Are You Taking an Anti-Love Drug?

Scientists are learning more about how some drugs affect love.

Posted Apr 04, 2017

Love can be complicated: First you have to meet an interested partner, then there’s a period of discovery, vulnerability, and coordination, and eventually people move towards commitment or go their separate ways. If a couple sticks together, the challenges of love don’t end. Whether couples have been dating for five years or married for 50, there’s an ongoing work to maintain a healthy relationship.

What if there were drugs that people could take which could ease the challenge of dating, mating, and long-term love? Or, what if there were drugs that indirectly hurt our chances for love?

Before writing off the idea of “love drugs” or "anti-love drugs," consider this: People already are widely using drugs that alter emotions and cognitions that matter in romantic relationships

Consider anti-depressants, an example that Earp and Savulescu (2017) focus on in their recent review. SSRIs (serotonin reuptake inhibitors) are often prescribed to alleviate the symptoms of depression, but the drugs can also affect the neurochemistry that supports people’s ability to maintain healthy relationships. For instance, SSRIs are known to lower libido, which can interfere with a couples’ sexual connection. SSRIs can also affect higher-level level emotional responses. For example, taking the drug can indirectly reduce oxytocin – a hormone tied to trust and attachment – and can reduce dopaminergic activity, i.e., lower reward system activity. These potentials explain why some scholars consider SSRIs “anti-love” drugs.

So for some couples, drugs like SSRIs counteract bio-based systems that support the emotions and drives toward romantic attachment, and in doing so, interfere with relationship functioning. At the same time, antidepressants can reduce depressive symptoms that adversely affect relationship quality and well-being. Discussed in length by Earp and Savulescu (2017), the exact nature of SSRIs as “relationship inhibitors” or “relationship enhancers” is highly idiosyncratic. Not only might individuals’ brains respond differently to the drugs, but those responses occur in specific contexts and relationships. There’s a lot that is unknown about the psychological and physical effects of SSRIs.

What the researchers do underscore, however, is that any drug that changes brain chemistry for one reason likely has other effects too that are not fully understood, and this might include an effect on our highly complex human mating and bonding system.

In effect, this leaves us with some fascinating questions. Not only do we need to understand the unintended relationship-related effects of widely-used medicines, but we also need to understand the role of chemical interventions that might have the specific goal of manipulating love and love-related processes. The exact effect of intransal oxytocin, for example, is up for debate, despite some suggestions that it could enhance trust and prosocial orientation.

References

Earp, B. D., & Savulescu, J. (2017). Love drugs: Why scientists should study the effects of pharmaceuticals on human romantic relationships. Technology in Society. Advance online publication.  

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