“Love often falls short of what we expect. If it didn’t, we’d all be married to our childhood sweetheart and celebrate Valentine’s Day every day.”
“It’s chemistry” – Should we control love with drugs?
By Rich Wordsworth
“You know… I haven’t even gotten married yet, and now I’m already depressed about it.”
I’m a hair under five minutes into an interview with Brian Earp, researcher at Oxford University’s Institute for Neuroetihcs. For years, Earp and his colleagues have been looking at love and its workings in the human brain: how it starts, how it grows, how it shrivels, how it ends on a friend’s couch clutching a bottle of vodka and swearing never to touch the stuff again (love, that is – you will always have vodka). He’s authored and co-authored papers on how and in what circumstances we should control love with drugs, and is co-authoring a book on the subject with the director of Oxford’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, Julian Savulescu, due out this year.
But for the moment, we’re talking specifically about marriage, and what our brains make of this uniquely human invention. Not a lot, it turns out. The same brains that evolved to have as many offspring as possible while losing as few of them to lions and wolves aren’t natural fits for giddy poetry and sappy rom-coms.
“I’ve depressed myself,” he says after I interrupt, with a laugh. “People start making jokes, like, ‘Oh, I’m on my first marriage, now’. [They’re] fully expecting that marriage isn’t the sort of thing that’s going to last for our whole lives anymore. And if we did think that, we’d be ignoring the evidence around us. Overwhelmingly, it just doesn’t seem to be the case.
“Maybe [marriage] is all just about trying to anticipate trade-offs and making decisions and making decisions that bind future choices in a rational way. But it certainly takes the romance out if it.”
I should probably clarify now that Earp is by no means depressing to talk to. He’s not a pessimist. But nor is he the only person to recognise that films like Love, Actually and love, actually, are out of sync. We all know, if we’re honest, that love tends to fall short of what we want it to be. If it didn’t, we’d all be married to our first girl or boyfriend from school. We’d venerate Valentine’s Day over Christmas, and have it every day. You’d come home ready for an argument about bins and wake up six hours later, naked and wedged in the rubbish bin with your partner dozing happily on the recycling.
But the truth is that the latest estimate from the Office of National Statistics (in 2013) was that 42% of marriages in England and Wales end in divorce. Which is depressing enough, before you factor in couples who stay together for their children, or who can’t afford one flat each, or those stamped, bent and forced into a relationship through emotional or physical violence. Yet through some weird, alchemical combination of culture and chemistry, almost everyone that makes it to the altar thinks their love is special. Rare is the bride or groom already mentally dividing up the Blu-Ray collection as they exchange rings, just in case. Divorce only happens to other people. It says so in the Blu-Rays.
But what if there were a drug to make things better? Or in the worst circumstances, crack an emotional shackle altogether? We treat depression, anxiety – almost everything we can – with drugs. Why draw the line at love, if love isn’t working for us?
Increasingly, many couples don’t. For years, the chemical oxytocin has been bandied about as a miracle cure-all for relationships. It’s a natural human bonding agent – hormonal grouting – and when you fall in love with a partner, cuddle a friend or cradle a newborn baby, your brain bastes in it like a weepy, irrational turkey. Intranasal oxytocin (oxytocin squirted nose) can be bought online for less than a bottle of date-night wine (though, of course, whether you’re actually buying oxytocin is down the scrupulousness of the seller).
But for Earp, oxytocin could be a “dead end.”
“First of all, a lot of the initial observations don’t seem to be replicating well,” he explains. “A lot of things about it improving trust, or eye-gazing, and it increasing attention to relationship cues – some of these things were [observed] in one-off experiments with… no sense that they would work outside the lab.”
“So I’ve recently been shifting more to talking about MDMA [commonly sold illegally in pill-form as ecstasy]. I think it would actually be much more likely to have a potentially robust effect on many couples. In the 1980’s, it was being used for that purpose by a network of relationship counsellors, and some of them are now publishing research that [shows that] some couples found that the very strong effect of this drug used under clinical conditions with the help of the therapist actually did allow them to shift their thinking and to approach the relationship in a healthier way – or potentially discover that the relationship wasn’t right for them.”
‘James’, a 40-year-old ecstasy user for more than 20 years, is either way ahead of Earp or way behind the relationship counsellors of the 1980s. Discussing his experiences of MDMA and girlfriends in the 90’s, he picks out two relationships from his teen years in which ecstasy – one for better, one for worse – played chemical cupid.
“It was beautiful at the beginning,” he says of his second relationship, which lasted six years. “Hooking up with someone and feeling love and then being on [Ecstasy] on top of that. It is something that is impossible to describe… Being with her when I wasn’t high was great too, and the love was there; although in a different way.
