Birth control is unique among medical interventions, not least of all because its name straight-up tells you what it does—it controls birth by preventing pregnancy. Beyond that, though, there are a lot of other things birth control can do. Some are great: Hormonal birth control can clear skin and make periods or endometriosis more manageable. Others, like its ability to cause weight changes or vaginal dryness, are less ideal.
If your partner is on the pill, has an arm implant or an intrauterine device (IUD), slips a NuvaRing in their vagina, or relies on a different form of birth control, but your main concern is simply staying baby-free, it’s likely you don’t know much about how it all works. And that would be fine, except that it can cause issues in your relationship if you’re not aware of the side effects that contraception can have on your partner.
Why birth control, and what are the options?
Preventing pregnancy is a common reason to get on birth control, but Dr. Meera Shah, Chief Medical Officer at Planned Parenthood Hudson Peconic, shared a few others with Lifehacker:
Many, many people use hormonal birth control to help with their period symptoms, like cramps or [premenstrual syndrome]. I’ve provided patients hormonal birth control to help manage endometriosis and even acne. Methods such as pills, the ring, and the patch can make periods lighter, more predictable, and less painful. You can also use the pill, patch, and ring to safely skip your periods altogether. Hormonal IUDs, the implant, and the shot can also ease cramps and make periods lighter and shorter (or even stop them completely). Though they’re a little less predictable — some people have more irregular periods while on these methods.
For the most part, these methods use hormones to get their various jobs done, but there is a copper IUD option that doesn’t. If you assumed that means it has no side effects, think again: Copper IUDs can cause heavier periods and more intense cramping.
It’s not uncommon for a person to try out a few different methods before settling on the one that works best for them and has the least amount of side effects.
How birth control can affect a partner
Dr. Shah mentioned one of the more undesirable side effects already: Irregular periods. The bleeding might be unpredictable, sporadic, or near-constant, as everyone reacts to hormones differently. That bleeding can be annoying, but is “managed pretty easily” once a doctor is informed, she said.
There could be other issues, though, like vaginal dryness, nausea, changes in libido, or weight fluctuations. Sherry, a woman from Arizona, told Lifehacker that when she was using Depo-Provera, the hormonal injection, she gained weight and started to feel depressed—two effects that exacerbated each other.
“It was just a really bad combination of, like, the weight gain from birth control and all these other external factors that I was just not happy with myself and the weight gain certainly didn’t help. My self-perception and body image was very down,” she said. “There are just a lot of parts about the shot that compounded on each other. I wouldn’t say it was the shot in isolation, but it certainly didn’t help.”
She quickly went back on the pill, which she’d initially gotten off of because she hadn’t been very diligent in taking it. She said she’s much more responsible with it now, though she still gets extra moody before her period starts.
Moodiness, increased bleeding, vaginal dryness, and weight changes are all standard side effects, but are also pretty normal occurrences for people who aren’t on birth control, so you’d be forgiven if you didn’t realize your partner was experiencing them because of their contraception. Other, much rarer side effects are also possible.
Nicole, a woman from Utah, recounted to Lifehacker how her Nexplanon, a birth control implant, migrated through the muscle of her arm in 2015, requiring surgery to remove. She still goes to physical therapy to regain full use of her arm to this day and, like Sherry, is back on the pill. To be clear, the likelihood of your partner’s birth control wreaking havoc on one of their limbs is small, but the likelihood of their birth control affecting you isn’t exactly nil.
How their birth control can affect you, and how you can prepare
To put it plainly, if you’re a cisgender guy, it’s not unheard of to feel a partner’s NuvaRing or IUD strings during intercourse, but it’s pretty rare. Your best bet, if you’re one of the few who does feel it, is not to focus on it and to try to let the sensation be a reminder that hey, you’re not going to be a dad anytime soon. NuvaRings can be moved around easily if either party is uncomfortable with the feeling. If you suddenly feel the hard part of an IUD, not just the strings, however, it may have shifted and until your partner can get in to see their healthcare provider, use a secondary contraceptive method, just to be safe.
The dryness mentioned by Dr. Shah can affect you, too. It’s always good practice to keep some lubrication on hand, so refer to this handy guide on finding the best one for your situation. On the other hand, if frequent or sudden bleeding is the issue, keep some wet wipes on deck, lay down a towel, and communicate clearly if the amount of blood present passes your personal ick threshold. There are special products, like menstrual sponges and soft cups, that can be worn during sex and help with cleanliness issues, but these don’t discriminate between blood and other liquids, so you’ll need lube again to make up for the wetness you forfeit. Here’s another handy guide on using sponges for period sex, though we recommend ones made for the purpose, not makeup applicators.
Now, say moodiness or weight changes in your partner affect how attracted to them you are. That’s edging into more psychological territory and isn’t exactly cool, but no judgements; this guide is meant to help. Kindly broach the topic if and when it feels appropriate, keeping in mind that their health is a top priority, but your comfort is important, too. It’s a good first step to indicate that you understand these changes are birth control-related and you’re willing to help counter them however you can, if they want to. In fact, being caring and supportive will go a long way toward mitigating any problems birth control might cause for them or for you.
How to be supportive of someone on birth control
Nicole’s boyfriend helps her with her physical therapy and they talk openly and often about how they’re preventing pregnancy and how her pills are affecting her. Not only does she not want to be a mother, but for a time, she couldn’t be because she was on Accutane. The acne medication can cause serious birth defects, so her birth control was a requirement she talked frankly to her boyfriend about. She sees these conversations as a litmus test: “If you don’t have a partner that respects what you need, then you probably should get a different partner.”
Sherry says her new boyfriend, too, is helpful and makes her nightly pill routine a little more fun with inside jokes about it. Rachel, a woman from Ohio who uses an IUD, isn’t currently partnered, but echoed Nicole’s approach, telling Lifehacker, “If you’re ever with somebody who doesn’t want you on birth control and/or they don’t like that they can feel your NuvaRing [during intercourse], that’s something that you need to evaluate with your priorities and what’s going on in your relationship.”
In short, be open and listen to what your partner is saying about their experiences. Let’s say they’re telling you they feel moody or that their irregular bleeding has made them not want to have sex. If you’re not open and nice about it, now they have two problems to deal with—and not only are you not getting laid, but you might get dumped. To avoid those fates—and, you know, strengthen your relationship—you might have to bring up the subject yourself, but Dr. Shah points out why that could be uncomfortable for them.
She notes, “Because of the stigma that exists around sex and bodies, it’s common to feel embarrassed if you experience a side effect and you or your partner doesn’t respond in the ‘right’ way—and that can be frustrating.”
One solution, then, is showing an interest as early as possible.
You could both look at the birth control options page at plannedparenthood.org to see all the options with benefits and potential side effects outlined. You could also take the birth control quiz together to get a sense of your best options. It’s important to have open communication about birth control with your partner because it is a part of basic health care. Nearly all sexually active American cis women have used birth control at some point in their lives, and many trans and nonbinary patients use birth control as well. There’s a lot to celebrate around birth control: the ability to plan, prevent, and space pregnancies is directly linked to benefits for all people—not just those who can become pregnant—including more educational and economic opportunities, healthier babies, and more stable families. Plus, using birth control correctly can make you and your partner more comfortable and carefree when having sex—in control of your sexual health and, without worrying about the risk of an unintended pregnancy.
Oh, and that leads to one other thing: If your partner is risking bleeding, weight changes, moodiness, vaginal dryness, and even (rarely!) loss of typical arm function at least partially in the service of you not becoming a parent, don’t forget to say thank you.