush your teeth together - that sounds weird, but it removes some of the nagging factor.

It's suboptimal to brush your teeth at the kitchen sink, but if he's an impulse brusher, stock a brush and paste there too.

It may feel overwhelming to him to brush multiple times a day. Right now, I would just focus on "get up, brush teeth". Brushing his teeth once a day is going to be such a huge improvement that it seems like a reasonable goal.
posted by Frowner at 12:40 PM on May 30 [5 favorites]


I would be gentler than "the young rope rider" suggested. The script:

"Hey, I just want to give you some advance notice. Your bad breath is really bothering me. A lot. It makes me not want to kiss and it's hard to sleep around. I am going to be regularly asking you to brush your teeth. It's not optional, I am just going to ask you to go do it. Starting right now."

Then ask him to take 2 minutes and brush his teeth. Get him an electric toothbrush with a 2 minute timer.

Then next time you're about to make out and he has bad breath, tell him to get up and brush his teeth.

And next time he is about to get into bed.

And next time you're about to watch a movie together.

Etc.

You don't have to be insulting or say, "I've been beyond nice with this!" or make it an argument. You can be very gentle but very, very firm. Don't use the word "asshole" anywhere or say you're fed up. Just be very, very firm that this is what's going to happen.

Then when he does a great job, eventually reward him.

--

Basically -- don't worry about the why or the reasons. Just tell him what to do. You don't have to get into an argument unless he disagrees, and then the argument still isn't about reasons. It's about you convincing him that the smell is bad and that you're going to be telling him to brush his teeth and he has to comply.
posted by htid at 12:43 PM on May 30 [4 favorites]


Let me start by saying I agree with above posters in that I think he is being inconsiderate and gross. He is setting himself up for a lifetime of miserable and expensive dental issues.

However, if the issue is not with general oral hygiene but with the act of tooth-brushing, you should google "oil pulling". I do this (in addition to brushing) and it keeps my teeth incredibly white, my breath fresh and my mouth clean. It involves swishing some coconut or sesame oil around in your mouth for between 5 and 20 minutes every morning. If it's the brushing part that he doesn't like, maybe he could try this.
posted by emily37 at 12:43 PM on May 30


Sometimes people don't bother with a hygiene routine that they feel isn't effective. Maybe he really notices the clean taste/feeling with the mint and doesn't notice it so much after a quick toothbrushing. You might suggest adding pre-rinse and post-rinse to the brushing/flossing routine. For me, those rinses make a big difference in how clean my teeth feel by the time I'm done brushing/flossing.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 12:46 PM on May 30


For most people, this is automatic.

For me, it never has been. I have a reminder on my phone to do it, and I still forget sometimes. If I'm in too big of a rush that morning, I'll skip it and not care.

I didn't grow up dysfunctionally, but that is who I am. I don't care much about hygiene, but brushing my teeth is a bigger struggle than most.

Don't shame him, or nag him. Start with the bare minimum. Make teeth brushing something you do together every morning or every evening. Say let's brush our teeth before bed, not aren't you going to brush your teeth, it's been a couple of days.

I find routine calming. Making it part of my routine helps, even if I'm not perfect.

Focus on the health, not the breath. That will help him not feel ashamed, or unaccepted, or get overly defensive. Don't make ultimatums. Treat this respectfully, as just another bad habit like watching too much tv or smoking, not something wrong with him as a person.
posted by Aranquis at 12:51 PM on May 30 [5 favorites]


Years of bad oral hygiene may have led to bacterial issues causing bad breath that toothbrushing won't get rid of. He absolutely needs to see a dentist. A dentist can also walk him through what a root canal entails (and costs), which might also be motivating. This is a potentially serious health issue, and he needs to treat it as such and see a professional about it, and if he won't do that he's failing at one of the basic requirements of being a husband and partner, which is taking care of yourself and taking your significant other's concerns seriously. I think you should show him this thread. He needs to be a grownup about this.
posted by prize bull octorok at 12:52 PM on May 30 [1 favorite]


I admit I skipped to the end. Here's what I suggest:

1. Tell him you just can't handle kissing him/facing him in bed as things are, and offer to be a help on setting up a routine.

