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Does your relationship need a 'love drug'?

By Ian Kerner, CNN Contributor
updated 7:13 AM EDT, Thu July 11, 2013
Could a spritz of the
Could a spritz of the "cuddle hormone," oxytocin, help liven up your relationship?
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Oxytocin may rekindle loving feelings toward your partner
  • But, experts say, it's better to learn to rekindle those feelings on your own
  • Some research shows oxytocin's benefits may not be totally positive

Editor's note: Ian Kerner, a sexuality counselor and New York Times best-selling author, writes about sex and relationships for CNN Health. Read more from him on his website, Good In Bed.

(CNN) -- It's a Saturday night. You get the kids to bed, wash the dishes and plop down on the couch for a marathon of reality TV. Across the room, your partner is engrossed in his or her iPad.

Later, you give each other a chaste kiss good night, roll over and go to sleep.

On one hand, you wish the magic of your heady early days would return. On the other, you're not sure if you really care that much anymore.

It's a scene so typical in many marriages and long-term relationships that it's no wonder only an estimated 37% of couples say they're still very happy together.

Ian Kerner
Ian Kerner

But what are your options? Divorce? Therapy? How about a "love drug" guaranteed to keep you both content?

That's the premise of a recent report in Current Opinion in Psychiatry that examined the implications of a potential pharmaceutical drug aimed at keeping couples happy and in love.

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Surveys suggest that humans may not be meant to stay in lifelong, monogamous relationships: Roughly half of all marriages end in divorce, while up to 72% of husbands and 52% of wives cop to cheating on their spouses.

Yet many couples want to remain married, despite the potential problems. Based on this concept, researchers at the University of Oxford considered what might happen if couples had access to an intranasal spray containing oxytocin.

Oxytocin is the "cuddle hormone" that's released during childbirth, nursing and orgasm, resulting in feelings of closeness, bonding and connection. Could a spritz of liquid oxytocin have the same effects on your romantic relationship? Some research suggests that it might.

For example, one study published last year in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience found that, of 47 couples, those who sniffed oxytocin before discussing a disagreement were more likely to react positively toward each other than those who used a placebo spray. Such a product, say the authors of the more recent report, could be used under the direction of therapists and other clinicians to "enhance marital well-being."

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Yet other evidence suggests that the effects of this hormone may not always be so beneficial: In some research, oxytocin was found to amplify negative memories, while studies of the prairie vole -- one of few animals that remain in lifelong relationships, presumably because of its high levels of oxytocin -- show that this critter is also prone to infidelity. When it comes to supplemental oxytocin, there are ethical issues to consider, too.

"Pharmaceutical companies are pushing the medical approach because it's profitable, while doctors and patients are increasingly demanding medications because taking a pill or using a spray is cheaper and 'easier' than therapy," said social psychologist Justin Lehmiller. "I'm uncomfortable with the notion that the key to solving relationship problems is taking a drug."

Of course, that hasn't stopped manufacturers from jumping on the bandwagon: Safe or not, a slew of oxytocin-based products are for sale, no prescription necessary. Aimed at improving relationships between partners and supposedly increasing attraction among strangers, these products are pricey -- and unproven.

Instead, I recommend boosting oxytocin naturally. It could be as easy as simply giving each other a nice long squeeze. In her book "The Female Brain," Dr. Louann Brizendine says that hugging your partner for 20 seconds or more has been shown to trigger the release of oxytocin.

Added Lehmiller, "If couples make an active effort to be more intimate and touch each other more often, they can likely boost their oxytocin levels without the aid of a drug. It's also likely that enhancing intimacy in this way will do more good for your relationship in the long run than any pill ever could."

You'll save your money -- and maybe your relationship, too.

Relationship, sex issues: What would you do?

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