Oxford ethicist promotes MDMA to combat divorce
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In an interview in the Atlantic, Oxford ethicist Brian Earp proposes the idea that MDMA - and in fact, a battery of other substances as well - might have a role to play in keeping marriages together. You know, for the children. An excerpt:
For another example, consider the widespread use of Viagra to treat male impotence, a problem that prevents some couples, especially older couples, from having sex. Lack of sex reduces oxytocin levels, and reduced oxytocin levels can degrade a couple's romantic bond. If a drug-based treatment could help the couple restore a healthy sex life, this could improve their chances of sustaining a well-functioning relationship.
Beate Ditzen and her colleagues at the University of Zurich have shown that oxytocin nasal spray can facilitate positive communication--and reduce stress levels--in romantic couples engaged in an argument. Oxytocin, sometimes called the "love hormone" for its role in sustaining mother-infant and romantic attachment bonds, increased the ratio of positive to negative communication behaviors and facilitated a drop in cortisol levels after the conflict. These factors have been shown to play a major role in predicting long-term relationship survival. While commentators like Ed Yong have recently emphasized that oxytocin can have a "dark side" as well--for example, by promoting in-group favoritism--the key is to figure out which people, which situations, and which ways of administering the hormone will maximize its effectiveness and minimize any troubling side-effects. We're working on some research right now to sort these conditions out.
In earlier decades, MDMA (ecstasy) was sometimes used in couple's therapy to boost empathy and improve emotional communication skills. While this sort of use would be illegal today, there has been a recent resurgence of scientific interest in possible therapeutic uses of MDMA, for example to treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. More research is needed, of course, but there is no reason why it should not be carried out, carefully and ethically, with proper social, procedural, and legal safeguards in place.
Seems clear cut to us as well that society might benefit from having this kind of option available in the tool kit. Earp takes it further than we might have considered, however:
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. One way to do this, of course, would be to attend couple's therapy and see if the relationship problems could be meaningfully resolved through "traditional" methods. But what if this strategy isn't working? 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. Of course, we aren't suggesting that anyone should be forced to take love drugs--or any drugs--against their will. But we do think that when children are involved, the stakes become higher for finding a workable solution to relationship difficulties between the parents.
Interesting. Personally I have zero perspective on this issue as the child of multiple divorces with no children of my own on the horizon. Obviously he's not suggesting any kind of forced intake of so-called "love drugs." But if MDMA were a legal option and something that therapists recommended, what do you think would happen to the divorce rate?
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