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Love and Other Drugs
Brian D. Earp explains how chemical enhancement could save your marriage.
What do you do when your marriage lasts less than two months? That was the predicament faced by Natasha Nelson, a thirty-five-year-old public relations executive, after she found out that her brand-new husband had been carrying on a relationship with his ex-girlfriend: throughout their ten month courtship, throughout their engagement, and even after the wedding. ‘Til death do us part’ indeed. Six weeks into ‘happily ever after’, Natasha filed for divorce.
Marriage is a mixed-up institution. On the one hand it represents a lifelong, monogamous relationship ideal to which many people still cheerfully aspire. Yet on the other hand, more than half of marriages fall apart – sometimes after just a few weeks. As anyone who’s been through a divorce knows all too well, the effects can be traumatic for everyone involved. And divorce isn’t the only problem. Of those marriages that do last, only some fraction can be fairly described as ‘happy’ – and possibly none at all reach the heights of connubial bliss we read about in fairy tales. Perhaps then it is just a fairy tale. So we should ask: how did this mismatch between ideal and reality come about? And what, if anything, can be done about it?
Obviously there are many reasons why marriages are so fragile. I couldn’t hope to cover them all in one article, even if they all were known. So I want to focus on just one type of explanation, which flows from an uncomfortable tension between three major factors – and then I want to talk about how we might make some changes to harmonize those factors.
The first factor goes under the heading human nature. By this I mean the drives and other deep facts about our biological and psychological make-up as human beings which were forged into us over thousands of generations by the fires of evolution. These include things like our powerful urge to have sex (and not always with our spouse), our relatively short-term ability to pair-bond (since the brain circuits for adult pair-bonding evolved to tackle only the relatively short-term task of childrearing), and the fading of passionate love after the early stages of a relationship (for related reasons).
The second factor is values. These include social and ethical ideals that touch on love and marriage. Think of the rule that we should only have sex with our spouse, and of the notion that the mysterious power of love should keep our relationships running for decade after decade, long after our children have left the house. You see the tension with the first factor building already. Our psychologies and sexual natures, designed by the blind hand of natural selection, and our moral values, shaped by relatively recently-developed conscious concerns about human flourishing, well-being, justice, and so on, often disagree with each other. And when they do disagree it is very frequently the values that buckle under the pressure.
The third factor is our modern environment: meaning, the various background conditions of contemporary life. It’s a very different world from the one in which we evolved. In this very different world, it can make sense to push purely gene-driven motives like ‘reproductive success’ to the back seat in pursuit of higher goals. But doing so is no easy task.
Drives versus Ideals
Let’s explore this clash of drives and ideals in a little more detail, in terms of the three factors I outlined above. This will shed some light on Natasha’s unfortunate situation.
(1) Human biological and psychological nature: A lot of evidence now indicates that our species did not evolve as monogamous. Our ancestors did form cooperative pair-bonds, and little hominid babies require a lot of attention from both parents for about the first four years of life, but both males and females have had sex outside of their primary reproductive alliances throughout our evolutionary history. The emphasis is on males because males can increase their output of healthy babies by having sex with as many females as possible; although females can increase their output of healthy babies by fooling their mates into raising the offspring of a fitter male (possibly encountered on a romp through the bushes). Since we have inherited the anatomical, biological, and psychological architecture of our ancestors, we share these offspring-maximizing drives. That means that we have a preconscious drive to desire some form of commitment with a single individual, at least for a limited time, but we can find ourselves tempted by other sexual opportunities as well.
(2) Marriage values: Most modern marriage vows entail an explicit promise by the couple involved to be sexually exclusive to each other, through thick and thin, so long as they both shall live. Perfect fidelity is considered non-negotiable, and adultery is usually seen as a serious moral failure. And this value seems to make sense: research shows that committed, stable marriages result in better physical and mental health, self-reported happiness, and even longer life; while cheating, as we all know, leads to heartbreak and pain, rockier relationships, sometimes outright violence, and often divorce.
