Dear Doctor NerdLove:
I’m sure if I searched the archives of your column I would find this topic discussed somewhere, but I’m writing to you because I feel like my situation with my boyfriend is somewhat unusual. I’ve been with him for several years, and over the course of our relationship, his breath has gone from occasionally stale to horrible. Like “the funk of 40,000 years” terrible.
I initially approached the problem the way most people do. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings or embarrass him so I would just gently offer him gum or mints from time to time. I then started saying things like, “You know I think you might have some food stuck in your teeth because I smell something a little off. Maybe you should just do a little flossing.” No matter what I said or suggested, he seemed unfazed.
Finally, I just came right out and said it, “I’m sorry. I don’t know if you perhaps have some sort of reflux issue or if you just need a teeth cleaning, but your breath is…. funky.” I suggested he see a dentist. He said he had a bad experience the last time he got his teeth cleaned (over 15 years ago!) and unless he develops pain, he’s not going back. I’ve set up cleaning appointments for him anyway, and of course he blows them off.
His breath has gotten so bad that I cringe when he talks to people because I’m afraid that they smell it too. In fact, my fears were recently realized when he and I had a big argument (about something unrelated to his breath) and when I was seeking the advice of my sister she interjected with the non sequitur, “I’m sorry. I don’t want to be mean, but his breath is terrible. Like I have to hold my breath when he talks to me.” I was mortified.
The issue is now becoming a serious source of tension between me and him. If I ask him to go back and use some mouthwash after he brushes his teeth, he replies with a hostile, “Ugh, you and your sensitivity to smells. Get off my back.” I don’t want to micromanage him or treat him like a child, but unless I resort to rubbing Vicks Vapo-Rub under my nose, I don’t know how to get past this problem. It’s bad and I’m desperate for advice.
Stuck In The Bog of Eternal Stench
You know, SitBES, people underestimate how powerful scent is. Our sense of smell ties directly to our brain, and affects it in ways we never realize. Casinos and theme parks use sent to subtly manipulate our emotions – to get us excited, to get us calm or put us into more of an adventurous mood. Some scientists think that scent contains subtle indications of genetic compatibility. And of course, there’s the way that things like how we smell are often indicators of social awareness and physical health. So when somebody just doesn’t seem to give two shits about the fact that they smell like an open sewer… well, that’s going to send a very strong message to the people around them.
Your boyfriend seems to be in that camp. Hey, he can’t smell it so clearly it’s the problem for other people. He’s just rocking with his sewage mouth, happy as a dumpster full of spoiled clams. But there are some potentially serious issues here. To start with, chronic halitosis can have a multitude of causes. It could be a sign of basic poor oral hygiene – which your boyfriend definitely has – but there can be other sources. Some forms of halitosis are signs of health problems, ranging from periodontal disease, stones in your tonsils, bacterial infections, gastric disorders or even cancer. The fact that he’s not addressing his breath in any meaningful way could very well lead to having bigger problems than having breath like the aftermath of a GG Allin concert.
It’s a shame that he had a bad experience with his dentist way back in the day, but it’s going to be an even worse experience when the bones in his jaw start to rot away.
And then there’s the fact that it’s affecting his interpersonal relationships. It’d be one thing if it was a case of stale coffee breath or he smokes and he could pop an Altoid on occasion. But the fact that people literally can’t talk to him is going to handicap him in ways that he hasn’t even begun to consider. Sure, right now friends are grinning weakly and trying very hard to breathe through their skin when they talk to him. But that stink is going to affect his professional life too. How is he going to be able to coordinate with coworkers who can’t stand to be near him? What about when he has to talk to his boss? What about if his job requires him to talk with clients or customers? How many of them are going to be willing to do business with somebody whose breath smells the way Jabba The Hutt looks?
So here’s what you need to do, SitBES. You’ve tried subtle. You’ve tried polite. You’ve tried reasonable requests and doing the work for him. You have been following the Tao of Dalton. But like Dalton said: “Be nice… until it’s time to not be nice.”
Well it’s time to not be nice and apply some loving correction with The Chair Leg of Truth.
You need to tell your boyfriend, bluntly: “Your mouth smells like every corpse in the La Brea Tar Pits got up and shit in it. Your breath is like the dump on a hot summer day and it’s absolutely disgusting. And I’m not the only person who thinks so.” Give him the run down of just how many people have told you how much his stank-ass mouth is bothering them. You don’t need to give names, but you sure as shit want to give numbers – especially if they’re people who’re in your life on a regular basis.
