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.

What’s good for your garden may also be good for your relationship

“Though the problems of the world are increasingly complex,the solutions remain embarrassingly simple.” .

― Bill Mollison, Founder and director of the Permaculture Institute

The other day when I was out for my morning walk I saw the season’s first crocuses peaking their bright yellow heads out from the still muddy, cold ground. And so, spring is on my mind, even if it’s not exactly in the air yet. And in our household spring means tending to our garden that will nourish us well into the fall.

When planning our garden, we had to take one very important factor into account: We are both pretty lazy gardeners. We would much rather spend time at the table relishing in wonderfully fresh fruits and vegetables that come from our garden than we would toiling away pulling weeds and watering. Fortunately, we took this into consideration as we planned our garden and we designed much of our garden around the principles of permaculture.

In permaculture, the idea is to design self-maintained and sustainable ecosystems which are modeled from the natural environment. In other words, keep it simple, tend to the basics, and follow the path that mother nature has charted for us.

And it turns out that works well in the garden, may also serve us well in our relationships.  I recently came across an article by Kim Millar, a relationship coach in the UK and an avid permaculturist, entitled “Do you mulch your relationships?” In it, she talks about how various permalture principles such as designing for cooperation rather than competition, and using the least effort to create the biggest effect, may be just as effective in producing abundant, sustainable relationships as they are at producing abundant, sustainable gardens.

One of the core ideas in permaculture is to start with identifying a long-term vision for what you eventually want your garden (or in this case your relationship) to yield. That vision then guides how you design the environment so that it will naturally nurture what you are wanting to produce.  Permaculturists are in it for the long haul. This is not the kind of gardening where you choose some pretty already-in-bloom annuals from Home Depot and watch them die in a few short months only to have to start all over again the next season. Creating a vision means being intentional about what you ultimately want to work towards; in ACT we would call that your “values”.

As you read this post, you might take a moment to consider the following questions: How sustainable are your relationships? Do you find you’re putting in more time “working on them” than you are relishing in their bounties? If so, you may want to take a few pages from the permaculture playbook. Yes, relationships take work. You do need to tend to them in order for them to thrive. However, when relationships are built on a solid foundation, when we are intentional about their design, and when they are regularly nourished and nurtured, they can be sustainable and can nourish us for years to come.

Gratitude – It does a relationship good!

“Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy;

they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” ― Marcel Proust

“She never appreciates all the things I do”. “He just seems to take me for granted”. Sound familiar? You wouldn’t be alone if these sentiments ring true for you. One of the most common complaints I hear from clients about their relationships is that they don’t feel appreciated.

Relationship auto-pilot

It’s difficult right? We get into a routine and go into auto-pilot. And auto-pilot works very well to get all the competing demands of life met. Imagine if the Captain and Co-Pilot of an airplane had to discuss who is going to do every single task, every single time they flew? That probably wouldn’t work out so great.

But what can happen in our relationships when everything is running on auto-pilot is that we forget to stop and notice that there is a co-pilot on our journey with us. Often then only time we notice is when there is a glitch in the system and someone drops the ball. Many of us are much quicker to point out when our partner has failed in some expectation we have of them, than we are to stop and express appreciation for those ways that our partners contribute to our daily life.

Gratitude—good for them and good for you

And yet, according to a group of researchers from Florida State University, expressing appreciation, even for everyday things, can have a pretty big impact on your relationship. They conducted a series of studies investigating the link between expressions of gratitude and positive feelings (specifically “communal strength”) evidenced in couples. Not surprisingly, they found that individuals who felt more positively about their relationship expressed more gratitude towards their partners. That seems like a no-brainer—it’s pretty easy to tell our partners how much we appreciate them when we are feeling all lovey-dovey towards them. However, what was more interesting was that they also found that when partners expressed gratitude, that increased positive feelings about the relationship for the person who was expressing the gratitude. In other words, when we express gratitude it ends up making us feel more positively about our relationships. So it may be that when you’re feeling down on your relationship or frustrated with your partner, that may be the best time to express appreciation.  

And all this might also be relevant if you’re spending the coming holiday season with family. The positive impacts of expressing gratitude seem to extend beyond just partners/spouses. When we express gratitude for friends and family, that also results in us feeling more positively about those relationships. So, if you’re planning on making the big trip out to visit a family that can be “challenging” at times (not that I’m saying that ever happens to you of course!), maybe consider intentionally expressing appreciation to irritating Aunt Edna or grumpy Brother Bill. You may end up feeling more positively about those relationships as a result.

And in the midst of it all, see if you can disengage the autopilot for a bit and take some time to appreciate that cherished co-pilot you have there by your side. They will likely appreciate it and, if the researchers at Florida State are right, it may also do your heart some good. 

