OPINION: Fighting all the time? No interest in intimacy? If you're having trouble with affairs of the heart, the answer may lie north of your heart. In your nasal passages.
That, at least, is the theory of a group of researchers led by Olga A. Wudarczyk from Oxford University's Centre for Neuroethics.
In a recent paper to be published in a forthcoming edition of Current Opinion in Psychiatry, Wudarczyk and her colleagues argue that increasing levels of neuropeptides - particularly synthetic oxytocin delivered via a nasal spray - might "improve the quality of romantic relationships".
The researchers suggest that administering the so-called "love drug" oxytocin, alongside marriage counselling, could be used to improve romantic relationships "so long as certain ethical and clinical-policy considerations are taken into account".
They are not recommending people start wearing it as perfume to improve their chance, but instead, suggest that snorting artificial oxytocin might "jump-start" the natural production of oxytocin in couples who are in a floundering relationship.
Call me a starry-eyed romantic, but if you have to snort a chemical so you can bear to be in the same room as the supposed love of your life, then that's a pretty good sign that IT WASN'T MEANT TO BE, PEOPLE!
Although, it's easy to see why the idea of improving relationships through chemicals might be seductive. It fits neatly with two modern obsessions: firstly, the quest for a quick-fix to anything complex, and secondly, the idea that human beings and their relationships can be reduced to a set of biological processes.
If you're in a messy relationship, then the promise of a single, precise, scientific solution is akin to a miracle cure. It's like choosing the Lemon Detox Diet rather than bothering to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
And why bother with the unpleasantness of dealing with the real cause of your unhappiness, when you can just snort a drug and voila!, you'll be transformed into a pair of love birds with puppy dog eyes, bonking like bunnies?
Aside from offering a quick fix, it also fits with that other modern obsession of biological reductionism. On this view, our selves, emotions, culture and everything else that makes life worth living are no more than byproducts of our chemical base - much as steam is the byproduct of boiling water.
While biological reductionism sounds terribly rational and scientific, it's the complete opposite. Science is about attending to the details and complex interaction of things, while biological reductionism simply wills humans to be nothing more than a set of chemical processes. It may be more convenient, but it is a refusal to face up to the complexities of life and being human.
And, we've seen this before. When Viagra was released it came with the promise of saving relationships; as if the answer to a satisfying emotional life for both men and women is a chemically-assisted hard-on. According to the theory, get his plumbing right, and his and her emotions would supposedly follow.
But experience showed otherwise. Research on the connection between relationship satisfaction and Viagra shows very little increase in relationship satisfaction. In fact, the opposite appears to be true: people's emotions seem to be the determining factor in the success or otherwise of Viagra in relationships.
The larger problem with biological reductionism is that you deny your own agency - and that of your partner. There could be very sound reasons for marital conflict, such as inequality, disrespect, abuse, or misalignment of values. Medicalising poor or just downright bad behaviour in a relationship risks excusing it as just a matter of chemical imbalance. Missing is any sense of personal responsibility.
Relationships, just like life, have seasons. In sickness and in health, in good times and bad. Redefining bad times as a medical problem rather than a normal life phase creates ridiculously high expectations for any relationship and denies couples and individuals the opportunity to grow.
It's often said that relationships take work. But surely the work shouldn't include mutual snorting of neuro-enhancements. If a relationship is held together with chemical supplements you have to question whether it is worth the effort.
- Kasey Edwards is the bestselling author of four books: 30-Something and Over It, 30-Something and The Clock is Ticking, OMG! That's Not My Husband, and OMG! That's Not My Child. www.kaseyedwards.com
- Fairfax Media
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