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Married at First Sight

By Michael Cook

Reality TV has added a fresh perspective to the bioethical debate about the use of love drugs.

In the United States and Denmark, a reality TV show called Married at First Sight has been an unexpected hit. In what the production company bills as “an extreme social experiment”, three couples meet their spouses for the very first time when they walk down the aisle on their wedding day.

After being legally married with splendid gowns and lots of confetti, they have 1 month to decide whether they will continue or file for divorce.

Risky? Of course – otherwise it would hardly be “compelling watching”. But the producers say that a sexologist, a spiritualist, a psychologist and a sociologist have studied the bride and groom to give them the best possible match.

After the first American season, two couples were still together. The third couple split up: the sexual chemistry was there, but the relationship foundered on his lack of generosity.

Who would ever volunteer for such an experiment? Apparently people battered by unhappy childhoods and bruised by past relationship failures. Perhaps the producers’ promise of constant counselling gave them a last glimmer of hope.

All of which is an introduction to an idea floated by bio­ethicist Julian Savulescu and two of his colleagues at Oxford University, Brian D. Earp and Anders Sandberg. Their recent article in the Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics makes the case for latter-day love potions.

Neuroscience research, they say, has shown that love is essentially “an emergent property of a cocktail of ancient neuro­peptides and neurotransmitters”. If this is the case, drugs could be used to enhance or diminish romantic relationships.

One promising candidate as a love potion is the hormone oxytocin. When injected into the brain of a small North American mammal called a prairie vole, they form lifelong pair bonds. When an oxytocin blocker is injected, voles split up and look for new sexual partners. Savulescu et al. have been heartened by this experience.

“Although ‘love’ is not simply reducible to these brain chemicals or pathways,” they write, “what is clear by now is that these underlying phenomena do much to shape (as well as to respond to) our higher-order romantic experiences, across a wide range of theoretical conceptions”.

Savulescu’s ideas have provoked much comment among bioethicists. One of the strongest objections to latter-day love potions is that the love would not be “authentic”. People who used drugs to bewitch a partner – or to allow themselves to be bewitched – would need a crutch to participate in the most important dimension of their lives.

But our bioethicists dismiss this. “If the administration of certain love drugs turns out to be effective in promoting states of mind and behavioural dispositions that are conducive to a healthy relationship, then couples may simply have an additional tool at hand to help them pursue their higher-order inter-personal aims.”

Until now, relationship-enhancing drugs were just a bizarre fantasy drawn from Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World. But Married at First Sight suggests that a demand for such products exists. Some people have had life experiences so terrible that they will do anything to have a chance at lifelong happiness – even propping it up with love potions.

At this point, though, we need to ask whether the bioethicists really understand what love is. The Greeks had three words for “love”, not just one. These were philia, the love of friendship; agape, selfless, disinterested love; and eros, passionate physical love. The team at Oxford appears to assume that eros is the summit of love.

But most people’s experience belies this. It is not the sexual chemistry of eros that sustains and nourishes high-quality, stable marriages, but the commitment of agape.

Contemporary social science seems to bear this out. Last year in the Journal of Marriage and Family, W. Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia and Jeffrey Dew at Utah State University reported that they had studied the experiences of 2700 adults and found that “(a) small acts of kindness … (b) expressions of respect, (c) displays of affection, and (d) forgiveness” substantially increased marital quality, decreased the probability of conflict and diminished their fears of divorce. They summed up these qualities in the word “generosity”.

This is why Savulescu’s ideas are likely to catch on, except perhaps for participants in Married at First Sight. Pfizer made a motza out of its drug for eros; will it ever make a drug for agape? I doubt it.

Michael Cook is editor of the bioethics newsletter BioEdge.