Rebecca Kamm: Could love drugs save your relationship?

Would you take drugs to save your relationship?Photo / Thinkstock

By Rebecca Kamm

Here's something to mull over the next time you feel you might happily fling your dearest out the nearest window: what if we could take "love drugs" to fix our romantic relationships - counteract dwindling passion, for instance, or crawl out of a communication rut? So as long the relationship wasn't abusive or inherently flawed (fact: at least one in ten people have a personality disorder) the careful administration of safe levels of MDMA - the principal ingredient of the street drug ecstasy - could potentially act as a pharmacological aid that keeps us together.

After all, love in this 'modern' age - perhaps more than any other in recorded history - is rocky terrain, and that's putting it mildly. To take a dim view: Couples face no stigma where divorce is concerned, which arguably positions it as an easy escape route; the internet - for all its bringing together of lonely souls - has also turned the world into a sexual pick'n'mix; and sleazy ads position extra-marital affairs as no more than a hobby.

Underpinning all that, our lifespans have outstripped our biological imperatives. In other words, nature holds us in the vice of passion just long enough to produce and protect our offspring, but after that we're on our own. And we're on our own for longer, because we now live for longer. No more Mother Nature glueing us together with the natural cocktail of chemicals called Falling In Love. Post honeymoon phase, Mother Nature couldn't care less if we murdered our spouses, let alone continued to leap along moon-eyed with thoughts of our sweetie.

What, then, is consolidating our emotional bonds these days? Not a whole lot, really, save a prevailing romantic notion that we should stay in love forever. (Religion works for some, sure. But even that's no guarantee against falling out of love or affection, even if it does tend to advocate faithful, lasting relationships.)

Enter Oxford ethicist Brian Earp, who along with his colleagues Anders Sandberg and Julian Savulescu, is a pioneer of said "love drug" research. He is suggesting that couples could salvage their relationship if administered some MDMA in a controlled environment. And, slightly controversially, that parents owe it to their children to try, because kids are "harmed" and hampered by divorce. (Never mind for now that studies show this isn't always true.)

In an interview in The Atlantic, The Case for Using Drugs to Enhance Our Relationships, Earp explains that - as mentioned earlier - evolutionary biology is largely to blame for dwindling desires:

"If you look at this in the context of evolutionary biology, you realise that in order to maximize the survival of their genes, parents need to have emotional systems that keep them together until their children are sufficiently grown... [but] since we now outlive our ancestors by decades, the evolved pair-bonding instincts upon which modern relationships are built often break down or dissolve long before 'death do us part.'

"We see this in the high divorce rates and long term relationship break-up rates in countries where both partners enjoy freedom - especially economic freedom. We are simply not built to pull off decades-long relationships in the modern world."


Continued below.

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"Imagine a couple that is thinking about breaking up or getting a divorce, but they have young children who would likely be harmed by their parents' separation. In this situation, there are vulnerable third parties involved, and we have argued that parents have a responsibility - all else being equal - to preserve and enhance their relationships for the sake of their children, at least until the children have matured and can take care of themselves...

"If love drugs ever become safely and cheaply available; if they could be shown to improve love, commitment, and marital well-being - and thereby lessen the chance (or the need) for divorce; if other interventions had been tried and failed; and if side-effects or other complications could be minimized, then we think that some couples might have an obligation to give them a try."

The Atlantic interview is based on a series of papers by Earp and his colleagues in which they "outline an evolutionarily informed research program for identifying promising biomedical enhancements of love and commitment."

Though it's illegal now, MDMA was used in the late 70s in marriage counselling to boost empathy. Oakland-based psychologist Leo Zeff even dubbed the drug "Adam" because he felt it transported his patients to an Eden-like state of untarnished consciousness. Similarly, a study by the University of Zurich found oxytocin nasal spray encouraged positive communication among couples at loggerheads by lowering their stress levels. (Oxytocin being the 'love' hormone, thanks to its vital role in facilitating attachment bonds.)

Of course, relationship enhancement via pharmaceuticals is nothing new. Just as one partner's depression can drag the whole relationship down, so can the use of anti-depressants lift it back up again. And sexless partnerships afflicted by erectile dysfunction are often teated with the use of viagra - which, in turn, can improve the relationship as a whole.

