Your Sense of Smell Can Seriously Affect Your Love Life, So Pay Attention to Your Nose

We all notice right away when someone smells terrible, and etiquette columns are full of distressed pleas for advice regarding a stinky co-worker or friend. But more subtle scent cues are important in our daily lives too, and it may be easy to take them for granted until it's too late. Probably your partner smells pretty damn good to you — have you ever sniffed a dirty shirt, or slept with an old hoodie just to feel close to them? Smell may be the unnoticed glue keeping our relationships together, or pulling them apart.

Consider the case of Charlotte Self, 45, of England. She had been happily married for 20 years when a 2008 cycling accident and related head injury left her with no sense of smell ("anosmia"). Very quickly thereafter, Ms. Self realized she was falling out of love with her husband, Duncan. She knew in her mind that she loved him, but the emotions were gone. Having lost interest in physical contact, the couple's sex life dwindled. They separated and divorced within five years.

Although some patients who have suffered from traumatic head injuries and related anosmia will eventually regain their sense of smell, not all do. And the causes of a disrupted sense of smell are many. For instance, significantly many users report that the cold remedy Zicam has damaged their sense of smell, sometimes after only a single dose. You may experience some smelling impairment as a result of seasonal allergies or a cold or flu. And, unfortunately, diminished smell is also a common feature of ordinary aging.

And, while they don't often report noticing anything different about their sense of smell, birth control pill users choose less manly partners than non-users, and the explanation is smell-based:

Women on the pill undergo a shift in preference toward men who share similar... genes. [In a study], the female subjects were more likely to rate these genetically similar men’s scents (via a T-shirt the men had worn for two nights) as pleasant and desirable after they went on the pill as compared with before. Although no one knows why the pill affects attraction, some scientists believe that pregnancy—or in this case, the hormonal changes that mimic pregnancy—draws women toward nurturing relatives.

This is bad news, whether you start taking the pill mid-relationship or pre-relationship: it could either make you like the man you're wanting to sleep with less than you did before, or cause you to mistakenly believe that you want men who your "real", non-pill self would reject. Although smell doesn't strictly and exclusively determine who we're attracted to, it's more important that commonly acknowledged... until something goes wrong. Hopefully science can continue to shed light on this phenomenon, maybe even leading to scent-based therapies for relationship problems.

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