Dear Captain Awkward,
My boyfriend (late 30s) and I (early 30s) have been dating for about 2 years and pretty much everything is great. He’s kind, generous, supportive, and smart; he understands “privilege” and “the kyriarchy”; we have similar goals in life; and the sex is awesome. We’re talking about getting married and having kids. However, I have a problem: his personal hygeine and housekeeping skills are disgusting.
He doesn’t shower daily, only brushes his teeth 3-4 times per week, and wears the same clothes for days on end. We live in an area notorious for being super-casual and laid back, and even here his employer has had to have a talk with him about his grooming habits. Yesterday I jokingly brought up the tooth-brushing thing, and he protested that he brushes “almost daily” and that his oral health is fine. He thinks his gums are healthy and is convinced he’s cavity-free, but he hasn’t been to the dentist in years, and his gums are visibly receding and discolored. It’s revolting.
His apartment is gross – it stinks of ammonia since he rarely cleans his cats’ litterbox. When they vomit or drag in dead rodents, he picks up the chunks off the carpet but doesn’t treat the stain. His toilet bowl is brown on the inside. There is a layer of dirt, hair and scum on practically every surface in the kitchen and bathroom. When he washes dishes, they don’t get clean – they just come out greasy from the filthy water he washes them in.
I don’t know how to broach this topic with him. I love him and want to make a lifetime commitment to him, but I also want him to take care of his body and of the house we’re eventually going to share. When we live together, I don’t want to be solely responsible for keeping the house in habitable condition. I also don’t want his teeth to fall out before he’s 50. Am I a nagging harpy for wanting to change his habits regarding grooming and housekeeping? How can I discuss this with him in a way that won’t make him feel attacked? He sometimes tends to regard criticism as an attack on Who He Is as a Person, if you know what I mean. Help!
– Fastidious Girlfriend
Dear Fastidious Girlfriend:
I think you should not share a home with your boyfriend unless you see a noticeable, sustained improvement in his housekeeping and self-care skills. And I think that you (gulp) need to talk to him very directly about it. If you move in just hoping it will naturally get better, it will be a constant, draining source of conflict between you.
You can maybe get at some of it through asking questions. What kind of a home does he want to live in? What kind of place did he grow up in? Who taught him to clean? How does he feel about the state of his house now? If you lived together, how would he want to handle the chores? Does he wish he could be cleaner? Is there a reason he doesn’t go to the dentist more often?
But as the great Apeman1976 said in the table manners thread (seriously, dude, you changed my life with this comment!): The least manipulative way to try to get someone to change their behavior is to be extremely honest about what you want them to do.
There’s no way to bring up something so personal without making the other person feel criticized – you ARE criticizing his housekeeping and hygiene! So the kindest thing you can do is be direct.
“Boyfriend, I love you and think you are amazing, and I think about getting married and being together forever and when we talk about getting married I get butterflies of excitement!. But your housekeeping and personal habits really gross me out and worry me. I know this is hard to hear, but I worry that if we live together our house will be disgusting or that I will be totally responsible for keeping it clean and will end up resenting you, or that it will lead to problems if we have children. And I worry that if you don’t take care of your teeth and gums better, it’s going to lead to major health problems and expense down the road. Can we talk about this?”
He might get really defensive and upset – the story you shared about how he thinks his dental health is just fine, when clearly it is not fine – is illustrative, so get ready to have a good old-fashioned fight about it, of the: “My housekeeping is fine!” “I can smell the cat box from three rooms away, and there is still a bloodstain on the carpet from when your cat brought in a dead rat – is that okay with you?”
One thing you could say that would be both true and direct is this:
“My nightmare is that we live together and I feel resentful and grossed out and you feel constantly judged – that’s NOT the dynamic I want, so I want to talk about this now, before we move in, and agree on some ground rules and talk about how we are going to handle it.”
And, off the topic of the future, but, is it okay with you that he smells? And doesn’t brush his teeth? Have you asked him directly to take a shower and brush his teeth and wash his clothes and clean his house? Not in some ‘down the road when we’re married’ kind of way, but in a ‘right now, go take a shower, you smell like a goat!’ kind of way? Because there are a lot of guys who “understand what the kyriarchy is” who aren’t heavy with the tang of cat wee. (Right? Please god, I hope so). How does he react when you say that stuff?
