This year 2.25 million Americans will get married—and a million will get divorced. Could birth control be to blame for some of these breakups? Recent research suggests that the contraceptive pill—which prevents women from ovulating by fooling their body into believing it is pregnant—could affect which types of men women desire. Going on or off the pill during a relationship, therefore, may tempt a woman away from her man.
It’s all about scent. Hidden in a man’s smell are clues about his major histocompatibility complex (MHC) genes, which play an important role in immune system surveillance. Studies suggest that females prefer the scent of males whose MHC genes differ from their own, a preference that has probably evolved because it helps offspring survive: couples with different MHC genes are less likely to be related to each other than couples with similar genes are, and their children are born with more varied MHC profiles and thus more robust immune systems.
A study published in August in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, however, suggests that women on the pill undergo a shift in preference toward men who share similar MHC genes. The female subjects were more likely to rate these genetically similar men’s scents (via a T-shirt the men had worn for two nights) as pleasant and desirable after they went on the pill as compared with before. Although no one knows why the pill affects attraction, some scientists believe that pregnancy—or in this case, the hormonal changes that mimic pregnancy—draws women toward nurturing relatives.
Women who start or stop taking the pill, then, may be in for some relationship problems. A study published last year in Psychological Science found that women paired with MHC-similar men are less sexually satisfied and more likely to cheat on their partners than women paired with MHC-dissimilar men. So a woman on the pill, for example, might be more likely to start dating a MHC-similar man, but he could ultimately leave her less sexually satisfied. Then if she goes off the pill during the relationship, the accompanying hormonal changes will draw her even more strongly toward more MHC-dissimilar men. These immune genes may have a “powerful effect in terms of how well relationships are cemented,” says University of Liverpool psychologist Craig Roberts, co-author of the August paper.
Note: This article was originally published with the title, "A Tough Pill to Swallow".