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SSRIs And Your Love Life


Not feeling it? Maybe it’s your antidepressant. Dr. Helen Fisher explains her theory on how SSRIs might affect not only your sex drive, but your ability to form lasting romantic bonds with others.

By Theo Pauline Nestor

r. Helen Fisher, author of Why Him? Why Her? How to Find and Keep Lasting Love and Chief Scientific Advisor for Chemistry.com, tells the story of a young man who fell out of love, or so he thought. He was in love with his girlfriend but having trouble in school, so his doctor put him on an antidepressant — an SSRI, to be exact. Not long
I thought I was crazy. I lost my sex drive.
after he began taking the medication, this man realized that he no longer loved his girlfriend and broke up with her. A few months later, he went off the pills and realized he did, in fact, still love his girlfriend. He went to the florist and gathered the biggest bunch of roses he could carry and went to her house and said, “I think it was the pills. Will you take me back?” Luckily, she did.

This story, says Dr. Fisher, is not an isolated case. Since publishing an article in 2007 on the impact serotonin-enhancing antidepressants have on such things as lust, romance and attachment, she’s received scores of emails from readers like the young man referenced above who share similar stories — stories that support Fisher’s hypothesis that SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) may inhibit our ability to both fall in love and stay in love. “I’ve gotten many, many emails that say, ‘Thank you. I thought I was crazy. I lost my sex drive. I lost interest in my boyfriend,’” says Fisher.

Fisher’s research on the brain and love describes three distinct systems of neural activity that are associated with mating, reproduction and parenting — the sex drive, the drive to love and the drive to attach to another human being. While the impact SSRIs have on the sex drive is well-documented — up to 73 percent of patients report some loss of sexual interest and/or ability — Fisher contends that taking an SSRI also impacts the drives we have to love and form attachments, which can negatively affect every area of your love life, from mate selection to showing a partner how much you care. When you take SSRIs, “your interest in a mate declines,” says Fisher. “You’re blunting a system that is designed to get you to pay attention to all sorts of details. When this signaling device is jeopardized, the perfect mate might come up to you and you might miss this opportunity.”

The dulling impact of SSRI-based medications may also thwart a relationship in its early, crucial stages. “You are assessing how someone looks, talks, how amusing he or she is,” says Fisher. “And once again, if you’ve killed the emotions and you’re not responding to them with a whole brain, you’ve crippled your ability to assess this person properly and fully. Things bother you that might not otherwise bother you. Or you might be indifferent.” Elevated activity in the serotonin system, Fisher explains, also lessens the desire for exploratory activity, such as meeting
You’re less likely to go out and try something new, check out new places.
new people or dating. “You’re less likely to go out and try something new, check out new places. And if you’re stuck in your routine, you’re not going to jump-start that partnership.”

The emotion-blunting quality of serotonin-enhancing medications might also interrupt one’s ability to both recognize and enjoy the feelings that naturally occur with a new romantic love. Some of the hallmark traits of romantic interest — obsessive thinking and elation, for example — may also be suppressed by these drugs, making it difficult for one to experience the full sensation of falling in love. “We know that romantic love is associated with an elevated activity of dopamine — which is associated with ecstasy, intense energy, sleeplessness, craving and emotional dependence — and that serotonin suppresses the dopamine system,” says Fisher.

Fisher hypothesizes that not only might these drugs suppress one’s ability to fall in love, but they might also limit our capacity to stay in love. The well-documented dampening effects SSRIs have on the human sex drive may also negatively impact a person’s ability to experience feelings of attachment to a long-term partner. “It goes like this,” explains Fisher, “with orgasm there is a flood of oxytocin and vasopressin, hormones which are associated with attachment. If you’re taking SSRIs, which have been found to lessen the sex drive in the majority of people, you are killing the sex drive and you’re killing a regular injection of attachment drugs.”

But is there a lesser of two evils here? One can’t help but wonder if it is better to be depressed and deal with the impact it has on your relationship or to risk having your relationship affected by the use of certain medications. “I’m not talking about people who are truly depressed,” Fisher clarifies. “I’m worried about people who stay on these drugs after the depression lifts.” Fisher also points out that there are antidepressants available that are not serotonin-enhancing medications. If you’re worried, talk to your doctor about other treatment options that might be as effective as the medication you’re on now.


Theo Pauline Nestor is the author of How to Sleep Alone in King-Size Bed: A Memoir of Starting Over and a regular contributor to Happen magazine.
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