Is there a pill for love? What about an anti-love drug, to help you get over your ex? This book argues that certain psychoactive substances, including MDMA—the active ingredient in Ecstasy—might help ordinary couples work through relationship difficulties and strengthen their connection. Others may help sever emotional ties during a breakup, with transformative implications for how we think about love. Oxford ethicists Julian Savulescu and Brian D. Earp build a case for conducting research into "love drugs" and "anti-love drugs" and explore their ethical implications for individuals and society. Why are we still in the dark about the effects of common medications on romantic partnerships? How can we overhaul scientific research norms to put interpersonal factors front and center? Biochemical interventions into love and relationships are not some far-off speculation. Our most intimate connections are already being influenced by drugs we ingest for other purposes. Controlled studies are already underway to see whether artificial brain chemicals might enhance couples' therapy. And conservative religious groups are already experimenting with certain medications to quash romantic desires—and even the urge to masturbate—among children and vulnerable sexual minorities. Simply put, the horse has bolted. Where it runs is up to us. Love is the Drug arms readers with the latest scientific knowledge as well as a set of ethical tools that you can use to decide for yourself if these sorts of medications should be a part of our society. Or whether a chemical romance might be right for you.
This chapter highlights the recent burst of controlled, scientific research on medical and non-medical uses of psychedelic drugs and MDMA to improve individual welfare, and argues that this research should be extended to couples in romantic relationships. It questions the line between ‘drugs’ and ‘medicine’ and argues that such distinctions often reflect dubious social and historical factors, rather than a clear-eyed assessment of actual benefits and harms. It introduces the idea that love drugs might help strengthen certain relationships, and that anti-love drugs might help other relationships end. But there are serious risks that might be associated with such drugs, and the wider social implications will be hard to predict. To minimize this risk and uncertainty, careful ethical deliberation and nuanced policy measures will be key.
What are love drugs? Basically, drugs that affect love—or romantic relationships more broadly. This chapter begins with an account of drugs, explaining that they are essentially just chemicals—clusters of molecules that work on the brain to produce certain effects—and that our choice to regard them as medicine versus recreation, or as a means to personal or spiritual development, is up to us. It is a question of values. The chapter then gives an account of love, explaining that it has both biological and psychosocial dimensions. When there is a tension between love and well-being, it may make sense in certain cases to intervene in either or both of those dimensions to improve our relationships and our lives.
Why might tensions arise between love and well-being? Sometimes, there can be painful inconsistencies between our conscious values surrounding love, the prevailing cultural norms or social scripts for romantic partnerships in our environment, our subjective experiences of attachment and desire, and our underlying biological natures. Which of these dimensions can be altered? Which of them should be altered, and under what conditions? Many societies hold up monogamous marriage as the ideal for committed relationships. Is this ideal consistent with human nature? This chapter argues that there is no single answer to that question: natural variation among individuals and at the level of the species confounds such one-size-fits-all thinking. Accordingly, if biological interventions—in addition to psychosocial ones—will ever help love and happiness coincide, it will depend on the specific issues facing a given couple.
This chapter gets specific about the kinds of biological interventions into love that are currently possible—and those that may exist in the future. It shows how love can be affected by certain chemicals through a variety of different pathways, depending on the psychosocial context. It also discusses common medications that may already be influencing love and relationships, such as hormonal birth control and anti-depressant pills, and argues for a shift in scientific research norms: away from an exclusive focus on individuals and clinical symptoms, toward a more inclusive, relationship-oriented paradigm that considers the interpersonal and social implications of drug-based medical treatments.
If love drugs become more widely available, who should use them? This chapter introduces Stella and Mario, a married couple with dependent children who are in a ‘gray’ relationship—that is, a relationship that is not violent, abusive, or otherwise clearly dysfunctional, but which has lost its romantic spirit, despite many earnest attempts to keep it alive. The couple are unhappy. They are considering a divorce. They worry about how this might affect the children. They do still care about each other and value what they have built together. But they’ve run out of places to look for a shared sense of joy. The chapter argues that this is a very common situation for long-term partners, and that love drugs may soon be a viable option for supporting couples’ mutual well-being within such relationships.
Drug-supported couples therapy is not a new phenomenon. In fact, MDMA was widely used for this purpose, to good effect in many cases, into the 1980s—before it was banned for largely political reasons. This chapter discusses the history of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy, making clear that MDMA is not just ‘emotional glue’ that holds romantic partners together, no matter how incompatible. Rather, professionally guided, drug-enhanced counseling may help some individuals or couples realize that they need to end their relationship, and may allow them to do so in a more loving and healthy way. The chapter asks whether MDMA poses a threat to authenticity or personal identity and raises other risks that may be associated with its use under certain conditions. It concludes with a call for careful, controlled scientific research into the potential of MDMA as an aid to couples counseling
Why are there are so many couples looking for help with their relationships in the first place? Why is it so hard to make long-term, romantic partnerships work, much less flourish, in the modern world? This chapter argues that at least part of the explanation may lie in a disconnect between our ancient, evolved dispositions for mating and attachment and the social and physical environment we have created for ourselves through culture and technology. In short, our capacity for love did not evolve to support life-long relationships in contemporary societies. Rather, it evolved to support the reproductive success of our ancestors under social conditions that, for the most part, no longer exist. In addition, the place of love in marriage—and the institution of marriage itself—has undergone a whiplash-inducing transformation over the past 200 years, leaving us ill-equipped to fit the pieces all together. Might there be a role for chemical treatments in strengthening the bonds of attachment directly?
One of the most hyped possibilities for chemically strengthening love and attachment is the hormone oxytocin. This chapter surveys the evidence on oxytocin-enhanced relationships and identifies a number of gaps in the literature that would need to be filled before oxytocin could be used as a love drug. If stronger evidence comes out supporting real-world effectiveness of oxytocin in a relationship context, clear guidelines would need to be put in place to ensure that it was used responsibly and ethically. Building on this insight, the chapter concludes with an outline of key ethical constraints that should apply to any drug-assisted mode of couples therapy.
Instead of trying to strengthen a relationship, what if the relationship needs to end? This chapter discusses existing drugs that may be capable of diminishing love, lust, attraction, or attachment to a current romantic partner. It also raises concerns about possible negative outcomes and points to the limits of what is likely to be possible. Given that drugs or medications used for other purposes may have anti-love side-effects, what would be the ethics of prescribing them off-label as a way of assisting with a difficult breakup or healing a broken heart? The chapter concludes by acknowledging the risk of ‘pathologizing’ love and romantic relationships by intervening in them with medical substances, and suggests a way to avoid this particular worry.