Shani prefaces her disclosure with discomfort: “This is not an easy thing to discuss. But it’s an issue for me. It has to do with cleanliness. I grew up in a home where we were expected to shower daily, brush our teeth morning and night, and generally clear up after ourselves. Besides that, we were taught to be aware of our natural body odors and use deodorant and mouthwash at least daily and more as needed. I never really thought about it as a value- I just thought it was basic self-care. I have friends who are more extreme- like ‘OCD’ about cleanliness, but I don’t think that’s how I am. I think I’m just regular. But I guess most people assume that the way they are is regular. This is what’s happening in my marriage: My husband- you wouldn’t look at him and think he’s gross. But living with him is a different story. He’s much more chilled about this stuff and I have a hard time with it. He can go several days without a shower. He doesn’t always brush his teeth and I can tell. He owns deodorant, but I don’t see him use it much, and by the evening, or when I get close, it can be unpleasant. He’ll wear the same clothes multiple times without washing- including socks and undergarments. And it comes out in household habits too- leaving food and dirty dishes out, tossing laundry on the floor, and trash out on surfaces. He’s a nice person, so I try to be a good sport, but it bothers me. I’ve asked him gently a few times about some of these things. He’ll do what I ask in the moment, but I think he finds my feelings about it nit-picky. He thinks it’s just a gender difference, but I’m not so sure- my brothers seem to be more sanitary. I’m not talking about high fashion or trendy hairstyling- just personal cleanliness. I wish I could ignore this, but it’s a turnoff to me. It gets so that I get nervous being around him.”
Shani is correct- this is not simply a gender difference issue- I actually hear this complaint from men about as often as from women. She is also right that a lot of these practices have to do with how we are raised, what was expected in our childhood homes. (It is not surprising that I concur with Shani, seeing as I fabricated her based on a bunch of different clients.) She also notes that there are extremes: some who are so unseemly that it is obvious to anyone and objectively offensive, and conversely those who are so pathologically punctilious that their standards are neurotic. Like with most values, the key is moderation, and there is a normative range.
Often in marriages like Shani’s, each spouse thinks the other is the atypical one. Since we don’t marry ourselves (generally speaking), we are always going to differ slightly from our spouses in various ways: one will be neater/ cleaner than the other, one will be more cautious with money, more punctual, religious, harder working- these differences are to be expected. The problem becomes when there is conflict that is causing distress for one party. Specifically with hygiene, there is a relational dilemma: it feels shaming and hurtful to have to point out that a spouse is in some way dirty, yet it’s a serious turn-off to live with someone who isn’t practicing good hygiene. It’s tricky to address, though: If the cleaner spouse is too preachy and naggy about it, the messier one might tune out, get defensive, resentful, or passive aggressive. If the cleaner spouse doesn’t address the issue at all, she may start to pull away, avoid close contact, or develop resentment on her end.
A better solution is to try and tactfully figure out a system of reasonable and realistic expectations, discuss them in a non-shaming, nonjudgmental way, and come up with a plan of how to implement and discuss the matter going forward. For every couple the arrangement may be a little different, depending on their particular behaviors, sensitivities and lifestyles. It can sometimes be hard to gauge normative cleanliness from over-meticulousness when there are differences of opinion, so I compiled a partial list below of what I (subjectively) believe to be some reasonable spousal hygiene requests.
Trigger warning: some items on this list are somewhat graphic
Daily showers with soap and shampoo, brushing teeth (at least) twice daily, mouthwash or strips after strong foods or before kissing, deodorant and/or perfume/ cologne, keeping nails well-groomed, tidying the restroom and shower after use, disposing of dirty tissues, hair shavings, nail clippings, and sanitary products discreetly, relieving flatulence in the restroom, attending to issues such as dandruff, acne, eczema, psoriasis, fungus, or halitosis, taking care to avoid touch or other contamination when contagiously infected or sick.
Cover mouth when yawning, coughing, or sneezing
Change undergarments and socks to be washed daily, other garments after not more than 2-3 times, or more often as needed, dirty laundry, including towels, in hampers, clean laundry in closets or drawers
Chewing quietly with one’s mouth closed, not talking with mouth full, eating with utensils (not fingers), not licking fingers, not belching loudly/ saying excuse me if it happens, not putting one’s own utensil into the serving dish or the other’s food, clearing the place after eating, putting away perishables after use, trying to limit food consumption to “eating areas” of the house rather than, for example, in bedrooms.
Some people might read this and say: this is so obvious and minimal- it should go without saying. Others may feel it’s too demanding, while still others may feel they would add to the list. It’s for each couple to discuss and determine their own needs and agreements. Ultimately, it’s in the best interest of the marriage to communicate and strategize about these things effectively and respectfully, so that habits can be cultivated that promote feelings of consideration, comfort, and closeness.
[Author’s notes: Many couples argue and differ about division of domestic responsibilities and level of attention to household chores, organization, and living space cleanliness. While this is a common and important issue, it is beyond the scope of this post- this was to address the more sensitive and specific topic of personal hygiene. Whose job it is to do what in terms of keeping the house clean and how clean it should be kept- that we can try to tackle in some other blog post, at some other time when I want to avoid cleaning my own house. Another related issue deliberately not addressed here is when a spouse gains weight and the partner is bothered by it. Also- important and prevalent, but for another post.]
This post was written to be judiciously used as a catalyst for these delicate cleanliness conversations in otherwise healthy and stable relationships. Remember that with issues like this, how we express the message can make all the difference. Some tips to set up for success, for this or any other difficult talk: Choose a quiet, private, calm moment. Ask permission to bring up something delicate. (Proceed only if granted; if not then reschedule.) Express some form of sincere gratitude or positive feedback for something in the marriage- begin with love, and appreciation that you feel safe to bring up hard things. Then express your feelings compassionately, with “I” statements, focusing on requests rather than complaints or criticism. End with love- ask if they’re ok, if they understand where you’re coming from, if there’s anything they want to say to you back and then listen, respect, reflect, and respond. Say thank you for listening and being someone I can talk to like this. This is not a guarantee that the conversation will be well received or produce the desired or immediate results- just some ideas to begin a dialogue.
If you think of anything to enhance or amend the above lists, please feel free to email me or to suggest them in the comments section below.