2. Agree to brush your teeth TOGETHER at a time that works for both of you, ideally first thing in the AM.

3. Make it fun. A really nice sonic toothbrush and some excellent floss like that mint Glide stuff is a good incentive.

4. Always kiss after the big brushing and flossing event!

I.e., treat this in a positive way and likely you are both going to end up with better breath and teeth -- and believe me, the older you two get, the more happy you will be about that.
posted by bearwife at 12:52 PM on May 30 [2 favorites]


GOD. My ex-husband used to REFUSE to wash his stinky feet, or bathe- quite frankly.

It drove me nuts.

That's not WHY I left him.

But the only thing I think that would have worked on him was pure daily nagging.

I tried getting mad, telling him he was disgusting me with the stench and a white undershirt isn't meant to be gray, that it justwasntright.

He thought it was a joke.

But I think if I said to him "look, amazinghusbandinallotherways, this is a huge problem for me, it is making me UNHAPPY"

he might have hopped in the shower and chucked his clothes in the basket.

But it would have to be all about how unhappy it was making me.... because he loved me and wanted to make me happy- but nothing else (like common decency) seemed to make sense to him.

Good luck!
posted by misspony at 12:54 PM on May 30


It sounds like you've already talked to him about this a lot and nothing has changed. Also I find it disturbing that your question is more "How can I be OK with this gross thing" and less "How can I get my husband to fix this gross thing?" I feel like if your husband is as great as you say he is you should have a higher expectation of him.

Because not brushing your teeth and having bad breath is an inconsiderate, not kind thing to do to your wife. I believe you that he's kind otherwise, but this thing is very much not kind, and you shouldn't tolerate it.

I'm definitely not saying DTMFA, but I am saying that you deserve to be with someone who will take care of his hygeine and won't subject you to bad breath.
posted by Asparagus at 12:56 PM on May 30 [6 favorites]


he brushes them whenever I ask, but when I do ask it's awkward and/or it hurts his feelings. This is especially problematic since this usually happens when we are about to be intimate and talking about this issue turns us both off.

I fail to see the problem. You know the solution: "he brushes them whenever I ask." You've clearly asked him before, since you know it works. Keep doing it. And doing it. As much as you need to. The fact that it's awkward and interferes with being "intimate" is a GOOD THING. That's his motivation to start doing this on his own.
posted by John Cohen at 1:00 PM on May 30 [1 favorite]


I always thought of brushing as a chore until I moved it into the "showering" portion of my morning. I keep everything on the shower caddy and as a bonus, I have and excuse to spend another minute or so in the hot humid pleasantness. Maybe he could do that?
posted by Perthuz at 1:00 PM on May 30 [13 favorites]


Seconding electric toothbrush with a timer. I had a friend who just literally did not brush his teeth. The dentist finally kicked his ass to do it ONCE a day. He doesn't even do it last thing at night, which seems odd to me but apparently that one time a day has made a lot of difference.

Consider too that he might have sore gums. Brushing will not arrest that until he gets a really good cleaning. A lot of people seem to get into a vicious cycle where they avoid brushing because their gums hurt. He would probably benefit a lot from going to a dentist who specializes in people with dental fears.
posted by BibiRose at 1:04 PM on May 30


As far as what you can do for yourself, try sleeping with a surgical mask. I don't know if it would come off or not, though.

Try getting a small balsam or other scented pillow to keep at the ready.

You could also put some essential oil under your nose.

Or go all out and put Vick's under your nose, like recovery workers do.
posted by jgirl at 1:05 PM on May 30


By the way, all the dentists I've seen in the past 10 years have sworn by Listerine for helping deal with mouth bacteria issues. But again, he'll need to get a good cleaning as a baseline.
posted by BibiRose at 1:06 PM on May 30


Modeling the behavior you want to see, along with positive reinforcement (clean mouth = more sexytimes!), will get you much further than stern talking or ultimatums.

That means that you have to brush and floss regularly, every day, without fail, and you have to see the dentist every six months for a cleaning. You must commit to that bare-minimum dental hygiene routine; otherwise you won't have a leg to stand on when insisting that he change his behavior. I know you've begun a new routine and I can't emphasize enough how important it is to stick with it.

So maybe for the next two weeks, instead of making it about him, just make a point of being conspicuous with your daily ablutions. Get up at the same time as him and brush your teeth where he can see you, either in the bathroom with the door open or in the living room while he's reading the news or something like that. Do the same thing at night before you go to bed. Don't ask him to join you, just be there, existing in your shared space, being a responsible adult who brushes her teeth twice a day. Just telling him you're doing it won't be enough. He'll have to see you.

