Love drugs might be the future of relationships
From Oxytocin nasal sprays to micro-dosing LSD and MDMA, young couples are finding new ways to deepen their connection to each other.
If there was a pill for love, would you take it? From Skins’ Effie and Freddy popping pills and having sex on the stairs to Euphoria’s Rue and Jules nose to nose moment, sparkling while under the influence of an unspecified substance, the idea of romance blossoming under the influence is nothing new. Testosterone, oestrogen, oxytocin, vasopressin, serotonin, dopamine, adrenaline — all are ingredients in our brain’s chemical cocktail of love, and all of them are subject to tweaking. Love drugs in this vein, are simply any chemical substance that alters the quality of love existing between a couple through effects on the brain.
From Oxytocin nasal sprays (meant to delivery the “happy hormones” associated with love directly to our brain) to a new wave of libido pills formulated especially for women, love drugs already stock our shelves in various pharmaceutical forms. But a new wave of research is exploring the therapeutic uses of other substances such as magic mushrooms, MDMA and LSD, not just as party drugs but as real-life neurotechnologies that can act as a chemical nudge on the brain systems involved in love and attachment.
MDMA, of course, works by unleashing a flood of serotonin on the emotional centres of the brain, putting users in a blissful state. Now, science is more and more interested on what that state of temporary bliss can mean, not just for the user individually, but for their relationships too. A 2020 study found that recent use of psychedelics was associated with mood-enhancing effects and feelings of connectedness to others. And another trial at Imperial College London, on the effects of magic mushrooms on depression, reports that six months after the treatment virtually every romantically-involved patient in the study had noticed positive changes in their relationships.
And the studies come at a time when psychedelic use is become more and more popular in young people. From 2015 to 2018, the rate of LSD use increased by more than 50% in the US, with the proportion of LSD users aged 26−34 increasing from 19.6% to 31.1%. While MDMA hasn’t yet had the image rehabilitation of mushrooms or marijuana, it’s still finding love with a new crowd. 2.5 of the 2.6 million MDMA users in the U.S. are between 14 and 34, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. Many of these users, it seems, aren’t looking to get fucked up. Instead they are seeking intimate experiences with their other halves.
Alice, 27, and her partner took MDMA together on their first date. But they returned to drugs five months into the relationship, because deep in the depths of lockdown, they were running out of things to do or say. “He had spoken about psychedelics with me before and I decided it was best to first try it with him. It felt like something we could do together that would allow us to share an experience.”
So they took shrooms in the middle of the afternoon, lay on the bed and held hands. “If we felt sad we were really sad. If we were laughing we were hysterically laughing,” Alice says. “We both felt very empathetic to how the other person was feeling. It felt very vulnerable. It felt different from simply getting drunk together as we were able to remember the whole experience and the feelings of closeness.”
Even without the complication of lockdown boredom, love drugs are more common day-to-day than you might think. We already know that medications like hormonal birth control and SSRIs interfere with higher level emotional processes and libido. However, western medicine tends to measure the effects of drugs on individuals in the context of these individual-level symptoms, skimming over the potential interpersonal effects. And mainstream medicine also ignores the potentially life-enhancing effects of certain drugs. Many couples use a variety of different methods to work on their relationships, designating monthly date nights or seeking couples counselling. If you believe it is okay to work on love, then the idea of deliberately influencing love in your life should not be controversial, right?
Tina, 28, had been dating her partner for six months when, last summer, they discussed taking psychedelics together for the first time. After taking the mushrooms, they painted, danced, and sang. “It was so beautiful, our brains and our hearts were more connected than they had ever been. We felt more in love than ever.” The experience was so good that they went on to take shrooms twice more together. It is now an activity they enjoy whenever they have the chance and the mood is right.
Eden, 21, had been dating her partner for about a month in June 2021, when they went on a date night to a jazz bar. “We thought fuck it, let’s just get some MDMA so we can stay up and enjoy being with each other. We were still in the honeymoon phase and feeling quite hedonistic.” They went for Thai food then took the MDMA, timing it to come up with the music. “It was fun, it was exciting, it made everything feel more intense.” On the long walk back home, he asked her to be his girlfriend.
In their book, Love Drugs: The Chemical Future of Relationships, ethicists Brian D. Earp and Julian Savulescu argue that biochemical interventions into love and relationships are no longer simply far-off speculation or reserved only for enthusiasts of mind-altering substances. “MDMA-assisted psychotherapy is now in phase three trials, looking at whether it can help people with PTSD among other conditions. So far, the evidence is extremely promising,” Brian explains. So why shouldn’t these benefits be applied to our relationships? “MDMA temporarily suppresses the hair trigger fear response and causes the massive release of serotonin, a feeling of warmth, safety and trust. Psilocybin induces neuroplasticity, it puts you into a mental state where your brain is ready to shift or evolve out of old ruts and patterns.”
Brian argues that our most intimate connections are already being influenced by drugs we ingest for other purposes. “There are certainly some drugs, such as SSRIs, which cause people to feel more separated from their emotions,” he says. “For the most part, if you look at the qualitative research, when people talk about their experiences on psilocybin [shrooms], overwhelmingly people talk about gaining insight into their emotional lives and their relationships, rather than talking about having some sort of inauthentic experience.”
However, the dangers of taking these drugs in an uncontrolled setting is something Brian wants to highlight. MDMA is often cut with other more dangerous substances, making it difficult to be sure of the purity and dosage of the drug. Although not physically dangerous, psilocybin — like many mind-altering or psychedelic drugs — can also be a risk for those with a family history of mental illness.
And let’s not forget, love itself is also not to be taken lightly. Instead of bio-technological quick fixes, love drugs could become potential tools to be used in conjunction with traditional relationship-building techniques. There is more to a healthy relationship than sniffing oxytocin or tripping on tabs, but we can’t deny the part chemicals in our brain have to play. Drugs, like love, share that they are at heart chemical responses. Whether we choose to regard them as medicine or recreation, aphrodisiac or love potion, is up to you and bae.