Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

Getting Personal: Please Tell Me If I Stink!

Today’s essay was written by guest contributor, Dennis Hong.

A few weeks ago, Wendy responded to a letter from a woman who was disgusted by her current boyfriend. As she put it, “He is grossly hairy EVERYWHERE, he is poorly educated, lacks common sense, is extremely clingy and he has halitosis.” Further complicating the situation was the fact that this woman was still in love with her ex.

Wendy’s advice was not to tell the current boyfriend how much he grossed her out and instead focus on the part about her not being over her ex. Pretty much everyone agreed with this advice. I mean, it’s the tactful and compassionate thing to do, right? He’s already going to be crushed. No reason to bludgeon him after reducing him to a whimpering pulp.

But then, over the next few days, I kept thinking back to this letter. And I kept wanting to put myself in the stinky boyfriend’s stinky shoes:

What if I was the one who smelled bad? What if I had a grotesque mop of hair on my back and had no idea? What if I latched on to the girls I was dating, cluelessly thinking that I was being endearing? What if I ain’t as smarts as I thunk?

If someone broke up with me for any of these reasons, wouldn’t I want to know? As much as they might sting, wouldn’t it be helpful to find out that I embodied some foul qualities that rendered me repulsive to women? After all, none of the traits the LW mentioned are unchangeable, and the fixes seem ridiculously simple: 1) Listerine; 2) Nair (painful as it might be for back use); 3) a therapist; 4) night classes at the local community college; 5) “Common Sense For Dummies”….

I’ve been dumped out of the blue before. I’ve gotten the “I’m not over my ex” line. I’ve been told, “It’s not you. It’s me,” and, “I’m sorry, I just don’t feel the chemistry.” Well, the one common denominator in all these lines is that there is absolute nothing I can do about them. (And sure, maybe that’s what these women wanted — to not give me false hope. I get that.)

Yet, I wonder if there was any harsh (but helpful) advice I never got because these women were trying to be nice — advice that I could have used to make myself less of a woman repellent. If there was, then I would certainly want to know.

Of course, the LW also has to consider the nature of the traits that bother her. If they’re superficial, then she’s probably just being callous by bringing them up. If the reason is, say… he has flaming red hair and she’s disgusted by redheads… or, if he has a superfluous third nipple, and she likes her men two-nippled… okay, she might want to keep her shallowness to herself.

But, the traits she mentioned aren’t necessarily shallow, nor are they hard to correct. And yet, this guy will likely go into his very next relationship with the same exact issues, potentially repeating the same exact mistakes which he has no idea of, but which he could easily correct if someone would just point him in the right direction. Not mentioning the harsh reasons for wanting to break up is the easier, less drama-inducing, more socially acceptable route. But when I think about the situation on a deeper level, I start wondering if the “socially acceptable” method is the exact opposite of compassionate.

That’s why, on seventieth thought, maybe the LW should tell the boyfriend why he disgusts her. I mean, she doesn’t have to use the actual word “disgust,” and there is definitely a tactful way to tell him. And maybe she should wait a few weeks, too, so the breakup can sink in first. But, in the long run, I do believe she’ll only be helping him by telling him the truth. I know if I were in his shoes, I’d want her to extend me the same courtesy.

So yeah, if you should ever dump me because my personal hygiene grosses you out… seriously, tell me. Or, if you’re too grossed out to get close enough to tell me, send me a text.

*Dennis is a relationships/comedy writer. (Or is that redundant?) He blogs here and doles out dating advice here. You can also follow him on Twitter.






36 comments… add one
  • Shandra October 31, 2012, 12:13 pm

    Well, dear Dennis, I don’t love your facial hair in this tiny photo on the net I can see on my lunch hour while I’m grumpy about a deadline. But I’m over 40 and married and not your target demographic so beware taking my advice!

