Anyone who has had the pleasure… ahem… of parenting a teenager will be familiar with the phrase “hormones have a lot to answer for”, most likely muttered under their breath while gulping a large glass of wine at the end of another fraught day.
But the truth is they do. Hormone levels really can impact our behavior and even our psychological wellbeing. It’s not just a teenage thing. And, stop press, it’s not just a female thing either. Hormones can ensure we have positive relationships, too.
Put simply, hormones act as chemical messengers that shoot around your body helping all your systems to function in the way they should.
In previous studies, scientists have identified at least 50 different hormones that carry out essential functions throughout the body. For example, Adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH), made in the pituitary gland and designed to stimulate your adrenal glands to produce the stress hormone cortisol, the growth hormone that affects how tall you grow and of course sex hormones estrogen and testosterone. These tend to be some of the hormones we’re most familiar with. And it’s these sex hormones that we’ll be concentrating on in the remainder of this article.
If you're a woman, you’ll know that throughout your ovarian cycle your mood and emotions change. But have you ever really tried to understand how? Or why? And have you thought about whether this impacts your partner or relationship?
Scientists have studied the female menstrual cycle to determine how it affects relationship dynamics. And the findings were pretty interesting.
In a study in the Netherlands(1), heterosexual women and their male partners completed a daily survey to capture a number of things. Questions were asked about their psychological wellbeing, how they felt about their partner, how they thought their partner felt about the relationship, how jealous they felt and their level of interest in sex. They also collected a daily urine sample that was tested for levels of hormones estrogen, progesterone and testosterone.
Researchers found that on days where estrogen was higher, women reported less physical attraction to their partners. Meanwhile, men, on these days, felt that their partner was less interested in sex. And they reported lower psychological wellbeing, too. Could it be that men are picking up on their partners' negative emotions towards them?
Throughout a woman’s menstrual cycle she sees the rise and fall of progesterone, estrogen and testosterone. Each causing a notable impact on mood, feelings and behavior. But what scientists were interested in studying was whether there was any relationship, aside from anecdotally, between these fluctuating hormones and sexual behavior. Did any of these changing hormone levels drive an urge to have more sex?
Perhaps surprisingly, the answer was no, they could find no correlation. They did, however, find that as progesterone rose, women became generally more favorable towards their partner, while a rise in testosterone led to greater reported feelings of jealousy.
But it’s not just sexual hormones that can have an impact on our mood. Many hormones, if out of balance, can impact how we feel. Too much stress hormone cortisol, for example, can cause weight gain, impact sleep or even affect the immune system.
It may be useful to note things, such as what you’ve been eating or whether you’ve had any niggling arguments. As therapists, we find that the way in which arguments unfold in relationships can follow predictable cycles. By tracking and keeping a journal you’ll be able to identify if this is the case for you.
You can even purchase home testing kits to help you understand more about your cycle and ovulation times. If you can predict these hormone peaks you can look to prevent the distress that often ensues. Once you become able to pinpoint those high levels of sex hormones, or even stress, you can perhaps look to avoid discussing trigger topics within that time window.
And when you feel your blood starting to boil? Try to avoid conflict by finding activities that help you calm down and keep your emotions in check. Spend some time on self-care or book in a favorite hobby or dinner date with a friend.
Help your partner to understand when and how hormones are impacting you and encourage them to give you the space you need at the right time to ensure you enjoy healthy relationships.
Finally, we quite often recommend the book Couples on the Fault Line by Peggy Papp. We particularly suggest reading the chapter ‘The Timing and Temple of Relationships’ exploring cyclical and biological rhythms.
As we often say, part of the challenge is understanding things from one another’s perspective and being prepared to listen without judgement or retort. A little knowledge can go a long way to support this.