The Hormones of Relationship
Written by Carol Petersen, RPh, CNP – Women’s International Pharmacy
After reading his classic and still best-selling book Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus many years ago, I was looking forward to hearing Dr. John Gray speak at a recent meeting to add to my understanding of the many ways that men and women are different.
I had already learned about (and seen first-hand) how men need their “cave time” and women need men to listen and not try to fix everything. In his first book, Dr. Gray focused on the “what” of our differences; in his most recent book Venus on Fire, Mars on Ice he delves into “why” those differences occur.
As Dr. Gray so deftly and humorously explains, not only do we need a balance of hormones for managing PMS, post-partum depression, menopause, and andropause, but hormone balance also has a great deal to do with our relationships. Healthy, loving relationships require a healthy balance of hormones!
One of the primary ways that men and women behave differently is their coping mechanisms for dealing with stress. And, unfortunately, many men and women are constantly stressed from unrelenting demands of their life in the modern world. As a result, their production of cortisol, which is designed to reach peak levels when challenged with an emergency and then quickly drop down, stays at a high level. A chronic high level of cortisol tends to make them more emotionally unstable (among other things), which also affects their relationships.
Testosterone & Oxytocin
When trying to reduce or deal with stress, men release testosterone and women release oxytocin (a pituitary hormone). Ironically, high cortisol levels can interfere with the normal production of both testosterone and oxytocin, hampering both men and women from their attempts at stress reduction.
Women need to understand that men need that “cave time,” or downtime, when they come home and flop down on the couch in front of the TV or read the paper. That is how they replenish their testosterone, and disturbing them too soon will not allow them to recover. When a man’s testosterone level is adequate, it allows him to become “emergency man” in urgent situations where he needs to focus keenly, step up, and solve a problem. In fact, solving problems is so satisfying that it may cause some men’s testosterone levels to actually rise, while stress hormones like cortisol come down. On the other hand, oxytocin doesn’t help men deal with stress and can even bring their testosterone levels down. Oxytocin is the hormone that rises in men after sexual orgasm; it makes men sleepy.
For women, a release of oxytocin makes them feel safe and protected. They become more nurturing and cooperative. This nurturing, coupled with feeling like they are also being nurtured, then further raises oxytocin levels. Small amounts of testosterone will also help women feel good, in that they will feel sexy and capable. But too much testosterone will actually increase their stress levels. Higher testosterone levels in women might be useful for competing in the workplace, but that takes its toll. Dr. Gray relates studies showing that stress levels of cortisol while at work are twice as high for women as they are for men, and that difference typically becomes even greater when they get home.
When men get home and head to their “man cave” (or do whatever they prefer for relaxation), their stress levels drop. When women get home from work, their stress levels often rise even further as they face the pressures of all the things that need to be done at home (dinner, laundry, childcare, homework, etc.). They can’t understand how men can just sit on the couch or read the paper when there is so much to do.
Men don’t understand why women get so upset, and they don’t even typically notice the things that need to be done without being told. In fact, men will frequently procrastinate about doing things until they get a sense of danger or risk, which triggers their testosterone levels, giving them even greater stress relief.
Women tend to plan ahead, which stimulates oxytocin release, making them feel considerate and caring, which triggers even more oxytocin. With such polar primal hormonal responses and feelings, it is little wonder that men and women have trouble understanding each other!
Insulin & Serotonin
Other fundamental substances that play an important role in relationships include the hormones insulin and serotonin, and glucose (blood sugar). Every cell in the body needs a consistent supply of glucose to function, and insulin is the gatekeeper that controls how it is utilized. The brain is particularly sensitive to fluctuations in blood sugar, altering our moods, decision-making abilities, and other aspects of relationships.
When blood sugar drops, the production of serotonin (which has a calming effect) also drops. To make matters worse, the body then also responds by producing more cortisol, which feeds anxiety. This double-edged sword can be particularly hazardous for relationships, especially for women because they are more sensitive than men in their need for serotonin.
Creating & Maintaining Loving Relationships Requires Understanding Hormones, Too
Dr. Gray maintains that understanding these basic hormonal differences in each other is the key to maintaining loving relationships. It becomes even more critical as aging leads to lower levels of testosterone and oxytocin, as well as increased insulin resistance, creating even more difficulty in dealing with stress. Dr. Gray suggests that diet and lifestyle are important building blocks to producing and maintaining these hormones in proper balance.
A loving relationship can go a long way to help relieve stress. Women need to recognize that men need their down time to replenish before they are ready to jump in at home. Men are usually happy to help with the seemingly unending chores but they need to see them as projects, with a beginning and an end, and be able to do them on their own schedule. When a man realizes that this makes a woman happy, his testosterone levels improve because he will feel more confident and competent.
Women need a partner that will listen to them—really listen—without trying to fix things. This is their primary source of stress relief and oxytocin. However, it is unrealistic for women to think that their partner can be their sole source for boosting oxytocin, just as they are not the sole source for boosting a man’s testosterone. Dr. Gray suggests women would be better off by relying on their partners for just the last 10%. Yes, they need hugs and a bit of romance, but they should also talk with their female friends and maybe even schedule a regular massage or spa day to replenish.
For more information on relationship hormone connections, please refer to these books by Dr. Gray:
- Venus on Fire, Mars on Ice: Hormonal Balance – The Key to Life, Love and Energy; Mind Publishing, Inc.; Coquitlam, BC; 2011.
- Why Mars and Venus Collide: Improving Relationships by Understanding How Men and Women Cope Differently with Stress; HarperCollins Publishers; New York, NY; 2009.