    Which is about what I’d say about some of the things the LW said about her boyfriend. Smelly, is bad. Hairy is a personal thing. Some of the rest may be a problem, some may be stylistic differences. I don’t think it’s necessary for a woman to give tips on the way out because:

    a) She is not every woman and
    b) It is not her job to clean men up (seriously, women: Not your job) and
    c) It can be really mean, at that moment.

    I personally think the time to tell someone they’re smelly is between the first date and the not-next date. If you don’t like someone early and they say “hey any feedback for me” you can say “I don’t know if you were working out but you kinda put me off with your manly sweat smell.” But if you’ve dated someone for a long time and not brought these things up – it’s just mean.

    Men do need to think about hygiene and stuff, but that’s really on them. IMO.

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    • anonymous October 31, 2012, 1:50 pm

      On the other hand, if the woman he’s dating really cares about it, she can bring it up in that context. I think bringing it up after the breakup is really cruel, because then he’s left thinking, “Well, if I’d just used the right deodorant.”

      Personal note: I dated someone whose smell I hated. It wasn’t sweat or lack of cleanliness or the soap he used. It was just his skin. They’ve done studies showing that we go by smell because it can indicate genetic advantages to us…and just because he smelled bad to me doesn’t mean he would smell bad to the next person.

      And some people like hairy backs…I have several girlfriends who love a rug!

      My conclusion? Any requested changes need to be done by the girlfriend du jour, not the ex.

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      • lemongrass October 31, 2012, 5:22 pm

        People should keep in mind that people’s smells can be affected by things. I used to worry, well not worry but mildly concerned because I normally didn’t like my husband’s smell- not B.O. but the smell of him and those studies made me wonder if we were chemically mismatched. Then I clued in that it wasn’t him I was smelling, it was a coolant that they use at work. It wasn’t an obvious smell, like gas or something, just a mild “shop” smell.

  • ktfran October 31, 2012, 12:30 pm

    Really? You would want someone, as they are dumping you, to list everything they find wrong?

    “You’re a sloppy kisser”
    “Your feet are gross”
    “You have bad breath”
    “Your hairy knuckles gross me out”

    I agree with Shandra, these things should have been brought up while you’re dating so they could be addressed. Not when you’re ready to break up.

    Plus, different women have different tastes. I see people I find disgusting all the time who are married or dating. You know what? Good for them for finding someone who doesn’t think he or she is disgusting. I mean, if everyone looked for the sames qualities of attractiveness, there would be a lot more problems in the world.

    Why would you want to date or marry or live forever with someone who doesn’t like you the way you are?

    I once dated a guy who constantly told me he preferred brunettes. I’m blonde. I wasn’t about to dye my hair for him because I prefer being blonde. I tried darker hair once. It’s not me. It wears on your self confidence to be with someone who doesn’t like you the way you are. We’re no longer together. Obviously.

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    • Dennis Hong October 31, 2012, 1:08 pm

      Yes, I would like to know everything “they find wrong.”

      I know some people prefer to live in blissful ignorance, but I can handle a little blunt criticism (hell, if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be an internet writer). If I know, then at least I get a chance to decide if she’s the one being shallow or if it’s a legitimate issue I should try to fix.

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      • Michelle.Lea October 31, 2012, 1:25 pm

        but would you really know? it’s still subjective. and if she’s breaking up with you, her motivations are not completely pure. sure, maybe she thinks you’re far too hairy for her, but she obviously sucked it up for a few months before, what changed? definitely not the fact that you’re hairy, because you always have been. maybe she realized that she just couldnt get used to it. or it turned her off. but SHE is the variable in this one. she changed her mind. does that mean that omg, maybe you should shave your entire body just in case this is the reason that every other woman broke up with you? same with ‘education’. i know a guy that was very much in love with a woman that well, was not very intelligent – though sweet as can be. eventually, it started to bother him. to the point where he couldn’t go on with the relationship. HE changed. she was the same person she was to begin with. and her IQ was not something she could change. what then?

        and if you’re the person who just got broken up with, can you take these things and look at them rationally? and be objective about blunt criticism at that point in time? maybe. but it’s not something to suggest for most people. in fact, it can be a really bad idea that just ends up hurting someone’s feelings over something they cannot control.

