Just take a pill, Bill? Science may soon provide the 51st — and perhaps first-ever pain-free — way to leave your lover.
While love potions and elixirs have been stock characters seemingly since storytelling began, comparatively little drama (hello, Eternal Sunshine!) has focused on their opposite: antidotes to free people from unwanted longing.
A drug that precisely targets only one specific relationship for destruction may be decades away, but drugs that interfere with specific aspects of love like sexual desire are already here. And as scientists begin to tease out the chemical chronology and specific brain systems involved in love, they are already investigating how existing medications taken in carefully timed ways could, for example, prevent the "bonding hormone" oxytocin from initiating or sustaining a relationship.
This could forever change what it means to sever romantic ties. And the ramifications go beyond "Please let me forget"–type situations à la Eternal Sunshine. Anti-love drugs could also provide an intriguing new "treatment" for those trapped in abusive relationships.
Brian David Earp, a research fellow at Oxford University's Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, and his colleagues have recently published a series of papers making the case for chemically enhancing — and disrupting, if necessary — our most powerful romantic connections. An anti-love drug, as they call it, "would be any substance that works to block or diminish a feeling of love, lust, attraction or attachment," he says.
The brain systems that modulate "that loving feeling" are only just beginning to be understood, but neuroscience research is pointing more and more to the idea that the sensation of love relies on the same brain circuitry that goes awry in addiction. Love is a drug, basically — because only a drive as strong as an addiction could keep couples together through the stresses of parenting and keep parents tied to their kids.
Research has found, for example, that people in love are similar to those suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder — not only in terms of their obsessive thinking and compulsive behavior, but also the low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in their blood. So in a sense, love may be a special case of addiction — but here, the object of obsession isn't a roulette wheel or heroin, but another human being.
"The bottom line is that a lot of data on people rejected in love show that the major pathways linked with addiction become activated," says Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University. If love is a drug, however, love's chemistry can be chemically manipulated — those who are in love but don't want to be could potentially take a pill that simply makes the formerly loved one seem no more special than a stranger. Earp gives the example of a young mother who is frequently and savagely beaten by her husband, but always believes him when he swears eternal love and promises to stop. Objectively, she knows that she should leave — she also recognizes that this would be the best thing for her children. And yet she can't bring herself to do so. If a woman in this situation wanted to take a safe drug that would sever her emotional ties to her abuser, wouldn't that be the right thing to do?
Earp believes it would be — so long as the women weren't coerced into taking the pill. As an example of unwarranted coercion, he considers how a gay person might feel in a religious society where homosexuality is highly stigmatized and where such drugs could potentially be misused under strong social pressure to prevent them from having same-sex relationships.
Indeed, the mere possibility of externally controlling love — Juliet's parents, for example, giving her a vaccine against it, or Romeo's family forcing him to take a pill after he's fallen for her — suggests a terrifying totalitarianism. Imagine families being able to inoculate their teens against crushes to improve academic performance — or spouses forcing the drug on their partners to end affairs, or even governments breaking up social networks of dissidents by chemically alienating them (which would be an interesting counterpoint to the U.S. military's wacky research into a "gay bomb" that would make enemy soldiers irresistible to each other). The dystopian potential seems endless.
It isn't just speculation, though — drugs with "anti-love" properties may already be available. Antidepressants like Prozac (known as SSRIs or "selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors," which raise levels of serotonin) have, since they were first introduced, been known to interfere with lust by having the common side effects of reducing desire and quashing orgasm. But Fisher thinks they can also disrupt feelings of attachment and attraction — which her research suggests are also vital to romantic love.
"I get email about once a week from someone who says that my wife and I were in love, married for 12 years, and then she started taking Prozac. [Now she] wants a divorce and says she doesn't feel a thing for me," she says (though one could imagine an alternative explanation from the wife's perspective). Indeed, research on SSRIs suggests that raising serotonin can blunt emotions of all types.
While that sounds ominous, for people whose depression results from emotional extremes, it may be just what the doctor ordered. Not everyone has the same chemical starting point, after all: Some forms of depression may be relieved by lowering emotional sensitivity, while other types would be made worse by it. For example, if you are clingy and neurotic, SSRIs may actually enhance your ability to love by lowering your oversensitivity — but for those who are already stoic, a similar turning down of emotional volume may backfire.
This variability presents a huge problem for the development of love — or anti-love — drugs because it means that a love drug for me may be a hate drug for you. Given the current inability to predict who will benefit from SSRIs for depression, this seems likely to be an ongoing problem. The fact that SSRIs haven't proven beneficial in reducing the sex drives or problematic attachments of sex offenders in most cases (though they do seem to help some) also illustrates this complexity.
A further issue, according to Larry Young, a leader in research on hormones involved in bonding like oxytocin and a professor of psychiatry at Emory University, is specificity. "If you were to give an oxytocin receptor blocker," he says, "you're basically going to dampen their sense of connection to everyone in their life."
Earp thinks that proper timing of the dosing of such drugs might make such issues less problematic. For example, you could give them while a victim of domestic violence was in a safe house — and stop after therapy had helped her to become detached enough to make the break permanent. "One thing you could do is temporarily diminish feelings of attachment and that might be somewhat global," he says, "That might be [okay] as long as it's given for long enough for her to get out of the situation." This raises the unsettling idea that the rest of her relationships — including with her children — could also be affected, but Earp says, "They should be able to redevelop them and reconnect with people once they are able to change their physical circumstances."
But Young's skepticism of an anti-love drug runs deeper: He suspects that drugs could never be specific enough to be useful in dealing with an emotion so intense, so connected to personal memories. "I think a bond of love is a combination of the effects of oxytocin with the cues of the partner and dopamine and maybe [natural brain] opioids — all of these things working together," he says.
"It would be impossible to make a drug that would block a specific bond because there is no single molecule that is involved in love, per se," he says, "I think you have to think of chemistry in combination with connectivity." In other words, love rewires your brain and that rewiring is specific to your own particular love story, so changing the chemistry after the fact can't remove loving memories and the circuits they have woven — that would take an Eternal Sunshine–like memory-erasing process. (The importance of learning and memory may also be why drugs to fight other addictions often don't work without being used in conjunction with behavioral therapies — they affect the chemistry, but not the circuitry.)
While Earp doesn't discount this complexity, he says that since drugs that affect relationships like SSRIs and ecstasy (which has been used in couples therapy and is currently being studied for post-traumatic stress disorder) already exist, and since more will inevitably be developed, we need to grapple with these questions. "We already have drugs that can affect relationships," he says. "The point is whether we want to be thoughtful [about how we use them] and try to make things better rather than worse."