Q. My boyfriend and I have been dating for three months. I have noticed that he does not use a washcloth when he showers. When he stays the night and takes a shower in the morning, I give him a washcloth, but after he’s dressed I notice he has not used the washcloth. As a result, I think he does not wash his backside very well and I smell him. When he sits on the couch an odor is left behind, and as he stands I catch a strong whiff. How do I tell a grown man to wash his backside?
A. I am not sure the washcloth is the issue. There are many ways of washing well, washcloth or no washcloth. Your boyfriend could start using a washcloth and it might not change a thing.
People have definite ideas about the way one should clean one’s self. It is often something they grew up with and they assume everybody else does it — or should do it — the same way.
In the coming together of couples, many find that their partner’s hygiene rituals are peculiar or even off-putting.
But here, the issue is more that you are smelling an offensive odor. People have great differences in the sensitivity of their noses. Some prefer for their partners to be nearly aseptic, while others don’t care, or even notice, if their partner smells ripe. Also, some people quite like smelling their own body odor.
As you know, olfaction is a huge factor in attraction. It is helpful, and even necessary, to like your partner’s smell.
Then again, your situation sounds extreme. You are talking about more than body odor. It may be that your boyfriend is truly unaware of his bad hygiene habits. It’s hard to be attracted to someone who is unhygienic and who even has fecal material on him.
I don’t know what the truth is — whether you are especially fastidious or he is truly smelly. But, in terms of making this relationship work, that doesn’t matter. You must address this. Otherwise, you will become increasingly repelled, he will feel increasingly rejected and that will be the end of that.
So how do you tackle this delicate subject?
I suggest a conversation that takes place in a neutral moment — not in bed, but in the car or on a walk, where you are distracted by your surroundings.
I think you need to tell him he has a strong body smell, especially when it comes to his backside. You can blame yourself by saying you have a sensitive nose. He might have no idea what you are talking about, in which case you must be more emphatic, and tell him that, even after he showers, you detect a smell. This will probably be enough to make him more concerned.
But there is a nice way to do this. You should tell him this in the context of making it clear you are attracted to him and love many things about him, and that you don’t want this to be a problem that interferes with your romantic life.
You could also open up the discussion and ask if there is anything that bothers him about you.
Another approach, if you are sexually involved, is to take a shower together. This could be a playful and positive way to address the issue. Wash him everywhere and say that he smells so good because you soap up those smelly parts. In other words, say, “When I wash you there this way, it smells great.” This isn’t unsubtle and he should pick up on it, but only you can judge whether he will or not.
This topic is tough, but a resolution is necessary. If this persists as an issue for you, you will be put off and won’t last as a couple. Nor will you succeed as a couple if you can’t talk about difficult things.
Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: An indelicate hygiene problem with one’s partner will cause a breakup if it is left unaddressed.
Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to TODAY. Her latest book is “Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Lie.” She is also the author of “Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts,” which helps parents deal with preschoolers’ questions about sex and reproduction. Her first book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” was published in 2004 by Riverhead Books. It is now available in a paperback version. For more information, you can visit her Web site, www.drgailsaltz.com.