      • sarolabelle October 31, 2012, 2:52 pm

        you would want someone to tell you as they are breaking up with you what they find wrong with you? This is someone you love and will change for her so you tell her “wait babe, I’ll change” and she says “too late I don’t love you”….wouldn’t you want her to have said those things before it was too late? Wouldn’t you have loved to have a chance to improve before she was gone? That’s what people need to do…they need to give people a chance to improve.

  • Michelle.Lea October 31, 2012, 12:50 pm

    i think it’s all too subjective. especially given her feelings at the time of the breakup. if she was totally turned off by him, she should have told him way sooner. because some people dont care about how hairy you are. and that bad breath? it can seem worse when you’re not into someone. i’m sure someone on this board has kissed their SO first thing in the morning. doesnt seem like a big deal.

    as for the clingy part, that’s subjective too. what’s clingy to her may not be to the next girl he dates.

    and what did she mean by poorly educated? lack of common sense has little to do with education. i’ve know incredibly intelligent people who didn’t make it to high school. one in particular had to quit school in the 8th grade to work for his family (this was a long time ago) and he was one of the smartest people i’ve ever known.

    i dont know. it’s one thing to tell a friend that hey, you need a mint. but someone you just broke up with? let’s just rub some salt in that wound. with some lemon juice.

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  • Lindsay October 31, 2012, 1:13 pm

    If you’re dumping someone for those reasons (bad breath, etc.), then you should tell them before you end things so they can try to fix the problem. Otherwise, you’re dumping them for other reasons, and it’s not really your business at that point, IMO. I’ve thought before about whether I’d want someone breaking up with me to tell me if there was something I’m doing that might be causing my own problems, but I honestly probably wouldn’t feel like listening to them.

    As for the actual issues, bad breath is something that sometimes people don’t realize and that can be fixed in some form. But a guy being hairy seems like slightly going overboard. I mean, if you really, really love the person and it’s seriously keeping you from being attracted to them, then I suppose. But it seems really rude and overbearing. It’s not their job to change themselves so that you’re attracted to them.

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    FireStar October 31, 2012, 1:14 pm

    That LW in particular just seemed like she was grasping at any old straw to justify what she wanted to do anyway – leave the boyfriend. If those issues bothered her – she would have addressed them IN the relationship instead of throwing them over her shoulder on the way out. If you are asking is it valid to bring up issues with your partner – then sure – honey have a breath mint…no really have a breath mint – is totally fine. A guy on a first date that didn’t get a second one and asked why might be told the truth but I agree with Shandra – men are grown ups – you are all capable of figuring out how to groom yourself appropriately. And if you keep striking out – then some self reflection – in multi-angled mirror – may be appropriate.

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  • Julia October 31, 2012, 2:05 pm

    When I was younger, I dated a woman who would casually drop little criticism bombs on me, often regarding things over which I had little or no control. It was ten years ago and I’m now happily married to a man who loves the way I kiss/ the way I smell/ my often unshaven legs, but I STILL think about the things that girlfriend said to me and I get self conscious.

    Anyway, the point is that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and I wasn’t her style but I am very much my husband’s. She could have kept her thoughts to herself and saved me some lasting damage.

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    Diablo October 31, 2012, 2:08 pm

    Dennis, why is a third nipple customarily referred to as “superfluous”? As opposed to, say, a 50% bonus? Having lived my sheltered two-nippled existence, I can only speculate on how awesome it might be to have more erogenous zones. Oh well.

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  • Leah October 31, 2012, 2:55 pm

    The thing is, physically all of the things you listed are fixable. But the personality of the man who is so lacking in self-awareness and basic hygiene that he doesn’t realize he is literally disgusting the people around him probably is not.

