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When Men Fight With Their Spouses, Their Testosterone Surges

But scientists say that’s still not an excuse for aggressive behavior

Unlike the bodies it inhabits, testosterone is a complicated hormone. Men with too much turn into psychopaths, and men with too little are willing to risk the health of their testicles for just a little more. To further complicate testosterone-y things, researchers at the University of Florida have discovered that while men experience a surge in testosterone during an argument with their spouse, women don’t.

A recent first-of-its-kind study conducted by Florida State University found that men typically experience a testosterone spike when they think their wife is opposing them in some way. Conducted by Anastasia Makhanova, a doctoral student in Florida State University’s Department of Psychology, the aim was to see how testosterone relates to conflict within romantic relationships. “This is an important question because even the happiest couple will face — and have to try to overcome — problems in their relationship,” she says. “Biological processes are one interesting avenue to explore when thinking about what could influence these conflict dynamics.”

According to the Tallahassee Democrat, Makhanova brought 50 newlywed couples, married less than three months, into an FSU laboratory, where they chose four “hot-button” marital issues to discuss. “Each couple was left alone in a room with video cameras and given eight minutes to work out each problem,” reported the Democrat.

While some couples tried to resolve the issues together and were able to stay calm, most of the couples quickly became hostile and began blaming their partners and denying any responsibility. “The FSU research documented that heated arguments provoked testosterone surges in many men, while women — who produce smaller quantities of testosterone — did not experience the same effect,” according to the same report.

Makhanova attributes men’s disproportionate surge in testosterone during an argument  (beyond the different amounts produced by men and women) to something called the “Challenge Hypothesis,” which was based on observations of bird behavior conducted in the 1990s. “Male birds typically have an increase in testosterone at the start of the breeding season (when they’re engaging in male-male competition for territory),” says Makhanova. “They also were likely to show the same increase/spike in testosterone if they were challenged by another male for territory throughout the breeding season.” Based on the results of Makhanova’s study, the results supported the pattern predicted by the challenge hypothesis — men who were perceiving challenge (in this case, from their partner yelling at them) were more likely to have the testosterone response.

Though previous research had never examined competition amongst people who are in a relationship together, Makhanova says that since all couples often engage in some of these competitions when trying to resolve a conflict, the results of her study weren’t too surprising. What did surprise her was the fact that women didn’t experience the same surge of testosterone as men. “We wanted to examine if men have the same challenge response when they perceive challenge from their significant other (rather than a stranger or another man),” she tells me. “However, we weren’t sure if this would only happen for men because some recent work on testosterone in relationships shows that this hormone acts similarly for men and women.”

While Makhanova’s research didn’t explicitly study the consequences of men experiencing this surge, she tells me that increases in testosterone can be associated with more aggressive responding. “So this surge may be associated with blaming one’s partner after perceiving that they’re blaming you,” says Makhanova. “Higher testosterone is also associated with sexual desire. So an interesting thing to examine in the future is possible connections with makeup sex after arguments.”

Perhaps most interestingly, Makhanova says it’s important to note that the data shows that the testosterone spike is caused by perceptions of what the spouse is doing, rather than what they’re actually doing. Because of this, she suggests, there are ways to mitigate this hormonal response. “I think this is a potential avenue to intervene and help people see how their perceptions may be altered to de-escalate arguments,” says Makhanova. “The testosterone spike also doesn’t guarantee any negative behavior, so if people are aware that they’re physiologically aroused, they could be mindful of this state and their behavior.”

In other words, it’s all about how in tune you are with your body, and how well you’re able to handle that wave of hormones as they hit. “Hormones and instincts definitely influence behavior, but for people they’re often just one factor that goes into determining behavior,” Makhanova adds.

Another determining factor: Dirty dishes and who washed them last.