Rebecca Kamm

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Rebecca Kamm: Could love drugs save your relationship?

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

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."

And:

"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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