Raise your hand if you’ve ever borrowed a piece of your partner’s clothing, just to keep it close to you. Or maybe you slept on their side of the bed while they were gone, or you’ve realized you can identify their shampoo just by smelling it. While we tend to think of ourselves as touch-oriented or visually-oriented, we use all of our senses to bond with our partners– smell included.
Our sense of smell is intimately tied to our emotions and memory. People often note that particular scents can trigger vivid memories and powerful emotions. This is because the olfactory bulb, which processes scent information, is part of the brain’s limbic system, which is closely associated with our memories and our feelings. So let’s take a look at some of the reasons we find our partners’ scents so alluring!
The Science of Scent-Based Attraction
The way we smell might be at the heart of why we’re attracted to some people and not to others. Research has provided compelling evidence that we employ scent-based signaling mechanisms to assess compatibility. In one study looking at scent-based attraction, 44 men were given clean T-shirts and wore them for two straight nights, using only unscented soap and aftershave. These shirts were then smelled by a group of women, who were ased to identify the ones they found most appealing. The group of women demonstrated a clear preference for the odors of T-shirts worn by men whose immunological traits were distinctly different from their own.
This distinction could be attributed to differences in the sequence of more than 100 immune system genes known as the Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC). These genes encode proteins that play a crucial role in helping the immune system identify and combat pathogens. The women also reported that the scent of these favored shirts reminded them of their past and present boyfriends, strongly implying that MHC compatibility significantly influences real-world dating choices.
The Nose Knows
The trope of a woman stealing her boyfriend’s hoodie is well-known in everything from sitcoms to memes. But why are our partner’s clothes so comforting? It’s got everything to do with how they smell. In a study at the University of British Columbia, women who smelled their partners’ clothes felt less distressed before and during stressful situations– and it wasn’t just emotional. They produced less of the stress hormone cortisol than women who didn’t have access to their loved one’s clothes.
Smells and Smooches
Modern hygiene discourages people from smelling. Between frequent bathing, deodorant use, and scented products, today’s humans do a lot to discourage our natural odor. Body odor has gone from something considered natural to something considered unsanitary in a relatively short amount of time, and that may have had an impact on the way we interact with our partners– especially when we’re sussing out a potential new romance.
If there’s a biochemical response to the scent of a potential partner, it stands to reason that we’re driven to get a good whiff of that person. We see this all the time in other mammals, including other primates. But by today’s hygiene standards, we do everything we can to suppress our body odor, so how do we get close enough to each other to smell one another?
According to Geoffery Miller, author of The Mating Mind, the answer lies in the way we kiss and cuddle each other. Miller states that our hunter-gatherer ancestors “didn’t have to do a lot of kissing, because they could smell each other pretty clearly from a few feet away, With all the showering, scents, and soap, we have to get our noses and mouths really up close to people to get a good idea of their biochemistry. People are more motivated to do a lot more kissing and petting, to do that assessment before they have sex.”
So basically, our modern courtship practices and our willingness to kiss each other might have something to do with our need to smell each other to assess each other as potential partners.
The Importance of Pheromones
Pheromones also play an interesting role in the science of sexual attraction. Pheromones are chemical substances produced and released by individuals, often unconsciously, to elicit a specific response in others of the same species. Human pheromones work differently than those of other animals. Most mammals have a vomeronasal organ at the base of their nostrils, which helps them interpret pheromones– but humans do not. However, that doesn’t mean our pheromones are completely useless. While our pheromones can be found in various body fluids, we tend to pay the most attention to those found in armpit sweat. One of these pheromones, called androstadienone, is found in higher amounts in men’s sweat. Women can detect it, but not everyone is equally sensitive to it.
A study has demonstrated that when women are exposed to a small amount of androstadienone by putting it under their noses, it can make them feel better and more focused. This is particularly helpful when they’re trying to understand their emotions. Feeling good is linked to a better sexual response, and being more focused can make the experience of sex more satisfying. Some studies even suggest that exposure to androstadienone can boost sexual desire and make people feel more aroused.
So why are we attracted to our partner’s scent? It’s not a simple answer. This attraction is a multi-faceted and intricate interplay of biology, psychology, and evolution. It is rooted in our deep-seated need for emotional connection, bonding, and the pursuit of genetic compatibility. Our sense of smell serves as a silent but strong messenger, carrying messages of love and desire that transcend words and conscious thought. While love is far more than a sum of its parts, our partner’s scent is one element that weaves itself into the rich tapestry of romantic attraction, adding depth and meaning to our relationships.
Scent is just one of the ways we communicate with our partners– and while it can certainly influence attraction, it isn’t the only thing that determines who we’re attracted to and how we feel about them. If you’re interested in deepening your relationship with your partner and learning new ways to communicate, reach out to the relationship therapists and coaches at Love Heal Grow. We love to help partners grow even closer together!