Once that becomes an established habit for you, trade up for a pair of fancy toothbrushes and hand him one, loaded with toothpaste and ready to go, when you start to brush. At that point he'll already be used to you being around during brushing times and it will seem less like you're making demands of him that somehow don't pertain to you too and more that you're inviting him to do something you already do.

Of course keep setting consistent boundaries for your own comfort--bad breath continues to mean no kissing, period, and he must continue to sleep facing away from you until things improve. You are under no obligation to do things that compromise your own comfort.

Finally, call your dentist right now and make an appointment for each of you for, say, two months from now. After a few weeks of regular brushing and flossing, things will be better but a dentist's visit is still essential--the very bad breath might indicate serious infection that requires more than basic in-home dental hygiene to fix. If he balks at going the first time, absolutely still go alone, and make the appointment for the two of you again for next time.
posted by jesourie at 1:18 PM on May 30 [4 favorites]


Things he might try:

Drinking more water. A dehydrated mouth stinks more.
Sensitive teeth toothpaste
Children's mild toothpaste - not so painfully stingy
Washing his teeth with a washcloth
Four times a year dental cleaning - however many you can budget that feels reasonable
Visiting a doctor to rule out sinus or throat infections
Social brushing - you do it together as a ritual of mutual support and care taking and end with a kiss
Getting an ultra soft toothbrush
Rinsing with water several times a day
Not brushing but rinsing with toothpaste and water
Rinsing with salt and water
Tying the habit of brushing to something he likes doing on a regular basis - for example whenever he checks his web comics

I am guessing for whatever reason he doesn't brush his teeth because it makes him anxious, or because he simply can't remember to do it. If it's because it makes him anxious he may be able to give you insight as to his reason. Perhaps it hurts or it makes him think about going to the dentist or it makes him think about the dentist bills he is likely to face...

If you can get him to bite the bullet and go to the dentist it may not end up being a huge deal. Maybe he can take care of the problem by going in for a cleaning four times a year.

But basically it's up to him. He has to be motivated to do it. And if he is not motivated then there is really nothing you can do except make it a contentious place in your relationship.
posted by Jane the Brown at 1:24 PM on May 30 [3 favorites]


But if you want to help but don't want to feel like his mother, you can reframe it as an act of service that you do out of romantic love.

Yeah this. My husband never, ever clips his nails or otherwise deals with his feet. Like ever. If I let him get away with it, they would be like bear claws with grime under them. But instead, I make a thing of it, like, "This is a thing loving wives do! I'm doing it!" and his nails get clipped and cleaned and I don't get scratched. Try this. "Wife toothbrush love reminder!"
posted by corb at 1:24 PM on May 30 [3 favorites]


Yes, dude should brush his teeth. Any possibility he has a weird reaction to toothpaste? I use Tom's of maine (the cavity protection variety, with fluoride). Any other toothpaste I've tried, after I brush with it a few times, I get a painful, itchy rash on my chin.

I got a lot better about brushing regularly when I started using the Tom's.

Also seconding the "brush with him" bit. I'm a lot less likely to blow it off when my boyfriend's in town, because it feels less like wasted time when he's there for company.
posted by nat at 1:35 PM on May 30 [2 favorites]


I found with very small habit changes (like making my bed in the morning, washing my breakfast bowl, putting my laundry in the laundry basket) that the Tiny Habits program was helpful. One of the basic ideas is to tie a new behavior to an existing routine. So maybe if he takes a shower every morning, have the toothpaste and the brush in the shower and make it a habit to brush immediately after shampooing. Or, if he shaves every night, make the tooth brushing part of the shaving routine. After doing the Tiny Habits program a few months ago, I don't make my bed every single morning, wash my bowl every day, or put my dirty clothes in the hamper, but I do these things much, much more than I used to.
posted by megancita at 1:40 PM on May 30 [3 favorites]


Ugh, i used to be this guy. I dressed well, i showered regularly, my clothes were always clean and looked nice, i kept my house up, i didn't even have stinky feet.

But i never brushed my damn teeth.

Finally one day, early-ish in our relationship, my partner pulled me aside and went "um, not sure what the best way to say this is, but your teeth are covered in blatant plaque you can see from like 5 feet away and your breath smells like butt".

