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May 23, 2012

Scent of a Marriage

How important is smell in a relationship? Very, argues one woman.


Photo Credit: Getty Images

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I WAS WITH MY EX-HUSBAND for more than a decade. He was—and still is—one of the best guys I've ever known. He's smart, acid-witted, a wonderful dad, and a good friend. But irreconcilable fighting, resentment, and fundamental personality differences ultimately took a toll on our marriage. And there was something more: We didn't like each other's scent.

For more than 30 years, scientists have been studying the natural aromas emitted by humans. Research suggests that our unique personal scents may serve several purposes, including helping us choose a suitable sexual mate. In a famous Swiss study, women who were asked to smell sweaty T-shirts worn by different men were most aroused when sniffing the shirts worn by guys with dissimilar immune systems, a crucial requirement to lasting attraction and healthy offspring. Although it's not exactly scientific, my own experience backs up the science. If your spouse doesn't smell good to you, it's bad news. Really bad.

The truth is, I was never drawn to my ex's smell. My first scent memory of him, as we tipsily leaned into each other after a holiday party, was of expensive, tasteful cologne, like the men's section at Saks. His clothes, when they came off, smelled of Tide and Downy. He was too pristine, too sanitized. There was no man smell undergirding the perfume. I craved masculine sweat, heat, and tuber-like earthiness. There was none there. But I ignored my desire to love my mate's scent because he was, in every other way, an amazing guy: a natural leader, an intellect, and a killer poker player.

He was a bit more vocal about his disdain for my scent. When we first got together, he'd wrinkle his nose after kissing me first thing in the morning. As time went by, he asked me to switch from my brand of antiperspirant to something with more "muscle," perhaps to disguise my natural odor. Eventually, he suggested that we wash our laundry separately. (Was my unappetizing scent rubbing off on his clothes?) In the end, he flat out told me that I literally stunk like hell to him.

Was my funk just god-awful? Maybe, maybe not. It turns out that it doesn't really matter. The appeal doesn't have anything to do with an objectively pretty or spicy smell, like lilacs or nutmeg. It has to do with that ineffable sense that signals: This smells like my person, however salty, grassy, or musky. This is the person I need to mate with. My ex and I weren't broadcasting sexual cues to each other at all.

A decade ago, if you had told me that I'd write that sentence, I'd have chuckled. Like many American kids in the 1970s, I grew up in the culture of the sexual revolution. For our parents, the unabashed sexuality was liberating; for many kids, including myself, it was intimidating. When Erica Jong's daughter published an essay titled "They Had Sex So I Didn't Have To," I giggled and gulped at the same time.

So when I was choosing a husband, hot sex was hardly on my list of requirements. Stability, kindness, and protection were. Blood, sweat, and prurient connections to other sundry bodily fluids? No, thanks. I pretended that sex wasn't important to a marriage, and in doing so, I ignored the fact that I couldn't stand the smell of the only person I'd vowed to sleep with for the rest of my life.

The fact is, sex is central to a marriage. And smell is part of sex. The presence of that primal, scent-sexual connection is what makes a romantic relationship different from a friendship. Without it, there is no glue to hold a couple together in hard times.

After my divorce, my olfactory sensitivity was on fire. If a man didn't like my scent, screw it. I let loose and wore a non-scented hippie brand of antiperspirant. I just didn't care anymore.

Then, a guy I liked a lot texted me after our first night together to say that he had tucked his shirt into a Ziploc bag to preserve my smell embedded in it. I fully appreciate that many women might have run from such a person, suspecting lurking fetishes of a most delinquent order. Me? I actually cried when I got that message: He loved me—he wanted me! Best of all, the feeling was mutual. I felt at home in his warmth and aroma of salt and grassiness. A few years later, I married him.

I can't tell you exactly how this smell business works, but it does. My husband would not shower unless I reminded him every third day, and because he's a manual laborer, it can get pretty ripe around here. But to be honest, I don't care; his smell is mine, and mine is his. We often fight like crazy—and we laugh like maniacs, too—but because we're so intoxicated by each other's smell, we've also had sex every day for the four years we've been together. As a 42-year-old mother of three, this is no small thing. Every day. I'm not joking.

Does this mean that people should marry anyone whose scent they can't shake? With whom they have crazy, monkey sex? Absolutely not. Any Sam Shepard or Tennessee Williams play can tell you that. Friendship is vital, emotional support is essential.

On days when I'm feeling irritated with my husband, I tell him he'd better pray to God I don't wind up with some kind of sinus infection that leaves permanent damage or he'll be out on his ear. He says, "That's not true—you love me." And, of course, he's right. Scent may have tied us together, but love is what makes us want to stay that way.

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