OPINION - Spare me the hand-wringing – we’ve used love drugs for centuries

·3-min read
Alexandra Jones (ES / Natasha Pszenicki)
Alexandra Jones (ES / Natasha Pszenicki)

There’s always a lot of hand-wringing when the news of so-called ‘love drugs’ pops up - which it does every few years. This week, the Oxford University anthropologist Dr Anna Machin told Cheltenham Science Festival that love drugs - compounds which might help us fall or stay in love are “on the horizon...

MDMA, for people who go clubbing, makes them feel like they love everyone else in the room. But users also have a surge in empathy, so it could be used to help those struggling in their marriage,” she pointed out, explaining that on a neurochemical level, love is largely the work of four hormones: dopamine, serotonin, beta endorphin and oxytocin. Theoretically, stimulating the production of those hormones would, if not make a person fall in love, then at least make them more open to it.

Detractors argue that this is a dangerous new frontier for big pharma – that there is something macabre about the idea of introducing a chemical agent into the complex business of finding a partner, falling in love and staying together. Because, if we’ve taken a little something to help smooth the cracks in a strained marriage, how can we be sure that the love is real and not the work of the drug?

Valid ethical considerations but, as far as I’m concerned, these are wrong questions to ask. Love drugs have existed in some form for millennia. Hear me out: how is a bump of some pharmacologically-refined MDMA derivative any different to unwinding with a few glasses (bottles?) of wine. Alcohol is a well known (and widely consumed) drug which lowers inhibitions enough to get people talking – in veritas vino and all that. Meanwhile its depressant properties can help numb any unpleasant feelings of dissatisfaction. All in all, a powerful chemical intervention which can have profound impact on how we feel about and relate to our partners (particularly when consumed often).

And alcohol is on the pedestrian end of the scale. For women, multiple robust studies over the past ten years have shown that hormonal contraceptives can affect who we choose as a partner – and how long we stay with that person. In fact, one study of newlyweds found that women who’d met their partners while they were on the pill were more likely to find them unattractive when they came off the pill – which had a profound impact on their satisfaction within the relationship. What was at work when they got together – true attraction or the drug? These studies seem to imply that the answer is far from straightforward.

For both men and women, common SSRI antidepressants are well known to affect libido, attraction and the way we relate to those we’re close to. These drugs are in wide circulation and well known to insert themselves into our interpersonal relationships – to change how we respond to our partners – the fact that we don’t see them as ‘love drugs’ or ‘anti-love drugs’ is simply a trick of marketing.

In fact, if we agree that a ‘relationship’ is effectively a set of actions that we perform to signal how we feel about another person, then love drugs are all around us. Viagra, for instance, helps some men to perform one of the actions of intimacy. We might hold our own feelings in high esteem but as all the research around contraceptives shows, how we feel about another person is open to manipulation.

So if someone does come up with a nasal spray (and oxytocin nasal sprays are already widely available on Amazon – one pump to feel loved up) to spice up a long term relationship, then bring it on, I’m up for it. Anything to alleviate the tedium of having the same five conversations (“what time are you home?”, “Shall we do the two dine for ten?”, “Do you have my charger?” etc) over and over again until death.

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