An Oxford University academic has suggested that a new drug to help failing relationships could become commercially available in the next ‘three to five years’
Are you racked with an overwhelming feeling of visceral repulsion at the mere sight of your partner, but cannot bear the thought of re-downloading Hinge just to end up in ‘talking stage’ purgatory for six months? Good news: a new drug that could help failing relationships could be made available in the next “three to five years”, according to an Oxford University academic.
Dr Anna Machin, an evolutionary anthropologist at Oxford University, suggested that love drugs “are on the horizon” while speaking at the Cheltenham Science Festival earlier this month. She explained that as four hormones – dopamine, serotonin, beta-endorphin and oxytocin – underpin the experience of love, drugs which stimulate the production of these hormones could be used to enhance our loving abilities.
While this new love drug might hit the market in a few years’ time, love drugs, potions and elixirs aren’t entirely novel. The Ancient Greeks would grind up orchid flowers and sprinkle the powder into wine. In the Middle Ages, there were ‘love cakes’, which were laced with sweat and baked while naked. More recently, Kourtney Kardashian (who else?) was prescribed a ‘love potion’ by her doctor following her split from Scott Disick, while love spells are hugely popular on TikTok. While it’s unclear how successful some of these concoctions were, it’s evident that humans throughout time have always craved a way to take the sting out of unrequited love.
Dr Brian Earp, co-author of Love Drugs: The Chemical Future of Relationships, explains that drugs which impact our relationships are technically already available. “Drugs like SSRIs used for depression, for example, often lower libido, which can interfere with the sexual aspects of love; but when they work to address symptoms of depression and the depression itself was weakening attachment and care within a relationship, they can function as a pro-love drug for some people,” he says.
“MDMA can directly induce feelings of closeness, warmth, and trust and this can facilitate some relationships; but it can also help some people come to terms with their own emotions (for example when it is used as an aid to psychotherapy) and this may lead them to realise their current relationship is not right for them, motivating them to end it,” he continues.
Love drugs raise a lot of ethical questions, and have done for hundreds of years. It’s something Shakespeare touches on in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where the play’s fairytale ending hinges on the fact that, disturbingly, Demetrius is not acting of his own free will. “We should definitely be wary of pharmaceutical companies seeking to ‘pathologise’ relationships – perhaps inventing new relational disorders to diagnose people with so that their drugs can be prescribed and sold as ‘medicine’,” Dr Earp adds. “And any coercive, non-voluntary use of these drugs should be strictly forbidden.”
“Couples should not think that love drugs will work like magic to solve their problems – we argue that drugs like psilocybin from hallucinogenic mushrooms, or MDMA, as mentioned, should ideally be used as a complement to professionally guided couples therapy, with lots of work to integrate any insights and apply any lessons learned during the therapy sessions. They should not be pursued in a misguided attempt at a ‘quick fix’ for fading intimacy or other relationship woes.”
“MDMA can directly induce feelings of closeness, warmth, and trust and this can facilitate some relationships; but it can also help some people come to terms with their own emotions” – Dr Brian Earp
Evidently, we need to tread with caution. But at the same time, if drugs like SSRIs, Viagra, and the contraceptive pill which chemically alter our moods and libidos are already available, why shouldn’t we at least consider the possibility of a drug to boost our loving capabilities? Of course, there are many critics of mood-altering drugs, and they don’t work for everyone anyway. But for those who want to try love drugs – why not?
There’s ample evidence that suggests that a number of recreational drugs could have therapeutic benefits. A 2020 study found that LSD and psilocybin use was associated with a positive mood and greater empathy. Another recent trial at Imperial College London found that six months after psilocybin treatment, almost every romantically-involved participant in the study had noticed positive changes in their relationships.
Amy*, 23, has found that in her experience, taking MDMA and psychedelics with her boyfriend has improved their relationship. The pair first took ecstasy together at a rave five years ago, and since then, have taken recreational drugs together a few times a year. “I think that no matter who you do drugs with, whether it’s a friend or a family member or your partner, you always feel so much closer with the person afterwards, particularly when it’s MDMA or LSD. You feel like you’ve known them forever,” she says. “When it’s with your partner – the person that you're closest to – it just takes the experience to another level.”
“When you get on it together, you just get constant reminders and realisations of why you love each other. The last time I got high with him, this thought just kept going around my head again and again, about how I love how silly I can be with him. That’s a thought I still think back to now – I always remember that moment.”
She adds that it’s an entirely different experience to drinking with your partner, where you might try to speak your mind, but find the words come out wrong and tensions flare. “You have a lot more empathy and a lot more understanding for people [on MDMA],” she says. “It helped me understand my boyfriend’s point of view more. He would say something and I’d think ‘oh my God, I completely get it’ when I was on it, but then even when I was sober, I would still understand where he was coming from.” Evidently, when used with good intentions, ‘love drugs’ aren’t meant to bewitch your crush into fancying you back, but are instead a way of bolstering preexisting relationships.
“No matter who you do drugs with, you always feel so much closer with the person afterwards, particularly when it’s MDMA or LSD. You feel like you’ve known them forever” – Amy
Of course, we still do need to tread carefully and address the ethical questions that arise from marketing a substance that can chemically alter your mood – and we need to be especially careful if we’re already self-medicating with unregulated, recreational drugs. “There are serious risks,” Dr Earp says. “But there are also major potential benefits, as the example of MDMA-assisted couples therapy, which we explore in our book, shows.”
“In any case, the train has left the station: people are already using so-called ‘recreational’ drugs to explore altered states of consciousness with their partners; and many drugs that are used for medicine are already affecting our romantic and other relationships, albeit in ways that are not systematically studied,” he continues.
“As love drugs already exist, are being used, and will continue to be used in the future — whether legally or otherwise — we at least need to be studying the interpersonal effects of drugs much more seriously, to avoid the harms they can cause, while also exploring ethical frameworks for directing their potentially positive effects to better ends.”
*Name has been changed