Dr Michelle Russell, North Carolina State University
Love is a chemical reaction in the brain, and is often described as a kind of drug. But can other drugs impact how you feel about someone? There has been recent research showing a surprising association: when women come off the contraceptive pill there can be a change in marital satisfaction. This might be due to disruptions of natural hormonal shifts that occur in fertile women. Georgia Mills spoke to researcher Michelle Russell, from North Carolina State University, to find out what might be causing this..
Michelle - We know from previous research that women experience shifts in the kind of traits and characteristics that they tend to prefer in their partners, and that these shifts are associated with the shifts in the hormones that occur across the ovulatory cycle. So, for example, women who are normally ovulating during their fertile period show stronger preferences for men who have symmetrical faces, who are more masculine. The thing is though is that hormonal contraceptives can disrupt these hormonal shifts and I was really interested in what the implications were for the use of hormonal contraceptives for women who are in established relationships. So we know that the majority of women in industrialised nations do use hormonal contraceptives at some point during their lives. So a lot of women are starting relationships while they are using contraceptives, so theyíre not experiencing these natural shifts and preference that we would see with women who arenít using them and then, when theyíre in their relationships, many of them stop using them. So basically what does it mean for these women to begin relationships not experiencing these normal shifts and then, during the relationship, start experiencing these shifts again.
Georgia - How did you go about looking into this relationship?
Michelle - We had two longitudinal studies of newlywed couples. We had them go back and just give us their history of their contraceptive use from the time they started the relationship with their partner all the way up until the current point in that study. We get reports of their marital satisfaction every few months and then we also rated each of their partners - we rated their attractiveness. So we actually trained a team of coders to go through and rate the attractiveness for all of the husbands, and the wives as well in this sample.
Georgia - Sorry - you trained people to rate how attractive someone isÖ
Michelle - I know. It sounds really really funny. And you know people think - oh how objective can you be when it comes to rating attractiveness but, in general, we see - and this is across cultures - that people are remarkably insistent when it comes to deciding whatís attractive and whatís not: bone structure, facial symmetries, skin clarity, so we had them looking for specific characteristics. But I will say, it doesnít take very long to get people reliable when it comes to rating attractiveness. We all had pretty consistent ratings, pretty quickly.
Georgia - Taking this data of the women on and off contraceptive pills alongside the husbandís attractiveness. What did you actually find out?
Michelle - So what we found was that among women who began their relationships while using hormonal contraceptives - they get into this relationship and once they stop using hormonal contraceptives, women who were married to men who were relatively more attractive actually had higher relationship satisfactions. So they were happier with their relationship once they stopped using hormonal contraceptives if their husband was also relatively more attractive. For the wives who were unfortunately married to the relatively less attractive husbands, we saw a decrease in their relationship satisfaction. So they were actually less happy with their relationships once they stopped using hormonal contraceptives.
Georgia - Why should there be this difference?
Michelle - Well, what we think is going on is that, again like I said, so women are experiencing natural shifts in preferences across their ovulatory cycle, and what we think what may be going on is that when women are using hormonal contraceptives - so weíve already seen from previous research that women actually choose different partners when theyíre using hormonal contraceptives than do women who arenít using them. So they tend to choose partners who are slightly less masculine, slightly less attractive. And we think what might be going on is that while theyíre using hormonal contraceptives, they might prioritise attractiveness a little bit less than women who arenít using them. And then what happens is that when they stop taking hormonal contraceptives, they start experiencing these shifts again, so this might become something that becomes a little bit more important to them at this point. So for those women who are married to a man who is relatively more attractive - well you know it works out then that their prioritising this a little bit more because their partner has that characteristic. Whereas for those women who have the relatively less attractive partners, suddenly this partners not necessarily meeting all of those priorities that they might be experiencing now.
Georgia - And what youíve discovered is a relationship. So we havenít been able to set aside these things and say this is causing that. But the relationship is very interesting and Iím surprised to think that something as small as a little pill can actually change how happy you are with your marriageÖ
Michelle - It is. And so yes, as you said, itís not experimental so we absolutely have to be careful when we make any sort of causal explanations for this, and it is something... Itís important to point out too that, you know, Iíve been studying relationships for many, many years now and the thing that you learn when youíre studying relationships and what influences relationship satisfaction, is that thereís so many different factors. And that yes, this does have an effect on relationship satisfaction but itís not a huge effect - itís about the same effect size as we would see for other factors that predict relationship satisfaction. And so, itís a small part of the puzzle but itís interesting because again, the prevalence of hormonal contraceptives, for women to use them as much as they do we really donít knowÖ You know we know more about physiologically what they do to women but not necessarily what it means for their relationships and itís, you know, as a woman I would want to know. Iíd would want to make sure that Iím informed when Iím taking medication and everything so I think this is just one small piece of information that women might want to have, to consider. Again, I donít think itís nearly enough to tell women to stop taking them or anything - thatís absolutely not something we would ever, ever recommend. But again, a small piece to the puzzle that women might want to consider.