The modern world is a treacherous place for romantical, tandem bicycle relationships, a place filled with cynicism, internet snark, and full-page newspaper ads encouraging married people to be total sleazeballs. People just aren't pair-bonding like they used to, and while some of us have accepted the fact that divorce rates are higher, and that people are marrying later (or not at all) because lobotomized sycophants like Steven Crowder are the loudest proponents of the marital institution, others like the Oxford ethicist Brian Earp think that married people just aren't trying hard enough to stay together if they haven't taken ecstasy together and played naked freeze tag in their subdivision. For the kids.
Earp, along with colleagues Anders Sandberg and Julian Savulescu, have suggested that — assuming a relationship isn't physically or emotionally abusive, or that one partner has decided to barricade his or herself in the bedroom playing Everquest for 72 shower-free hours — fracturing couples might owe it to themselves and their brood to consolidate their emotional bond with "love drugs" such as oxytocin nasal spray and MDMA. MDMA, for all you squares, is ecstasy, otherwise known on the street as disco biscuits, candy, tic tacs, vitamins, brain handjobs, cerebral belly scratches, and, lest we omit anything, the pill that lets people star on their very own cable access diaper fetish dance video.
In a hypothetical future when such love drugs are safe, legal, and worthy of an indie sci-fi movie two parts Blade Runner and one part Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Earp told the Atlantic's Ross Andersen that couples who find their emotional vise grips loosening may be able to salvage their relationships with some healthy doses of E. And why would romantic partners require such a pharmacological love aid, you ask? It's pretty straightforward — evolutionary biology, says Earp, has outpaced our all of our most facile sentimentalities:
If you look at this in the context of evolutionary biology, you realize that in order to maximize the survival of their genes, parents need to have emotional systems that keep them together until their children are sufficiently grown… [but] 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."
We see this in the high divorce rates and long term relationship break up rates in countries where both partners enjoy freedom - especially economic freedom. We are simply not built to pull off decades-long relationships in the modern world.
Parroting anthropologist Helen Fisher, Earp further explains that "love," at least the way it's been showcased in pop culture as a linear — dare we say phallic? where's Camille Paglia with her critical Western eye when we need her?? — one-dimensional emotion, is really just an amalgamation of chemical misfirings in our brains and social cues that keep paired-up men and women from bludgeoning each other in front of their progeny. In other words:
In her [Fisher's] theory—one of a number of "biological" theories of love with quite a bit of overlap between them—the lust system promotes mating with a range of promising partners; the attraction system guides us to choose and prefer a particular partner; and the attachment system fosters long-term bonding, encouraging couples to cooperate and stay together until their parental duties have been discharged. These universal systems are then hypothesized to form a biological foundation on which the cultural and individual variants of sexual, romantic, and longer-term love are built.
Modern conveniences (like toasters or electric blankets) have more or less obviated the need for these quaint pair-bondings, and staying with just one partner forevsies is way harder, according to Earp, than it used to be when all anyone had to do all day was be afraid that the stars were going to climb down from the night sky and eat their offspring. Though Salon's Katie McDonough points out that plenty of evidence suggests amicably separated couples can raise happy, healthy kids, Earp and his colleagues think that the two-parent blueprint is still socially preferable:
Imagine a couple that is thinking about breaking up or getting a divorce, but they have young children who would likely be harmed by their parents' separation. In this situation, there are vulnerable third parties involved, and we have argued that parents have a responsibility - all else being equal - to preserve and enhance their relationships for the sake of their children, at least until the children have matured and can take care of themselves…
If love drugs ever become safely and cheaply available; if they could be shown to improve love, commitment, and marital well-being - and thereby lessen the chance (or the need) for divorce; if other interventions had been tried and failed; and if side-effects or other complications could be minimized, then we think that some couples might have an obligation to give them a try.
There are plenty of pharmaceuticals made primarily for the purpose of enhancing physical and emotional relationships. Viagra, for instance, can keep the boner party going well into the twilight of old age, so any argument that there's something weird and emotionally icky about taking ecstasy to salvage a marriage that isn't working anymore has to account for our cultural reliance on pharmacology to solve many of our problems. Earp identifies Viagra along with drugs used to treat chronic depression as ways people mend the broken fences with a romantic partner, so what would really be so objectionable to using an invigorating oxytocin spray to spice up your marriage? Unless of course you either a) don't place as much social value on the two-parent model as Earp clearly does, or b) keep hearing the cop in Weeds tell Nancy that ecstasy is like taking ice cream scoops out of your brain. It also dehydrates you like whoa, so maybe just stick to discount wine and cupcakes because nothing smooths over marital conflict like sharing baked goods.
The Case for Using Drugs to Enhance Our Relationships [The Atlantic]
Image via Ninell/Shutterstock.