Ups and downs of married life

It takes two, baby. A match made in heaven. Side by side through thick and thin. Going together like a horse and carriage. Growing old and wrinkly together. Inseparable.

You know what we’re talking about. That’s right! Your testicles. (Not just yours specifically, obviously. The vast majority of men’s we mean. One’s testicles let’s say.)

Wait, you … you thought … marriage? Oh yeah, reading it back I can see where someone could get that idea I guess.

Maybe I should’ve added ‘responsible for your testosterone levels.’ In truth though that wouldn’t have avoided confusion either, because believe it or not, the statement applies to both.

So just how does getting hitched affect our testosterone?

According to the latest research, in potentially quite a big and complex way. It’s certainly not as simple as having a direct up or down influence anyway.

Talk to any couple who’s been married beyond the honeymoon phase and they’ll likely tell you it can be an emotional rollercoaster at times. Now there’s evidence it’s a hormonal one too.

Trouble & strife or double & strife?

We’ve spoken about how relationship status can affect testosterone before of course. In particular how finding a long-term partner or having kids causes T to drop, as we don’t need to be out there competing for attention anymore.

The priority rightly becomes looking after our family.

So you might reasonably expect tying the knot would send T in much the same direction. After all, what’s more long-term than a marriage? Obviously if you’re Britney Spears’ first husband then, like, a bag of Doritos; but if you’re one of the lucky ones, not much.

As it turns out though, true and everlasting love needn’t be a relentless masculinity spiral. A team from Florida State University have found a certain aspect of married life which routinely causes rises.

When couples really, properly argue, the wife is often getting more than just her husband’s back up.

A good old fashioned shouting match can cause notable surges in T.

Anastasia Makhanova, a doctoral student from FSU’s Department of Psychology recruited 150 newly married couples to explore this.

The pairs, all of whom been official less than 3 months, were sent into a room and asked to discuss 4 ‘hot button topics’ for just 8 minutes while being filmed. Both men and women gave hormone samples before and after the trial.

Hot button topics is the scientific term for what you or you or I might call s%*t stirrers.

While some of the couples did settle their differences peacefully and adorably, others clashed. The team observed them become defensive or hostile, handing out blame, denying responsibility and demanding changes of their significant other.

Crucially researchers registered testosterone surges in male subjects but not women.

Mean average?

This begs a couple of questions. Firstly what kind of scientists would stoke up trouble in newlyweds barely out the gate? Secondly what’s behind differing male and female hormone levels?

Let’s focus on the second one.

We know T can makes guys more competitive in sport, business or really any environment that poses a challenge. This is a domestic version of that same instinct.

“If a man argued with a spouse and he perceived her to be challenging him by blaming or rejecting him, then he was more likely in our study to experience a surge in testosterone.”

Sometimes it was too much going on at one end of the man that caused a boost at the other.

“It was all about perceptions. Interestingly, a man’s physiological response was not based on what his wife was actually doing — it was based on what he thought his wife was doing.”

Women, who have much less T anyway, saw no increase during the row. Previous studies show that during times of stress, women produce much more oxytocin, a hormone associated with nurturing.

This rise in oxytocin means that rather than continue to compete, women tend to withdraw and seek comfort from friends.  

Makhanova says she’s worried the man’s T heavy reaction could lead to a negative pattern in the relationship.

“If a surge of testosterone leads a spouse to be more aggressive or competitive, then a couple might fall into a negative, back-and-forth pattern of communication where they hurl more insults at each other and retaliate. Ultimately, they’re not resolving the problem.”

(Stop winding couples up then, Anastasia!)

It’s worth saying here that while domestic abuse is still a very real problem, we know that natural rises in testosterone alone will not trigger violent behaviour.

Wedding’s off then?

Good god no! Couples argue, it’s inevitable and natural. You shouldn’t let it put you off taking the next step in a relationship.

You certainly shouldn’t let a bunch of scientists deliberately poking and prodding at your new union with an intellectual stick deny you happiness either.

Falling out occasionally is more than just natural actually. Plenty of experts will tell you it’s healthy. Not only does it allow you both to let of steam, but remember a rise in testosterone can go one of two ways.

It can put us in a mood but it can also put us in the mood. It’s believed a sudden boost in T is what contributes to the quantity – and quality – of ‘make-up sex.’

Makhanova comments,

“The brain is not good at understanding why certain physiological processes are happening, including sudden increases in testosterone, and so that arousal can go different ways. No researcher has measured whether a testosterone spike during marital arguments will lead to makeup sex, but that would be a very good follow-up study.”

It’s not even the case that naturally high T makes us all argumentative. There are studies showing men with peak male hormone can also be quite passive.

Ladies : High T won’t automatically make your husband an over sensitive shouty man-baby.

Guys : There are lots of great ways to get your male hormone without deliberately starting fights and being a pain in your significant other’s butt.

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