My boyfriend has no front teeth, and he won't go to the dentist

He says he got them knocked out in a fight years ago, but he's deathly afraid to get it fixed.

By Cary Tennis
Published September 20, 2007 2:10PM (UTC)
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Dear Cary,

My boyfriend is missing all of his front teeth. When I met him three years ago, he explained he had lost his teeth in a street fight and at the time I thought nothing of it. I even found it kind of sexy, in that whole "bad boy" kind of way. This was surprising to me, because my whole life, I would always judge people by their teeth. I believed that I could tell a lot about a person by the way they took care of their teeth, and I'm starting to go back to that mentality. Hence, my problem.

As I said, at first this did not bother me, but as time went on, we talked about him getting his teeth fixed. He would always put it off, saying he was deathly afraid of the dentist. I tried to convince him that they would put him under, but he refused and that was always the end of my argument. I too have a fear of the dentist and I understood how he felt. I also felt embarrassed talking to him about this topic, so I didn't push it. Still, it bothered me more and more that he was almost comfortable with not having any teeth.

On top of all this, he stopped brushing his teeth about the same time he lost his front teeth, almost eight years ago! I'm at a point that I feel I can no longer kiss him. His breath makes me gag (he's also a smoker!) and when we do kiss, all I can think about are the millions of germs that are being transmitted from his mouth to mine. Kissing is, I believe, an integral part of a romantic relationship, and if I can't kiss him, I don't see how the relationship will survive.

I'm writing to you for advice on how to politely but firmly say to him that either he takes care of his mouth or I go. The only thing I can come up with now is to tell him I think he's a disgusting pig and scream at him to get his f***ing teeth fixed, but I know that's not the way to go about it.

I knew what I was getting myself into when I met him, and I don't feel right being mean about the whole thing. But obviously the way I've been expressing my disgust for his lack of basic personal hygiene is not getting across well. Lastly, is this grounds for a breakup? I feel it is, but am I being too rash?


Dear Disgusted,

How would you feel if he needed heart surgery but refused to get it because he was afraid of cardiologists? You would drag him into the ambulance, right? Think of it that way. This must be done.

This man needs help. I suggest you think of this as a life-or-death matter.

I had a dear friend who died from an infection that began with a tooth. Infections in the mouth can travel very fast through the body. So regular dental care is not just cosmetic. It is vital to your overall health. His bad breath may already be an indication of problems. He needs to go see someone and get checked out and fixed up. Having no front teeth can cause problems with eating as well. It can cause all kinds of problems. He needs to get this assessed and taken care of.

I used to be terribly afraid of the dentist myself. After using speed for a couple of years, I acquired some serious gum disease. After I got clean and sober, my girlfriend, who later became my wife, insisted that I get my teeth taken care of. I was afraid, but she helped me. She was very strong at a time when I needed someone's strength. I whined, but she made sure I got my dental problems taken care of. Now it's many years later and I still have chronic gum disease, but it is being managed with regular visits and cleanings. At that time, I had a low threshold of pain. In early sobriety, we often have a low threshold of pain, perhaps because we are not producing enough endorphins, and our body chemistry is all out of whack. Whatever. The point is that if a pussy like me can go get my teeth fixed, your street-fighting boyfriend can go and get his teeth fixed.

So that's my story. And I will mention something else, too: Nitrous oxide. I get nitrous every time I go. I really like it! I'm a drug freak, after all, and any kind of high, I like. So when I go to the dentist to get my teeth cleaned, as I have to do four times a year to keep the gum disease in check, I get the nitrous. I can't take drugs recreationally. I can't even smoke a little pot or take a drink of wine or anything. If I did, I would end up addicted all over again, and I never want to go through that ugly scene again. But when I go to the dentist, I get nitrous. It almost makes it worth it. It's my little secret, taken under a doctor's orders, four times a year, purely for medical reasons. Nobody has to know that I'm actually enjoying the hell out of it. Doctor's orders!

So here is the other thing about the larger question of the relationship itself. You and he are not going to grow together as people if you cannot face crucial, difficult, perhaps embarrassing and frightening issues together. It's not that the condition of his mouth itself is grounds for a breakup, but the fact that you cannot work together to improve such a fundamental condition. That is the problem. The problem with the relationship is that you two are not working together to overcome your fears and improve your lives. If you cannot do that, then the relationship is not helping either one of you. Relationships are for making life better. We people get together not just for the comfort of another body, but because we can help each other through difficult times; we can improve each other's lives. We often have complementary identities -- one of us good with money, say, and one of us good with people. Things like that. One of us good at taking care of the basics, the other good at dreaming up new possibilities. Together we make things happen.

So if you are thinking about the relationship as a whole, ask yourself: What is he doing for you? Is he helping you in your life? Do you feel better or worse about your life due to his presence in it? And are you able to help him? How do you and he face difficult challenges? For instance, if he has a job change, or money problems, or family difficulties, do you and he talk about them and help resolve them together? Or does he insist that his life when he is not with you is not an issue? These are the things I would think about when you think about whether you want to stay in the relationship: Does it make your life better or worse? And are you able to grow and improve through the relationship?

As far as the teeth thing, I know that it can be very scary, and he may need your help. You may have to go with him. But he has to go. He has to take this step, as an act of courage and love and respect, both for you and for himself.

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