How To Tell Your Partner Their Breath Stinks Without Hurting Their Feelings

by Annie Foskett

You know that moment at a restaurant when you suddenly you notice that the person opposite you has a flake of Swiss chard stuck in between their vampire tooth and their incisor? So darn awkward. Yes, it would be so easy to just tell them, but something about the vulnerability of your coworker or your date or even your mom not knowing they have a decoration on their tooth makes broaching the topic weirdly difficult. I'll one-up the "food-in-teeth" scenario: does anyone know how to tell your boyfriend his breath stinks?

No, this is not directed at any particular boyfriend in my life because I currently have exactly zero boyfriends in my life. (Well, maybe a half.) However, bad breath is a topic that I feel we as a society overlook too often. I simply wish it was acceptable to tell the mouth-breather who sidles up way too close to me on the subway, "Your breath kinda smells." It would help me breathe, and them not disgust their S.O. later that evening! But alas, I have manners and don't want to get in a subway shouting match when there's one more stop until I get off the train.

But when your partner has bad breath, you have to deal with that, er, fragrance for quite a bit longer than a short subway ride. Plus, you have to kiss the mouth that made the smell. Which is why I think it's OK to give your partner the heads up their current oral hygiene is a bit off. It's about you and them.

I know, I know. It seems impossible to bring up such a delicate topic without making your partner feel totally mortified. It takes a lot of tact to tell a person you love snuggling with that you wish their mouth smelled different, which is why I genuinely sought out an expert's opinion. Because honestly, I'd be more comfortable asking a partner about pretty much anything else. I spoke to Bevery Hills-based family and relationship psychotherapist, author of The Self-Aware Parent, and regular expert child psychologist on CBS's The Doctors, Dr. Fran Walfish about how to talk oral odors with your S.O.

Be Gentle, You Like This Person

Before you say anything, consider the type of communication your partner responds best to. "Each individual has their own comfort level and evolved level of communication in interpersonal relationships," explains Dr. Walfish. "In simple language, this means that some folks are more at ease with straight-talk than others." Is your partner the first person to tell you you're smelling a little ripe and need to take a shower? Just tell them!

More likely, however, they're going to be sensitive about their breath discretions and it's best to bring up the topic carefully. "In general, it’s best not to come right out and say 'Your breath stinks!' and risk injured feelings or ego," says Dr. Walfish. "Try searching for a fabulous new sweet tasting mint. Exuberantly share your new discovery with your partner offering him a taste of your new experienced delight." She adds that you can say something like "and our breath will smell fresh!" — using the pronoun "our" instead of "your" can keep your partner's defenses down. Another option, "We should really brush our teeth before we hook up in the morning." Hints are kind.

Praising Is Greater Than Criticizing

While I am all about criticism when it comes to government policies, newly released movies, and skincare products at Sephora, criticizing a partner never tends to go over all that well. "It is always best to praise the positive versus criticize the negative," explains Dr. Walfish.

She adds that when it comes to sex, rather than tell a partner what they're doing wrong, we tend to focus on what does feel good instead. You can do the same with hygiene! "Say something like I love kissing you after you had one of our sweet new mints," says Dr. Walfish. "They make you taste even more delicious!" Be playful, and hopefully your partner will get the hint.

At the end of the day, however, if your partner's breath is truly offensive, and they're not picking up what you're putting down, just tell them gently and in the moment that their breath smells a bit, and would they mind brushing their teeth before kissing you? If you're going to be with this person in the long-run, you need to be able to be real with them. Remember, it's possible to be both straightforward and kind. Happy post-brush smooching!