Love Drugs: Can Ecstasy Save Your Marriage?


The group of ethicists working at Oxford – Brian D. Earp, Anders Sandberg and Julian Savulescu – has attracted considerable media attention for its work on “love drugs”, which is to say drugs that can either bond us more closely to our partners, or make us fall out of love with someone we wish we were not in love with. (In this post, I’m going to focus on the former sort.) Their published papers on the subject can be accessed here.

The science is probably not far off. We already have various drugs that will do this in a fairly roughshod way. MDMA makes people, um, extremely affectionate, and there is evidence to suggest that it may help people deal with emotional issues when it is used in a therapeutic context. We would need more trials, and a better long-term safety profile, before we could endorse its use, but its known effects are at least enough to suggest the basic physiological principle, that drugs can promote emotional bonding, is not outlandish. And a fascinating experiment with prairie voles suggests that they can be turned monogamous or non-monogamous merely through the manipulation of oxytocin and vasopressin levels in their brains.

So assuming such drugs can be developed, and we believe them to be as safe as any other prescription drug – are they a good idea?

I think they are. The fact is, people are unhappy and confused in their relationships. Divorce rates are high, infidelity is common, and while almost everyone who is single says they are looking for a long-term relationship, people in those relationships report levels of satisfaction that are in fact quite low. There are lots of reasons for this. Many people just make bad decisions about whom to pair up with, or have standards that are unreasonably high. But there is a case to be made (which Professors Earp and his co-authors make quite eloquently) that we are simply not programmed by biology to be happy in lifetime monogamous relationships. The different stages of our evolution have left us with different love systems in our brain – one that makes us lust after people, one that makes us fall head over heals for them, and one that binds us to them in a lasting way. Sometimes, these systems work together. Very often they don’t.

It is very easy for people who are not having relationship problems to talk about authenticity and the benefits of suffering. Once upon a time people used to talk about the benefits of physical suffering. Now we find this cruel. We have a general commitment as a society to helping people alleviate suffering when we can. The principle should apply in the emotional realm as well. It would be perverse to deny people a potential tool to help them deal with pain simply because we think they should suffer for the sake of authenticity.

One of the first objections always raised to love drugs is that they risk creating a “Brave New World” of medicated zombies programmed for superficial happiness rather than actual experience. But the use of love drugs would be intended for cases where people actually wanted to have a happy, stable relationship, but found themselves unable to do so. True freedom is arguably the power to choose your own ends plus the ability to achieve those ends. If someone sets as her end a stable, monogamous relationship, and the drugs help her achieve that, they would be a tool to promote freedom rather than a threat to it.

As I have said, there is little good data on the use of MDMA in a therapeutic setting. But the data that exists suggest that long-term use might not be necessary. Periodic administration within a controlled therapeutic setting might well produce the kinds of break-throughs that relationship counsellors struggle for years to achieve.

There is arguably an alternative solution to love drugs, one that would make them unnecessary, but which never gets seriously talked about. If the problem is indeed rooted in conflicts between our desire system and our attachment system, we could conceivably deal with these conflicts in a different way, merely by loosening our strictures on sexual fidelity within monogamous relationships. In many cases it is not spending your life with someone that causes the problem, it is the sexual exclusivity that this is supposed to entail. Medication may be a way of avoiding a deeper conversation about modern values, and about whether they make sense in today’s world — one where we can protect ourselves against STDs and unwanted pregnancy, where technology widens the temptations we face, and where increasing lifespans make lifetime sexual fidelity even more daunting. Maybe one day we’ll be prepared to have that conversation, and we can put the drugs away.

Image: Evelyn de Morgan, “The Love Potion” (1903)

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