    Usually these are things we figure out about ourselves in middle school. If we come to school smelling or unwashed (which is common at that age, when puberty hits and we don’t yet know how to take care of our new, stinky bodies) our peers let us know. Stinky, dirty kids get made fun of, which is cruel but usually drives home the fact that they need to take care of themselves better. If a kid could get through that and make it all the way to adulthood without getting the memo to brush their teeth and use some deodorant once in a while, that speaks to a much larger issue. Either they’re that clueless about the affect (olfactory or otherwise) that they have on the people around them or they just don’t care, and those are personality flaws that are not easily fixed.

    Frankly, the fact that you’re even asking yourselves the question of whether your physical body has turned off the women that you’ve dated shows that you have much more self-awareness than the original LWs boyfriend. That self-awareness means that you probably have nothing to worry about, short of a particular woman having some nit-picky thing she might not like about you that, if you two were a good match in other respects, probably wouldn’t bother her anyway.

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    • painted_lady October 31, 2012, 4:10 pm

      Awesome, awesome point. My ex was pretty smelly and gross – didn’t shower every day, wore his hair long not because he liked the look but because he was too lazy to be bothered with haircuts more than once a year, shaved maybe once a week, and wore pit-stained shirts and running shoes so worn his toes poked out when we went out for a nice dinner with friends. It got to a point that I stopped going places in public with him if I could avoid it. And I tried to explain the issue to him. Dear lord, did I ever try. I explained in so many ways that he smelled and it bothered me, that he looked like a homeless person, that showing up looking like you just rolled out of the dumpster to someone’s event is just as rude as bringing four friends to a catered dinner, I helped him put together some clothes, and unless I was constantly nagging him like he was six, he would eventually fall back on the same gross habits. He just honestly did not care. Didn’t care if he offended other people, didn’t care that I was embarrassed to be seen with him, thought the problem was “society.” If I told him he smelled, he would go on ad nauseam about how humans were so backward in our quest to rid ourselves of our natural odor…or how pretentious it was to dress up, or how conformist. It was exhausting.

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        JK October 31, 2012, 4:54 pm

        hahaha the ad nauseam is pretty appropriate in your comment. 🙂

      • painted_lady October 31, 2012, 4:56 pm

        You have no idea.

    • Jiggs November 2, 2012, 12:34 am

      I am a second vote for people who smell probably know that they smell. Even if by some horrific mischance they don’t realize it themselves, they’ve surely heard it from kids on playground, college friends and/or frat douches, coworkers or bosses, or their own damn mother. If you’ve lived past age 20, someone in your life will have dived on the dickhead grenade to tell you you smell.

      I once worked in a retail store with a tiny, hot back room. There was a smelly girl who worked there. The manager had to tell her she smelled, because the rest of us were about to pass out on the job. She had to have this awkward conversation about 40 times, because a week or two would pass and Smelly Girl would be smelly again! If someone told me I smelled I would take a bleach bath out of embarrassment and scrub my skin raw every morning in the shower. This girl did not care (or not enough to avoid having someone insult you to your face once a week, anyway.)

      Thus concludes my supporting evidence for “people know when they smell”.

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    bittergaymark October 31, 2012, 3:16 pm

    Okay, truth? That facial hair is GHASTLY! Sorry, but it just is.

    Now, onto your thesis. My problem with the letter in question was that she seemed like a most unreliable narrator. She was hopelessly in love with somebody else and so she was going out of her way to find/create as many flaws as she could to sell us on why she should dump the loser and run back to Mr. Wonderful…

    I’ve actually been told quite bluntly why I was dumped in the past. Too much hair on my chest was one actual reason and it was plenty painful to hear as at the time I kept it shaved, but it could get a bit scratchy and being that I will never be naturally smooth there, it didn’t exactly make me feel any better to learn about this great flaw of mine.

    Instead, it just was more of a final twisting of the knife, you know? Admittedly, I was not immune to being mean here either, as my immediate response was: “Well — of course! — the hair on my chest is a deal breaker as it must constantly remind you that there is less and less hair on your head each and every time time I look at you. Really, it must be very daunting, I don’t know how you even survived this long with me…”

    Conclusion: No. Honesty is NOT the best policy.

