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