Most of us are probably aware that the birth control pill can cause women to experience “sexual side effects,” but did you know that the pill might also influence who women are attracted to? And even who they choose as partners and their likelihood of staying married? It may sound too sci-fi to be true, but (as we all know) truth is often far stranger than fiction.
Before I throw us both in the deep end of the research, I just want to remind you what the birth control pill is made of (artificial sex hormones) and what sex hormones do (flip billions of switches on and off in cells throughout your body, influencing the version of yourself that your body creates). This means that the pill is going to influence your love- and sex-related brain circuitry. It would be impossible for it not to. Although this general idea and the research looking into it is still in its infancy, the data that do exist suggest that the pill might influence who you’re attracted to, the dynamics of your relationships, the quality of your sex life, how jealous you are, how you respond to your partner’s face, how sexy you are to others, and your likelihood of getting a divorce. In other words, the pill can influence pretty much everything that matters when it comes to love, sex, and relationships. It may even be influencing yours.
For example, in one study, researchers brought heterosexual women into a research lab and allowed them to use a special computer program to manipulate the appearance of photographs of male and female faces. They could change the appearance of the men and women in the photographs by adjusting their jaw height, face width, cheekbone prominence, and so on. The researchers asked the women to manipulate the features on the male face to create the face of their ideal short-term or long-term romantic partner (male face). They also asked them to manipulate the features on the female face to create the face of a maximally attractive woman (female faces, which were used as a control). The women came into the lab and completed this task at two different time points: Once before they began taking the birth control pill and once around three months after they began.
The pill can influence pretty much everything that matters when it comes to love, sex, and relationships. It may even be influencing yours.
When the researchers compared the two sets of images (pre-pill and post-pill), they found that women’s ideal male, but not female, faces became significantly less masculine once they started taking the birth control pill. In a second study, these same researchers looked at whether women who are on the pill actually choose men with less masculine faces as relationship partners relative to their non-pill taking counterparts. To this end, they compared the facial masculinity of a sample of men whose partners chose them when they were on the birth control pill to a sample of men whose partners chose them when they were not. Facial masculinity was assessed by having the faces rated by a separate sample of participants. What they found was that pill-taking women not only prefer somewhat less masculine male faces; they are also more likely to choose such men as partners.
The idea that women might choose different partners when they are on the pill than they would have chosen off of it suggests that the pill may have rippling effects on the quality and dynamics of women’s long-term relationships. Maybe even the risk of divorce or infidelity. It also raises a number of questions that researchers hadn’t considered worth asking until now. For example, if pill-taking women aren’t really all that interested in masculinity cues, what exactly are they looking for when it comes to partners?
To address this question, researchers conducted a survey of relationship quality on a sample of more than 2000 women, each of whom had at least one child at the time the survey was administered. Half of the women in their sample were on the pill when they met their partners and half of them weren’t. The survey asked women questions about the quality of their relationship with the man who fathered their first child, regardless of whether they were still involved a relationship with him or not.
Pill-taking women not only prefer a somewhat less masculine male faces; they are also more likely to choose such men as partners.
What they found was that naturally cycling women—in addition to choosing sexier partners with more masculine features—seem to be enjoying better sex-related … well … pretty much everything when compared to women who chose their partners when they were on the pill. They’re more sexually aroused, they’re more sexually adventurous, they’re more attracted to their partners. They’re just more into sex than the pill-takers were.
This is consistent with the research that demonstrates that naturally cycling women—at least near ovulation, when fertility is high and estrogen is dominant—have a keen eye (and ear) for certain cues to masculinity. In particular, this research finds that women at high fertility find masculine male faces, deeper, more masculine male voices, and find socially dominant, confident men more attractive than they do at non-fertile points in the cycle. Given that pill-taking women don’t ovulate and are kept in a perpetual state of low estrogen, the pill may decrease the emphasis that women place on these sorts of traits, leading to development of a relationship that is less about sex and more about other qualities.
