Longing for Paradise Lost

A conversation with couples therapist Vera Matt from Berlin about smells in close relationships. Forget about dreamy eyes and inner values: supposedly the decisive factor in our choice of partners is how well we can smell them. Is it really true?

Vera Matt: Let’s take a detour into the animal kingdom. Instead of asking, “How are you?” when they meet someone new, dogs sniff each other. Making contact in this way promotes social communication and helps to make the right choice in a partner. We humans do the same in a subtler way, but we also emit pheromones, which are messenger substances with a signal effect. It’s impossible to escape their unconscious impact. They help us to find the best partner for creating healthy offspring. Our partner should not be too similar to us genetically, and also not too different, but should ideally have a different genetic make-up than we do. This makes for children with a strong immune system. 

So, we don’t enter into a relationship autonomously, but on the basis of an archaic method of species survival?

Vera Matt: It’s only a disposition; we always have the freedom of choice. But we complicate the process for ourselves. We mask our intrinsic odour with perfumes, detergents, hair spray and creams. Our everyday life is artificially scented. Fragrances on the skin can create a kind of cloak of invisibility scent-wise, so that we can’t be properly classified by a potential partner. 

What are the implications?

Vera Matt: This means that our smell might remind the other of an ex-partner, their mother or a secret high school crush – associations that have nothing to do with the person standing right in front of them. And later we are surprised to discover that we are not a good match. We can avoid this by wearing fragrances based on pure essential oils. These don’t falsify our fragrance, but actually highlight it.

The outside world seems to fade away

Falling in love stimulates the same areas of the brain that are stimulated during an acute attack of insanity

The nose has a direct connection to the brain and areas within it that are responsible for memories and emotions. How does this affect whom we do and don’t fall in love with?

Vera Matt: It depends on the individual. When I smell apple pie, I think of my grandmother; with oleanders, I think of Croatia from our family vacation. Many people love vanilla, which is often used in baby products nowadays. It’s sweet and stirs our longing for a lost paradise – which we might unconsciously seek in someone else. Ultimately, it’s a mixture of conscious and unconscious factors and the allure of the other’s immune system that determines whom we fall in love with. 

What we can’t smell, or what we don’t like about a person, is something we often don’t notice until later. It’s scientifically proven that those newly in love have a weaker sense of smell. 

Vera Matt: Falling in love stimulates the same areas of the brain that are stimulated during an acute attack of insanity. The outside world seems to fade away. But when the bonding stage begins, we return to earth and ask ourselves: Who am I, what is important to me? We re-evaluate ourselves, but now in conjunction with the other. It’s at this point that our sense of smell again becomes more nuanced. And it becomes clear whether or not the relationship can survive.

Our everyday life is artificially scented. Fragrances on the skin can create a kind of cloak
Vera Matt

In an existing relationship, how can we cope if our partner suddenly smells bad?

Vera Matt: We should first ask ourselves if this person has ever smelled good or if we merely thought they did. It’s important to address the topic in an open and honest way, but also as gently as possible. Love and humour help: you shouldn’t give advice, for it will always come across as criticism. Often it’s enough to look gently at your partner, take their hand and say: “You have bad breath.” That should be enough for them to try and remedy the situation.

Do couples ever come to you because of something like that?

Vera Matt: Time and again. Unpleasant body odour can lead to imbalance in a partnership and have many causes, from a one-sided diet to a sedentary lifestyle. Sometimes people don’t remember to medically investigate the possible causes. Recently, I had a couple that was suffering because the husband was suddenly giving off an unpleasant smell. It turned out that he had recently started on medication to lower his blood pressure, which changed his body odour. 

What does it say about couples when they can no longer smell each other, in the broader sense? 

Vera Matt: It’s very well possible that their separation is looming ahead. If I can no longer smell someone, then there is a fundamental reason why. It’s a gesture of rejection showing that I no longer want to recognize the other in terms of their unique characteristics.

What do you recommend if both partners want to save their relationship?

Vera Matt: As a therapist, I would pay particular attention to their body language. Do they make synchronous movements while in conversation with one another, do they both change their postures at the same moment, do they breathe in a similar rhythm, laugh at the other’s attempts at humour – in short, are these two individuals still in sync with one another? Do they still have a common basis? Doing things together can help – going dancing, reading good books, enjoying good food, celebrating anniversaries and sharing rituals. It’s possible to restore a sense of harmony by tending to the other senses. 

If I can no longer smell someone, how much does it have to do with myself? How much am I projecting?

Vera Matt: Probably a lot. When people are dissatisfied with themselves, they often project their shortcomings onto their partner. A solid relationship is not (any longer) about animal instincts such as smell, but about participating with your partner in a process of awareness and development. This makes it possible to eventually disregard an unpleasant smell. A client of mine once called such an attitude (albeit in a different context): “pardonability”. I like the sound of that. This includes being forgiving of yourself – and taking note when you project your own negative aspects onto your partner. It’s not the other person who is to blame for my unhappiness and who should change. It’s about my own attitude. Our toughest teacher is our partner, who reflects us and shows us our own imperfections.


Vera Matt

Couples therapist

runs a practice for coaching and couples therapy in Berlin, Germany