OK, not a pill, but rather, a dose of intranasal oxytocin, the love hormone? Honey, let me just grab a squirt of Flonase to keep my allergies at bay, and a quick hit of StaTru so I don't fall out of love with you! That's basically the idea behind some new research that aims to find out whether marriages could stay intact if couples had a little bit of help from their biochemical friend, oxytocin. The idea is intriguing — I'm picturing Ritalin's laser-like focus, only for relationships — but it prompts a lot of questions and musings about what "true love" really is.
First of all, we're bad at long-term romance, say researchers at the University of Oxford in a paper preview called "Could intranasal oxytocin be used to enhance relationships?" About half of marriages end in divorce with 20% to 72% of husbands straying alongside 10% to 54% of wives. People mean well, they want to stay together, but shit is hard, people change, life happens and there's always biology there to fuck your shit up.
The fragility of our arrangement, the researchers note, is thanks to some "deeply-rooted disparities" between our high-minded ideals and low-minded loins.
Natural selection did not shape our basic mating strategies—nor our underlying brain chemistry—to foster life-long, monogamous matrimony in the modern world, but rather to promote the reproductive success of our progenitors in the environment of the Pleistocene.
We were only supposed to stick together to get a baby through its most vulnerable period, see. And that, as far as pair bonding was concerned, was all she wrote. Oh sure, you might see your Pleistocene-era baby daddy across the watering hole years later and wave hello, a little nostalgia in your eyes for the way you were, but oh well/starcrossed cave love/etc.
But that was then. We obviously moved on and decided pairing off 4-life had benefits, too: notably, a longer lifespan, not to mention increased wellbeing on multiple levels.
Nice idea! say the researchers. But not necessarily our most realistic innovation:
This discrepancy between the blind goals of natural selection and the conscious values of modern couples—and the societies in which they conduct their relationships—results in a serious tension.
And not just from the wrestling with one's commitment versus one's individual desires, but also how fucked everyone is, especially children, when it doesn't work out. Most people want to be married, the researchers posit, but only 37% of couples "claim to be very happy in their marriages."
From there, they knock down what might be all our most obvious retorts:
People can work harder on their relationships!
They certainly can.
People can go to couples' counseling!
Oh but they do!
And while they acknowledge some of these therapies can be effective, they insist “research also indicates that a sizeable percentage of couples fail to achieve significant gains from couple therapy or show significant deterioration afterward."
Enter Direct Biochemical Intervention:
Specifically, they suggested that the chemical modulation of love- and bonding-related neural systems, under the guidance of trained professionals such as clinicians or marriage therapists, could be used to overcome, at least partially, the evolved limitations of marital well-being. These neurochemical enhancers would be used in conjunction with counseling and/or other controlled activities to facilitate communication and the pursuit of joint goals and ideals between couples experiencing conflict.
Kind of like that extra fun boost to make you no longer fucking hate your significant other. The paper is pretty preliminary, just looking at research imperatives, clinical policy and ethical considerations in considering this approach. But our culture never met a pharmaceutical solution it didn't like, so until StaTru(TM) hits the shelves, let's speculate about the implications of nasalling up a solution to your rocky union.
How much will this cost?
Since it's potentially only going to be administered in therapeutic sessions, you can go ahead and assume it means you can't get your grubby little nose hairs on it.
Perhaps we're framing this non-problem as a problem.
Yes, some marriages don't work out, but about just as many do. Perhaps we should work on accepting marriage as the limited, non-universal arrangement it is — good for some people, not for others — and leave the rest of the population to pursue the kinds of relationships they find fulfilling, without the stigma or sense of being deviant, failed, subpar people.
Or perhaps there is an individual chemical component to why we stay or don't stay committed, but it isn't medicine we need, it's a better understanding of the way different people respond to (or easily tire of) monogamous bonding. Or a better way of determining if you're cut out for it or not.
Is cheating really so bad?
Dan Savage argues that infidelity is inevitable for many, or at least, the lesser of two evils, the other evil being divorce. He actually says that sometimes it's the right thing to do to keep a marriage together, when one person is no longer interested in keeping a sexual relationship alive. Perhaps working toward a better understanding of cheating, desire, lust, and its management or curtailing — and especially, the extent to which we we weigh it as a deal-breaker in a marriage — could put us at greater ease with the fault lines in long-term mating, and less inclined to need artificial enhancements to stick around.
Is that oxytocin in your pocket or are you happy to see me?
It's a similar question asked by people who take anti-depressants or Ritalin: Is this me doing the thing or the drugs? And while lives are saved by such medications and lived organically in spite of them, using an enhancer to aid a completely voluntary relationship is going to beg the question: If I have to take meds to be here, is this true love?
We put such a premium on the choosing of our mates for love reasons, and things working out based on a variety of factors which are controllable or not controllable: fate, attraction, time, aging, mutually shared goals, compatibility, ability to not leave socks on the floor.
And in spite of the fact that it may be greater forces ultimately keeping plenty of couples together aside from deeply felt romance — children, property, religion, blended families, guilt, or any number of cultural expectations about being paired — something feels particularly sad/icky about needing hormones to stay with someone you're supposed to stay with because you are on some level organically compelled. Even if the reasons you are compelled are all but guaranteed to change or evolve over time.
In other words, don't you wanna know you're sticking with it because you want to, and not because your brain got dosed with stick-with-it juice? Are you going to end up staying with someone "meh" because the life they could give you is amazing on some superficial/cultural level?
For the record, I have no idea how many women might feel this way about Viagra.
Speaking of which, pretty soon, the number of meds we're going to need to take to stay committed to someone is going to eventually make commitment look about as appealing as being kept artificially alive at age 150. I also can't help but imagine the comedy gold inherent in what happens when the dose wears off. Can you say love bonerkiller?
Image by Jim Cooke.