We love pills. We rely on them. So often with a simple swallow they take care of our physical distress – and calm our hearts and minds into the bargain. So now we are starting to understand the chemistry of love, I guess its natural to wish for a pill the will turn on love or keep love coming – a commitment or anti- infidelity pill.
Imagine! One gulp and the friendly girl next to you turns into your soul-mate. If your hubby has a exotic new secretary, you slip a commitment pill into his morning tea. It gives the question, “Have you taken your pill, honey?” a whole new flavor. The idea of a love potent is hardly new, but what used to be the territory of warlocks and witches is coming soon to a pharmacy near you. At least if the big pharmaceutical companies can make it happen.
In fact, they did make it happen with Viagra for women. If Viagra gives a man an erection and lust automatically follows then why not make a female version – a desire pill for women. Except it didn’t work! Turns out a woman can have the physical correlates of arousal but the experience of desire doesn’t necessarily tag along. The pill didn’t work because it just focused on one part of a complex experience, and because we don’t yet understand women’s desire and how it differs from that of a man. Maybe the link between physical arousal and psychological turn on is tighter for a man because he can literally observe his body signs of arousal, sex researchers are not sure.
But now we have found the “cuddle hormone,” oxytocin, which is found only in mammals and seems to create a cascade of pleasure, comfort and calm. Researchers discovered the power of oxytocin when they compared the mating habits of two different kinds of voles. In one species, prairie voles, males and females are monogamous, rear their young together and form lifelong bonds; in the other, males and females take the one-night-stand approach. The faithful rodents, it turns out, produce oxytocin, their promiscuous meadow vole cousins do not. However, when scientists give monogamous voles a chemical that counteracts oxytocin, these little guys have sex but don’t bond with their partners. And when researchers give the same voles extra oxytocin, they bond tightly whether they mate or not!
In humans, oxytocin is released when we are close to an attachment figure, especially during moments of heightened emotion, such as orgasm and breast-feeding. Kerstein Uvnas-Moberg, a neuroendocrinologist, discovered that merely thinking about loved ones can trigger a hit of oxytocin. Studies tell us that giving humans oxytocin increases the tendency to trust and interact with others. So, of course this neurochemical love potion honed by millions of years of evolution is just waiting to be turned into a pill, right? No, actually, its been turned into a nasal spray, but there still seem to be some problems with it. Too many people were walking into doors with the spray stuck up their nose – no sorry – just a joke. Too many people were falling in love with their pharmacist? But once they get it figured out, well, love is just a spray away!!! Maybe.
But what about a commitment pill? A Swedish study by Hasse Walum has found that when a gene, gene 1a to be precise, that is associated with the existence of vasopressin (cousin to oxytocin but found more in men) receptors is inserted into the usually philandering meadow voles brains they become more cuddly and prefer their familiar lady to a “new” partner. In humans, men who were found to have only a variant form of this gene ( not 1a) reported having more relationship difficulties and were less likely to be married. So, it’s obvious, make a pill containing the regular gene and, viola, you have turned James Bond into Mr Rogers, a committed homebody.
All this is fascinating and fun. And dangerous. In a new issue of Nature, a neuroscientist, Dr Young, summarizes some of this research and reports an ongoing study on whether folks could take a shot of oxytocin to help them in their couple therapist’s office. Other commentators have begun to suggest that this new focus on genetics and neuroscience offers us a grand theory of love.
First off, I learned in science 101 that genes simply set you up; they have to be turned on by specific environmental cues. They are never the main or the only actor. Second, love is multifaceted and way too complex to be reduced to a chemical reaction. Third, last time I checked, I was not a prairie vole. Fourth, Walum did in fact acknowledge that the effect of this gene variant on human behavior was rather small. I also have this image of a man having taken his Gene 1a commitment pill, telling his wife he is feeling committed as she pushes him away and smacks him with, “That’s just the pills talking”.
But more importantly, this new chemistry is just one small part of the real new theory of love which is very grand indeed, includes hundreds of breakthrough studies and does what Walum acknowledges chemistry cannot do – it reliably predicts human behavior in love relationships. I am speaking of attachment theory. This theory looks at adult love as being very similar to the love between a mother and child and it has already revolutionized couple therapy. Studies tell us that couple therapy grounded in this theory moves 7 out of 10 distressed couples into recovery, and the evidence is that this recovery lasts. As a couple therapist, I don’t need a bottle of pills to give my clients. I now know how to help my clients learn to interact and connect in a way that seems to create that same calm sense of safe connection and trust that is linked to oxytocin, in a sense, to turn on each others oxytocin. We don’t need a pill to simulate one small part of love – we know how to create the whole kit and kaboodle – the real thing!