(3) Modern context: Sex is now separate from mandatory reproduction, thanks to birth-control technology, so cheating is less likely to result in unwanted pregnancies. Condoms also reduce the risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections. Ease of long-distance travel and the ballooning size of social groups increase opportunities for low-cost love affairs. And all of those factors are spread out over the drawn-out length of present-day lives and relationships, as we now out-live our ancestors by decades.
Given these three factors, it can hardly come as a surprise – although it is no less regrettable – that at least one-fifth of husbands, and at least one-tenth of wives, commit adultery. The numbers for American couples range as high as 72% and 54%, depending on the survey. And while marriages break down for a whole number of reasons following from the nature-value mismatch we’re considering (including the fading of passionate love), adultery is definitely a big contributor: research shows that adultery is a leading cause of divorce across human societies.
How can this situation be avoided? Remember that we’re dealing with three major forces sitting in tension: our evolved psychological and biological natures, our marriage values, and our modern environment. To close the chasm between marriage-ideal and marriage-reality, then, we will have to make some changes in one or more of those dimensions.
Changing Our Values?
First, we could change our values about love and marriage. To stick with our example about adultery for a while longer, we could try to convince people that because extra-marital sex is natural – because the urge to cheat was built into us by evolution – they should stop getting upset when their partners stray. Divorce would then be less likely because dalliances outside of marriage wouldn’t break so many hearts.
Would that really work? I don’t think so, for reasons I will explain in a moment. But it’s important to remember that norms about extra-marital sex do differ between cultures and across time. In seventeenth-century England, for example, wives were generally expected to ignore their husbands’ extramarital adventures, since standards for mutual sexual fidelity were basically non-existent outside of a handful of religious groups. Those marriages stayed together, sure enough; but a lot of pain was involved for the wives, as their letters and diaries make very clear.
Of course, the seventeenth century is a poor guide to relationship ethics for the present day. In other words, even though the patriarchal norms that favored male promiscuity in that era may resonate better with facts about human biology, they are certainly not in tune with modern ideals about mutual respect, gender equality, and so on. ‘Natural’ does not automatically mean ‘good’ – a point which cannot be made too often when evolutionary psychology and ethics are being discussed in the same breath.
What about changing our norms so that both men and women could freely have sex outside of marriage? That would take care of the inequality issue, and it would be more consistent with our biological urges, reducing the three-factor tension that I’m claiming leads to much suffering.
Indeed, some couples do elect to enter into ‘open marriages’, although this is relatively rare. While it isn’t ethically problematic on the surface, and while it may in fact work for some, research shows that such an arrangement is usually at the behest of the husband mid-way through the marriage, not agreed to by both parties from the start. But what if ‘open marriages’ were the norm rather than the exception? My guess is that it simply wouldn’t work on a wide scale. It wasn’t just the inequality of the seventeenth-century cheating norms that caused pain to the women in those relationships, it was the jealousy – an adultery-detesting rush of emotions that evolved in both sexes, presumably to protect against cuckoldry in the case of males and against the diversion of male resources away from childcare in the case of females. Jealousy is as much a part of our nature as is the impulse to cheat, and few open marriage resolutions are likely to erase the pain caused by a philandering spouse.
As a general approach, we cannot simply avoid the harm of adultery by switching to open marriages, if that harm depends on a fundamental evolved emotional response like jealousy. And even if we could, there would be a serious cost for those relationships with children in particular: jealousy evolved to keep parents focused on existing offspring, and it tends to keep families intact – an effect which most would consider valuable. The drive for extra-marital sex, meanwhile, is much more in conflict with the rest of our modern consciously-held values. If these two evolved drives are in tension, there is good reason to give up on the one which arguably leads to more suffering and less benefit in a majority of cases: the drive to adultery. Finally, convincing the bulk of the population to give up on jealousy and endorse adultery instead, seems unlikely, to say the least. For practical reasons as much as principled ones, then, the norm against adultery is probably worth keeping.
Changing Our Context?
That leaves just two dimensions for us to tweak in our quest to bridge the gap between our unfaithful natures and our monogamous values.
