Welcome to our series, The Divorce Diaries. In our past instalments over the last few months we’ve covered everything from the effect of lockdown on divorces to whether they’re contagious and have now spoken to dozens of women – including one whose husband announced he was leaving her to have an open relationship with a 19-year-old and another who was quite literally ghosted by her own husband.
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This week we hear from a woman who quite suddenly stopped finding her husband attractive – at the same time that she came off the contraceptive pill in an effort to get pregnant. Is this a thing? We delve into the science of her claims with some surprising results…
Hayley* and Pete felt like they’d seen it all during their 10-year relationship: they’d weathered losing a parent, a redundancy, buying a house, renovating a house together and moving cities.
They’d met shortly after finishing university and after dating for a year, both packed in their jobs and headed to the UK together for their OEs.
“I remember then, so many people told us it wouldn’t last because you really want to be single to do your OE, but it wasn’t like that for us,” she says. “It was probably the best year of our lives. We spent the whole time in each other’s back pocket, exploring and having fun, and even though we got into some bad situations we never had a single argument.”
In fact, Hayley can’t remember ever really having a fight with her husband. “Apart from disagreeing on tiles and carpet and stuff when we were renovating, but it was never major.”
But then, after five years of marriage and 10 years of being together, Hayley turned 32. It was the age they’d decided they would start trying for a baby. So, Hayley ditched the contraceptive pill she’d been on since she was 17 and visited her doctor to check on what she should be doing to prepare her body for a pregnancy.
She went on pre-natals and prepared herself (and Pete) for the fact that it might take her body a while to adjust to things and be ready to conceive.
But, slowly, something strange started to happen.
“All the stuff I’d been warned about started to happen – I started having really heavy periods, and my skin was a bit of a mess,” says Hayley. “My doctor had also said that your libido can often increase after coming off the pill, but I was feeling the opposite.”
She wondered if it was just a short-term side effect, or if it was the fact that her PMS (which had been a major problem before she went on the pill as a teenager) was just making her grumpy and feel different. Except, those feelings weren’t going away. In fact, everything Pete did was starting to annoy her.
“I felt terrible finally admitting it to myself, but suddenly I felt nothing toward Pete,” she says. “I couldn’t find him attractive.”
And, to make matters worse, she was starting to find herself attracted to other people.
“I started having a crazy crush on this guy at work, and on the guy at the café where I get a coffee each morning.”
Things continued to deteriorate, until ultimately, Hayley and Pete were unable to make their relationship work and they divorced two years later.
But interestingly, Hayley’s account of losing interest in her husband after coming off the contraceptive pill, is far from being an isolated event. And it seems she wasn’t imagining it, those two events – stopping the pill and the breakdown of her marriage – were most likely related.
Several studies over the years have discovered that the pill can influence who you find attractive. In 2008 a paper published in The Proceedings of the Royal Society B looked at how the pill can affect female attraction. Essentially, the Pill tricks your body into thinking it’s pregnant – and being pregnant can change your preferences in a mate.
Women who were on the pill were actually most attracted to the scent of men who were more genetically similar to them, than women who were not on the pill. Which makes sense – if you’re trying to get pregnant you’re more drawn to men who are genetically different to you (to maximise immunity and lessen the chances of passing on any defective genes). Whereas when you’re pregnant, you’re more likely to seek out family members or those who are genetically similar to you to create a community to rally around your little family. Yikes.
Taking a slightly different approach, a study in 2014 published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science followed 118 couples who met while the woman was on hormonal birth control, and observed what happened when she came off the pill. They discovered that being on the pill, then stopping it could impact how attractive she now found her partner – with some finding their partner suddenly significantly less attractive, while others actually found themselves more attracted to their spouse.
They surmised that a change in feelings seemed to be determined by how objectively good-looking their partner was by evolutionary standards. So, women whose partners were conventionally handsome most often found their partners just as attractive as before, or even more so. Whereas those whose partners were not as conventionally attractive, often saw a decrease in their levels of attraction.
A further study researchers at Knox College in Illinois, rather bizarrely found that women who are currently on an oral contraceptive have less interest in kissing. So, why is this so crucial? Well, when you pucker up your body learns a lot about the mate you are kissing and uses it as a key assessment tactic in working out if you are genetically compatible. If you’re doing less kissing, you’re getting less data.
Dr Marguerite Duane, a professor at Georgetown University who specialises in women’s health and fertility, says that besides having less interest in kissing, the pill actually clouds your judgement on who is a good ‘match’ whilst receiving this information during a kiss.
If a woman is on the pill, “She tends to be attracted to a man who is more similar to her both genetically, and also they tend to be attracted to men who are more stable,” she says.
“Whether it’s hormonal birth control pills, hormonal shots, a hormonal ring or even hormonal IUD’s – all of these can affect a woman’s ability to identify the partner that she’s most attracted to and most suitable to her.”
Hayley says it’s something she wished she’d known about YEARS ago, but when it was recommended she go on the pill at 17 to regulate her heavy periods and tone down her raging PMS, very little was communicated to her about what affect it may have – besides the dangers of blood clots.
“That’s all I focused on – this fear of getting a blood clot, because it’s all that was talked about,” she says. “Now I warn all my single friends to be off contraception while they’re dating so they don’t risk going through what I did.”