My chemical romance: can medicine cure divorce? Could a new love drug help us beat the divorce statistics?
Scientists at the University of Oxford had published a paper that described an incredible idea. At some point in the life of my marriage, it suggested, a new breed of “love drug” might become available – a medication that could heal wounded relationships. It will likely be delivered as an inhaler and prescribed by a relationship counsellor. You’d sniff up a dose in the presence of your loved one and, as the chemical entered your bloodstream, it would strengthen your bond.
Dr Anders Sandberg became interested in the future of love after his colleague, Professor Julian Savulescu, who leads the science and ethics division, became divorced from his first wife, Hilary, in 2005.
“Humans are messy: the attraction, lust and attachment phases get blended together.”
Every loving relationship, then, can be seen as a unique combination of these three modes. In their paper, the pair describe them as “evolutionary systems [that] form a ground on top of which the cultural and individual variants of love are built”. This is the simple but rather melancholy observation that, when you knock away thousands of years of ritual, poetry, myth and song, love is just another neurobiological process, like sweating. But there’s an upside. If love is reducible to physical systems, then these systems can, theoretically, be manipulated. Strengthened.
They had to decide: on which of the three modes would they focus their futuristic thinking? A drug that boosted lust, Sandberg says, would not have been terribly interesting, while something that made you fall in love with the next person who walked through the door would, he admits, “be, ethically, a very stupid thing”. They would examine the possibility, then, of strengthening attachment, the long-term bonding that keeps people together.
Long-term relationships are problematic for modern humans, they argue, because we aren’t built for them. We’ve evolved to successfully procreate, not to enjoy deathless romance. During our long Pleistocene hunter-gatherer existence, life expectancy is thought to have been about 30 years. This means that, assuming we coupled off as teenagers, for the great majority of our species’ history, at least half of all relationships would have ended within 15 years.
Of course, humanity has undergone spectacular developments since it roamed the African savannah. But evolution works slowly. Today we are, they argue, ancient apes living ultra-modern lives. The median length of a marriage is about 11 years which, they point out, fits “surprisingly well” with the Pleistocene 15. As we’re living ever longer, we’re outlasting the possibilities of love. “Once a couple gets together, they’re on borrowed time,” Savulescu says. “Our biology wasn’t constructed to keep people together for that long. I think we should use our knowledge to give love a helping hand.”
Although many relationships end for good reasons, Sandberg says, for some “it might be that the systems underpinning the pair’s bond are giving up for completely biological reasons. Nothing to do with you or your partner.” So we can fall out of love for physical reasons? “Yes, that’s what we’re suspecting, although I don’t think we’re ever going to be able to prove that one particular divorce was biological and another wasn’t.” In theory, however, we’ll be able to counter this evolutionary handicap by engineering our marriages with drugs.
Such a drug would likely contain doses of two structurally similar hormones: oxytocin and vasopressin. Scientists know this, in part, because of the study of voles. It happens that prairie voles tend to be monogamous while their rogue cousins, the mountain voles, are usually not. This neat contrast makes them valuable subjects for research. According to Professor Sue Carter, of Chicago’s University of Illinois, “In prairie voles, a combination of oxytocin and vasopressin is necessary in order for a pair bond to form. Not one or the other, both.” But, if – as Sandberg and Savulescu are – we’re talking about using them to manipulate humans, there’s a problem, she says. “We’re walking a razor’s edge in the body’s use of these hormones.”
Of the two, oxytocin is the more famous and misunderstood. Sometimes known as the “cuddle chemical”, its positive role in experiences such as orgasm and childbirth seems to have led some to imagine it as an inhalable happy drug. Sadly, neurochemicals don’t work like this. They tend to serve different functions in different regions of the brain, and can have a range of effects depending on an individual’s personality and psychological state. Professor Jennifer Bartz, of McGill University in Montreal, explains: “Even if oxytocin is doing something at a very basic level to increase someone’s desire to connect with another person, you may get a very different response depending on their expectations of that connection and the ways in which they usually connect with other people.”
Vasopressin brings its own complications. “Whilst oxytocin is important for passive behaviours [such as hugging], vasopressin is part of the active coping system,” Carter says. “It’s been implicated in an animal defending its babies. It’s there to protect us and those we love. If that system gets driven too far, it can possibly create an overly defensive, hypervigilant state and under those conditions we have what humans might call jealousy. Jealousy tends to be destructive, both to the lover and the loved one.”
Further confusion comes from the fact that the doses Sandberg and Savulescu suggest would likely have a short-term effect, and that the sheer quantity of neurochemicals might be less important than the way in which your brain happens to receive them. You might have a lot of receptors for these chemicals, or you might have a few. “If you have a small number, presumably there’s a bottleneck,” says Robin Dunbar, professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford. “You can pump as much vasopressin in as you like and it may or may not have a big effect.” Even the kind of receptor you have is important, he says. One vasopressin receptor variant, for example, “seems to be very strongly associated with males who are poor at maintaining romantic relationships. They’re very prone to having affairs, and so on.” How would extra vasopressin affect these men? “That remains a mystery.”
Love drugs will not be easy, then. But Sandberg and Savulescu aren’t suggesting we’re ready to manufacture them now (Sandberg gives it a rough estimate of about 10 years). Even if we were, it would not be a case of simply inhaling the chemical and living happily ever after. “A drug by itself doesn’t contain much information,” Sandberg explains. “Most likely you’d need to give the couple the drug, put them in the same room and make sure they interact. One of the strongest indicators that a marriage is working is that the partners do things together.”
“Any of this stuff would have to be coupled with social interventions,” Savulescu agrees. “You would still have to do the work. The drug would just enhance that.”