Invisible Attachments: How Scent and Pheromones Better Our Intimate Relationships

08.09.2021 Life
Dr. Habib Sadeghi
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In recent years, there’s been a trend in some markets to include dual master suites for married couples in custom built homes. The concept was sold on the idea of freedom and personalization. She wouldn’t have to put up with his snoring anymore, and he could watch TV until 2 am if he wanted. While the possibilities of dual master suites might sound tempting, it doesn’t seem that giving couples more time away from each other than they already spend is the answer to increasing intimacy. More absence, even under the same roof, doesn’t make the heart grow fonder.

It turns out that science supports this theory. Logistics aside, sharing the intimate spaces of the home with our partners keeps us bonded to them in primal ways that are central to our biology. Whether we know it or not, invisible forces in the form of biochemicals are at work continually reinforcing our subconscious sense of belonging and attachment to our partners the more we’re around them or their personal things. Nowhere does this chemical bonding happen more than in close communal spaces like the bedroom and the bathroom.

Bathroom Bonding

In a British poll, nearly half (45%) of the couples responding said they share their nighttime routine with their partner in the bathroom as a way to wind down and talk about the day. This was in contrast to 29% who said they were still able to eat dinner together. For the under 34 crowd, just 16% said they could manage eating dinner together and felt that bathroom bonding, as they called it, was an important way to keep from growing apart.

A great way to deepen this kind of experience might be for each person to participate in some aspect of their partner’s nighttime routine. No, you’re not going to brush your wife’s teeth, but brushing her hair for her before she puts it up is a very loving thing to do while she talks about what’s on her mind. Although it might sound impractical, mutual grooming is a high bonding activity in the animal kingdom of which we are a part, and it affects us in a similar way. Even something as simple as applying lotion to your partner’s body and certainly showering together provide the same benefit.

Signature Scents

While the bathroom bonding is in progress, unseen forces are at work, increasing intimacy on a subconscious level that can deepen the connection between two spouses even when they’re not together. When we share intimate spaces like a bathroom or bedroom, we’re constantly taking in the scent of our partners, even when they’re not present. Put on your partner’s bathrobe because yours is in the laundry and suddenly you’re smelling his scent. As far as your nose is concerned, he’s practically in the room. Our sense of smell has a strong connection to memory, and thoughts of our partners can enter our minds at times like these, further strengthening our connections to them.

Post-workout clothes thrown on the bed, hair caught in a brush on the counter, a spouse’s pillowcase and even a shared towel are giving off olfactory cues that are deepening the bond between us and our partners all the time.

Although science has never officially determined that each human has an individual scent, police and trailing dogs have been proving it anecdotally for decades. In fact, a study performed at University College in London proved that dogs could even detect the difference in scent between identical twins. Although the source of human scent wasn’t the subject of the study, the researchers inferred that whatever it was, it was probably genetic.

Science is beginning to suspect the unique chemical composition of sebum is what gives us our individual scent. Produced by the sebaceous glands, sebum is a fatty substance that helps lubricate the skin. It’s liquid at body temperature and solid at room temperature. Chemically speaking, it’s made up of fatty acids, wax alcohols, sterols, terpenoids, and hydrocarbons. Some of these compounds aren’t found anywhere else in the body. If sebum is removed from the skin, the sebaceous glands work very quickly to replace it. That’s why dogs can still identify someone’s scent even after a vigorous shower or series of showers.

A structure similar to cholesterol called squalene is also found in sebum. It’s the component that helps dogs and other animals distinguish us as different from their species. It’s estimated that unique combinations of fatty acid components and wax alcohols in squalene is what differentiates one human’s scent from another.

Just to give you an idea as to how individual scent bonds people together, studies using T-shirts worn over several days showed that not only can people detect their own scent, but they can identify those of family members, as well. Babies only a few weeks old have shown that they can identify the breast scent of their own mother over those of other mothers. Likewise, mothers can recognize the scent of their own baby.

Attachment Beyond Awareness

Sharing our intimate spaces with our partners allows for another powerful chemical swap to take place, the exchange of pheromones. Like human scent, the actual existence of human pheromones and our ability to detect them hasn’t been officially demonstrated by science. Most of the issue lies in the fact that other mammals have a special organ to sense pheromones called a vomeronasal organ (VNO) that humans lack.

When pheromones are in the air, a bundle of nerves in the VNO sends messages to the brain that excites the hypothalamus, which controls many functions including aspects of parenting and attachment behavior.

Interestingly, a study showed that the hypothalamus of women lit up when exposed to 4,16-androstadien, a synthetic steroid or pherine with male pheromone-like properties. Since the late 1990s, much evidence has been built demonstrating that humans probably do have a VNO and that it’s most likely connected to the nasal septum.

In other examples, estratetraenol, a powerful steroid hormone thought to contain pheromones and found predominantly in female urine, increases arousal and elevates mood in heterosexual men. In addition, distinct activity in the hypothalamus area of the brain (involved in bonding and attachment) in heterosexual women and homosexual men is detected when exposed to androstadienone, a male steroid with pheromone-like properties. On the contrary, the same activity occurs in the brains of heterosexual men and homosexual women when exposed to estratetraenol.

The point to all this science is that there is a very real physiological and chemical connection to our intimate partners going on just beyond our awareness. It’s strengthened when we share our intimate spaces with each other because like the rest of the animal kingdom, we’re leaving our scent everywhere.

This “marking” of territory subconsciously confirms to the brain that you belong to me. So perhaps we might want to rethink over-sanitizing certain areas of our homes or even using heavy colognes or body products that would block our natural scent and bonding properties between us and our partners.

Kissing & Connection

Kissing strengthens the connection between people, but especially intimate partners, because the lips contain an enormous amount of touch receptors and sebaceous glands. When we kiss, we exchange sebum that contains our unique self-identifying chemical signature along with countless proteins and hormones at trace levels. Research continues to show that the exchange of sebum most likely plays a prominent role in feelings of attachment both between intimate partners, as well as parents and children.

This is why it’s instinctual to want to kiss those we love. We want to strengthen the bond between us and them, creating a sort of chemical WiFi that keeps us connected, even when we’re not together.

Making the Most of It

Our primal chemical bonds exist for a reason, and we need to consciously use them to our advantage to keep our modern relationships intact even as the demands of life give us less time together. Quality of time more so than quantity is what will strengthen the 21st century relationship, and a shared master suite has much to offer if you know how to use it.

It’s understandable this might be difficult if your current master suite is on the small side, but do what you can with what you have. If possible, consider expanding your master suite. Not only will this improve the value of your home, but you’ll naturally want to spend more time pampering yourself and your partner in a larger, more modernized layout.

It’s nice to dream about having a big house and lots of things with which to fill it, but the truth is big houses and their dual master suites take us further away from each other when we’re supposed to be social animals. There’s also no more need to compromise or to try to work things out with his and her domains of the house. A lot of the time, this just leads to isolation…and narcissism. When I hear people say that they just fell out of love with someone, I often wonder. Did they really just “lose that loving feeling,” or did they lose their primal loving bond?

For more insights from Dr. Sadeghi, please visit beingclarity.com or check out his annual health and well-being journal, MegaZEN here. For daily messages of encouragement and humor, follow him on Instagram at @drhabibsadeghi.

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