Even in the real world, women on the pill may choose dependable men over sexy onesS

Here's more evidence from the front lines of science that you can't have your cake and eat it, too. A recently published study out of Stirling University shows that women who are on the pill when they meet their partners are less likely to be satisfied with sexual aspects of their relationship, but more satisfied with non-sexual ones.

"One effect seems to compensate for the other," says researcher Craig Roberts, first author on the study.

Roberts' research was based on previous findings that suggest women tend to look for different qualities in potential partners at different points in their monthly cycles, with women in the fertile stages of their cycles tending to select for men they find more physically attractive, and women in the non-fertile stages of their cycles tending to seek out men who they think will be good providers. Oral contraceptives mimic a continuously non-fertile hormonal state, suggesting that women would be more likely to select for dependability while on the pill.

But these previous studies were all conducted in carefully controlled lab environments. Roberts' team wanted to see if similar patterns of mate preference could be observed out in the real world. The researchers write:

Here, we test for differences in relationship quality and survival between women who were using or not using OC [oral contraceptives] when they chose the partner who fathered their first child. Women who used OC scored lower on measures of sexual satisfaction and partner attraction, experienced increasing sexual dissatisfaction during the relationship, and were more likely to be the one to initiate an eventual separation if it occurred.

Sounds kind of unpleasant, right? But there's a flip side; the authors continue:

However, the same women were more satisfied with their partner's paternal provision, and thus had longer relationships and were less likely to separate. These effects are congruent with evolutionary predictions based on cyclical preference shifts. Our results demonstrate that widespread use of hormonal contraception may contribute to relationship outcome, with implications for human reproductive behaviour, family cohesion and quality of life.

According to Roberts, his team's findings offer more evidence of what he calls "the subconscious chemistry of attraction" between men and women — evidence he believes so strongly in, he's even willing to structure marital advice around it:

"Choosing a non-hormonal barrier method of contraception for a few months before getting married might be one way for a woman to check or reassure herself that she's still attracted to her partner," says Roberts.

[Proceedings of the Royal Society B (doi: 10.1098/rspb.2011.1647) via BBC]
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