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Marital communication: A role for testosterone?
20 MAR 2003

When it comes to much-maligned hormones, none approaches testosterone. In men, the so-called "male hormone" causes beard growth, testicle enlargement and muscle development. It also is associated, in the popular mind, with assertiveness, violence, aggression and dominance.

collaged, framed photo illustration of wedding cake with bodybuilding couple cake topper. Testosterone molecule also visible Think football player or marine drill sergeants, not history professors or stamp collectors.

It turns out that in women, testosterone is associated with increased sexual drive, and, yes, aggression and dominance.

But the true effects of the hormone are complicated. Humans, unlike guinea pigs, respond to social controls - our behavior is not simply a matter of biology.

There's been plenty of research on testosterone and behavior. On the athletic field, for example, men on the winning team have a rise in testosterone. The hormone drops among the losers. Honest.

But perhaps because testosterone was long considered the "male hormone," nobody has looked at the behavioral effects of testosterone levels in husbands and wives.

Do men and women with relatively high levels of testosterone get along because they are so, well, pushy? Or do they struggle 24-7 for control? Do low-testosterone couples get along like parents in a 50's sit-com? "Yes, Ward, I'd be thrilled to start the laundry while you finish your weekly wash-and-wax of the '55 Buick."

We don't know. But it turns out that the reality is not so simple, judging by a recent study of newly married people in Pennsylvania. (Throughout the study, levels of testosterone were assessed independently for men and women. Because men are generally much richer in the hormone, a women with a high level might have less than a man with a low level.)

High-test testosterone
To nail down the interaction of testosterone levels, Catherine Cohan, assistant professor of human development and family studies at the Penn State University, and colleagues put 92 couples through a psychosocial wringer. The couples were asked to discuss a marital problem, and then an individual problem. Each conversation was repeated, with the other spouse choosing the subject, making four conversations in all.

An all-seeing video camera recorded the interaction, which was later evaluated according to standard psychological measures.

Some of the results were straight out of a modern television drama. For example, when husbands chose the marital problem, wifely behavior was more negative: they expressed more anger and verbal aggression.

Marge: "Homer, don't tell me you lost your job because your 'friends' forced you to drink all 12 beers! What are we going to do for money? Take responsibility for yourself! I'm sick and tired of hearing you blame your problems on the elbow-benders down at Mo's Tavern!"

diagram of testosterone molecule In turn, husbands withdrew when wives chose which problem to discuss:

Homer: "Pass the clicker, Marge, We'll talk about who does the laundry, uh, maybe tomorrow. Today's the final four!"

Other results were a bit more surprising. For example, the testosterone level of one spouse did not indicate the level of the other. Neither spouse's marital satisfaction was correlated with testosterone levels. And (gasp!) guys' behavior toward their wives was not related to their testosterone levels.

Get to the good stuff
When you looked at female levels of the hormone, the results were even more interesting:

When high-test wives chose which problem to discuss, both parties were more negative than when the husband chose the topic.

However, husbands were more positive in marital problem-solving if both parties had similar testosterone levels.

In terms of social support (defined as offering clear analysis of the problem, expressing feelings related to the problem, and constructively asking for help) husbands were better at providing support when both spouses had similar testosterone levels.

However, the reverse was not true: High-test wives were somewhat better at providing support to low-test men.

The results are surprising -- if you assume hormones determine human behavior as they do animal behavior. The study shows, Cohan says, the folly of studying the complex interaction of human behavior and hormones in isolation. "It's not necessarily the case that higher testosterone is all bad," says Cohan.

"Testosterone is related to assertiveness, which can be good or bad depending on whether it is manifested as aggression or being helping and being outgoing."

Overall, she says, "There's very little evidence for the idea that biology determines behavior among humans. The relationship between testosterone and behavior is moderated by the social environment."

-- David Tenenbaum portrait of the writer as musclehead

Gender Moderates the Relationship Between Testosterone and Marital Interaction, Catherine Cohan et al, Journal of Family Psychology, March, 2003.

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