I was like "shit, seriously?"

I had no actual reason for not doing it. No super sensitive teeth/gums, no hatred of some certain brand of toothpaste, it just simply wasn't part of my routine. I'd brush my teeth whenever i took a shower, which wasn't every day as i just don't get dirty that quickly(and we both agreed on that, she's one of those people too) but it just wasn't enough obviously.

So i started brushing my teeth whenever she did. Problem solved.

You just need to turn it into either a "we do it at the same time" or a "we do it before X activity in the day" thing. For me it's, no matter what, right before i go get in bed. Even if it's just to read for a while before going to sleep. I'll admit i still don't usually brush my teeth in the morning, but even just doing it every night made a massive difference.

Bibirose is also spot on with the listerine thing. All of my drunken musician/party friends always have a big bottle of that shit in their bathroom because for some people, even regular brushing doesn't make your mouth not stink. Brushing+that will kill any stinkiness unless he has some serious dental health issues he doesn't know about.(periodontitis can stink REALLY bad according to my partners dental hygienist mom, and you get that by... not brushing enough)
posted by emptythought at 2:06 PM on May 30 [4 favorites]


you've asked for alternative strategies that don't make him feel better.

instead of reminding him to brush, since you say your routine could use some improvement, this is my suggestion, something like"

'Ohhh I want you so badly...let me go brush my teeth and put on some perfume, i want to smell so good for you" might remind him to brush without you know, telling him. good luck!
posted by cacao at 2:17 PM on May 30


Hi - I'm your husband (except that I'm female) and my husband is you (you know, except for the male thing). We've been together for 10 years, living together for 5.

I don't purposefully not brush my teeth, it just seriously was never really emphasized in my house growing up, and I have been thankfully very lucky in my life (knock on wood) that I don't get a ton of cavities or have any gum issues, etc.

My husband really struggled with this for the same reasons you mention, and I think the thing for me was that it was embarrassing every time he pointed it out because of the timing of when it happened (see: in bed, about to get serious).

What has REALLY worked for us is mostly just that we've stopped making a big deal out of it. Every morning before I leave for work he just drops in a nonchalant "hey, did you brush your teeth yet?" the same way you might say "hey, did you remember your cell phone?" or "hey, can you take the trash out with you?" And sometimes I'm like "Yup! Already done!" and sometimes I'm like "Ah, I forgot!" (it's usually the latter) but regardless we have just made said question part of our daily routine.

I seriously don't know what it is that I can't seem to actually establish this as a routine - I think I just have a mental block about it - but we just make it another part of the checklist we run through with each other before we head out in the morning, and that has made a huge difference.

(I still only brush once a day though. Let's start with baby steps.)
posted by CharlieSue at 2:20 PM on May 30 [5 favorites]


I was totally your husband a year ago. This was because of an undiagnosed chronic illness. What you can do is be supportive and non judgmental. If getting dental care is an option, you can also help with finding care options and taking care of some of the paperwork, insurance or payment arrangements, etc to make the burden of confronting and treating this problem easier on your partner.

It sounds like your husband is having a serious health problem. He may have severe cavities and gum issues. This could make brushing his teeth or using an alcohol containing mouthwash excruciatingly painful. As well, any physical or psychological chronic illness can make basic activities of daily life, like oral hygiene, difficult or impossible. Seeing a dentist would certainly help, but may likely be extremely embarrassing because of his halitosis, the high cost of the procedures he may need, or because he may have to use public health resources that come with social stigma. Also dentists can just be scary as fuck, especially when you know you need work done. I've been in that position.

Affordability issues aside, trying to find a good, compassionate dentist who won't judge him for the state of his mouth will go a long way here. You may be able to help with that and he may need you to. I have a good dentist, but only see one dental hygienist at my (very large) practice because she is the only one who has not been inappropriate, shame-y, and judgey at me for the very real reasons why I can't always brush my teeth more than once a day.

