Brizendine: Hormones play a key role in shaping our romantic and sexual relationships

By Elizabeth Daube  |  Excerpted from the UCSF Magazine article "What You Didn't Learn in School About Sexual Health"

Silhouette of a couple's joined hands

Sex hormones like estrogen and testosterone have a profound influence on our bodies. That influence extends to our brains and, to some extent, how we think, feel, and act. The result is the premise of pretty much every romantic comedy ever made: Sometimes men and women confound each other.

That’s why UCSF’s Benioff Professor of Psychiatry Louann Brizendine, MD, writes about the neuroscience of hormones and how they shape our romantic and sexual relationships. She focuses on heteronormative partners— there aren’t many studies of other identities and pairings yet—but Brizendine’s books are immensely popular.

“The male and female brain are much more alike than they are different,” Brizendine says. “But our different hormones are specified by nature to make behavior differences. It’s probably not politically correct to say this, but it is biologically correct.

“I’m making some generalizations here, but it’s so you can step out of yourself and say, ‘Okay, now I understand there might be biology behind this.’ Otherwise, people start to blame themselves or others.”

Biological differences can show up in sexual relationships in many ways. One example: If popular dating shows like FBoy Island are any indicator, a lot of straight women struggle to sort men who want a relationship from men who just want sex. Brizendine believes hormones are behind this dilemma. Women might be prone to rapid attachment to an attractive partner because of oxytocin, a feel-good bonding hormone. Intimacy, cuddling, and sex can unleash it in anyone, but the extra estrogen and progesterone in female bodies encourage their brains to ratchet up their oxytocin, especially when they ovulate. Compared to women, men may need two to three times more touch to maintain the same level of oxytocin.

Did someone ever hold your hand, and you instantly felt the gesture meant something super meaningful? You might be right. It could also be a surge of chemicals that feels fantastic but essentially means “your judgment is toast,” according to Brizendine. For many women, it’s biologically difficult to not crave commitment after sex with someone they really like.

“Biology is destiny unless you know what it’s doing to you,” Brizendine says. “We often don’t know anything about who we’re dating. Having ways to assess trustworthiness quickly is imperative. This is a situation in which you have to outsmart your own hormones.”

Monogamy-minded women can do this in a few ways, Brizendine says. If you track your cycle, avoid scheduling hot dates on the days around ovulation. When you do meet up, consider what matters most to you in a partner. For example, does your date really listen to you—or wait for his turn to speak? Delaying sex can also help keep that oxytocin under control—and weed out dates who just want to hook up.

Meanwhile, Brizendine says testosterone does make sexual conquest a priority for many men, especially during adolescence. But research also suggests that social conditioning pressures men to evade emotion and hide it away—which might make close relationships difficult for some men to initiate or maintain.

“From childhood on, males learn that acting cool and hiding their fears are the unwritten laws of masculinity,” Brizendine writes.

That said, Brizendine argues that some gender stereotypes—on average, women are more emotionally adept, men more rational—are backed by neuroscience.

“The differences are important to understand because they help reset your expectations,” Brizendine says. “Women may be fast on the uptake of emotional nuance. What a woman would get in one conversation, it may take him three. It takes patience.”

Likewise, Brizendine recommends that men practice patience with female experiences they don’t instinctively understand. A common one: For many women, feeling physical pleasure requires turning off the fear and anxiety center of the brain. Stress can profoundly inhibit arousal and ability to orgasm for females—hence, the conventional advice for men to dial up the intimacy and take it easy. Make time to talk. Go out for dinner. Hold those hands! (Okay, not hands necessarily. Any welcome touch helps light the oxytocin fire.)

“Foreplay for a man is basically everything that happens 24 seconds before sex,” Brizendine says. “For a woman, it’s everything that happens 24 hours before.”

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About UCSF Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences

The UCSF Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and the Langley Porter Psychiatric Institute are among the nation's foremost resources in the fields of child, adolescent, adult, and geriatric mental health. Together they constitute one of the largest departments in the UCSF School of Medicine and the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences, with a mission focused on research (basic, translational, clinical), teaching, patient care, and public service.

UCSF Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences conducts its clinical, educational, and research efforts at a variety of locations in Northern California, including Langley Porter Psychiatric Hospital; UCSF Medical Centers at Parnassus Heights, Mission Bay, and Mount Zion; UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals in San Francisco and Oakland; Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center; the San Francisco VA Health Care System; UCSF Fresno; and numerous community-based sites around the San Francisco Bay Area.

About the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences

The UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences, established by the extraordinary generosity of Joan and Sanford I. "Sandy" Weill, brings together world-class researchers with top-ranked physicians to solve some of the most complex challenges in the human brain.

The UCSF Weill Institute leverages UCSF’s unrivaled bench-to-bedside excellence in the neurosciences. It unites three UCSF departments—Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Neurology, and Neurological Surgery—that are highly esteemed for both patient care and research, as well as the Neuroscience Graduate Program, a cross-disciplinary alliance of nearly 100 UCSF faculty members from 15 basic-science departments, as well as the UCSF Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases, a multidisciplinary research center focused on finding effective treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, frontotemporal dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and other neurodegenerative disorders.

About UCSF

The University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) is exclusively focused on the health sciences and is dedicated to promoting health worldwide through advanced biomedical research, graduate-level education in the life sciences and health professions, and excellence in patient care. UCSF Health, which serves as UCSF’s primary academic medical center, includes top-ranked specialty hospitals and other clinical programs, and has affiliations throughout the Bay Area.