Sex and the city: Time for ‘Swachh Biwi’ Abhiyan

I am very confused and upset with my wife who is unable to take feedback about her lack of oral and general hygiene, and her total disinterest in grooming. Surprisingly she is a make up artist but doesn’t even bathe for days and only uses a lot of perfume. She wears the same unwashed clothes which stink of perspiration. I am so put off whenever I want to get intimate and when I ask her to shower and brush she refuses and acts hurt and gives me the silent treatment for days. This is a serious issue between us and I don’t know who can explain to her that this must change. Please advise.

Female hygiene is a very sensitive topic for a woman. It’s important to understand that feedback can sometimes feel threatening to people – more so when they are in intimate relationships with the person who is in fact giving the feedback to them. Feedback can also cause deep feelings of shame to some.

A common natural assumption is that people who are close to us would never do or say anything to compromise our general sense of ‘well-being’ and ‘autonomy’. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Harsh words and harsh truths sting with an equal ferocity regardless of who is delivering the ‘payload’. Perhaps the question to ask is not - what your wife is doing but why she chooses to not ‘take care of herself’ when it comes to hygiene. Understanding the ‘why’ may be the way ahead to explore what is causing her behaviour.

  • Does your wife feel like she’s not ‘good enough’ to even make an effort?

  • Is this your wife’s way to get your attention since you seem to not notice her much?

  • Is this a hangover or bad habit that she picked up from her childhood where she deliberately didn’t groom herself to rebel against a certain oppressive authority figure?

Thus, where you see and feel disturbed by a woman with a lack of hygiene, jumping to short cuts about her being lazy or disinterested would be the easy and convenient thing to do. There may be so much more about your wife than what meets the eye.

Theories can only get us so far. A lot of time and attention must be invested in understanding the greater motivations that make people ‘the way they are’ so they do ‘what they usually do’. Extraordinary insights help us excavate through even the most ordinary or allegedly mundane situations. All insights begin in initiating an honest and kind dialogue.

You will also need to first ascertain if your wife is upset with what you said to her about her, the manner in which or intensity with which you said it to her, at what time you said it to her, in front of whom you said it to her or the fact that you (as a man) said something to her about her hygiene. Which one is causing her to react in this manner to you? It’s important for you to narrow it down either through dialogue with her or by enlisting the help of a therapist to break through this glassy impasse you have reached with her.

Your wife’s silent treatment of you is a classical passive aggressive manoeuvre that may be her way of addressing her disapproval of you for your disapproval of her hygiene related matters. To break through her silence is going to require patience and empathy on your part.

Is your wife also generally averse to feedback from other people? If yes, then that makes your job a little harder if not impossible.

Stubbornness cannot be broken with force but it can be negotiated with – if information that shrouds a person’s personality quirks becomes clearer through open and gentle dialogue. We can’t get people to change their habits and behaviour patterns for us at emotional gunpoint or by escalating finger pointing tactics.

People on the backfoot feel threatened and seldom think straight! For change to be permanent, it is important for the hesitation associated with the change to first be looked into. Maybe you can ask someone whom she is close to – to speak to her about it as a sort of ‘middle person’ whose involvement may save her the embarrassment or humiliation of being called out or labelled in some manner. What is she really afraid of – if she continues to behave in this way? What would she like for the relationship you will share? Does she have dreams and plans of the kind of husband she always wanted for herself?

How can you both adapt to each other’s shifting needs will require the two of you to create a nurturing space (perhaps in the presence of a qualified relationship counsellor) so that the dialogue you will initiate with each other doesn’t mutate into a skirmish that would basically lead the conversation around in an infinite loop of disappointment, shared disgraces and mudslinging.