Chapter 4. Olfactory comfort in close relationships

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Smelling the unwashed clothing of a loved one when separated is at the same time little known but widely practiced (McBurney et al., 2006). A majority of persons surveyed reported that they did it to remember an absent romantic partner and because it smells good; additionally, it made them feel happy and comfortable. Shoup et al. (2008) found that such olfactory comfort behavior extended to relatives as a function of degree of relatedness. In both American and German subjects, olfactory comfort correlated with adult attachment style: positively with Secure attachment, and negatively with Dismissive attachment. Number of personal photos displayed in a student’s dorm room correlated with olfactory comfort behavior and showed the same relationships with attachment. Streeter (2008) experimentally demonstrated the role of olfactory comfort by having subjects smell various T-shirts after experiencing a stressor. Smelling a partner’s T-shirt increased comfort, and reduced anxiety and negative affect. The smell of an unknown individual also reduced anxiety and negative affect, but did not influence comfort. Those with Secure attachment showed greater reduction in anxiety than those with other attachment styles. Euler (unpublished) found that smelling of clothing correlated positively with the love styles (Lee, 1973) mania, agape, and eros. In this contribution we review these findings and suggest that they indicate a system of olfactory comfort that relates to Harlow’s contact comfort (e.g, Harlow, Harlow, & Suomi, 1971) as well as Bowlby’s (1969) theory of attachment as extended to adult romantic attachment (Hazan & Shaver, 1987).


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