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Treating Heartbreak With a Pill

Instead of comforting a friend after a break up with ice cream and a movie, bioethicist Brian D. Earp foresees the possibility of an anti-love drug, which could nip those regretful feelings in the bud.

Drawing on research in neuroscience, endocrinology, and psychology, he anticipates a toned down version of the chemical castration cocktail that is offered to pedophiles today. His paper isn’t science-fiction speculation; he cites antidepressants and other existing drugs that could be repurposed for their anti-romantic side effects.

Earp subdivides love into three components: lust (the desire to have sex with the beloved), attraction (frequent, even obsessive thoughts about the beloved), and attachment (feeling of security with the beloved, anxiety without), and puts together a literature review of possible interventions to short-circuit any of these feelings or a combination thereof.

Omitted from Earp’s taxonomy of love is agape—the love that desires nothing above the good of the beloved, and does not require anything in return. Earp’s interventions all focus on suppressing or dampening the experience of lust, attraction, or attachment, but not on sublimating them into an expression of the higher love of agape. If a patient chose to forgo medical treatment, Earp imagines he or she would address the problem by “focusing on the loved one’s faults, … deleting all of her emails,” still focusing on expunging love rather than transfiguring it.

Among the pathological loves Earp lists that might merit these medical erasures are:

  • Romantic love for someone other than one’s spouse.
  • Love of a battered woman or man for the abuser.
  • Unrequited love that leads to despair or suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
  • Incestuous love.
  • Love for a cult leader

In these circumstances, and others like them, Earp concludes that “the individual, voluntary use of anti-love biotechnology … could be justified or even morally required.” Earp circumscribes this moral imperative to mean that it would be morally wrong to interfere with a person choosing treatment, not that it would be immoral to refuse it, but it is worth noting that most of the examples that Earp cites are ones where the lover would not want to take the drugs, at least initially.

An individual’s choice will be shaped by the soft coercion of friends, family, and society deciding it’s finally time to intervene. Just as voluntary euthanasia has drawn criticism for the potential for weak groups (women, the elderly, the disabled) to feel pressured to die “altruistically” so as not to become a burden, anti-love drugs might create a new social responsibility for the romantically bereft to take their medicine and move on.

In an essay for Modern Love, divorcée Candida Pugh describes a kind of “closure” that presages Earp’s new pharmacological regime. In her divorce support group, Pugh feels more peaceful when she views her sadness as her own responsibility.

A redheaded woman, quite young, seethed. Whenever she spoke, her face twisted in rage. She couldn’t believe he had left her. Who did he think he was to leave her?

It came to me as a revelation, one of those truisms that strike with lightning clarity when you’re hiding in the dark. While she ranted, I realized that her husband, and mine, had the right to leave us. Everyone has that right, however much it may hurt the one left.

In Pugh’s framework, the only obligation that marriage confers is a duty not to let your grief interfere with your partner’s choice to leave. The burden is on her to salve her wounds, not on her spouse to refrain from inflicting them. Erasing her husband’s responsibility and reframing her feelings as a matter of her own control (and thus culpability) may make her feel more powerful, but it weakens the institution of marriage and the weight of the promises she was meant to rely on, instead of only her own resilience.

If the drugs that Earp identifies wind up commonly prescribed—off-label or officially—as a cure for heartbreak, they may wind up conferring herd immunity to love and commitment. The easier a break-up becomes, and the more it becomes the responsibility of the jilted party to get over it, the looser the bonds of any relationship will be.

about the author

Leah Libresco Sargeant is the author of two books: Arriving at Amen and Building the Benedict Option. Her writing has appeared in The American Interest, First Things, and The Washington Post. You can follow her at leahlibresco.com.

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