Here are some other ideas: If brushing is painful, mouthwashes with alcohol will likely be more painful. If he hasn't already tried them, supersoft toothbrushes and waterflossers (with warm water only) are more gentle than the alternatives. It's important to resist the urge to brush too hard in the beginning, according to my dentist. Some toothpastes have irritating ingredients - try ones without SLS, etc. You can get mouthwashes without alcohol and which do include aloe. Warming them up can make them less painful to use, especially if he has untreated cavities or gum recession. It sounds like your husband's situation may be more serious than mine, but changing products made a wold of difference for me. I didn't realize that my toothpaste was burning my mouth until I tried a different one. There are also basic oral hygiene things he could try to change that could reduce his risk for dental problems, if he's willing to: stop sucking on candy unless it's sugar free, use straws with sugary or acidic drinks, etc.
posted by Verba Volant at 2:34 PM on May 30 [2 favorites]


I'm your husband too but a lady! I usually brush once or twice a day but only very briefly 20-30 seconds, I just really really hate the feeling of it, its not painful and I don’t have any crazy dental issues I have to get an old cavity refilled in the next few weeks here. My boyfriend has commented on it a few times, never about my breath but how he’s concerned about me getting cavities ect…. Now I am paranoid I have horrible bad breath and will go home to ask him this.

I’ve never had any negative consequences cavities etc.. But they are starting to happen now. So I bring my phone into the bathroom with me and use the stop watch feature to time myself – the first time yesterday! I never really grasp that I was brushing so much less then I should have been, Boyfriend also always comes and hangs out in whatever room I’m in when he’s brushing his teeth. Now I think this was his plan to subconsciously get me to brush more…

Do you guys go to bed at the same time? Can you have time to brush your teeth time together!
posted by blueberrypicasso at 2:43 PM on May 30 [2 favorites]


Have you discovered any highly successful strategies for long-lasting changes in behavior?

What Shamu Taught Me About Love, Life And A Happy Marriage
posted by the man of twists and turns at 2:47 PM on May 30


I agree with the two posters who suggested setting an alarm. I think that is your best option, and I'm sorry you have to deal with this.
posted by Greg Nog at 2:49 PM on May 30 [1 favorite]


Oh, yeah, I wanted to add: We brush our teeth only once a day, right before bed. We have one electric toothbrush (from Costco) with two heads and it comes with a timer built in. It shuts off when you've brushed for 2 minutes. Instead of saying, "Are you ready to go to bed?", we say, "Time to brush teeth?" Then one of us flosses while the other brushes, and then switch.
posted by ethidda at 2:51 PM on May 30 [1 favorite]


"Dude, your teeth are gross but what's worse is it makes me want to puke. Could you fix that? If it does not help maybe you are deathly ill but how could I get close enough to you to know" ....
was the script I used on my husband. He told me he did not have Time.....until my darling daughter (his step) asked him how come she had to shower if he could be stinky...that ended the practice which was a leftover from being a bachelor for years and years. .

Good thing he did start because when his breath got bad years later I suspected an illness and he had his cancer diagnosed early.
posted by OhSusannah at 2:52 PM on May 30 [2 favorites]


As others have said, this can lead to very serious health issues (there's a strong evidence linking periodontal disease and heart disease) - so for future health alone, this should be addressed.

My husband was somewhat negligent in his dental care, largely due to crappy dental care earlier in life (like through his 30's), but as a smoker, at least he brushed.
What worked for him (scared straight, if you will) was five years (!) of very high dental bills taking care of his teeth by a very gentle, skilled, and diligent dentist. This included two implants (actually those were done over an eight-year period), several crowns, and numerous root canals. After the first few major procedures, he started flossing - now he flosses 4-5 times a day!
We've used Sonicare brushes since they came out - they pretty much force you to brush for 2 minutes, and if you do it every night (AND floss), you can get away with just once a day.
After all this, my husband's teeth have stabilized, and he seldom needs more than normal cleaning - so there is hope.
posted by dbmcd at 2:58 PM on May 30 [1 favorite]


Tell him if he continues to not brush or floss, he'll end up like this guy.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 3:05 PM on May 30 [3 favorites]


Is he bought in to wanting to brush regularly, and is just failing at making it a habit that sticks?

If not, I would make at least one more try to convince him, partially talking about the broader serious health consequences which he may not know (I didn't for a long time) and how you love him and want him to have him with you until you're both old and gray-- and partially talking honestly about how difficult this is for you and all the stuff you posted here (and that "you reminding him to brush when his breath is bad" is not a solution.) And maybe some of the financial stuff too.