I am not completely unsympathetic to your boyfriend. When I am in a depressive period, my housekeeping will not win any awards, and I have to really work at staying on top of it – therapy, medication, making lists for myself, literally giving myself gold stars for completing chores. When that “You can do that later!” voice kicks in I have to say to myself “Or, you could just do it now, so DO IT NOW!” (I made my bed, took the trash out AND washed my breakfast dishes today, so three gold stars for me!) Even though I was raised by extremely tidy people who taught me to be tidy, I have a whole lot of emotional/cognitive issues that I wrestle with around stuff that other people find basic and routine. Sometimes it’s a simple matter of “Writing is important (real) work that I must do now, where cleaning is unimportant (women’s?) work that I can do anytime” which is a bullshit fallacy in my head, obviously, because the way that people get clean houses is to treat cleaning as an important thing that you schedule and spend time on.
Also, I am a freelancer with a very shitty insurance plan and a high deductible, so I also sometimes put off dealing with health issues because of expense, and sometimes it has taken a significant other to shake me and say “GO TO A DOCTOR.”
And yet? I think of myself as a worthwhile person who is deserving of love.
Even if I feel defensive and ashamed when stuff comes up, it has really helped me to have someone make me accountable and say “I love you and notice things about you, so take care of yourself, please.” And I have also been in your shoes, the one who says “I really need a clean kitchen in order to feel okay about life, can you help me out by cleaning your share, please?”
So speak up about your needs. You need him to bathe every day. You need him to do laundry regularly and not smell. You need him to clean up around his house more. You need him to get on the dental hygiene. If this leads to a bunch of emotional roadblocks from him (um, yeah, I suspect it will open up a big can of emotional worms, so get ready), you need him to maybe seek out some therapy to handle it. And until you see some consistent effort around this stuff, you can’t contemplate sharing a home. The message is “I love you, but this stuff is not okay. Will you work on it, for me? Can we work on it together?”
If you do get to the home-sharing stage, well, I’ve written about the Magic That Is A Hired Cleaning Person before. My grandmothers would roll over in their graves if they ever knew I’d even contemplated this, and I can’t see my parents being too thrilled with it (they are both extremely tidy), but honestly:
- I am not so good at staying on top of household chores.
- I am much happier when my house is clean.
- A cleaning person helps me have a clean house by a) cleaning stuff and b) forcing me to do a shame-cleaning before they come over.
- When I’ve shared a house with others, the only time there was never any tension at all about cleaning was when we made “cleaning person, every 2 weeks” a mandatory part of living there. You guys, our house was SO CLEAN AND NICE! And we never fought about it and it was never weird!
- Outsourcing that task takes all procrastination and weird emotional issues out of the picture. You just get a clean house without the fighting, for probably <$100/month total. (Which, confidential telegram to the Internet: GOD I KNOW MONEY IS TIGHT MAYBE YOU CAN’T STOP I CAN’T RIGHT NOW EITHER STOP IF YOU POST HERE EXPLAINING WHY YOU CAN’T AFFORD A CLEANING PERSON AND WHY I AM BEING MEAN BY ASSUMING YOU CAN I WILL DELETE YOUR COMMENT STOP PRIVILEGE WHATEVER SHUT UP SHUT UP STOP)
So if you do end up moving in with your boyfriend, make a cleaning person mandatory, and make the night-before-the-cleaning-person-comes-shame-cleaning a ritual that you do together. And if he resists that – “But it’s such a waste of money!” “Why are you alway criticizing me?” “Why do we need to hire someone when we can just clean ourselves?” – then seriously rethink joining households, because he just made his need to never, ever, ever feel even a little bit criticized more important than your need to have a sanitary and functional home. You can’t control how he will react, you can only be true to your own needs.
As usual, I’m sure the smart and awesome commenters will come up with great advice, so hopefully you can find some help for a really sticky and difficult conversation.