Put in those terms, ingesting a little MDMA to increase the love and communication quota doesn't feel so far fetched. And, ultimately, seeing as the mismatch between our moral sensibilities and our biological imperatives is one of potentially devastating proportions - emotionally speaking - we probably need all the help we can get.

Follow Rebecca Kamm on Twitter.

Would you take MDMA to save or enhance your relationship? Are we biologically at war with ourselves by trying to 'mate for life' - and could this be the answer? Why? Or why not?</strong>

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anne moore

- Auckland
01:43 pm Monday 11 February 2013
Yes I believe that if everybody took mdma the world would be a better place,there is no substitute for this drug it use to be mothers little helpers years ago,i would recommend that it should be used before antidepressants ,illegal or not its the best ever. those peoples that are in lifes unfortunate accidents that are completely paralised or unable to live as a normal people, benefit from the best outer body experience ever. there is no stress and the love is beautiful


- New Zealand
09:45 am Monday 11 February 2013
Gee, Doc, I hope you don't go telling stressed out mums they are doing a lousy job.
Its hard enough being a mum of young kids.

As for SSRI's being as effective as sugar pills except for severe depression, when do you judge the depression is severe?

What do you mean "so-called" mental illness?
Depression, anxiety etc are not mental "wellness" and these days they can be easily treated by "popping a pill".

That doesn't make you a "pill-popper" necessarily.
We have an extremely high suicide rate, with doctors topping (so to speak) the list.


- New Zealand
09:45 am Monday 11 February 2013
Fair enough. No, I dont know anything about amitriptyline.
I just know that the anti-depressants like prozac etc have done wonders for thousands of seriously depressed people and its a pity there is still such a stigma against them.

Especially in a country with such a high rate of depression and suicide.
Every year more people commit suicide than die on the road.
Every time I hear of somebody killing themself I wonder if they even tried anti-depressants, and for a reasonable length of time.

Jim West

- New Zealand
01:20 pm Sunday 10 February 2013
in the example I was talking bout - a rehab dealing with drug addicts -, a proper solution would be a series of counselling sessions to find a good outcome, rather than the one session, and then here is your drugs. I am fully aware of the importance of depression and medication to help people in that regard. I have a number of people I know who daily have medication to help combat depression, but I do not condone the ease that I saw people being medicated (into zombie like people) at a rehab just to keep them placated. Have you ever had amitriptyline or known anyone on a high dose.


- Hamilton
10:59 am Sunday 10 February 2013
I agree, I get tired of the same mother, its time I found a new one. And kids? There is no need to love them forever, you should tidy your life by cutting them out when you are finished with them. As for that childhood friend that you now have nothing in common with, but get together and talk for hours, thats unnatural, time to dump them as well.

The people are in your life because you love them, and love does last forever. Hormones don't, randyness doesn't, respect does. People cheat on their partners because they are too lazy to take it to the next level, and want the teenage hormonal monster version of love again. They need to grow up. And learn that grandparents do have sex and can be very happy and satisfied with their sex life.


- New Zealand
11:30 am Friday 08 February 2013
You make some interesting points, Meta.
I don't think its as simple as saying a relationship is held together by the fear of one partner topping themselves.
After years together, people surely owe each other some loyalty and consideration for their feelings.
I think in our culture marriage has involved the concept of love for quite a long time now.
This a major improvement on those polygnous marriages where women are abused and treated like chattels in many countries to this day.


- New Zealand
10:13 am Friday 08 February 2013
"Zombiefication" is a good description of what depression feels like. "Living death" is another one.

If you start off slowly on the lowest possible dose you won't get many side effects, if any.

What do you call a "proper solution"?

Months or years of expensive counselling that usually doesn't work anyway?
Anti-depressants have saved many lives and prevented much unnecessary suffering.
And they don't turn people into "zombies".


- Tauranga
10:13 am Friday 08 February 2013
The whole idea of life-pairing is a joke. Couples would pair up because she needed to be supported (no other choice for women back in the day) and he needed a brood mare. It was all about property and heirs. None of this 'soul-mate' luvvy-wuvvy nonsense. Usually she would die in childbirth or he in a war, and possibly half the family from disease, so then the survivor would remarry and the cycle would continue.


