It probably sounds ignorant to say that our birth control plays a major part in our romantic lives - for many women, that’s the entire point.
In this day and age, we’re now fortunate enough to know how hormonal birth control, specifically the pill, affects particular aspects of our bodies aside from the physical, specifically in altering mood and increasing the risk of depression.
It’s also known that artificial hormones can influence who we choose to date and why. And as Sarah Hill, a Ph.D. researcher and professor, reveals in her recent book, This is Your Brain on Birth Control: The Surprising Science of Women, Hormones, and the Law of Unintended Consequences, these seemingly small choices oftentimes have life-altering outcomes.
It’s All in the Hormones
Physical attraction is inarguably an important aspect of any romantic relationship. But can that attraction be influenced - either negatively or positively - by the artificial hormones that comprise birth control? The short answer is - yes.
Dr. Hill illustrates this extensively as she tackles how estrogen affects who exactly we’re attracted to, and, consequently, who we choose to enter into long-term, committed relationships with. For the most part, women like - and date - “manly-looking” men because estrogen likes testosterone. The two hormones have a compatible relationship biologically and motivate women who are at the peak of their estrogen production to choose partners or see their long-term partners as more attractive, depending on how traditionally masculine those mates are, i.e., by their testosterone markers.
For the most part, women like - and date - “manly-looking” men because estrogen likes testosterone.
If you’re a woman on the pill, you might be thinking, well this affects me the same way too, right? Wrong.
Not All Attraction Is Created Equal
Dr. Hill’s premise makes an important distinction between what she refers to as naturally-cycling women and non-naturally cycling women, or, non-pill takers vs. pill-takers. Women, whether they have periods or not off birth control, are naturally-cycling because their hormones still vary throughout their cycle. But pill-takers are in a false cycle, or, in essence, in no cycle at all, because the artificial hormones in the pill make every day the same hormonally.
Pill-takers are in a false cycle, or, in essence, in no cycle at all, because the artificial hormones in the pill make every day the same hormonally.
For women not on the pill, their high estrogen windows draw them to men with features we think of as more traditionally masculine: deeper voices, broader jawlines, etc. As you might have already guessed, the lack of an authentic cycle for the pill-takers inhibits that high production of estrogen, drawing them to male partners with less traditionally masculine, and indeed more feminized, features.
What’s even more fascinating than the potential of the pill picking our short or long-term partners is the potential effects that choice will play in procreation. If and when we choose a partner to mate with, our brain interacts with our hormones (produced either naturally or artificially) to choose the most beneficial partner for us.
For naturally-cycling women with no inhibited estrogen, this partner is ideally going to be the most genetically compatible partner for them. As Dr. Hill’s meticulous research reveals, those couples, wherein the mate has been chosen while not "under the influence" as it were, have the best biological chance of conceiving relatively easily and having healthy offspring. In contrast, as Dr. Hill surmises, “If women on the pill are at a greater risk for choosing genetically incompatible partners than non-pill-taking women, it’s not wholly unreasonable to think that women on the pill may have more difficulty becoming pregnant” when they go off birth control.
Couples, wherein the mate has been chosen while not "under the influence" as it were, have the best biological chance of conceiving relatively easily.
Additionally, the children who result from those previously pill-taking relationships may have more health problems than the children from non-pill-taking women, due to the genetic incompatibility that might as well have been invisible under the influence of birth control.
Dr. Hill emphasizes for her readers that this specific subset of research is still in its infancy. It’s only recently that scientists, from evolutionary biologists to behavioral psychologists, have begun to study the connection between artificial hormones and how they influence human choices, such as partner selection and even divorce.
What is evident, however, is that the pill is affecting so much more in the day-to-day than just our skin and our cycles. Knowing how and why hormonal birth control could potentially affect our future partners and even our children is definitely something to consider when we weigh the benefits and disadvantages of using it.