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Why Disliking a Partner's Smell Could End a Relationship

Scent provides familiarity and comfort, except when it doesn't.

Key points

  • Liking a partner's scent predicts higher levels of relationship commitment.
  • People are more likely to report wanting to break up after sniffing an unpleasant odor from their partner.
  • Scent may play an important role in commitment because of its potential to encourage or discourage intimacy.
  • From an evolutionary perspective, we may respond to scent because it can indicate physical health.
Vera Arsic / Pexels
Source: Vera Arsic / Pexels

Love at first sight… or should that be love at first sniff?

Past studies have shown that scent matters to human beings when they’re choosing a partner. For women in particular, body odor plays a major role in attraction. If she doesn’t like how you smell, you may be out of luck.

But can smell also contribute to the end of romance? Research says it can.

Smells Like Commitment

Psychologists at the University of Sydney and Macquarie University in Australia recruited 80 undergraduate students, 41 women and 39 men, for a study on the links between scent and relationship commitment. Seventy-two of the participants identified as straight, four as gay or lesbian, and four as bisexual.

The researchers tested the students on their olfactory ability—in other words, how skilled they were at detecting, discriminating, and identifying odors—rated them on their responses to smelling clothing soaked in strangers’ sweat, and surveyed them on their current or, if they were single, most recent romantic relationships. Participants were not only asked about the length of their relationships, whether they lived with their partners, and their level of relationship satisfaction but were also questioned about their responses to their partners’ body odor and how often they engaged in “comfort smelling”—intentionally sniffing clothing or bedding to get their partner’s scent.

The study found that the more participants liked their partner’s body odor overall, the more committed they were to their relationships. The researchers also noticed that after sniffing an unpleasant odor from their partner, participants were more likely to report wanting to break up.

These results suggest that, regardless of relationship length, sexual activity, and other factors, greater exposure to and enjoyment of a partner’s scent predicts a stronger desire to stay in the relationship. Interestingly, although scent has been shown to matter more to women than men when they’re choosing a partner, gender didn’t make a difference to these results.

Why Do We Care How Our Partner Smells?

Body odors can either encourage or discourage physical intimacy, and olfactory sensitivity has even been linked with higher levels of pleasure during sex across genders and more frequent orgasms in women. Sexual satisfaction is strongly associated with relationship commitment, so, if disliking a partner’s body odor results in less pleasurable and less frequent sex, it increases the likelihood of a break-up.

Apart from sex, liking the way a partner smells may help maintain a relationship by providing familiarity and comfort. We know that odor is closely linked with memory, and a partner’s scent can be a reminder of all the wonderful experiences we’ve had with them.

From an evolutionary perspective, we may be primed to respond to scent because of its role as an indicator of physical health. Evolutionary pressures have conditioned us to prefer physically healthy mates who are more likely to produce healthy offspring and to be able to help raise them. Since poor diet and disease can produce foul smells, being turned off by bad body odor can keep us from choosing an unhealthy mate.

In the end, disliking a partner’s scent may signal a loss of compatibility and spell trouble for a relationship. This information could be used to improve couples therapy by emphasizing interventions that specifically target smell, like treating health conditions that affect body odor or selecting perfumes or colognes that improve scent.

Facebook image: Dikushin Dmitry/Shutterstock

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