- North Shore
10:12 am Friday 08 February 2013
Thanks for your reply. Regarding suicide after separation - point taken, but how healthy is a relationship held together by the fear of one partner topping themselves if it ended?

You said "I can't understand how anyone can live with somebody for years without getting pretty fond of them". With all respect, whether you understand it or not, the majority of people who live together split up, so perhaps fondness is not enough! Some (US) statistics for you:

Only 13 percent of cohabitations remain intact after five years. (National Survey of Family Growth)
60 percent of marriages for couples between the ages of 20 and 25 end in divorce.
50 percent of all marriages in which the brides are 25 or older result in a failed marriage.
(National Center for Health Statistics)

Regarding "pair-bonding", yes humans form pair bonds, but they are not exclusive and not permanent. Marriage is a cultural phenomenon, and traditionally hasn't involved the concept of "love":

Psychology Today website link

Actually humans are, by nature, promiscuous, and 85% of traditional human cultures were polygynous (Ethnographic Atlas Codebook).

Greg S

- Dargaville
03:35 pm Thursday 07 February 2013
I am a Psychologist, research demonstrates that except for severe depression SSRI's are as effective as sugar pills. Lets give ADHD another name, say, poorly parented undisciplined children. Again research show medicated children at 17 have no better academic outcomes than unmedicated childern. They will however be physically less well developed than their unmedicated peers.

They will also be conditioned to pop a pill for that any reason. The western bio-medical model has been very effective for medical conditions. And very unsuccessful for so called mental illness. Also as a society we have narrowed down our definition of 'normal'. Normal is now a child who can sit still for hours at a time staring at a screen. Quite sick really.

Nowa Magda

- Mt Eden
02:31 pm Thursday 07 February 2013
Wow are you seriously comparing taking drugs to get a love high to treating depression and erectile dysfunction? Those are medical conditions and medicines have been developed to deal with them. Depression is extremely serious and in no way is it on the same plane as these so called love pills.

I personally don't think the drugs are the way to go. If you are not willing to work on your relationship how is a pill going to help. It will mask all the problems until next time. You have to deal with your problems not medicate and hope for the best. Besides, how do you know all is actually well and sorted when you are drugged up.

I reckon these drugs would create more harm then good. Life is hard, relationships take a lot of work. People can't keep expecting that there is a quick fix for every problem out there. There is a reason why there are couples counselors, they are there to help people resolve issues and hopefully communicate better.

If you are not prepared to do the hard work you shouldn't be in a relationship.


- New Zealand
02:31 pm Thursday 07 February 2013
Please... a quick look on line shows fundamental issues with your statement which says that the average life expectancy is round the 35 year mark, much lower than your 70. - The data come from age estimates of skeletons from various archaeological sites representing a variety of time periods in the Mediterranean region.

Paleolithic skeletons indicated a life expectancy of 35.4 years for men and 30.0 years for women, which includes a high rate of infant mortality... You also didn't say what parts you believed were inaccurate. but there's a blinding one in yours.


- New Zealand
02:31 pm Thursday 07 February 2013
Maybe, but I think you need to check it out with your kids and your partner first.
Divorce can be very painful for the kids and the rejected spouse.

Most of the men I've known who committed suicide did so after their wife left them.
Personally, although nobody is that easy to get along with, I can't understand how anyone can live with somebody for years without getting pretty fond of them.
I think its called "pair-bonding".


- Waitakere City
02:31 pm Thursday 07 February 2013
Don't you think it is a little bit precious to filter out every comment that is the slightest bit critical of you Rebecca? You are quite happy to leave in the praising comments so it can't be anything to do with personal comment.

It's hardly abuse to point out you are young and inexperienced.

If you want to put yourself on the public stage perhaps you might also want to consider putting your big girl bitches on while you do so. Oh dear, I suppose that was a sexist comment in your eyes was it?


- New Zealand
02:31 pm Thursday 07 February 2013
Oh please, it will obviously depend on what doctor, and their own views on the matter. Having been in a rehab (for alcohol) the people who came in for P and other drug dependencies were given (mostly) amdertriptaline (spelling) as a rule. I had it fed to me, but stopped after the effects were detrimental as opposed to beneficial. zombiefication is a good option for those that cant be bothered with a proper solution.
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