Dear Cecil: My girlfriend is currently having her period. Does that mean that I am riding the cotton pony as well? I am a male, but I definitely notice an increase in tears shed while watching TV dramas, war stories, and cheerleader movies. My temper is also noticeably shorter, but that might just be because I ain’t gettin’ any. I’m aware of the pheromones pumping out of her armpits and such, and since I have a mild armpit fetish I get a pretty hefty dose (more info than you probably needed). Is that mutual menstruation stuff just for sorority sisters, or should I stock up on Midol and tissue boxes? Bitchy in Busan, South Korea
Uh, “riding the cotton pony”? If I ever find myself researching a question about the expat frat-boy scene in South Korea, I’ll know who to get in touch with.
Let’s start with what you ended with: synchronized menstruation, discussed in this column in the past. It’s known as the McClintock effect, after Martha McClintock, the University of Chicago psychology professor who first described it more than 40 years ago. The premise is that when women hang out together for a long time, their menstrual cycles synchronize due to pheromones, chemical signals in sweat that work through the sense of smell. However, later researchers claimed most cases of apparent synchrony were coincidence, and there’s considerable skepticism in the scientific community that human pheromones actually exist.
That’s not to say your girlfriend’s moods and yours don’t swing in tandem — the effect, if there is one, could be purely psychosomatic. Whatever’s going on, getting weepy during movies is the least of what you’ll want to watch out for. Let me introduce you to the concept of sympathetic pregnancy, also known as couvade, probably from the French couver, meaning to brood or hatch.
Sympathetic pregnancy is pretty much what it sounds like — a pregnant woman’s partner develops similar physical signs, even putting on weight. There are two forms: ritual couvade and couvade syndrome.
Ritual couvade shows up in some primitive cultures and involves things like pretending to have morning sickness or, in an extreme case from New Guinea, slitting the underside of the penis with a knife, apparently to simulate the purifying postpartum menstrual flow. Various anthropological theories have been advanced to explain these practices. Ignoring the New Guinea outlier, I notice the common denominator seems to be that the father gets to lounge in bed for a few days after the birth while the mother often has to get up and care for the kid. So it’s safe to say it wasn’t women who thought this up.
Of greater interest in our enlightened times is couvade syndrome, which is involuntary, or anyway ostensibly so. Male pregnancy symptoms may include vomiting, lassitude, food cravings, headache, fever, abdominal swelling, cramping, dizziness, and, interestingly, toothache. Psychological symptoms may include depression, insomnia, and nervousness.
Though unrecognized as a medical diagnosis, couvade syndrome is seemingly more common than might be supposed. A 1965 British study of 327 men whose wives had just given birth in a modern hospital found 11 percent reported sympathetic pregnancy symptoms. In a U.S. study, 40 percent of lower-middle-class men in Boston said the same.
This isn’t just hipster males showing off their feminine side in solidarity with their partners. Often the men reporting symptoms find the experience an ordeal; some case studies have found the guys are domineering conservative types.
Are they trying to suppress the woman within? Maybe, but some researchers think there’s a physiological basis:
- A study of 34 expectant couples in Newfoundland found the men’s testosterone, prolactin, and cortisol levels all changed significantly during the pregnancy, delivery, and afterward — the men’s hormone levels tended to move in step with their wives’.
- In another Canadian study, researchers found that 23 first-time fathers showed suppressed testosterone and cortisol levels and increased estrogen levels in the months leading up to and following their child’s birth.
Some think sympathetic hormone swings have an evolutionary basis. Fathers with lower testosterone are more likely to care for a crying baby, as are those with higher prolactin, and thus couvade may help to perpetuate the species. Then again, maybe that’s just wishful thinking by defenders of overworked moms. Since you and your girlfriend seem to be attuned, Bitchy, you’re a potential test bed for these notions. If the relationship advances to the procreational level, make sure you take good notes.
Questions we’re still thinking about
I used to have a friend, that when we were together, we ended up being considerably more gassy than we were on our own. I have also had a roommate that had this effect on me. There weren’t any physical factors that could contribute, except maybe more junk food in our diets. Is it possible for two people to affect each other’s body chemistry like that just by being in the same room together?
See above, my friend. One thing at a time.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.