The Scicurious Brain

The Scicurious Brain

The Good, Bad, and Weird in Physiology and Neuroscience

The Pill and Relationship Satisfaction, aka the power of interpretation


I sometimes think I could write an entirely different blog, devoted entirely to oral contraceptives. I don't know that it would make any difference, but there is just SO much misinformation out there. Similarly, I sometimes feel I could devote an entire blog to debunking over-interpreted science. The two blogs would frequently overlap.

There's just so much misinformation about "the Pill". And there seems almost to be glee in the way people spread it. No one seems to spread this kind of misinformation about condoms. Or Nyquil. Or cholesterol medications. There's something about taking a PILL (condoms don't seem to have this, and the Ring has it less, too, I think because those are physical things and thus give themselves to a different mindset) that just makes people feel they are messing with their physiology, messing with their MINDS, messing with themSELVES, and feel it on another level entirely. Even psychiatric medications, it seems to me, don't get this kind of bad rap.

And of course all this misinformation is compounded by all the sexual worries that go along with it. It's The Pill! It's HORMONES! It's your SEX DRIVE. And humans, as you probably well know, attach a huge amount of importance to their sex drive, or lack thereof.

And then you get a study. A study that is not bad, but not what I'd call great. Heck, it's barely even novel, it's more a different interpretation of a similar set of data. But it's about oral contraceptives. And it's about...*whispers* So you immediately get headlines like this:

The Pill Makes You Pick A Loving Mate Who’s Bad In Bed

You know, every time I think I run out of rage...

Roberts et al. "Relationship satisfaction and outcome in women who meet their partner while using oral contraception" Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 2011.

We'll start with what the paper did. The paper asked two groups of women, those who were ON oral contraceptives when they met a partner, and those who were not, a set of questions. When determining relationship length, they stuck with women who had had their first child with the partner in question. They asked a series of questions about sexual satisfaction, relationship satisfaction (independent of sexual satisfaction), and asked the women to rate the attractiveness of the partner. From this they concluded that women who met their partner while on oral contraceptives reported less sexual satisfaction and increased general satisfaction independent from sexual satisfaction. The women on oral contraceptives also had lower frequencies of separation. Observe:

Now, there are several issues with this. While they divided women by whether or not they were on the pill at the time of MEETING their partner, they did not break down whether they were on the pill NOW, to work out what kind of influence that might have had. I find their measure of first child as a measure of relationship length to be...suspect at best. Me, I'd have looked for women who were, say, 5 years out from marriage, and asked them, though of course you have issues with how long people were together before marriage, it's a very difficult variable to control for. I'm not certain that the aspects of non-sexual relationship satisfaction are really indicative (they asked for loyalty and financial security, but not, um, actual affection). But still, the finding is fine, and interesting, and says something interesting about female choice while on oral contraceptives.

What it does NOT say is this:

Apparently the key to being happy for the rest of your life is to go on the pill, find a less attractive dude, and engage in some mediocre sex.


Or this:

women taking oral contraception tended to choose mates who lacked sexual prowess.


There is NOTHING in this study saying that the men are bad in bed. The only thing the study says is that women who met their partners while on oral contraceptives report less sexual satisfaction. NOT that their partners suck. Though I imagine it sounds better that way.

Here's the thing. There's one VERY BIG THING this study did not ask. It is a VERY BIG THING that is a side effect of many oral contraceptives, and it's something that really brings their results into a very different light.

They didn't ask about libido.

One of the most reported side effects of oral contraceptives is a decrease in libido. They did not ask about this, and when you consider that women on oral contraceptives might HAVE decreased libido, it makes those results look VERY different. After all, you ARE likely to report decreased sexual satisfaction if you're having trouble getting off. And I have to wonder if a lot of the sexual satisfaction scores could be explained by decreased libido and increased difficulty in orgasm.

The authors also state that their findings go along with previous findings which show that women on oral contraceptives choose men with similar MHC complexes, while those not on oral contraceptives do not. The MHC, the major histocompatability complex, is a large gene region playing an important role in your immune system. There's a good bit of mate preference research out there showing that most people prefer to mate with MHC complexes different from their own, which increases the immune diversity of your offspring. More research has shown that when women are on oral contraceptives, they tend to choose mates that are more MHC SIMILAR. This seems a little odd. Scientists usually try to explain this by hypothesizing something about how you want family around you supporting your kid for the long haul, and the low levels of hormones promote that, but I don't know how backed up that is. What they do know is that women who are MHC similar to their partners report reduced sexual satisfaction. Yet again, this does NOT mean that the MHC similar guys are bad lovers. This could be differences in sexual attraction, or again, possible differences in libido (though I think the attraction may be more likely here).

But while the authors here talk about how they think these women chose MHC similar mates (and they have done MHC studies in the past) they did not actually TEST the MHC complexes of the women or their partners. I'd be very interested to see if MHC similarity correlated with sexual dissatisfaction and how that impacted relationship outcome.

Anyway. Let's talk about what this paper DID find.

1) It found that women who MET their partners on oral contraceptives reported less sexual satisfaction down the road.

2) It found that women who met their partners on oral contraceptives reported increased financial satisfaction, and almost significant increases in intelligence and support.

3) It found that women who met their partners on oral contraceptives reported lower rates of separation compared to those who were not on oral contraceptives when they met.

That is what it found. Did it find that women on oral contraceptives choose bad lovers? NOPE. Not at all. It did find differences in how women felt down the road about their mate choice. That's it. That's ALL. And that's plenty! You're probably not bad lovers, guys. You can relax now.

It's really too bad those other headlines sounded so good.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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