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    • Jiggs November 2, 2012, 12:36 am

      Agreed – anything that takes center stage in people’s ex-partner revenge fantasies is not a kindness to the dumped.

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    KKZ October 31, 2012, 3:42 pm

    Dennis, you claim there is a tactful way to bring all this up… but IS there?

    I used to work with a guy who stunk. Badly. Every time he walked by my desk, a wave of gnarly B.O. was not far behind. He was a nice enough guy, if a little grungy – bushy, untrimmed beard, baggy & faded clothes (he was a part-time, low-level employee on the night shift, dress code didn’t matter so much. Beyond just that, he was the son of one of the higher-ups.). His B.O. problem wasn’t exactly a secret, either, it was whispered about by many people on our shift. Some of us felt bad for him, some of us were just plain disgusted.

    But no one said anything – and I’m fairly confident it’s because there isn’t really a tactful way to say “Hey, could you, I dunno, take a shower before you come in?” Especially not with his dad working at the company too, in a high-up position.

    So Dennis – what IS the tactful way to tell someone they stink?

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    • rachel October 31, 2012, 3:47 pm

      Oh man. There was a guy in my high school who stunk so bad, one of the teacher’s stuck an air freshener under his seat. Eek, bad memories.

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      bittergaymark October 31, 2012, 3:55 pm

      There isn’t. The only hope in a situation like this is for somebody to be willing to take the bullet here and be blunt. I once did this at an office and the person in question actually started bathing… Oh, she HATED me for all time after that, but I was kind of the office hero. I kid you not, I was secretly taken out to lunch by several coworkers…

      That said, I don’t think even I would have the balls to say something in your situation, KKZ. Son of a higher up? Yikes… Can you say, backfire? Time to run out and buy some Nag Champa and Glade Plug-ins…

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        KKZ October 31, 2012, 4:14 pm

        Luckily I no longer work there, so it’s no longer a problem I have to deal with myself. And he was on a different team than mine at the time, we rarely had much interaction, I literally only noticed it in passing. I can’t imagine the opinions of those who sat in his pod of cubes.

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        bittergaymark October 31, 2012, 4:29 pm

        I had to deal with… “Sarah” two to three times a day. And her odor — just rampant B.O.– was something that everybody talked about behind her back. It’s not that they were bitchy, it was just impossible NOT to notice. Anyway, one day she was being needlessly snippy with me and I just sorta snapped. “I’m unprofessional? Whatever, I may be late on this dub request, but at least people don’t contemplate wearing Vick’s vapor run under there nose each every time I walk into the room…”

      • iseeshiny October 31, 2012, 6:54 pm

        All the Sarahs I know smell delicious. Just sayin.

      • Katie November 1, 2012, 10:18 am

        I agree with bittergaymark, here. It just has to be said. It can be cruel, but when it comes to something non-superficial like body odor, in most cases people would like to know what it is about them (if it’s something changable) that puts the majority of others off.

        My husband had a roommate before we met. They were both in the military and surrounded by guys all of the time. Every guy complained about the fact that my husband’s roommate smelled like wet dog. No one wanted to hang out with him. The guy could *feel* the looks and people whispering about him, but he never knew what it was. Until one day, my husband just blurted, “Dude. You smell like wet dog.”

        The guy actually said, “THANK YOU! I couldn’t figure out what was wrong!” It turned out he actually had a major dental problem with a tooth — something about a rotting root. Anyway, he got it fixed, no longer smelled like wet dog, and everyone was happy.

        And I think that was Dennis’s point — if it’s something that’s not a personal preference and can be fixed, the actual “nice” thing to do is to tell someone about it. He might not have a clue!

    • lemongrass October 31, 2012, 5:27 pm

      Anonymous letter!

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    • EB October 31, 2012, 6:46 pm

      If it’s in a work environment, I’d talk to HR and let them handle the situation.

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  • Addie Pray October 31, 2012, 4:03 pm

    I enjoyed your essay, Dennis!