If he does feel like he should brush regularly but just hasn't been able to make himself do it regularly, maybe try something like Health Month or some other sort of gamified way of building and sticking to habits (which also lets you see how he's doing without the awkward conversations about whether he brushed today)? You could do it together, and pick something that's really hard for you but that you want to change about your habits (this may work better than you picking tooth-brushing too, I hear you that you're bad at it but clearly it's easier for you than him.) And then work on making these positive life changes together... let him see you struggle, fall off the wagon and get back up and try again. Empathize about how hard it is to build the new habit but that you're proud of yourself and him for making progress. Share tips and blog posts and strategies about building habits. Discuss how you're setting yourself a rule that you have to at least put on your workout clothes every morning even if you don't go to the gym (but then you usually end up going), and maybe he'll set a rule that he has to put the toothpaste on the brush every morning before he showers even if he doesn't brush (and hopefully he'll usually end up brushing!) And hey, if it doesn't work for him, maybe it will at least work for you and you will have improved your own life in some important way.

(And he should totally start with once a day. As someone who's struggled with this in the past, twice a day can feel overwhelming, but any less than once a day isn't going to actually make it a habit that sticks.)
posted by EmilyClimbs at 3:18 PM on May 30


What about the toothpaste?

I know someone who hated to brush her teeth because of the mint flavor in almost all toothpaste. When Crest came out with their Citrus flavor (still for sale) she loved it.
posted by Leenie at 3:54 PM on May 30 [1 favorite]


Write a note on the mirror in bright red dry erase marker that says BRUSH YOUR TEETH! And dont erase it until it is a daily ingrained habit.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 5:27 PM on May 30


There is waaaay more going on here than him not brushing his teeth.

Your first paragraph really concerns me, that this is the *only* thing wrong with him and you go out of your way to list your flaws and take responsibility for most of the other relationship issues you face. It sounds like you're explaining why you deserve to sleep with Hellmouth blowing in your face all night and that worries me.

Once upon a time, I had a husband who had this same issue. (Among other hygiene issues. Reader, do not marry a boyfriend with visible funk on his teeth.) Honestly, he did not change until I divorced him, then he went apeshit with appearances - working out, dressing himself, bathing, cologne, brushing his teeth, cutting his hair. I don't know if he learned a lesson or something, but he went from "forgetting" to shower on our wedding day to being so well groomed that people asked if we divorced because he got gay and fabulous.

Anyway, when we were married, nothing worked. I tried to link it to sex, and it turned into an awful dynamic where if he took a shower or brushed his teeth, he expected sex as a reward. Sex with me is not a reward for maintaining basic respectable hygiene, and neither is sex with you.

This dynamic went to other places in our life. My come-to-divorce-court moment came when I sat in the car filling out job applications for him. In 2014, in the civilized world, a grown woman should not be filling out job applications for her grown-ass husband, nor should she be bringing him a toothbrush twice a day.

It's gross and it's disrespectful. I've come a loooong way from my divorce (coincidentally, a lot of therapy for co-dependence (when I was codependent, I was constantly amazed at how amazing my husband was; I was humbled by his attention to me; I was grateful for whatever good mood he'd decide to cast my way and castigated myself for some personal failing if his mood was not good)) and now I do no give two shits if he's got sensitive gums or a toothbrush phobia or if he's just forgetful. He is an adult and he brushes his damn teeth. If he's got an underlying problem, then he gets his ass into a dentist's chair and gets it dealt with. It is not your job to do it for him, remind him, train him, cajole him, reward him, or even ask him.

I said all that (and I'd have PM'd it if I could) to say this: examine the underlying dynamic in your relationship. You may find that this is a symptom. In the meantime, if I had to deal with this again, I'd move into the spare room until he got his shit together because that's how seriously I take shit that is such a monumental turn-off.
posted by mibo at 6:04 PM on May 30 [29 favorites]


Also, on a slightly less bitchy note, since he does still have bad breath even after brushing sometimes, he may have a food allergy. Dairy and white sugar can cause bad breath splashing around in the gut in some people (I think) even when their teeth are brushed. If he's got other weird body stuff, he could see a doctor or try eliminating various foods and comparing the results.
posted by mibo at 6:10 PM on May 30