But, what other qualities, you ask?
The research suggests that the pill-takers may zero in on another set of qualities that are pretty important to a lot of women. In particular, they found that women who’d chosen their partners when they were on the pill were more satisfied with their partners’ earning capacity and intelligence than were the women who’d chosen their partners when they were off of it. This is consistent with the interpretation that being on the pill makes women shift their mate preferences toward qualities that would help keep them safe and secure when preparing for pregnancy, which is believed to occur because the pill mimics a hormonal state in which women’s bodies are waiting to see whether a fertilized egg may implant.
Women who chose their partners when they were on the pill were significantly less likely to divorce than women who chose their partners when they were off it.
Such an interpretation is echoed in the results of brain imaging research. When compared to naturally cycling women, pill-taking women exhibit less activity in the reward centers of the brain when looking at masculine faces, but more activity in these centers in response to monetary rewards. Most of us would agree that money and brains matter, so this is nothing to sneeze at.
But an even bigger positive is what comes when we look at the divorce rate. Despite the whole my-sex-life-is-meh-and-I-am-not-that-attracted-to-my-partner thing, women who chose their partners when they were on the pill were significantly less likely to divorce than women who chose their partners when they were off it (!!!).
This suggests that being on the pill may lead women to choose partners who are good resource providers and willing to stick with them through thick and thin (hence the lower divorce rate and greater satisfaction with resource investment). However, equally as noteworthy, this research found that when these pill-taking women did get divorced, they were overwhelmingly the ones who initiated it (they were the initiators 84.5 percent of the time, compared to being the initiators 73.6 percent of the time among those who chose their partners when not on the pill). This suggests that, in choosing these faithful, resource-investing men as partners (and at the expense of sexiness), pill-taking women may be putting themselves at risk for becoming dissatisfied with their relationship due to a lack of attraction and sexual satisfaction if they ever go off of it.
The results of this study are incredibly provocative. The idea that the quality and longevity of women’s long-term relationships might be impacted, for better and for worse, by their method of pregnancy prevention is just so … big … that it’s almost unbelievable. But, before we get too carried away, it’s worth noting that this study wasn’t perfect, so we need to be careful in its interpretation.
For example, because this research compared the relationship outcomes of women who were on the pill to those who were not, it’s possible that the results reflect pre-existing differences in the types of men preferred by women who choose to be on the pill as a matter of habit (remember, these women were on the pill when they met their partners) and those who do not. For instance, women who are on the pill as a matter of habit, may be more likely to be the types of women who tend to choose romantic partners for reasons of the head (Is he a good provider and likely to be faithful?) rather than reasons of the heart (Is he so delicious that I want to bite him and sit in his lap all day?). So, we can’t really know for certain whether the pill is responsible for the differences observed between these two groups of women. Additionally, because the researchers didn’t measure women’s pill-status across their relationship (we don’t know how long they were off it and on it over the course of their relationships), it’s also hard to know whether any differences that we see between the two groups are differences that occur as a result of being on the pill, going on the pill, or going off the pill.
We’re still in the early phases of the science, which means the results are preliminary, but they may matter to you.
Interestingly, some new research has failed to find differences between women’s facial preferences or relationship satisfaction based on their pill-taking status. And this is the way that science works—unraveling the answers to questions in a series of shuffle steps forward, followed by shuffle steps backward, followed by more steps forward … and so on.
We’re still in the early phases of the science, which means the results are preliminary, but they may matter to you. It will probably be years before we have definitive answers about the reliability with which the pill influences women’s facial preferences and relationship satisfaction. And it will be longer yet before we know whether these effects vary depending on the hormonal composition of the pills that the women are on (which I suspect play a huge role in driving the contradictory results).
Until that time, this is information you can use to help you know what to look for in your own relationships. Taking the time to understand what you most desire in a long-term romantic partner—and the role that hormones play in nudging our preferences this way and that—can only improve our ability to choose someone who will go distance, whether we are on the pill or off of it.