Now I will tell you now: he will push back hard. He will insist that you’re exaggerating and that you’re too sensitive to smells. He’ll tell you that nobody said anything to him. This is when you tell him “Yes, but they’re telling me, and I am telling you. And if you care about me at all, then the fact that your breath bothers me this badly should bother the fuck out of you.” Feel free to run down some of the potential end results of his never dealing with his breath or taking care of his teeth while you’re at it. If he gets that there’s going to be greater consequences than “Oh well, I guess I’ll deal with green teeth” then maybe he’ll start to do more than look at the toothbrush.
And if this doesn’t penetrate his skull, then it’s time to draw a line in the sand. He sorts out his breath or the relationship changes. No more makeouts, no more sex, no more anything that involves you and his mouth because holy GOD the last thing you want is to have to hold your breath when you’re trying to get freaky.
I hate to suggest things like the Lysistrata Option but honestly, you’re being pushed into a corner here and shit just isn’t getting better. And if the idea that his mouth doesn’t get to go anywhere near you isn’t enough to motivate him to clean up his act (and his mouth) then… well, you know which he cares more about: you or his principled stance against oral hygiene.
I’m reaching out to you for the first time tonight to seek your advice in dealing with my truly horrid housemate.
First, some quick context. I live in an apartment complex that’s primarily targeted at college students, and as such my lease is an individual one. On the plus side, I’m not left holding the bag for an entire other room if somebody should suddenly move out. On the down side, I have absolutely no say in who I live with. In the two years and change that I’ve lived here, I’ve been very lucky. Most of my housemates respected my space as I respected theirs and treated me with the same courtesy I treated them. Then Mr. Entourage moved in. For the purposes of this letter, that’s what I’ll be calling him, since in taste, temperament and self-image he is essentially an Entourage box set brought to life by evil magic.
After an initial transition period where he came across as a nice enough, if rather bro-ish man, Mr. Entourage swiftly and progressively revealed himself to be a creepy, domineering bully. While I was happy to share my cooking tools and cutlery with him, I made them available under the assumption that he’d be courteous in using and caring for them. Instead, mugs, bowls and utensils disappear into his room for days at a time, miraculously reappearing dirty and heaped in the sink when I least expect it. I have never seen him wash dishes, and he only runs the dishwasher if I preload it. He resolutely ignores the trash and recycling, only taking the latter out if it’s actively overflowing. My job keeps me away from home for large chunks of the day, and its schedule is highly variable; I cannot be the only person to take care of the apartment, especially one that’s used as heavily as ours is.
More disturbingly than his general jerkery about housework, Mr. Entourage is an EXTREMELY heavy drinker, and his drinking fuels bursts of passive aggression and garden variety aggression that have scared me so much that I now carry Mace. I have come home and found six-packs in the recycling bin that were not in the fridge that morning. A selection of hard liquor bottles is on steady rotation on the kitchen bar. I’ve seen a full bottle of tequila emptied in under a week. As far as I know, he is not dating anyone, and the only friend who’s ever visited him here is his brother. My other, far more pleasant housemate, generally eats out. By process of elimination, Mr. Entourage has to be the one drinking all of that booze. And when he drinks, his worst self comes to the fore.
When he first moved in, Mr. Entourage asked me to stop using the laundry lines I had installed in our apartment’s main room to avoid power overages. He claimed that other people’s clothes made him so uncomfortable that he had to stay in his room and cancel his plans with his brother. As unusual as that sounded, I did not want to make the apartment unpleasant for him. Thus, for a time, I relied exclusively on my apartment’s dinosaur of a dryer. Sure enough, electricity overages soon flowed in. I spoke to Mr. Entourage about this, and while he was disbelieving (“my brother’s lived here for four years and he’s never had an overage!”) I thought we worked out an agreement that I’d use my lines quickly and discreetly, so that he wouldn’t feel uncomfortable and I wouldn’t have to pay more for clean clothes. I was wrong.
Not long before Halloween last year, I had to do some laundry that, due to various fabrics, had to be air dried. So I hung them up at night, on the furthest part of the line furthest from Mr. Entourage’s door. When I woke up the next morning, I walked out into the common room to discover that Mr. Entourage had pulled down the line and thrown my clothes around the room. He left a message for me on the whiteboard I’d bought for the fridge, drawn over a doodle I had made of the infamous “Mister Police” Snowman. The message read “BECOME CONSIDERATE OTHER PPL LIVE HERE.” We did not speak for several days, and during the brief moments when we were in the same space, he glared.
It was at that point that I bought the Mace and reached out to my apartment complex’s management to notify them of the problems I had been having. They were not unsympathetic, but could not take action until he did something full-on criminal.
