Dear Patricia: My husband's lack of hygiene is embarrassing
QMy husband and I have been married for five years and are still very much in love. He has many wonderful qualities and I find him very attractive. We have a very busy life but still make time for each other. We spend most eve-nings and weekends together and make space for sex a couple of times a week. The main topic we disagree on lately is his hygiene.
My husband, whom I knew as a friend for several years before we started dating, always had what I considered good grooming habits. He shaved every day, usually smelled good and rarely had bad breath. After we married he kept these things up for a while, but then I guess he got comfortable. I'm not completely sure what changed. I do not mind the occasional scruff on his face, but he now regularly fails to brush his teeth, wash his face, put on a deodorant, or fix his hair. He says it's because life has become busy and he forgets. He gets half-way through his day before he realises he forgot to brush his teeth the night before, or put deodorant on that morning and then figures, "Oh, well, too late now. I'll take a shower tonight and just start over tomorrow."
It has become so bad that his employer pulled him aside recently and told him that other employees were complaining about his BO and said he had better start wearing deodorant. He was also helping me with the children of friends the other day and one of them pointed at him and said his teeth were yellow. There was also a period of time when I hesitated to kiss him, never knowing how his breath might be, but my hesitation made him feel bad. Now I either kiss him anyway, or if it's really bad, tell him that I'd love to kiss him as soon as he brushes his teeth.
I've also started reminding him about his hygiene on a daily basis, either at night or in the morning -- and often both. Sometimes he does it and then sometimes he says he doesn't want to and we argue about it. The other morning he got dressed without using deodorant, I reminded him, and he just said he couldn't be bothered getting undressed again and that he wouldn't get BO since he didn't sweat at work -- neatly forgetting the comments of his boss.
I feel there is a general level of hygiene that everyone should practice for cleanliness purposes and as a courtesy to others. I would like my husband to put on deodorant, wash his face and fix his hair every morning, brush his teeth twice a day, and shave on the days he works. I do not think that's too much to ask. Having to remind him daily makes me feel like a nag, or like his mother, and I really don't like feeling that way. I don't think he resents what I say, but I feel it is only a matter of time before he will.
I know I can't change him, that he has to change himself, but he used to take care of himself and I don't understand why he won't do so now. Is there anything I can do to support or motivate him? There have been a couple of occasions when I was embarrassed by his lack of grooming when we went out. I don't want this to affect our relationship, or my feelings for him. What can I do?
AYour husband didn't get comfortable. Nor did he just get careless. He got angry and resentful. From the sound of it, this happened quite early in your marriage. And since he's carrying this inappropriate behaviour into his workplace, his distress is obviously quite severe.
I don't know what's happening in your marriage on a daily basis. What is clear is that you're already well ensconced in a controlling mother-role and your husband is reacting like a rebellious child.
This isn't a battle about personal hygiene. This is a battle about your relationship.
It sounds as though he just can't stand the order of it
all -- the making time for each other, the creating of space for sex several times a
week, the sheer conscious togetherness. And rightly or wrongly -- although I suspect rightly -- he sees this level of organisation as your idea. If someone stops washing himself before he goes to work, he feels seriously suffocated. In psychological terms, regressing to early childhood as your husband has done, is a pretty clear signal that something is fundamentally wrong.
Communication failure is always a two-way process. Your husband clearly doesn't assert himself. Equally clearly, you're blind to the emotional message his behaviour is sending out. Or maybe it would be fairer to say that you're partially blind. Yes, you have taken the trouble to think and to write to me. It's just that you still seem to be missing the point: you have to pick your way around kissing your husband -- and he doesn't care. His boss has warned him about BO on the job, and he hasn't changed. He's so scruffy going out on social occasions that you're embarrassed and everyone must notice and he shrugs it off. What does he have to do to make you sit up and take note?
No, I'm not blaming you. Your husband is infantile in his behaviour. I am addressing you solely because it's you who wrote to me. This isn't a problem of finding ways to motivate your husband on the hygiene front. It's a question of creating conditions for him to verbalise, rather than acting out. And, yes, I'm afraid taking the initiative is down to you. That's the problem with passive-aggression -- which is what your husband is indulging in. The partner has to start the process of change. And that, of course, involves ignoring the obvious theme -- in your husband's case the lack of personal hygiene -- and cutting to the chase. What's your husband actually saying with his bad behaviour?
Don't hold your breath. This won't be resolved in a single sitting. In fact, a discussion may never get you
anywhere. At the moment, anyway, your husband is in denial, pretending that he's just forgetful. So it's going to be a long haul. That means you also have to analyse the situation yourself, and make the changes you see fit. Which brings us back to my educated guess: he can't stand the order of it all. He sees you as completely in charge. He feels totally unequipped to put into words what's going on in his heart. And getting out of that bind will be hard for you, I know.
All I can tell you is that you're right. You can't be his mother. You have to step right back, on as many fronts as is humanly possible, leaving him to set the pace. And then wait and see what emerges.