Would you take a pill to get over someone?

Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey in the 2004 movie <i>Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind</i>.

Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey in the 2004 movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

“Cry in the shower, where no-one can see you.”

That was about the sum total of advice I got from my mates when my four year relationship ended.

As unhelpful as that advice was, I don’t think I heard anything better. All break up advice sucks when you’re broken up.  “Time heals all wounds” is as bad as “you’re better off without them anyway.” At least the guidance I got was practical.

Unfortunately, humans haven’t worked out a way to hand down emotional understanding the same way we do knowledge. So when you do go through a break up, you just have to suffer like everybody else in history, listening to the platitudes of others and kidding yourself that they couldn’t possibly understand.


But what if there was a better way to get over getting dumped than listening to Band of Horses on repeat and eating ice cream out of the tub? What if you could just take a pill and be fine?

It’s closer to reality than you might think. Doctors already prescribe anti-depressants in the short term for people dealing with extreme grief. Now Evil Scientists have also carried out the world’s most heartbreaking research on voles, who are unbearably cute and usually mate for life.

When the voles seemed to be forming a pair bond, the scientists injected oxytocin blockers directly into the nucleus accumbens, the part of the brain that controls trust, bonding and the enjoyment of romantic comedies. After that, the voles “just wanted to be friends.”

Ah well, there are plenty more voles in the sea. Of course the whole “direct brain injection” thing means it hasn’t been tried on humans yet. Not that there’d be a shortage of people willing to take try it out.

You can even imagine the infomercials. “Hello, I’m Howard Mierzwiak, founder and president of Lacuna Incorporated,” says actor Tom Wilkinson in Michel Gondry’s prescient science fiction brainmelter Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. “Why remember a destructive love affair? Here at Lacuna we have perfected a safe and effective technique for the focused erasure of troubling memories. ” 

Dave, an engineer in his mid 20s, decided that he’d try and stick with his girlfriend when she moved to regional Australia for work. But after six months, the stress of a long distance relationship proved too much. He’s still feeling the effects of their break up more than a year later.

“It didn’t really hit me for a couple of months, but when I started dating other girls I started to miss her a lot and I realised how special she was,” says Dave. “From there it just got worse, it hurt a lot.”

“If I had another heavy break up and it was there, I’d seriously consider taking a break up drug. It’s like the flu, if you had the flu a couple of times a year you’d go and get a shot for it.”

There are those out there, however, who’d argue that heartache ends up being a constructive experience, despite the pain. After the fact, most people who’ve endured a broken heart see themselves as different and stronger.

If you erased the sorrow and self-reflection inherent in a break up, you might end up making the same relationship mistakes again and again. Think of Kirsten Dunst’s character in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, falling in love over and over again with Tom Wilkinson’s character – who’s an older, married guy. But because she undergoes the procedure she never learns from her mistakes; never learns that her romance will not end well and instead keeps going for the same type of guy. Surely people who go through breakups learn, (or learn eventually) that the certain type of person they’re attracted to is, in the end, bad for them.

Philosophers are divided on the prospect of using pharmaceuticals and other artificial biological enhancements. So called bio-liberals see no issue with the use of drugs in everyday situations, and even enhancing people that don’t have problems. On the other side of the fence, bio-conservatives are wary of medicalising life away.

“The question is:  What exactly are the benefits of going through that suffering without having it treated in some way?” says Professor Michael Selgelid, the Director of the Centre for Human Bioethics at Monash University. “Suffering can sometimes be instrumentally valuable; they do say ‘no pain no gain’, but in some contexts it’s not true. And maybe it’s more true for some people than others.”

Selgelid, who casts himself as a bio-moderate, says that there are no easy answers to the prospect of break up drugs. He suggests that the use of such chemicals would require analysis on a case by case basis.

There’s also the question of consent. Are you really in your right mind after you’ve been dumped? A quick look over my old emails reveals the answer is ‘probably not’.

“You can imagine cases where a patient going through a major break up might not be able to make fully rational, autonomous choices and therefore might not be able to give informed consent,” says Professor Selgelid. “In cases like that somebody else needs to make a decision for them.”

One can imagine a future where doctors or social workers might even have to make decisions about anti-love drugs for people in abusive relationships, or to break the spell of a charismatic cult leader.

