Improving Love with MDMA
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It’s interesting to think about the various reasons why people decide to commit to one another, especially because it seems that monogamy is contrary to the survival goal of producing as many viable offspring as possible. But that is only one way of thinking about love and partnership. Monogamy and marriage have been valued social and moral facets of nearly all human cultures. Why does our species continue to strive for something that may be difficult to reconcile with our seemingly natural inclination for promiscuity? Romantic love and the biochemical rewards it inspires in our brains when we experience it, is a product of natural selection. The neural structures that promote commitment and strong love ties were selected for as a result of our species’ ever-growing brain size. Our offspring began to develop at a slower rate as our brains grew larger; delaying the time it takes for one to reach reproductive maturity. Two parents provide more love, protection, and resources to offspring –giving them a greater chance at reaching maturity and reproductive viability- thus increasing the survival of those that procreated. Love, and all the feelings blanketed under that term, is a biochemical force meant to keep two adults together long enough to see to the reproductive maturity of their children. After that point, however, the process of natural selection no longer has an interest in keeping partners in love. There are also so many types of relationships that forge strong bonds of love and commitment without the intent to reproduce. The question now becomes whether we can make love last beyond the act of evolutionary survival or for great lengths of time without reproducing at all.
Before it was classified as a Schedule I drug and made illegal in 1985, MDMA had been used in the context of couple’s therapy because of its ability to promote empathetic feelings and inspire more open expression of one’s thoughts. Today, as researchers slowly gain permission to investigate the benefits of MDMA as a therapeutic tool, its benefits to the health, renewal, and survival of a romantic relationship are coming back to light. While MDMA is proving to have the potential to re-inspire feelings of passionate love that keep one compelled by another person, some may take issue with the use of “love drugs” to resuscitate a bond that may simply have run its course. Ethicists and philosophers at Oxford, however, have posed some convincing arguments as to why partners should be free to use love drugs –including MDMA, to deepen their bond or revive it if they so choose. So long as there is a desire to make it work and each party is open to MDMA assisted couple’s therapy, it should be available. Brian Earp, ethicist at Oxford and one of the researchers on MDMA and other “love drugs” in relationship therapy, also adds that MDMA can be a helpful tool that may prompt couples to realize that their partnership needs to end. The argument that reduces the use of MDMA in couple’s therapy to a coercive attempt at keep a stale relationship together, doesn’t hold up. Earp argues that MDMA could in fact help partners let go if the feelings prompted by a therapy session make it clear to them that –in their particular case- staying together is worse than it is better. The couple may simply be able to fully accept that parting ways is the most beautiful manifestation of their love for one another.
Reconciling Social and Moral Values with Our Psychobiological Nature
In an interview with The Atlantic, Brian Earp and his colleagues discuss the ways in which MDMA and other drugs can help forge a space of common ground between social constructions of marriage and partnership and our natural evolutionary nature. The chemical rewards of love can keep our brains entranced with someone for as long as we need to raise our offspring, after that, however, we simply aren’t built to stay with a single partner forever. Yet, one of the strongest social tenets of marriage or long-term committed relationships is monogamy. If sexual exclusivity is broken, then it is largely assumed that the romantic relationship will end. “Since we now outlive our ancestors by decades, the evolved pair-bonding instincts upon which modern relationships are built often break down or dissolve long before ‘death do us part.’” The group of Oxford philosophers state that MDMA in couple’s therapy could sustain the rewarding feelings of love with a partner for the time we continue living after we’ve brought our evolutionary survival to fruition. Some might ask: why would we want to stay together after our psychobiological work is done? What reason is there to seek to perpetuate the chemical rewards of love once its biological purpose is complete? Well, Earp says it’s simple: love relies heavily on our brain’s reward systems, it feels good to be in love, and, if for no other reason, it adds an extra dimension of meaning to our lives.
The Way We Talk About Love
A recent study conducted by psychiatrists and behavioral neuroscientists at Columbia University, USC Los Angeles, and the University of Chicago showed that MDMA evokes greater intimate discourse between couples in a therapeutic setting. The speech of thirty-five people with previous experience using MDMA was analyzed in comparison to their speech under a placebo. What they found was that individuals under the effects of MDMA were much more openly expressive about their intimate feelings regarding their personal relationships. Researcher Matthew Kirkpatrick describes participant’s word use as “more insightful, confident, and in touch with their emotions.” He further suggests that these effects would benefit couples in counseling because partners would be more open to discussing intimate feelings without fear of judgement, thus making it easier to talk for longer about more profound subjects. Furthermore, MDMA makes the user focus on positive-emotional stimuli, so reflecting on a romantic relationship will evoke rewarding feelings of that come about from the way the drug highlights positive memories and the deep reasons one loves their partner. The way MDMA boosts empathy may also increase the desire to understand one’s partner, especially regarding something that may be difficult for one to fully understand and accept in an ordinary state of consciousness. In addition to feeling more open and expressive of feelings, MDMA also decreases fear, facilitating one’s ability to speak with honesty about any issue that causes tension within a partnership. To revisit Earp’s case for the benefits of MDMA in relationships, it may help reconcile the social standards inextricable from the definition of modern marriage or commitment. It may help couples recognize the gap between social constructs surrounding relationships and our evolutionary biology. This recognition can be helpful to further understand one another’s behavior and re-frame it from a negative light to one more closely reflective of the objective nature of, well, our nature. Although further study into the effects of MDMA in couple’s counseling is necessary to state its benefits definitively, these initial studies strongly suggest that MDMA could bolster the bond between partners by helping them see one another with more understanding. In turn, coming to that greater understanding of one’s partner can become a source of deeper love and achievement. Knowing that there is more to learn about one’s partner increases feelings of love and affection because it creates new layers of depth that have yet to be discovered about someone you may have previously thought to know all about.
MDMA’s empathy boosting ability is proving to yield benefits in the treatment of a variety of psychological issues, and love and relationships can certainly benefit from renewal and excitement. If global drug policies change to reflect the growing facts about MDMA that are surfacing through these kinds of studies, the prospect of happier, more in love couples becomes easier to reach. If our species is now living decades beyond our reproductive purpose yet we still want to enjoy the wonderful emotional and chemical rewards of the evolutionary force of love, then MDMA may prove enormously helpful.
In another vein, MDMA may also be used in a therapeutic setting to help us achieve content resignation to a failed relationship. It could help a patient see that there is just as much –or more- love in letting someone go than in trying to stay by their side. Again, philosopher Brian Earp mentions that MDMA also has the ability to show relationships in a more objective light. MDMA assisted couples therapy can also help partners come to the realization that they can best express love by letting the relationship end. No matter what the outcome of any particular relationship, MDMA in couple’s therapy can only bring about healthy epiphanies that make love grow in whatever way possible.
- Sofia Vidal