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Fending Off Divorce

Almost half of all marriages end in divorce--is there anything that can be done about this?

Researchers have come up with an incredible idea: A new kind of "love drug" that can heal wounded relationships. It will in the form an inhaler and be prescribed by a relationship counselor. You'd sniff it in the presence of your loved one and, as the chemical entered your bloodstream, it would strengthen your bond.

Such a drug would contain doses of two structurally similar hormones: oxytocin and vasopressin. Scientists know this because of the study of voles: Prairie voles tend to be monogamous while their cousins, the mountain voles, are usually not. This contrast makes them valuable subjects for research.

In the February 8th edition of the Guardian, Will Storr quotes psychologist Sue Carter as saying, "In prairie voles, a combination of oxytocin and vasopressin is necessary in order for a pair bond to form. Not one or the other, both. (But) we're walking a razor's edge in the body's use of these hormones."

Storr quotes psychologist Jennifer Bartz as saying, "Even if oxytocin is doing something at a very basic level to increase someone's desire to connect with another person, you may get a very different response depending on their expectations of that connection and the ways in which they usually connect with other people."

And vasopressin? "(While) oxytocin is important for passive behaviors (such as hugging), vasopressin is part of the active coping system," Sue Carter says. "It's been implicated in an animal defending its babies. It's there to protect us and those we love. If that system gets driven too far, it can possibly create an overly defensive, hyper vigilant state and under those conditions we have what humans might call jealousy. Jealousy tends to be destructive, both to the lover and the loved one."

Storr quotes psychologist Anders Sandberg as saying, "I saw how difficult relationships are, how they change and how powerless you are. The experience made me think, how can intelligent people, very confident people, end up in these situations? I said to myself, 'Let's see what science and psychology have to tell us about love and relationship break-up.'"

Storr quotes psychologist Julian Savulescu as saying, "In my previous relationships, I'd been a passive passenger of the emotions. And I realized, you can be an active participant."

Both men were shocked by how little good science there was. "It's quite telling," Sandberg says. "There's a monthly journal about coughing, there are three or four about sleeping, but none about love."

Long-term relationships are problematic for modern humans, because we aren't built for them. We've evolved to successfully procreate, not to enjoy deathless romance. During our long Pleistocene hunter-gatherer existence, life expectancy was about 30 years. This means that, assuming we paired off as teenagers, for the great majority of our species' history, at least half of all relationships would have ended within 15 years.

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