“The best way I can describe how it changes on E is that there is a vulnerability that allows [you] to actually feel the love you have with no distraction. [It’s like] when something goes wrong in your life and it feels like your whole world falls apart, and [then] you get a hug from your loved one. If you ever experienced that, where you totally submit to it… It’s really comforting, deep and consoling. At that moment you just know that everything is OK. I see being on E with your loved one as similar to that.”
‘Colleen’ describes a markedly similar experience with psychedelics (the category of drugs that includes LSD, mushrooms and DMT). Like James, we meet and talk via the same online drug forum, where usernames and the relative anonymity of the internet allow people to discuss drug experiences freely.
“I wouldn’t say that my present feelings about my partner actively change while tripping, but tripping allows a certain kind of vulnerability that doesn’t come as easily or as often in everyday life situations,” she says. “Because of this vulnerability and mutual understanding coming from the shared experience of psychedelics, it’s easier to connect on a more emotional level than just talking to another person… I still feel very affectionate and bonded toward my partner when sober, but the experience of tripping helps speed up the process of bonding, so to speak.”
The darker side of of that process rears up when ‘boosting’ love that already exists gets gets confused with a relationship that only survives on drugs. James’ other relationship – which began when he as 17 – highlights how easy it can be for some people to trick themselves into relationships built on neurochemical engineering alone.
“I met her in the pub,” he says. “She was nice, attractive, but I wasn’t really into her. [Then] the E kicked in and of course that changed. At the time, going to school, I would only see her on a Saturday night and I was always on E. Of course, love blossomed, and I kind of went with it: Saturday night loved up with her and Sunday afternoon feeling like hugs in the park. The relationship went on for two years.
“We had proper raves and dance clubs to go to weekly she would come along and it was great – but not real. Sadly, it was real for her and when we moved into a flat together it lasted a few months. I really hurt her without meaning to. Without the drug, there was no love on my side. Upon reflection over the years I did feel really bad about it, even though it was not intentional and I was young. She was a great person: attractive and intelligent. The truth, though, was the MDMA created this false sense of love.”
That’s the a problem with reducing love to an easy-to-follow soup recipe: at what point does love stop being ‘real’? And if we can use drugs to essentially fake our way into a relationship, couldn’t the same approach be used in reverse to force two people out of love? An ‘anti-love’ drug that squeezes the requisite chemicals out of your brain; a pill that wrings ten years of a person out of you? Like a sponge?
Well, yes. We do it already. Mostly without meaning to. Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most commonly prescribed antidepressants in the UK. But because the brain is – scientifically speaking – ‘tricky’, different SSRIs can have different side-effects for different people. Without singling out specific drugs or manufacturers, side effects can include blunt a person’s ability to empathise with others – including their girl- or boyfriend – and ‘anorgasmia’. Which is exactly what it sounds like.
You don’t need much of a mental run-up to make the leap from ‘drugs that break up sour relationships to ‘drugs that break up relationships of which parents or communities do not approve’. From a certain point of view: why waste time, effort and money separating or imprisoning ‘mismatched’ or homosexual couples if you can just tear out any amorous feelings, root and stem, with a course of pills?
“It seems a very serious concern. But I’m not sure that it’s different from the way that any new technology might be misused in a different context,” says Earp. “[Take the] cases of people using antidepressant medication for purposes that people might object to. What does that mean? Should we ban all antidepressant medication? Should we take all SSRIs off the market because some groups in some countries are using them to suppress the libido of gay [people]?
“I think the thing to do is to keep trying to fight those bigger battles over the norms that we should try to promote in societies. I think [if we are] focusing on the technology that’s available rather than on the bigger question of, ‘what are the ends to which this should be used?’… we’re having the conversation at the wrong level.
“I’ve actually had a bunch of people e-mail me since I wrote my Love Addiction paper who were saying, ‘oh my God, this helps me makes sense of things so much; I keep finding myself drawn to these awful men and I get so attached and I throw myself at them, and if there were some kind of pill I could take that would just calm down those desperate attachments, I would take it tomorrow.’”
Should we control love with drugs? The truth is we already can – for better or for worse. And as our understanding of the neuroscience behind love advances, we’re only going to get better at it – whether our goal is to deliberately create a love (or anti-love) potion, or whether we do so by accident by discovering an amorous side-effect in some other new medicine. But in doing so, aren’t we losing part of what makes love so great in the first place? That spark, that bolt-from-the-blue unpredictability, that magical tyranny of our hearts one day deciding, ‘That person. You want that person, with you, forever.’?
“There is an answer to what’s going on [in our brains] when we fall in love with people” says Earp, when I ask him about shifting our conception of love from the heart to the brain. “Some people will find that really helpful and might find that love now has new dimensions which they can explore. They might find that thinking of love as an ancient bond that we share with ancestors that goes back generations – maybe that makes it seem even more amazing, rather than the kind of fairy dust explanation of love where we have no idea where it comes from or how it works. Maybe grounding it in the history of the species [gives] it an importance that wasn’t there before.”