Sometimes, love just stinks.
If you’ve dated someone with bad breath, strong body odor or stinky feet, then you know that these scents can be off-putting and get in the way of intimacy —even when the rest of the relationship is wonderful. Yet you may hesitate to bring it up with your partner because you don’t want to embarrass them or hurt their feelings.
We asked a dentist, a dermatologist and a couples therapist for their advice on how to effectively handle a smelly situation without coming off like a jerk.
First, what’s causing those bad smells?
When it comes to bad breath, a number of causes could be at play, said New York City dentist Dr. Nicole Khalife, including gingivitis (gum inflammation often caused by poor oral hygiene), cavities, certain diets, sinusitis or gastroesophageal reflux disease, among others.
Body odor is often caused by sweat mixing with and breaking down bacteria on the skin, particularly in areas such as the armpits or groin. And while it may not smell great, it’s usually not cause for concern. However, if you’ve noticed that the odor has changed or strengthened, it could point to a more serious health issue and should be checked out by a doctor.
“The apocrine glands produce sweat that has a high protein content, which bacteria readily breaks down,” New York City dermatologist Dr. Michelle Henry explained. “Other causes for body odor include underlying medical conditions and diet. One common diet-related cause for body odor is garlic, which produces sulfur that accumulates in the sweat, causing an odor.”
So how should you bring it up?
Telling your partner that they’re giving off a foul odor may sting them a bit ― even if you try to break the news in a gentle yet direct way. But it’s better that your partner hears this from you (someone they love and trust) than an acquaintance or a co-worker — or worse, that people talk about it behind their back. And if the stench is making you less inclined to kiss, cuddle or have sex with your partner, then it’s likely getting in the way of your relationship. So it’s worth bringing up, however uncomfortable it may be.
For starters, broaching the subject with kindness and care is essential, said therapist Zach Brittle. He recommends employing a technique from relationships researcher John Gottman called “soft start-up,” in which you begin the conversation by focusing on a particular behavior (rather than making sweeping statements) and expressing what you need, rather than attacking, criticizing or blaming your partner. The phrasing that’s often used follows a structure like: ”I feel ____ about ____, and I need ____.”
“In this case, you may consider: ‘I feel concerned about your breath, especially when it keeps me from being close to you, and I need us to explore ways to make sure it doesn’t keep us apart,’” said Brittle, co-host of the podcast Marriage Therapy Radio. “You’re focusing on the connection you desire rather than the issue you don’t.”
If you’re dealing with a bad breath issue and you think it might be tied to your partner’s less-than-stellar hygiene habits, consider scheduling a dentist appointment for the both of you, Khalife recommended.
“A lot of patients come into my office with their partners. Many patients tell me, ‘If it weren’t for my husband or wife, I would never have actually come in,’” she said. “You could also bring home new dental products and try them out. Pick out some rinses, flossers or toothbrushes that you really like and encourage your partner to try them, too.”
It might also help to frame the conversation as a potential concern about your partner’s health, Henry suggested. And be sure to discuss this in a one-on-one setting, not when you’re around other people.
“Do not ridicule them for having a strong odor, but mention that there are some health conditions that may lead to a stronger scent,” Henry said. “From that standpoint, you can peel back the layers and discover the cause without insult or emotional injury.”
When the odor in question is tied to a health condition — like chronic sinus infections or a medication that causes dry mouth — you may want to be extra sensitive in your delivery. Your partner likely has less control over the situation than they would if the condition was just about stepping up their flossing game or showering after spin class.
“Just remember to be kind and choose your words carefully,” Khalife said. “Make sure it comes from a place of concern and not a place of disgust. The last thing you want to do is make your partner feel ashamed to get treatment.”
If you and your S.O. share a jokey rapport, telling them in a lighthearted or playful way (for example. “Oh, your breath sure is kickin’ today!”) might be appropriate. But if you’re not sure how your partner is going to take it, try to avoid making a wisecrack.
“Avoid name-calling or negative humor,” Brittle said. “And don’t focus on the problem more than the person. Again, they likely already know they have an issue.”