Some people are just shitty at hygiene and it's not necessarily some big ol' red flag. I, too, have an awesome husband who struggles with this. He cooks for me, he cleans, he does all sorts of very thoughtful things (and I say these things not because I'm trying to cover up something! He really is awesome!). Brushing his teeth just isn't on his radar or something. I don't really have a whole solution but I wanted to tell you you're not alone and please don't let any advice here scare you! Mefi mail me if you'd like to talk more. For now, if his breath gets bad I tell him that and he can choose to take care of it or not. For sure I don't have sex with him if he's grossing me out, but no one is perfect and maybe he thinks something about me is gross!
posted by masquesoporfavor at 6:11 PM on May 30


I have a theory that opportunistic bacteria can get into the brain and alter brushing behavior. Of course we know that lack of brushing causes bacterial build up but there aren't many studies (that I have found) on whether there could also be a reverse issues that build up that makes it to the brain could alter the host organism to it's advantage. In studying bacterial ecosystems and quorum sensing and coodinated behavioral patterns among bacteria I think we really don't give them enough credit in how much power they have to alter the host environment to their advantage. (p gingivalis can apparently alter behavior in mice). There's a lot of interesting reading on the factors that decrease brushing behavior and the cycle of poor health that reinforces itself.

In any case, you are in the right, and he really does need to brush. Push the issue. I personally would do it nicely but that's also because I'm dysfunctional as fuck and can't improve a lot of it even with people telling me I suck, screaming insults at me or trying to threaten me the worst consequences possible (my life). Get him excited, give him a bunch of research on all the areas of his life that might improve with a dental hygiene routine including mental and physical health!! Get him a fancy toothbrush, offer to do it together and be his coach.

Look he's your husband, you love him, he's in the wrong here, but you already know you love despite this, and probably hope he would love you despite some stubborn shitty flaws of your own... I don't think kindness and firm regular urging would be out of line.

If he really doesn't believe you that you're right, that's one thing, if he just needs you to be by his side while he fights this inner battle (and you might be surprised that this could actually be very hard for him and not at all a matter of him not trying or wanting to change this) then I think it's possible you could nudge him into a better pattern with this. I would also look into some comprehensive lifestyle changes to address the bacterial growth he already has, chewing xylitol gum, chewing clove toothpicks... eating a low sugar diet for a while (just fresh fruit and no processed sugar)... get him excited about turning the whole thing around. Poor dental hygiene is a serious health hazard and educating him about it with an understanding it's hard for him might help. Doing the routine together every day twice a day is a REALLY great idea as mentioned above.

You would be in the right if you wanted to tell him like it is and he's gross, but I'm not sure that feeling like he's gross will make him more able to do this if he actually is having a hard time with it.
posted by xarnop at 7:24 PM on May 30 [1 favorite]


What about auxiliary dental hygiene habits that are easy to pick up? Have a "total care" mouthwash out and available alongside a Dixie cup dispenser in the bathroom, and see if you can interest him in teeth whitening gum, liquorice root chewing as a form of tooth brushing or gum stimulators as idle habits when you're sitting in front of a computer or something. Every little bit adds up.
posted by doreur at 9:00 PM on May 30 [1 favorite]


First, lots of those deal sites have special offers on a full cleaning at a dentist near you. That'll get him to, or nearly to, ground zero.

Next, he may be thinking he needs to brush his teeth after a meal or something. It's actually very good to brush your teeth first thing in the morning.
Does he pee first thing in the morning? Ask him what he needs to remind him to brush his teeth every morning. Say, put a sign above the loo, "Brush your teeth" until it's a habit. Brush your teeth while you're peeing. Leave toothbrush on the sink the night before, possibly with toothpaste already there.

Bad breath goes away with consistent brushing, not one off, because you're day by day, reducing the amount of stinky in your mouth. Get a tongue cleaner, or after brushing teeth, rinse the toothbrush (the toothpaste makes me gag otherwise), and brush your tongue. Brushing bacteria off your tongue, as far back as you can manage, is one of the best things you can do for bad breath. You also know when you've done it properly, because looking in the mirror, your tongue will be pink, not whitish.
posted by Elysum at 9:29 PM on May 30


I brush and floss very regularly, but my breathe is still a bit stinky if I don't brush my tongue. Get him a tongue scraper. Or, better yet, he needs to get himself a tongue scraper.
posted by Dynex at 9:41 PM on May 30 [1 favorite]


I'll be the third or fourth person to suggest looking into an electric toothbrush for him. My dad got a Philips Sonicare a few years ago and told me thatt for the first time in his 75+ years of life, he now enjoys and looks forward to brushing his teeth.
posted by whitewall at 12:37 AM on May 31


My $0.02:

If you don't brush or floss, brushing and flossing will be uncomfortable--even to the point of pain. I was very much a floss-before-going-to-the-dentist person up until my very first cavity in my mid-20s. The first two weeks, I'd say, I had sore gums, even a little bleeding. Now? Pfft, I floss like a pro. Seriously: my dental hygienist was like, can you eat some caramel corn before you come next time so I have something to do?

