Relationships are complex and dynamic, and they are influenced by many factors, such as biology, culture, and personal preferences. One of the most significant factors that has changed the nature of relationships in the past few decades is the widespread use of hormonal birth control. Hormonal birth control methods, such as pills, patches, rings, shots, implants, and IUDs, have given women more control over their reproductive choices, but they have also altered their hormonal balance and their emotional responses. Let’s explore how hormonal birth control affects women’s mood and emotion, how it affects their decision making and expectations in relationships.
Hormonal effects of birth control
Hormonal birth control methods work by preventing ovulation, thickening cervical mucus, and thinning the uterine lining. They do this by delivering synthetic versions of the female hormones estrogen and progestin, which regulate the menstrual cycle and affect various aspects of the body and mind. Depending on the type and dosage of the hormones, different birth control methods can have different effects on women’s mood and emotion. Some of the possible effects are:
- Changes in brain structure and function, which can affect memory, cognition, and emotional processing2.
- Changes in libido, sexual satisfaction, and attraction, which can affect relationship satisfaction and compatibility34.
- Changes in stress response, which can affect coping skills and resilience5.
Some of these effects may be positive by increasing sexual freedom, but there are also negative effects that are often ignored for the sake of sexual liberation. For example, there is significant evidence that suggests synthetic hormones can decrease sexual interest and satisfaction. It can also decrease sexual attraction and intimacy. Part of the sexual experience is the feeling of being special and unique to someone, but if sex is available to anyone, it loses its value and meaning. These effects may also vary over time, as women’s bodies and minds adapt to the hormones, or as they switch to different birth control methods.
The hormonal effects of birth control are not fully understood, and more research is needed to determine the exact mechanisms and implications of how they affect women’s mood and emotion. However, it is clear that hormonal birth control can have a significant impact on women’s psychological well-being, and people should be aware of the potential benefits and risks of using it.
Decision making and expectations in relationships
Hormonal birth control can also affect women’s decision making and expectations in relationships, by altering their natural reproductive instincts and behaviors. One of the main purposes of birth control is to prevent pregnancy, which is a major consequence of sexual activity. By removing this consequence, birth control can change the way women perceive and evaluate their sexual partners and their relationship goals.
One of the theories that explains this phenomenon is the ovulatory shift hypothesis, which proposes that women’s mate preferences and sexual behavior change across the menstrual cycle, depending on their fertility status6. According to this theory, when women are fertile (around ovulation), they are more attracted to men who display traits that indicate good genes, such as masculinity, dominance, and symmetry. They are also more likely to seek out short-term sexual encounters, to increase their chances of obtaining high-quality sperm. When women are infertile (during the luteal phase), they are more attracted to men who display traits that indicate good parenting skills, such as warmth, stability, and reliability. They are also more likely to seek out long-term committed relationships, to secure resources and protection for themselves and their potential offspring.
Hormonal birth control disrupts this natural cycle, by preventing ovulation and maintaining a constant level of hormones. This means that women who use hormonal birth control do not experience the ovulatory shift in their mate preferences and sexual behavior. This can have implications for their decision making and expectations in relationships, especially if they start or end using birth control during the course of a relationship.
These changes in attraction and behavior may not be conscious or intentional, but they can have significant consequences for the stability and quality of relationships. They can also create a mismatch between women’s expectations and reality, as they may not realize how their birth control use affects their mate preferences and sexual behavior. This can lead to confusion, frustration, and disappointment, both for themselves and their partners.
To illustrate this point, let us consider a hypothetical scenario. Alice and Peter are a young couple who have been dating for a few months. Alice is using birth control pills, and she is attracted to Peter’s warm and stable personality.
Alice decides to stop using birth control pills, to increase her fertility. However, after a few weeks of not using the pills, she notices that her attraction to Bob has diminished, and that she is more annoyed by his warmth and less aroused by his stability. She also notices that she is more attracted to other men who display more masculinity and dominance, and that she is more open to flirting. She does not understand why she feels this way, and she blames Bob for being too soft and dull. She starts to lose interest in him, and she becomes more distant and irritable.
Bob, on the other hand, does not notice any change in his attraction to Alice, and he is still happy and in love with her. He does not understand why she is acting differently. He thinks that she is stressed or unhappy, and he tries to be more supportive and attentive. He also tries to spice up their sex life, by being more gentle and romantic. However, this only makes Alice more resentful and less responsive. She starts to avoid him, and she becomes more secretive and eventually, unfaithful.
Eventually, Alice and Bob break up, and they are both hurt and confused. They do not realize that their relationship problems were partly caused by Alice’s birth control use, and how it affected her mate preferences and sexual behavior. They blame each other, and themselves, for their failed relationship, and they struggle to move on.
This scenario is not meant to be realistic or representative of all women who use birth control, or all couples who experience relationship problems. It is only meant to illustrate how hormonal birth control can affect women’s decision making and expectations in relationships, and how it can create potential conflicts and challenges. Of course, there are many other factors that influence relationships, such as personality, compatibility, communication, trust, and love. Hormonal birth control is not the sole or main cause of relationship problems, but it can be a contributing factor, and it should not be ignored or dismissed.
Let’s not diminish the dangers of contraceptives for the sake of sexual liberation. Women are being prescribed hormonal birth control as young as 16 while the brain is still in development. This causes long-term structural changes that cannot be reversed and we’ve been handing out birth control like candy since their inception. According to the CDC, in 2015–2017, 64.9%—or 46.9 million of the 72.2 million women aged 15–49 in the United States—were currently using a method of contraception. The potential damage being done to our population will be hard to quantify if the trends continue.
Anyone who uses hormonal birth control methods should be aware of the potential effects on their mood and emotion, and how they may influence their well-being and relationships. While hormonal birth control can offer many benefits, such as preventing unwanted pregnancies and regulating menstrual cycles, it can also have some drawbacks, such as altering brain chemistry and sexual functioning. Hormonal birth control is not a one-size-fits-all solution, and women should be empowered to make informed decisions about their reproductive health but the current status quo is causing an unsustainable shift in our culture.