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  • painted_lady October 31, 2012, 5:30 pm

    So, while objectively I agree and understand – of course you’d want to know about any hygiene issues – I’m pretty sure, in the event of getting a, “Btw, you’re completely gross and smelly,” from someone who was dumping me, that newly-minted ex would become the Biggest Jerk in the World, because dude, NOT THE MOMENT.

    As well, I’ve actually done this. I addressed hygiene issues with a boyfriend, over and over (see above reply) and it made not one iota of difference. In fact, the way he saw it, the problem was me. I was the girlfriend who was so uptight and square that she was all hung up on conforming social conventions like washing and having clean clothes…bitch.

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    • rachel October 31, 2012, 5:59 pm

      how dare you!

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      • painted_lady November 1, 2012, 9:10 am

        Yeah. I’m really conformist and inflexible like that.

  • AKchic October 31, 2012, 7:07 pm

    Dennis – there is nothing wrong with a third nipple. Doesn’t matter where aforementioned third nipple happens to be located (whether it’s located right next to a “normal” nipple or hanging around your torso somewhere), a spare kinky spot is a spare kinky spot. You two-nip-chimps will never understand.

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    MackenzieLee November 1, 2012, 12:04 am

    I really loved the piece Dennis.

    But I have to say, back when I was young and dumb (even though i’m still young…..and still dumb). I thought I could fix everyone (clearly I had issues). On the eve of my boyfriend and my breakup, I decided to tell him a few things that would make him better for the next girl. I tried to phrase it nicely and this was a breakup that had been predetermined months in advance (because he was moving), so I thought the blow wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe he would even thank me. NOPE. He started crying and saying everything was wrong with him and he was a horrible person no one would ever love. And I just sat there why he cried and cried. Although, from what I can tell he may have heeded some of my advice. Either way, I will never do that again. The next guy needs to figure out his problems on his own.

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  • Beth November 1, 2012, 10:23 am

    I had a boyfriend who had terrible acne all over his back from his job. I spent a lot of time at his house while we were dating, so bought a body scrub with microbeads and put it in his bathroom. He started using it, and ta-da! no more bacne!

    But in reality, why is this girl dating this guy? It sounds like she is unhappy with him physically and mentally, so it would be difficult to be intimate with him.

    I have a recent ex who loved to compound everything with wrong with me on a daily basis. It took until after we broke up to realize he was gaslighting and hoping by bringing me down, I would stay weak and stay with him. If someone truly loves you and cares about you, a few helpful hints are okay, but one also has to realize this is someone’s personal appearance and personal choices. There may be a reason why he is poorly educated, such as a learning problem. He may not feel confident going to school, may not have money etc. And it is the LW’s definition of same, the guy may be a brilliant mechanic or farmer, but not have any interest in discussing current events in great detail.

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      Emily November 2, 2012, 9:06 pm

      When I break up with a guy, I try to make it all about him. I try to plan a time and place that is convenient for him and break things to him in a way that I think will be kind to him. This being said, I never told the German doctor I dated about his ghastly teeth, however I did tell him how his horrible communication style was a problem for me(he used to yell at me about touching any part of a door but the door knob). I only told men about things like bad breath, poor social skills if I felt the guy would take them well or understand what I was trying to tell him. When you like someone you tend to overlook his or her physical flaws, but if you really want to break it off with someone those quirks can sometimes signal a larger issue we have with the person. Although bad breath is just bad breath, icky. Sorry, I digress, I always try to understand exactly why I am breaking things off before I have “the talk.” You can’t really take back a break up so it’s always best to be sure.

      On the other side of the coin, I wish the men who have broken up with me over the years would have taken a ripping the band aid off approach. If you felt I was too clingy, socially awkward, or just annoyingly perky in the morning, please have enough cojones and respect to tell me. I am a a full grown woman, I can take it, and I promise not to hate your guts. It has always been much worse to wonder the real reason why someone really broke up with me. At the end of the day we are responsible for ourselves, but why is it that the stuff we really need to hear no one will tell us?

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