For a time, things seemed to thaw between us (this coincided with his drinking temporarily slowing, if not stopping). And then one night at 2:30 AM he gave me a lengthy, smug lecture about how I should really be more quiet when I have an early morning shift, because he doesn’t like being woken up and he tries to be nice to me.
Although the laundry incident was the most extreme thing Mr. Entourage has ever done, it’s part of a semi-regular pattern of his being incredibly aggressive to anyone and anything. I’ve heard him have screaming match phone calls that have lasted for upwards of 20 minutes, and even watching sports he feels the need to curse and berate the players loud enough for me to hear through a closed door.
Between the aggression, the contempt with which he has treated both me and my time and the occasional moments of creepiness (he suggested we get to know the women in the apartment across the hall “because they’re cute.” They’re 22 at most. He’s 33. When I went on a date, he asked if I “got a smooch” from the woman I was seeing) he’s made living at home actively stressful. His recent weeklong vacation was an unpleasant reminder of how dramatically his presence has affected me, and if anything has made his ongoing presence all the more crummy.
My lease isn’t up until July (and management is wicked when it comes to trying to leave early). He’s actively terrifying at worst and a mental and emotional drag at best. My home is not the safe, restorative place I need it to be because of him.
What do you recommend, either for taking care of myself or for pushing back against his more odious behaviors?
Increasingly Boxed In
Your living situation sounds like a nightmare IBI, and it really sucks that you’re having to deal with this. The fact that your building’s management is taking the same hands-off approach that YouTube and Twitter take is just the icing on this particular trash pile. The conduct of their tenants is as much their problem as it is yours. In a very real way, this is an abusive relationship; psychological abuse isn’t just restricted to romantic relationships. Friends, even roommates can be incredibly abusive, and that takes its toll on you – often because so many people discount it as abuse.
Now, if I were you, I’d make two plans. The first is finding ways of dealing with your roommate. Start with going over your rental agreement with a fine-toothed comb; I am more than willing to bet there are a number of clauses in there about community rules and what is considered a violation of your lease. It may also be worth researching your city and state’s tenant’s rights laws; these may give you some leverage if you decide that things are intolerable and you need to break your lease early.
Meanwhile, continue to register your complaints with management. If your roommate – who they assigned to you – is continuing to get drunk and belligerent, then that’s very much their problem. This is especially true if his behavior is severe enough that you feel like you have to tool up just to be in your own apartment. There are many lawyers that handle tenants rights on a sliding scale basis who might be able to help you draft up a suitably impressive letter to management that could provide them with sufficient motivation to deal with your situation. Phrases like “I may have to get my lawyer involved,” tend to make even shitty landlords sit up and take notice.
And while they may not be willing to remove Mr. Entourage, they might be able to move you. If the rules of your apartment building involve your landlords assigning roommates, then you may be able to get them to let you move into a different apartment. Make it clear that if a vacancy comes up, you want to be given the chance to switch. That, at least, will get you away from Mr. Entourage.
The other thing that you need to do is find the ways to make your living situation as tolerable as possible until your lease is up. If you can crash with friends, then by all means, start making arrangements to do so. You may also want to consider moving your more important belongings to someplace more secure – whether it’s with a friend, or a storage locker – so that if things get bad enough, you can ditch your apartment without risking your possessions.
If you do be there at the same time as Mr. Entourage, find what ways you can to avoid or ignore him. Noise cancelling headphones or foam ear plugs are both options for when he has his screaming fits. Similarly, you need to start drawing some very firm lines about how much interaction you have with him. You may have to live together, but that doesn’t mean that you have to interact more than is strictly necessary. As awkward as it may be to say it this baldly, tell him “I don’t want to talk about this with you,” when he starts to get into your business. “Did you get a smooch?” “I don’t want to talk about this with you.” “Let’s go get to know those hot chicks.” “No.” “Be more considerate of my fear of hanging clothing” “Don’t touch my stuff.” Be polite, but be firm, be blunt and be distant. If you can keep things to pure necessities and nothing else, it may give you enough of a respite that you can white-knuckle your way through until July.
And if things are bad enough that you can’t stay any longer, start looking at just how much it’ll cost to break your lease anyway and compare it to how much it might cost to sublet from a friend. A couple months of extra rent may be a price you’re willing to pay to get the fuck out of Dodge early – especially if two or three months rent is less than taking the hit to your credit report on top of whatever penalties you’d pay for breaking your lease.
It’s an awful situation, IBI, but it’s not completely hopeless. Stand your ground with your roommate until you can get things resolved with management. And if his behavior escalates or gets worse… well, that’s when you GTFO and have several pointed conversations with management about the nature of your living situation.