That scenario throws up even more problems – how do you decide whether someone is abusive, or merely a dickhead? If you’ve experienced the helplessness of having a best friend go out with a deadbeat then you’ll recognise the potential, and temptation, for misuse.

Star Wars would have been a lot different, and a lot more disturbing, if Luke had decided to put something in Han’s drink to ward him off Princess Leia.

If and when break up drugs hit pharmacy shelves, it’s not going to be philosophers who make decisions about them. The time will come when bio-ethics are a hot button political issue.

 I, for one, won’t be voting for anyone who married their childhood sweetheart.

Follow Alex on Twitter at @axmcc


  • Funny that I have thought about that kind of a pill years ago thinking would it be great if I just took a pill and make it as I have never been in a relationship with that particular ex at the time, but when I think about it now I do not regret any of my passed relationships as I have always learned something from them. I know break ups are hard but the way it I see it whatever doesn’t kill it will make you stronger and now looking back at it all it has made me strong person.

    Winter snow girl
    Date and time
    March 01, 2013, 11:04AM
    • Modern day SSRI's pretty much do similar, I have no drive to pair up full-stop. It sure has made life simpler, but a little less exciting at times too.

      Date and time
      March 01, 2013, 11:25AM
      • The first thing I did after my recent break-up was hop in the shower for a bit of a cry; it was therapeutic. In those first few weeks I would have happily taken a pill to wipe away all those thoughts and memories; unfortunately a bad end taints all the good memories. But it gets easier week by week, and if we erased it all, how would we learn from our experiences?

        Date and time
        March 01, 2013, 11:59AM
        • Eternal Sunshine utterly smashed my soul after my last breakup, but in a good way. As I sobbed like an idiot through half of the movie, what hit me most was Joels desperate clinging to the good memories, "no don't take that one" - and that's how I see it.

          I don't harbor any ill will to my ex at all. I've not spoken to her in 5 years but I wish her well regardless. I would've learnt nothing if I were to make those memories disappear, doesn't sound very healthy to me.

          Date and time
          March 01, 2013, 12:51PM
          • I can see the potential benefits of using such medicines in cases of abusive relationships or extreme grief (though the thought of erasing emotions and memories associated with a deceased loved one is very sad to me). But in terms of your everyday break-up, I think it could be very dangerous. I agree we could end up medicalising normal emotions and life events and robbing people of necessary life experience. Also, as a poet, to me some of the beauty of love lies in the exquisite pain it can cause, but I realise not many feel that way.

            Date and time
            March 01, 2013, 12:53PM
            • I advocate valium. As someone with 4 kids and a failed marriage, I am very miserable and valium takes the edge off - especially at night time. This is the only time I take it, once the kids are in bed. I find nighttimes the hardest in terms of feeling emotional pain because once the business of the day is over with, the physical exhaustion sets in and the brain registers the loneliness and rejection and humiliation. Taking valium numbs out the process. I strongly recommend it for those who feel the same.

              Date and time
              March 01, 2013, 3:18PM
              • “Suffering can sometimes be instrumentally valuable; they do say ‘no pain no gain’, but in some contexts it’s not true. And maybe it’s more true for some people than others.”

                It's good to see recognition of the utter personal devastation a break-up can cause for some of us, and that deeply experienced pain and prolonged suffering isn't always - if, indeed, ever - inherently valuable as some form of cognitive fertilizer for 'personal growth'. For some of us, such a destructive experience defines us forever afterwards, and not for the better.

                Date and time
                March 01, 2013, 3:29PM
                • Taking a pill to wipe out any kind of memories is not the way to go about healing yourself.
                  If we start picking and choosing what we want to remember, we won't learn the lesson which comes with the situation we have found ourselves in. We also won't learn how to break the patterning which keeps us tied to those situations. With time, counselling and complementary therapies we can overcome the pain and awfulness of a situation and make it a positive experience.

                  We can also learn how to not have unhealthy emotional attachments to situations or people in our llives ie change and unlearn the behaviour we have been taught is ok.

                  In the end what does not kill us, serves to make us stronger. We may just need to learn new ways of dealing with situations.

                  Date and time
                  March 01, 2013, 3:47PM
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