Could A Single Pill Save Your Marriage?

Originally appearing here. Your relationship is on the rocks. Begrudgingly, you and your significant other visit a marriage counselor in the hopes that there’s still something left to salvage in your relationship. You both spill your guts and admit that the love is gone. The counselor listens attentively, nodding her head every now and then in complete understanding. At the end of the session she offers the two of you some practical words of advice and sees you on your way. Oh, but before you leave she fills out a prescription for the two of you. Your marriage, it would seem, has been placed on meds. Now, as messed up as this scenario might seem, this could very well be the future of marriage counseling. At least that’s what Oxford neuroethicists Julian Savulescu and Anders Sandberg believe. In their paper, “Neuroenhancement of Love and Marriage: The Chemicals Between Us,” they argue that such a possibility awaits us in the not-too-distant future, and that a kind of ‘love potion’ could eventually be developed to strengthen pair bonding. In fact, most of the compounds required to make such a concoction are already within our grasp. It’s just a matter of doing it. It’s no secret that divorce rates are going up. Most people would agree that the end of a relationship is a tragic and undesirable thing. Modern couples tend to break-up between the five to nine year mark, a time when the initial honeymoon phase is long gone and the hard realities of managing a longterm relationship really start to kick in. And while economic and social factors can often play a part in the disintegration of a marriage, neuroscience is increasingly showing that that love is in the brain. Human sexuality is a complicated thing, the result of an evolutionary psychology that is heavily influenced by our pernicious selfish genes. No matter how hard we try, our feelings for our partners change over time — and more often not for the better. Marriage therapy helps, but it often comes too late. Studies have shown, for example, that female desire for sexual intimacy decreases as a relationship continues. Males, on the other hand, don’t tend to lose their sexual desire, but they gradually lose the need for tenderness from their partner. But now, owing to our growing understanding of the brain, we may be able to do something about it. Pair bonding and love, it would seem, could use a helping hand — and that helping hand could come in the form of a pill. Psychopharmaceuticals may eventually be used to restore and even enhance feelings of love. Medication during a marriage could help a couple maintain a sense of closeness and attachment. The honeymoon phase, it would seem, could be prolonged indefinitely. Pair bonding is a multifaceted process, a complex mixture of lust, attraction, and attachment. Neuroimaging studies of romantic love, for example, have shown activations in regions of the brain that are linked to the oxytocin and vasopressin systems, and also reward systems. In addition, brain scans bear witness to the systematic deactivation of regions linked with negative affect, social judgement and the assessment of other people’s emotions and intentions. Neuroscientists have discovered that long-term attachment is also tied to oxytocin and vasopressin, as well as noradrenaline which is responsible for strong learning. Based on these and other findings, Savulescu and Sandberg propose five different methods to restore love through the use of pharmacological interventions, or what they call the “modulators of love”: Pheromones: Our bodies release odor chemicals called pheromones in the hopes of triggering behavioral responses in those around us — particularly those hotties who we’re attracted to. From an evolutionary perspective, this was important for indicating sexual availability. It’s a rather untargeted and blunt approach, but Savulescu and Sandberg speculate that we may eventually be able to tailor immune-related smells to strengthen ties between people. Testosterone: The administration of testosterone has been shown to increase sexual desire in both men and women. People on testosterone report an increase in sexual thoughts, activity and satisfaction, but they do not report increased romantic passion or increased attachment to partners. Oxytocin and vasopressin: The dynamic duo of pair-bonding substances, oxytocin and vasopressin are pro-social hormones that are released during bodily contact. Even the simple act of hugging someone will release oxytocin in the brain. By supplementing with oxytocin it is hoped that pro-social behaviors, like trust and openness, might reduce negative feedback in some relationships while strengthening the positive ones. CRH: Love, as we can all attest, is also very much linked to a fear of separation and sadness. As Savulescu and Sandberg note, “This may be the stick rather than the carrot in the maintenance of the pair bond.” There is some evidence that these feelings may be due to the hormone CRH (corticotropin-releasing hormone). It has been suggested that by upregulating the CRH receptor it might promote partner attachment. Unfortunately, however, it may also cause depression and anxiety. Entactogens: Entactogen drugs such as MDMA (i.e. “ecstasy”) are known to increase sociability and an experience of connection with other people. It creates a feeling of emotional openness and a reduction in anxiety. MDMA does not appear to act as an aphrodisiac, but it does promote a desire for emotional closeness. This is likely due to the release of oxytocin. MDMA has been used therapeutically to foster emotional communications skills, so it’s not implausible that it, or similar drugs, could be used to deepen pair bonding. The primary hurdle, however, will be in somehow overcoming MDMA’s neurotoxic effects. So, if your marriage is in jeopardy, you might just want to grin and bear it and try to hang in for a few more years. It may only be a matter of time before science finally creates that elusive love potion #9. Could pharmacologically-assisted therapy one day help people struggling with difficult relationships? This article explores a few areas currently being explored, and mentions past research on MDMA’s use in couples therapy.