WORDS: David Smiedt
IMAGES: Bride To Be

So who's feeling what? Engagements are fraught with emotion. From the anticipation that comes from perhaps suspecting he is about to propose to the sheer joy when it becomes down-on-one-knee reality.

Then, there’s the delight of sharing the news with loved ones, and sometimes the buzzkill when an aunty intimates you could have done better or his mum’s smile seems a little forced.

After this comes the months-long planning process, and if there’s anything that’s going to test your love it’s invitation font selection, calculation of per head catering costs and whether or not his nephew’s grunge band Stinkfinger will provide the entertainment. (‘Think of the money we’ll save, babe.’)

All of this, of course, is carried out in the name of having a perfect day. One of sheer unadulterated joy. Recent scientific research, however, has gone some way to explaining why weddings produce such intense emotions in not only the bride and groom but the guests also. And while the setting, dress, menu and smooth unfolding of events undoubtedly play their role, some suggest it’s your body that makes the day what it is thanks to a rise and fall in the hormone levels of all involved.

In a fascinating experiment carried out in England last year, bride Linda Geddes and her groom Nic Fleming decided to not only submit themselves but 11 other guests to a battery of blood tests on the big day to discover how their hormones were behaving and the impact they had. The results were surprising...

Blame the testosterone

The first suspect to be analysed was testosterone. Responsible for muscle growth, male sexual organs and libido – as well as some of our most unsophisticated behaviours – testosterone seems to pull its head in when it comes to happily ever after. Or at least in the early days of a relationship/marriage.

A 2004 study by the University of Pisa in Italy found levels of this male sex hormone dipped in men who had recently fallen in love. This biological evolution possibly came about to ensure the man in question was now focused on the needs of one woman as opposed to finding as many as possible to fulfil theirs.

As you’d expect, Linda’s wedding wasn’t exactly overflowing with testosterone. In fact, everyone from the father of the groom, the groom’s brother, mutual friends and a male friend of the bride had drops in their testosterone levels. There were two notable exceptions, however. The first was in that of a male friend of the bride, whose testosterone count increased by some 50 per cent.

This is perhaps explained by the ‘one that got away’ phenomenon whereby a single man (or attached one for that matter) sees a bride and perhaps wonders if he should be the one with her at the end of the aisle.

‘I’ve been there,’ says Matt, a graphic designer and self-described ‘singledom junkie’ who ‘spends more time hanging out with women than men and has many female friends.’

Estimating he has been to 13 weddings in 18 months, Matt says: ‘Often, I’d see a woman who I thought I knew walking down the aisle and, although they always looked beautiful, it was as if I saw them as having “happily ever after” potential for the first time. For several minutes, it was almost as if I wanted to challenge the groom for her. As if I was the man she should have been marrying.’

It’s the groom, however, that has the biggest testosterone surge. As Nic married his beloved in England his levels of the hormone skyrocketed by 80 per cent.

This comes as welcome news to Andy, who married his partner Simone a year ago. ‘I was pretty ashamed of myself at my wedding,’ he blushes. ‘Of course Sim looked amazing and it was a special day, but as I saw her walking down the aisle, I had some pretty unchristian thoughts. My brain was fighting between giving my full attention to the vows and the first night of our honeymoon. I reckon a fair few guys would admit to doing the same thing if they knew about the elevated testosterone factor.’

Stress factor explained

Testosterone is but one of several hormones that play their role in a wedding. The ‘stress’ hormones ACTH and cortisol also figure and, just as the groom battles with his testosterone, it’s predominantly the bride who faces these demons. If you think most near Mrs seem a little tense, consider this. Linda’s level of ACTH was 65 per cent higher than normal during her wedding while her cortisol reading topped out at over 80 per cent above normal. Others in the bridal party with elevated ACTH – which is produced by the pituitary gland – were the mother of the bride and father of the groom. But at just over 20 per cent and just under 10 per cent respectively, these figures hardly compare with that of Linda. It’s no wonder then that most brides feel a little apprehensive.

‘I thought I was just exercising my right to act like a bitch on my wedding day,’ laughs Simone, Andy’s partner. ‘But now I can blame the stress hormones. Seriously though, I’d heard about brides being strung out, but it wasn’t till it happened to me that I realised just how full-on it can be. And the whole time you just have to smile. I definitely think there is a hormonal factor involved and if I knew what to expect beforehand, I probably would have actually been a bit more relaxed.’

Interestingly, both bridesmaids (35 per cent less than normal) and groomsmen (60 per cent less than normal) experience vastly decreased levels of cortisol during a wedding. It seems that once the entourage had gotten their charges to the alter, any stress they were feeling simply dissipated.

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Green-eyed (not in the pretty way)

Which brings us to envy. In addition to the old something borrowed, something blue maxim should be added ‘someone green’. As much a part of weddings as bouquets, vows and at least one member of the bridal party who pashes someone they shouldn’t, jealousy is an almost understandable element of nuptials. Seeing two people celebrate the happiest day of their lives, who wouldn’t look on with the thought ‘I wish that was me?’ Perhaps such thoughts feature the bride or groom in question, perhaps it’s rather about their experience, but either way a touch of covetousness is pretty much certain. If the guests were honest – or having their blood tested for the ‘jealousy’ hormone vasopressin – then this much is true.

What surprised the researchers analysing Linda and Nic’s wedding was who exhibited elevated vasopressin levels. It wasn’t the single bridesmaids and it wasn’t a showboating parent wanting their moment in the sun. It was the men at the wedding. On both sides. The groom’s father and brother had elevated vasopressin levels as did two of the bride’s male friends (one of whom was operating at in excess of 25 per cent higher than his normal vasopressin level). It seems the boys also want their special day and, when it finally comes, the vasopressin level drops by almost 20 per cent. As it did with Nic.

Wedded bliss

If there’s one hormone that gives weddings their blissful nature, it’s oxytocin. Dubbed the ‘cuddle chemical’, it promotes trust, bonding and generosity. Three vital ingredients for any wedding. Released from the pituitary gland, oxytocin has been found to feature in a range of social interactions from boosting the relationship between mother and child and fostering intimacy after sex. Furthermore, the hormone is also escalated in those watching a sad movie, boosting our sense of empathy.

Guinea pig bride Linda theorises that oxytocin makes people more sensitive to social cues and nowhere do these run higher than at a wedding. In short, it multiplies the happiness exponentially. Tested before and after the vows, Linda and Nic saw their oxytocin levels jump by 28 and 14 per cent respectively. Most of the  family and guests also saw their levels rise.

Professor Paul Zak, head of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies in Claremont California attributes the group oxytocin surge to an ancient binding of couples to their friends and family, perhaps to help with future child rearing. The closer the genetic link to the couple, the higher the hormone readings, but it’s the bride’s whose levels top the charts.

This was certainly the case when it came to this correspondent’s wedding. Questioning my wife about the possibility her oxytocin levels were stratospheric during our wedding, she reflects: ‘I literally felt intoxicated with joy during the day. It was as if I had taken some illicit drug. I felt instantly closer to everyone and was often on the verge of tears – as if my relationship with every guest had taken a massive step.’

Considering the fact that moderate amounts of stress actually boost the production of oxytocin, there’s something to the notion that it adds to the hyper-intense, slightly unreal (in the very best way) emotions of a wedding day. Noted Zac in New Scientist magazine, ‘Maybe the reason we have these weddings is not just because of the emotional contagion – the empathy, the love – but because these emotions are linked to helping maintain the human race.’ Somehow, on the most basic of cellular levels, everyone present knows that a wedding is a celebration of life.

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