What’s love got to do with it? Arguments for the use of “love drugs” miss the point

“Oh what’s love got to do, got to do with it?
What’s love but a second hand emotion.”
Tina Turner, singer

 

That spark gone between you and your partner? No need for couples therapy. Struggling to find love? Forget match.com. Science hopes to bring you a new solution to all your love woes… “Love Drugs.” Could it be possible that we could just take a pill that would make us fall “in love” or fall “out of love” with someone? Maybe. To me that question misses the whole point.

This topic came to my attention a few weeks ago as I was listening to a radio program on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The host was interviewing Brian Earp, MSc., an ethicist from Oxford who is writing a book on the “neuroenhancement” of love and marriage. In the interview, which you can listen to here, Earp cites research into the use of synthetic versions of various neurochemicals including oxytocin and dopamine which are purported to increase feelings of “love” and bonding in both human and non-human animals. The crux of Earp’s argument for the use of such drugs is essentially that we humans are not “naturally” monogamous animals and thus these drugs can help couples work against that “nature” in order to maintain monogamous relationships.

Earp’s colleagues at Oxford, Savulescu & Sandberg have written an interesting article in the journal Neuroethics in which they review what they think are the arguments for and against the use of such drugs.  While they ultimately come down on the side of supporting the use of such “love”-enhancing drugs, some of the arguments they cite against the use of such drugs include concerns about addiction and adaptation, the risk that they could be used in a non-consensual or coercive manner, and questions about whether or not the feelings produced by them could be considered “authentic.”

To me, these aren’t the most important questions. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to set aside the whole issue of whether or not we as a society should only value one form of relationships–monogamy. That’s for another post at another time. An even more basic question can be summed up by the wise philosopher known as Tina Turner: “What’s love got to do with it?”

Earp and his colleagues’ whole argument is based on the idea that “love” is a feeling. Furthermore, from their point of view, it’s the feeling of “love” that determines our behavior. However, contextual behavioral scientists (CBS) (a group which would include ACT therapists) suggest that it might be more useful to view “love” as a verb, as a series of behaviors in which we are free to engage at any point, without needing a particular feeling first. Coming from a CBS framework, since feelings are largely out of our control, assuming that a particular feeling must be present in order to engage in a valued behavior is simply an unworkable assumption.

If you’ve lost me in the science speak, hang in there with me. Here is the point… As both a scientist and a human, I truly don’t care if my partner feels like he loves me, especially since I would contend that his feelings are simply the result of various neurochemicals in his brain and thus he isn’t freely choosing to have or not have them. Rather I care that he IS loving to me. Love as a verb, not a feeling. And if I say I “love” my niece and nephew, what I mean is that I choose to be loving towards them, to treat them with kindness, protection, and patience, even when they are being difficult or mean and I don’t really FEEL loving towards them. Love often occurs during those times when we don’t necessarily feel loving, when we don’t feel an emotion that Earp and his colleagues would call “love”.

This is an age-old problem in the field of psychology. We are told that we need to work on feeling a particular way in order to behave in a particular way. You can see examples of this message all over our society. You need to feel good about yourself and then you’ll treat yourself well.  You need to feel less depressed or less anxious and then you can engage with life in a way that would be meaningful and vital for you. You need to feel “love” in order to be in a loving, committed relationship. I maintain that these are unworkable assumptions. Instead of having changeable feelings in the driver’s seat, I’m interested in helping people to live and love well and take the feelings along for the ride.

For me, rather than arguing whether the use of “love drugs” is ethical, I would say that it’s simply part of an unworkable assumption. I would rather help people explore whether, if they were completely free to choose (not based on what society says and not based on the particular feelings or urges they happen to have at this moment), would they choose to maintain a committed relationship? If this is a value that they would choose, then I want to work towards helping them live that value, regardless of passing feelings, feelings produced by synthetic chemicals or otherwise.

Jenna LeJeune, Ph.D

Author: Jenna LeJeune, Ph.D

Jenna is a clinical psychologist who specializes in working with people who struggle with relationship and intimacy difficulties and with those who have a trauma history. Her research focuses on developing compassion-based interventions targeting stigma, shame, and chronic self-criticism.