A nose for romance

The old saying ‘love is blind’ may be true. It is animalistic factors such as communication, touch and smell that determine how attractive we find our partners, says David Servan-Schreiber


A nose for romance

Michael is a well-known New York psychotherapist. He’s 45 and divorced. Because he’s a therapist and understands the importance of positive thinking, he describes himself as ‘between relationships’. A rational man but a romantic at heart, Michael’s keen to fall in love again. I asked him what he’s learned about the stormy relationship between men and women that will help him find someone new.

‘It’s very simple,’ says Michael. ‘There are three signs that can tell you if someone you like from a distance could turn out to be the love you’re looking for. Of course, there’s no guarantee you’ll spend the rest of your life together, but these signs will give you an indication of whether there’s any potential for a loving and passionate relationship.’ I had no idea we could be so certain of anything concerning matters of the heart, but I’ve got a lot of respect for Michael as a therapist, and for his knowledge of human nature, so I hear him out.

‘First of all,’ he says, ‘you mustn’t kid yourself about how attractive you find this person. Of course, attraction is not the same thing as love, but it’s definitely a good start. So, ask yourself, 'Do I really find this person attractive?' Second, do you love the way their skin feels, the taste of their body and, most of all, their smell? It’s essential you do, because it will never change. You can fool yourself about your physical reaction to someone’s smell if you’re just sleeping together, but to fall in love, you must be hooked on it.’

I do remember a piece of research that showed there are certain species of moth that stay with one partner for life and whose sense of smell is so powerful, they can detect their mate at a distance roughly equivalent to London to Edinburgh. If we retain anything in the human brain that’s even close to that kind of olfactory sensitivity, I’m quite prepared to believe that we shouldn’t ignore the importance of our loved one’s smell.

And, of  course, there’s the quality of communication, Michael goes on. It’s emotional communication that counts. For us primates, emotional fulfilment comes from intimate physical contact. Monkeys express mutual interest and intimacy by picking fleas from each other’s coats.

This same impulse is expressed differently, but is just as important for humans. When you meet a potential partner, there are two things you need to look for. Do they ask you about yourself? And do they really listen to your answers? Do you get the sense that they really want to understand you? I’d like to believe that this last point is really the key to love, but I think Michael is probably right — we shouldn’t ignore our more basic animal instincts.

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