A love drug is any substance or medication that can have an effect on the emotions associated with a romantic relationship. I was fortunate enough to interview Brian Earp on the podcast, an ethicist from Yale and Oxford, regarding his book Love Drugs: The Chemical Future of Relationships. We discussed how a variety of substances have been used in diverse settings to affect the course of a relationship.
Love is different to everyone, and given that it is one of the most complicated emotions of the human experience, I will not attempt to define it; its complexity precludes a definition.
Some people like to think of love from a romantic “happily ever after” perspective, the Hollywood vision of love.
Such people might take it a step further and describe love as something that is supposed to be naturally occurring, something that should not require effort. Such a person would likely be resistant to the notion that any types of drugs could, or should, influence love. If, after all, love is supposed to be this indescribable and idealistic phenomenon, then why would love ever require the assistance of drugs?
Yet if you look at love in a more pragmatic way, perhaps it becomes easier to understand how injecting drugs into a relationship might have some merit. Ultimately, love is based on emotions, thoughts and feelings; such states fluctuate in accordance with our biological states. Brain imaging has demonstrated changes in brain activity and blood flow when experiencing such feelings. If you look at love as a complex interplay between our hormones, neurotransmitters and other biological processes, then perhaps the idea of affecting these parameters does not seem so strange.
Not only can drugs really influence our feelings of romance, but they already are affecting our romantic relationships. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are by the far the most common medication used to treat depression and anxiety. While the intended effect is to alleviate the aforementioned conditions, two of the lesser-known side effects of SSRIs are emotional numbing and reduced empathy.
Not surprisingly, such consequences can have a significant impact on relationships. Yet because this is a rarely talked about side-effect, patients on SSRIs may be unaware of this association and misinterpret their change in emotions. A more widespread acknowledgment of these secondary effects of SSRIs could help patients identify the effects these medications are having on their relationships and thus better address them with their partners.
Some evidence has emerged that certain substances can be used as part of relationship counselling to reignite romance or to nurture a deeper connection. MDMA has been shown to improve levels of empathy and connection. To this end, MDMA has been trialled as part of couples therapy to potentially enhance the effectiveness of these therapy sessions.
Oxytocin is a naturally occurring hormone in the human body but is also used as a medication in Western medicine. One of the effects of oxytocin is related to attraction. Several studies have examined whether administration of oxytocin through the nose can actually increase feelings of attraction and thus help with romance.
Conversely, a 2018 study (Brunet et al) demonstrated that propranolol might help people get over a tough breakup. Traditionally used for heart-related conditions, propranolol could potentially alleviate the pain associated with the severing of a relationship, one of the most difficult human experiences.
You may think this sounds absurd, and there is an argument to be made that it is these very difficult experiences that lead one to develop inner strength and character. Yet perhaps there is a threshold beyond which the heartache no longer serves any function of self-embetterment and only leads to needless pain and suffering.
The idea of anti-love drugs might be just as useful a construct as that of love drugs. Imagine you were in an abusive relationship but kept on going back to it. Despite knowing that the relationship is unhealthy, you can’t shed your attraction to your partner and the ritual of being with them. What if a drug existed to help halt that attraction and stop the cycle? Trials have looked at such questions.
The concept of love drugs matters, because the effects of love drugs are already here. It is naïve to think that the substances we ingest are only acting to achieve one result. They affect a multitude of physiological processes, including our emotions, many of which contribute to romantic relationships. Acknowledgment of the relationship-related effects of these substances will validate people’s experiences and allow them to better work through their relationship issues with their partners.
Research will continue to emerge regarding how we might proactively take certain substances to positively affect our relationships. Whether or not you agree with the direction of this research is up to you, but at the very least, perhaps the conversation might expand your horizons on what love means to you and how to incorporate that into a meaningful relationship.