Things to Know Before You Say “Go”

In a previous post, I wrote a bit about the growing exploration among researchers in the use of psychotherapy-related smartphone apps for anxiety. In more local news, a Portland psychologist Elsbeth Martindale, PsyD, has developed her own smartphone app. The app is based on a collection of cards she developed called Things to Known before You SayGo.”

I had coffee with Dr. Martindale several months ago, and she talked about how the cards came out a conversation she was having with young woman about becoming involved with a man. Dr. Martindale had a moment of inspiration: she said she realized this woman had very little understanding of how to evaluate whether this guy could be a reasonable match for her or whether he was a person she should stay far, far away from! This woman simply didn’t know what to look for, and no one in her life had helped her learn how to make this kind of decision. Following this realization, Dr. Martindale began writing down questions she thought this person should consider. Her assortment of cards evolved from there.

The cards include items such as, “Is this person able and willing to listen to my feelings and desires?” (For a sample of items, click here.) They are handsomely packaged, and Dr. Martindale states they have been useful for her clients. Dr. Martindale has since developed an iPhone app version of the cards. It’s fair to note that there hasn’t been any research done on these cards, but people have had positive experiences with them.

As I’ve mentioned before, I find the potential in technology very exciting, and it’s fun to see enterprising professionals experiment with different forms of media.

The secret to keeping the romance alive: It’s not all about roses and chocolates

In my last post, I reported on a study by researchers at Stony Brook University that suggested that romance can survive in long-term relationships. That’s great news, but what if you’re in one of those long-term relationships and the romance isn’t what it used to be? Are there ways to rekindle the romance even after 10+ years? Well, science comes to our rescue again with a resounding, “YES!” And the data suggests that increasing the romance and satisfaction in your relationship has less to do with things we think of a traditionally “romantic” and more to do with things that are new and challenging.

Arthur Aron, Ph.D., a social psychologist at Stony Brook University, has spent the last 25 years studying interpersonal relationships, including how some couples are able to keep romance alive in their long- term relationships. His research shows that couples who engage in novel and challenging tasks together report higher levels of relationship satisfaction and increased intimacy compared to those who stick to only familiar and routine activities. These novel and challenging tasks don’t even have to be anything obviously romantic. For example, in one of his studies he asked married couples to spend 7 minutes rolling a ball across a room to each other (no candles and roses there). To increase the level of challenge and novelty of the task, he had half of the couples do the task while their wrists and ankles were tied together. Those couples reported higher levels of relationship satisfaction after the activity than those who did the activity while they were not bound. Aron suggests that engaging in these more exciting and challenging activities together (ok, so rolling a ball across the room isn’t all that exciting, but…) translates into us feeling our relationships are more fun and exciting. “That exhilarating feeling may come from another source, but it’s still associated with your partner,” says Aron.

Given the romance-boosting potential of trying new and challenging activities together, here are 5 suggestions of ways to rekindle the romance in your long-term relationship (It’s probably not a bad idea for those in new relationships too!)

1. Hit the books. Nearly all community colleges offer a wide variety of relatively inexpensive non-credit classes that are open to anyone in the community. Whether it be trying your hand at pottery or taking a stab at Shakespeare, classes can be a great way to learn something new together.

2. Let’s get physical! Try taking up a new physical activity. Anything from taking dancing lessons to joining a kickball team together could work. And try doing something where you’re both novices (remember—novelty is part of the key), so don’t join the softball team if your partner is Babe Ruth!

3. Use your hands. Building something together can be a great way to tackle something new and challenging, especially if the two of you spend most of your time using those parts of your body that sit above your shoulders. Maybe the two of you have always wanted to build that front porch swing together or maybe you could even make this a way to support a great cause by volunteering to work on a Habitat for Humanity house together.

4. Parli Italiano il mio amore? Maybe a long vacation in Paris or Istanbul isn’t the cards for you right now. However, for only the cost of a class at a community college or a Rosetta Stone program, you and your partner can dream of exotic locales together by learning a new language. And who knows, maybe you’ll finally take that trip to Italy together once you’re mastered some basic Italian.

5. Tackle the classics. Is there that one great classic book that you somehow got out of school without ever having read? Maybe you were playing hooky while others were reading Moby Dick or maybe the Cliffs Notes of the Scarlet Letter just seemed a whole lot more appealing to your 18-year-old self than reading the actual book. If that’s the case, you and your partner could commit to tackling your own great white whale of a classic together. Maybe you decide to read a chapter a week, or a chapter a month—doesn’t matter. Then each week or month discuss what you’ve read over a nice dinner or glass of wine. What matters is that by doing something challenging and new together you’re not only increasing your chances of taking home the big prize a pub quiz this week, but you’ll also be increasing the romance in your relationship (speaking of pub quiz, join a pub quiz team together– that could be a six item, if I were going to sneak another one in there).

So next time your relationship could use a little spark, skip the champagne and flowers, and instead stretch yourself with tackling a new challenge together.

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