Can a Love Drug Save Your Marriage?

Cuddle hormone oxytocin used in couples therapy

Has that loving feeling gone MIA between you and your spouse? Having a hard time connecting or seeing eye-to-eye? What you might be missing, according to some marriage counselors, is a good shot of oxytocin, the so-called cuddle hormone.

According to local news reports, Matt French, owner of the Wellness Solutions Clinic in Glendale, Ariz., has started treating people in marriage counseling with a daily dose of oxytocin, in hopes of promoting love and trust between couples. If people are having intimacy issues, he says, this could be due to low levels of oxytocin the body. Couples take what he calls a bio-identical form of the hormone, in the form of a dissolvable oral strip, while working to resolve their issues in therapy.

Oxytocin is best known as a bonding hormone -- it’s secreted during labor, breastfeeding, cuddling and sex, and plays a role in nurturing, maternal behavior. Though studies have found that oxytocin can reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol in arguing couples and engender compassion for trustworthy individuals, its reputation isn’t all warm and fuzzy.

High levels of oxytocin might be associated with blissed-out experiences like cuddling with a newborn or having an orgasm, but they’re also linked with stressful situations, like social isolation and unhappy relationships. This has led some researchers to wonder if the hormone plays dual roles in the body. Oxytocin doesn’t always fuel feel-good camaraderie between people -- it can arouse suspicion and mistrust as well. A recent study shows that men who had a rocky relationship with their mom growing up felt even more distant and cold toward her after taking oxytocin, while those with close maternal bonds remembered their mother more fondly. This suggests that oxytocin may be an emotional enhancer, for better or for worse.

Psychologist Beate Ditzen, Ph.D. at the University of Zurich is the lead author of the study of oxytocin in couples while arguing. She found that those who received treatment exhibited significantly more positive behavior, such as listening, confirming or laughing during the conflict, compared to those getting a placebo. Basically, it helped couples fight fairly. This would seem to be of great use in marital counseling, where husbands and wives must regularly address difficult issues. Still, when we asked Ditzen what she thought of French’s oxytocin-augmented therapy, she expressed concern about its safety and skepticism regarding its effectiveness.

Currently, oxytocin is available by prescription (Pitocin) to help induce labor and stimulate breast-milk production only. “Marketed drugs undergo multiple phases of rigorous testing before they receive approval,” says Ditzen. Since French is using a variation of the drug that has never been tested in this formula and for this kind of use, there is no evidence that it is safe or effective. “To me, it seems strange and almost dangerous to use a preparation of the drug which is not the marketed medication. I personally would be very cautious to use the drug [in this manner],” says Ditzen. 

Widespread use of oxytocin in therapy may be a long time off -- if it even happens at all. The effects of long-term use in people is still unknown, says Ditzen. And, as more and more studies come out about the hormone darling, we get a bigger picture that suggests what we know about oxytocin is similar to what we know about love -- it’s complicated. 

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