How do I have a conversation about my spouse’s breath?

Help me, Fortune Cookie! I love my husband very much. But there’s an issue. His grooming standards are not all that great. In particular, his breath is atrocious. I find myself not wanting to kiss him because the odor (some fetid combination of rancid milk and manure) turns my stomach. How do I address this without making him feel upset and insulted? Thank you!


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Hello Diner. I’m glad this came in as an Order because it’s universal and difficult. Every part of the Fortune Cookie is fragrant and palatable, but humans nourish ten times more bacteria than the total number of cells in their body. Some are bound to make unpleasant odors at mood-killing times. The phrase “to be human” implies not only imperfection but unpleasant natural processes. Despite knowing this, people still feel ashamed when they’re called out for behaving–and smelling–as expected.

So at least I understand your position. This Fortune is not one about odors or brutal honesty, but one about diplomacy. Others can easily say: “just use your words to tell them the truth. A good partner would accept it.” But if it were that easy, this wouldn’t even be a question for you.

That said, you and your husband should move toward having such a relationship dynamic. But that process in itself is difficult and may need a whole other Fortune to discuss later. To that end, I’ll answer the question at hand:

1. Understand your husband’s specific concerns. You may have arrived at this question by looking at the situation with your own set of sensitivities. You may not want to be told your breath stinks for your own reasons. Are you sure your husband has those same reasons?

2. Understand your needs. No less important are your needs. Take time to organize your thoughts. Why is this important to you? What would you like to see change? Saying something is a problem without offering solutions not only is unhelpful to the person (who was going along fine until this discussion), but it may also seem like an attack.

3. Be respectful but direct. Understand that a marriage is an equal partnership where you two respect each other. Acknowledge (and remember) that you’re dealing with another human being with emotions and pride. Think of an intimate embrace. It’s only effective if you’re not wishy-washy about it, but at the same time, you’re not crushing the other person.

4. Practice good couples’ communication. The Internet is full of tips for this. A good practice is to use “I” statements: “I feel ___ when you do ___.”

5. Watch those colorful adjectives. Your description of his breath was very vivid, but choosing words with negative connotations like the ones you used would just make your partner feel more shameful. This isn’t a pleasant experience for either of you.

6. Don’t tack it onto another argument. Be careful about a discussion about this one topic becoming an airing of all your grievances. A string of disagreements would just seem like attacks. Better yet, talk about it when you two are in good moods.

7. Be on the same side. You aren’t his judge and jury. It isn’t a “you are wrong, now change” situation. The two of you own the problem. Make the lifestyle change something you can both do and keep doing.

The important thing is that sparing his emotions is not the way to go. If you remember you’re on the same team and fix the problem together, the discussion will go much more successfully than if you frame it like he’s in the wrong. Good luck, Diner.