So when you don't do it regularly, it can hurt. It can be really uncomfortable. Maybe this is the part he needs to get past first.


Another commenter (or two) mentioned toothpaste brands posing an issue. I, like the commenter, use Tom's of Maine with fluoride. Tried, briefly, using a Natural Dentist (I think?) toothpaste because there was a sale. Bad idea: the underside of my tongue swelled up, became really sensitive and HURT for like a week until I figured out it was the toothpaste and stopped using it (switched back to my usual). See if using specific toothpastes can make his mouth/gums/tongue sensitive/sore/swollen.
posted by carrioncomfort at 10:31 AM on May 31 [1 favorite]


I read your question yesterday, but I saw this on Reddit today : Decades without brushing your teeth leads to calculus bridge [warning gross]
posted by ill3 at 12:43 PM on May 31


I had really shitty oral hygiene when I was younger, starting with some gagging/unpleasantness and then just not doing it. My family used shame to try to get me to correct this and I don't recommend going down that path (I couldn't even read this whole thread, it is such a trigger for me). Here are some things that helped me (although I hate to tell you that they all came from my choices, and not from anything anyone else did):
posted by anaelith at 1:26 PM on May 31 [4 favorites]


Since nobody seems to have mentioned it yet, be aware that tonsil stones can cause horrifically stanky sewer breath which does not go away until the stones do. This may not be the case for your husband, and will not replace toothbrushing, but I suggest it as something to investigate if regular brushing/flossing does not help the breath.

Also, you mention that his bad breath prevents you from sleeping facing him, which seems to imply that he is breathing through his mouth when he sleeps. Mouth-breathing can badly exacerbate halitosis because of how dry the mouth gets (saliva being a part of the mouth's natural system by which it controls bacterial growth and washes grossness away), and there are various products which can help (xylitol and/or enzyme-based mouth sprays or gels, etc).
posted by po at 12:22 PM on June 1 [2 favorites]


Yeah, so. I was one of those people who didn't brush for a long time. I had untreated depression and I just couldn't find the energy to do it. It was gross, and I know it. What finally drove me to the dentist was a badly abcessed tooth. Even then, it took me several months for the pain to ramp up enough that I had to go. Even then, I had to have my husband call the dentist for me, because I was so embarrassed and freaked out. You might offer to do that for him, if he's having trouble following through. The end result of my years of neglect was approximately 18 fillings, two extractions, 4 root canals plus crowns, and the implant that I still need to get done. All that crap cost upwards of $15,000 (post-insurance). The whole process took probably six months of dental appointments to resolve. Let me tell you, that was a freaking wake up call.

Somewhere in there, my hygienist recommended getting an electric toothbrush, and that has been a lifesaver for me. I can brush with that for a minute or two, just holding the toothbrush in my mouth and moving it after a short time on each tooth, without having to do all the frenetic brushing movements, and my teeth feel super clean. I didn't even realize how awful and furry my teeth felt until I had that first cleaning. I've gone 2 years now with no cavities, which is a huge improvement for me.

I also have bags of these floss picks stashed in my desk drawer at home and at work, and any time I feel like I might have something stuck in my teeth, I grab one and do a quick floss of all of my teeth. That tends to happen at least once every couple days, and usually every day. I never really learned to floss very well with just the floss, so these were a huge help too. Having them anywhere that you might end up sitting for a while means that you can get one out when you think of it, and it's right there, no effort. The tape on the ones I linked are a lot gentler on your gums than regular floss, which can be especially good when just starting to get into the habit.

Anyway, I'm not sure I have much advice, but I would try to help him if you can. I know for me, getting nagged about bad breath would make me super embarrassed, and that frequently makes me less likely to do what needs to be done. It's stupid, but people are weird animals. I think the most important thing to do right now is get him to the dentist, so if that means you calling and setting up the appointment and driving him there, then that's what you should do.
posted by ashirys at 7:32 AM on June 2 [1 favorite]


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