Why you should care
Because the potential benefit for couples is perhaps something science should go back to.
[Denise and Blake] find themselves as youngsters in fresh young love, and explore the various dimensions of courtship. They are enthralled with each other and deeply connected.… Later, Blake experiences Jesus, Buddha and other dignitaries joining them and supporting them.
That’s the story of a troubled couple finding that they could reconnect (and become higher beings, but that might have been the drugs) as a result of an ecstasy-fueled therapy session. It’s also just one of the accounts recorded by Myron Stolaroff, a pioneering researcher who studied the benefits of MDMA (aka ecstasy). In the 1970s, a decade before U.S. law cracked down on MDMA as a Schedule I drug (classing it as offering no medical value and presenting a high risk of abuse), dozens of therapists used it to help people in troubled marriages relate to each other differently and rediscover their love.
While it’s now mostly known as a rave drug, MDMA has long been famous for opening the mind, allowing users to see the world with greater generosity and love. Which is, admittedly, exactly what you need when navigating a long-term relationship, one that may be beset by stressors and lacking the early euphoria of infatuation.
MDMA was first synthesized in Germany in 1912 during a search for a drug to stop bleeding, but it remained largely ignored and there’s no evidence it was tested on humans before the 1960s. Even then it failed to make much of an impact until American biochemist Alexander Shulgin rediscovered it in the ’70s and turned doctors and therapists on to its potential. Before the U.S. government nixed further use, some estimate that half a million therapeutic doses had been administered. That included couples and individuals who took the drug to get to know themselves better or to boost creativity.
Before MDMA was made illegal, in 1985, a study was conducted; it was published in 1986. The study found that subjects who were couples who had taken the drug resolved personal issues and enjoyed enhanced communication with each other, which in some cases lasted for years.
While MDMA hasn’t had the image rehabilitation of marijuana, or even of mushrooms, some continue to advocate for more research to be done. They point, for example, to recent studies showing that MDMA can be useful in treating post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety.
People found themselves more empathetic, receptive and emotional in the relationship long after the drug trip had stopped firing their neurotransmitters.
And the potential benefit for couples is perhaps something science should go back to. “[People on MDMA] don’t have the same level of fear response. They feel more relaxed, so they can tell each other things they might not otherwise be able to talk about,” says Katie Anderson, a lecturer at Middlesex University who has studied MDMA use in couples therapy. During her research, Anderson has spoken not only with couples who professed love or became engaged while on MDMA but also those who worked through more difficult moments, discussing open relationships or sexual fantasies they had previously been reluctant to talk about. “There was one couple who spoke about infidelity, and this came out when they were on MDMA together,” Anderson says. “So it’s not always this beautiful, serene utopian space … but pretty much everyone I spoke to said that even if difficult things have come up, they were glad.” Some couples talked about cleaning their apartments, lighting candles and setting aside time to take the drug together to enhance their experience — date night, but with psychedelics. One of Anderson’s interviewees likened it to a “really amazing, once-in-a-lifetime holiday.”
In fact, Anderson says, many of the people she talked with found themselves more empathetic, receptive and emotional in the relationship long after the drug trip had stopped firing their neurotransmitters. “I learned so much from these conversations with couples,” she says. “I took lots of these things away with me and used it to improve my own relationships.”
MDMA-based treatments for PTSD are currently in Phase III trials, and the next step — if the trials are successful — will be a push for the Drug Enforcement Administration to reclassify MDMA from a Schedule I to a Schedule III drug, meaning it would be roughly on par with Tylenol No. 3 (with codeine) and could be prescribed as medicine. That could happen as soon as 2021 — meaning the 2020s could potentially bring couples therapy back to the past.
“It definitely looks like it will become federally approved in the States [to treat PTSD],” says Anderson. “But in terms of any other uses, I really don’t know. I can’t see it.”
We’ll keep an open mind.