Let’s take some time to think about changes we could make in the context dimension, the dimension of facts about our contemporary environment. We talked about how birth control, long-distance travel, bigger social groups, and longer lives, all combine to make cheating easier, and so more likely. Many of these changes have been so beneficial for other reasons that we could not consider abandoning them for the sake of marriage. But we could change certain aspects of our modern context where the benefits of modernity are not so clear-cut. For example, we could pass laws making divorces much harder to obtain, as has been tried in Louisiana. Or we could make adultery itself illegal, as it is in Pakistan, where it is punishable by death under the 1979 Hudood Ordinance. We could also reduce access to birth control, so that extra-pair sex carried greater risks of undesired side-effects – although that would conflict with other values we have about women’s reproductive rights. Or we could impose heavy fines on anyone who had sex with someone other than his or her spouse, as a deterrent. These sorts of changes would reduce divorce rates while preserving anti-adultery norms by decreasing the extra-marital affairs themselves – that is, if they didn’t simply backfire or go largely ignored. Yet heavy-handed regulation of human mating arrangements usually has precisely those results. As I mentioned, people frequently behave in ways consistent with their deepest drives and impulses moral ideals notwithstanding, and even efforts of the state be damned. Obviously, the adultery rate in Pakistan did not drop to zero after 1979. Even the threat of execution cannot stamp out the urge to cheat.
So are we stuck, then? Is there nothing we can do? Since human beings cannot change their natures, we may be forced to live with the mismatch between our values and our behavior in whatever context. We simply can’t turn back the clock on all the progress we’ve made morally in recent centuries, nor plausibly yearn for a return to some invented harmonious state of nature. We are where we are, and we need to make the best of it.
Changing Our Natures?
But what if we could change our natures? This is the starting point for arguments about the chemical enhancement of love and thus marriage. Recent work in a number of scientific fields suggests that we will soon be able to intervene directly in the psychobiological systems that control such complex phenomena as moral decision-making, mathematical ability, learning and memory, and even love, lust and attachment. That is, using existing and near-future biotechnology, we will have the power to strengthen the bond of love by acting directly on the brains involved. This sort of research opens up the possibility that we could keep our modern values and our modern environment, and bring our ancient drives into line with both.
Could we eliminate adultery using knowledge of neurophysiology, then? What if we started supplementing marriage counselling sessions with prescription love drugs – chemical interventions designed to improve commitment and bonding? We certainly already have the capacity to alter the levels of the hormones controlling the human sex-drive. What if men agreed to undergo testosterone-reduction treatments after their wedding day, since testosterone promotes a wandering eye, and disrupts inclinations toward parenting?
These ideas might seem pretty radical, but in a 2008 article in the journal Neuroethics, the philosophers Julian Savulescu and Anders Sandberg made just such a case for the neuro-chemical enhancement of love and marriage. In the last part of this article, I want explore their argument and some of its implications, adding a few thoughts of my own along the way.
Savulescu and Sandberg’s moral case for love drugs centered on the idea of marital autonomy, which just means that couples should be free to shape their marriage in the way which best suits them – including through the use of chemical substances, if they are available, effective, and legal. This is closely aligned with a liberal perspective on drug use in general: so long as you aren’t harming someone else, you should have a right to do what you will to your own body. That ideal could just as well apply to the activities of an individual in a relationship as to an individual on his or her own.
But the notion isn’t far-fetched at all. After all, a couple who share a bottle of wine over a romantic dinner are ingesting a pretty powerful chemical substance, and it could certainly count as a love drug if used in the right way. Older couples who find that Viagra can restore a healthy sex life are using another form of love drug. So if we already use love drugs in everyday life, there is no clear reason why married couples shouldn’t be able to manipulate their brain chemistry using other such compounds – especially as research zooms in on particularly promising candidates such as oxytocin. Oxytocin is a hormone that’s normally expressed through orgasm and breastfeeding, and it plays a major role in forming the mother-child bond and the powerful feeling of connection between adults who fall in love. It’s called ‘the cuddle chemical’ in media reports, for obvious reasons, and it can now be administered by nasal spray. So Savulescu and Sandberg spent some time outlining how doing things like spraying oxytocin up your nose might work on the brain to encourage love and improve the bond between romantic partners. They also note that this research is still in its infancy, and that oxytocin’s effects on the brain are still not fully understood.
