The Importance of Smell in Intimate Relationships
on 16 Jan 2023
Most of us know how annoying it is to lose our sense of smell when we are ill, but did you know that our noses play a crucial role in our choice of partners and intimate relationships?
It’s true! We are surrounded by all sorts of smells and scents all the time and, let’s face it, we don’t usually notice them. Our subconscious, however, is very much aware of them.
So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a person’s scent influences how we feel about them and whether we’re attracted to them.
In fact, Germans even use the phrase “Ich kann dich gut riechen” (I like the smell of you) to express how they feel about someone. Coincidence? We think not!
But don’t just take our word for it—let’s let science weigh in.
How Important Is Our Sense of Smell?
Smell is one of our most powerful senses because it is tied to the limbic system in our brain which processes emotions and memories. It also controls motivation and behaviour. So, it's little wonder that scents affect us in many different ways, some of which we don’t even notice.
Have you ever come across a familiar smell that immediately reminded you of something? The faintest whiff of a long-forgotten scent can transport us back to past experiences, places, and people.
Such memories are referred to as odour-invoked autobiographical memories and they can be positive or negative, depending on what we associate with them. Positive associations with certain scents trigger the release of feel-good hormones like dopamine.
Our ability to smell influences our sense of taste, too. You may have noticed that a bad cold can affect both senses, making it difficult to even want to eat. When we can’t smell, food becomes bland. That’s because the flavour profile of anything we eat is enhanced by its smell.
If you have a blocked nose, it can’t detect the odour molecules that create what we perceive as flavour. You would think it’s the tongue alone that tastes, but in fact it merely senses if something is salty, sweet, sour, bitter or umami. We only experience the full flavour thanks to our nose.
But the nose has an even more vital purpose: it can detect danger.
Unpleasant odours are a warning signal to our brain that alerts us to potential threats such as a fire or gas leak. Their detection triggers an immediate response, much quicker than any response from visual or auditory signals.
Threatening smells are processed much faster than pleasant ones as this can be vital for survival: “Research on visual and auditory reaction time has measured the entire process from detection to movement as a touch faster; roughly 150 milliseconds for a reaction to sound and under 200 milliseconds for sight.” In other words, smelling danger makes us react faster so we can get to safety quicker.
How well our sense of smell functions can tell us about our general health as well. Most of us are familiar with the misery of not being able to taste or smell anything when we have a cold or the flu. Our sense of smell also weakens as we age.
Partial or total loss of smell may be a sign that something is wrong. Since this sense is closely linked to memory and emotions, a diminished sense of smell can even be an early sign of illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer's.
But if you want to know exactly how powerful our sense of smell is, you just need to look at research into its role in intimate relationships and our search for a suitable mate.
In the Guardian article “Thrown Off the Scent”, Alison Motluk mentions that, “[o]ut of a variety of factors, including appearance, the sound of his voice and how his skin feels, women respondents said that a man's scent was paramount. Body odour was particularly important, the volunteers reported, in decisions not to have sex with a certain individual.”
However, it’s not all about obvious, noticeable odours alone. Neuroscientist R. Douglas Fields reports that “men could tell by the fragrance of the sweat when that woman was sexually excited and when she was not.” Now, that’s quite the superpower!
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What Are Pheromones and What Do They Do?
Our bodies give off secret messages in the form of pheromones, chemicals we excrete that affect the behaviour of people around us. Sex pheromones, for instance, are the reason why men are naturally attracted to women at their most fertile time.
In “Sex and the Secret Nerve”, Fields says, “[a]nimals rely heavily on the sense of smell and other nonverbal cues for communication. From frenzied June beetles to tomcats pursuing a queen in heat, pheromones are important for selecting mates and stimulating reproduction throughout the animal kingdom.”
And as it happens, us humans are similar even though our sense of smell is less keen in comparison to animals: “In humans, mate selection and sexual reproduction are far more complex, but there are indications that people do exchange such secret pheromone messages.”
Receptors in the nose detect pheromones and send signals to the brain that lead to arousal. It’s no wonder that pheromone sprays, candles, and even bath products are popular among shoppers looking for a sexy treat or alluring scent to attract a significant other.
Our Sense of Smell Determines With Whom We Partner Up
In his article, “Why Smell Is So Important In Intimate Relationships”, Fields explains how our ability to smell impacts intimacy in ways we are not always aware of: “neural circuits from receptors in the nose do not connect with the cerebral cortex, where consciousness arises; they connect with parts of the brain that control reproductive behavior.”
So, while you may think you have always been attracted to your partner because of their personality and looks, the way they smell has had a significant impact on your choice, too. In fact, “body odor ranked as more important for attraction than a person’s looks and several other factors.” Who knew?
How Hormonal Contraceptives Influence Partner Choice
Hormonal contraceptives influence our sense of smell and therefore choice of partners. So, going off the pill may result in no longer liking your partner’s face – quite literally.
Studies have shown that heterosexual women’s preferences change based on whether they use hormonal contraception or not. Being on the pill “can change odour preferences [and] significantly decreased women's preferences for male facial masculinity” when it comes to finding a suitable partner. This corresponds with a preference for more masculine features when off the pill or during peak fertility in general.
If you’ve ever noticed you’re into hunkier guys at the most fertile point in your cycle, now you know why!
The Effects of Losing Your Sense of Smell
If our ability to smell is so crucial when it comes to forming intimate relationships, what does that mean for people who suffer from long-term or permanent loss of their sense of smell for one reason or another? Fields says that the link between smell and partner choice is so strong that these people are likely to have fewer sexual relationships.
Croy et al. analysed the consequences of anosmia on social behaviour, finding that “men and women without a sense of smell reported enhanced social insecurity, but with different consequences: Men who were born without a sense of smell exhibit a strongly reduced number of sexual relationships and women are affected such that they feel less secure about their partner. This emphasizes the importance of the sense of smell for intimate relationships.”
So, when it comes to relationships, our best advice is: Follow your nose.
Which Smells Get Our Lovehoney Forum Members Hot Under the Collar?
There is a whole thread about favourite scents, so check out the Lovehoney Forum for all the goss. Ranging from perfume to tar and butts, people reveal their secret pungent delights.
Did you know: The sexual arousal by body odours is called olfactophilia.
- “Sex. I love the smell of sex.” Blonde_Bunny
- “I love my partner’s natural aroma too - it instantly attracted me to him.” BluePup
- “And I have an air freshener called ‘stripper scent’ which literally does smell like a well-oiled dancer in strip club, so makes me very happy indeed!” m4nn13
- “Seeing as we are talking about smells that you shouldn’t like, I love the smell of oil, like mechanic oil, and sweat when a man’s been working and sweating. I could lick an armpit.” Orgasm_Chaser
- “And of course the top of the list is worn panties. Also, the sleepy smell of my OH first thing in the morning is awesome” Chosen-one
- “Husband’s lived-in armpits. I have been known to go to sleep with my nose buried in a day old pit.” Gosig
- “His smell, just the pure smell of sex. Please don’t judge, I don’t know why but I just love the smell of his cum in me” Dirty-Wife
- “And the after smell of sex is just so dirty in all the best ways” Melody1
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