I think we should pause here and consider whether taking oxytocin really is ethically on par with drinking a bottle of wine or using Viagra. There seem to be some important differences. People have been drinking wine for thousands of years, so at least we know what we’re getting into when we open a bottle of Merlot. And Viagra isn’t really a love drug, is it, working on states of mind? It’s more of a sex drug. Sure, it can promote the flow of blood to the penis and produce an erection, but its effects are rather low-level and relatively short-lived. It can’t make you fall in love with anyone. Oxytocin, on the other hand, is a neurotransmitter that acts directly on the brain systems involved in some rather central human emotions: it gets right to the ‘heart’ of love in a way that alcohol or Viagra can’t even touch. So it’s probably for good reason that it’s normally released only through such natural, intimate, controlled activities as sex and breastfeeding. Is this really the sort of substance we should be spraying up our noses?
This is a good question, and the answer is: it depends. Certainly nobody should be forced to take oxytocin; but for some couples it might be a reasonable choice, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment. One thing that neuro-enhancement proponents in general have to be careful about, is giving the impression that the ministrations they promote should be used by everyone, everywhere, across a wide range of poorly-defined conditions. Love drugs for everyone! Savulescu and Sandberg don’t suggest anything like this, but it’s good to be reminded that others do.
In order to get from philosophical arguments about enhancement to working on the practicalities of intervention, a lot of details need to be thought through first. In the case of love drugs, there are countless considerations to worry about. But I will now offer just one idea into the conversation: that love drugs should probably be used as a last resort, and are not the sort of thing a couple should reach for at the first sign of trouble. Consider an analogy with chronic depression, and its treatment through neurochemical means, perhaps with an antidepressant like citalopram. In most cases, before considering the use of drugs, doctors and clinical psychologists should encourage a depressed person to address her mental health issue through non-biochemical means like talk therapy, and by making relevant changes to the broader circumstances of her life. A doctor doesn’t just write out a prescription the minute someone says “I’m sad.”
So let’s say a patient is depressed because she hates her job, for example, or isn’t getting enough exercise, or engages in destructive patterns of thought. Okay, then: her therapist might encourage her to find alternative employment, take up jogging, or practice healthier mental habits. But sometimes the patient is so depressed that making these sorts of changes by sheer dint of will is too difficult, or her brain chemistry may be so out of order that she needs a small dose of medication to get over the initial hump of the depression. Once she is in a more balanced state of brain and mind, she may then be able to take the active steps that are needed to address the contextual issues contributing to her mood disorder. A similar scenario applies to relationships. In some cases, counseling may be insufficient to get a couple over the initial hurdles of their martial difficulties. In that case, love drugs could give them the boost they need. Maybe a couple find it difficult to touch each other any more, so they aren’t releasing oxytocin naturally, weakening their bond, thus making it even harder to be physically intimate – a cycle many married couples find all too familiar. In this case, the advantage of an oxytocin nasal spray is that getting the brain into a state that’s more receptive to the relationship-building behaviors really would be as easy as squirting a substance up your nose.
The moral of the story? Love drugs will probably never be for everyone, and in any case they should be used very cautiously, especially while research into their effectiveness and potential side-effects is so young. But in some cases, the chemical enhancement of a marriage bond might make the difference between a family falling apart or staying together. Love drugs are a possibility well worth exploring.
© Brian D. Earp, 2012
Brian D. Earp is a Research Associate at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics.
• This article is partially adapted from Earp, B. D., Sandberg, A., and Savulescu, J. (forthcoming): ‘Natural selection, childrearing, and the ethics of marriage (and divorce): Building a case for the neuroenhancement of human relationships’, in Philosophy & Technology.