About two years ago, Mike*, 41, had an affair. Like many who stray, he was relatively happy in his marriage to his second wife, but there was an intangible something missing from the relationship. “There was a lot going on in our lives and we just weren’t connecting the way we had been,” Mike told Fatherly. “So I found someone outside of our marriage, specifically to do MDMA with.”
Although Mike wasn’t much of a drug user, he had experimented with MDMA a few times since college, mostly with an ex-girlfriend. For the most part, he’d found it enjoyable: “Lots of cigarettes, lots of pot, lots of touching one another, lots of warm showers.” But his wife had never done MDMA before, and Mike was fairly certain she wouldn’t want to try it. So he started rolling with another woman, which eventually led to them fooling around and having sex on MDMA.
What happened to Mike is what happens to many people who have affairs: he got caught. Mike immediately ended the affair, and he and his wife started a rigorous course of couples’ therapy, speaking to their therapist multiple times a week. Mike says the therapy helped to repair the marriage, but he also credits something else, the very thing that arguably prompted him to stray in the first place: MDMA. His wife wanted to know what he liked about it so much, so they decided to try it together.
The night that Mike and his wife rolled together was fairly tame. He says they primarily spent it “just talking, sitting together, and holding each other.” But it was enough to help kickstart the recovery process for both of them. “MDMA got us talking openly about what had happened and how we really felt about one another … the drug certainly helped to open up communication to get us on the path to healing.”
Mike is not alone in believing that his personal version of MDMA therapy helped, as he put it, “refresh” his relationship. Many couples struggling with relationship troubles have used the drug as a way to help reconnect, and they swear up and down that it can be an incredibly effective way to enhance communication and heighten intimacy. And it’s not just couples who believe this: A handful of researchers who have used the drug for decades in a therapeutic context do, too.
MDMA (or 3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine) goes by many names: primarily Molly and ecstasy, but those of a certain generation or cultural subset (re: those who really, really like jam bands) may know it as “scooby snacks” or “disco biscuits.” It’s perhaps best known as a club drug, as well as a substance used to heighten sexual arousal, hence, shows such as Orphan Black and Skins featuring MDMA-fueled five-ways and pajama-clad horny teens gyrating with each other.
Like most club substances, MDMA is a Schedule I drug, meaning that it is illegal to purchase and sell in the United States and has what the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) classifies as “a high potential for abuse.” What few realize about MDMA, however, is that wasn’t always the case. In fact, as recently as 1985, MDMA was both legal and used in a therapeutic context. First synthesized in Germany at the turn of the 20th century, MDMA was initially patented as a pharmaceutical treatment. In the 1970s, inspired by the work of psychopharmacologist and MDMA guru Alexander Shulgin, a fringe group of therapists looked to MDMA as a way to foster empathy and communication between partners.
“MDMA got us talking openly about what had happened and how we really felt about one another … the drug certainly helped to open up communication to get us on the path to healing.”
In 1998, psychiatrists George Greer and Requa Tolbert published a paper in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs documenting their experience using MDMA therapy during sessions with nearly 80 clients. During the sessions, couples were given MDMA, then listened to classical music such as Mahler and Beethoven while they waited for the drug to kick in. In their forthcoming book Love Drugs: The Chemical Future of Relationships Brian D. Earp and Julian Savulescu recount that, according to the paper, “about 90 percent of their clients benefitted from the MDMA therapy, with some reporting that they felt more love toward their partners and were better able to move beyond pointless grudges and past pains.”
In more recent years, FDA-regulated clinical trials in the U.S. have found that MDMA can prove beneficial for those who struggle with treatment-resistant post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“MDMA directly reduces activity in the amygdala, a brain region that helps regulate fear and anger and which is often overactive in PTSD patients,” says Brad Burge, communications director at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), which led the research team. “By reducing this activity, MDMA may help people feel less afraid of their traumatic memories, and therefore to be able to share them more comfortably with their therapists and partners.”
The drug also stimulates the release of “feel-good” hormones such as oxytocin, which are associated with feelings of trust, bonding, and intimacy. Despite MDMA’s reputation as an aphrodisiac of sorts, Burge denies that this plays a role in its function as a form of therapy. “Whether MDMA heightens sexual arousal depends on the context of its use,” he says. (For his part, Mike says that MDMA is functionally the opposite of a boner-inducer: “It’s rare that a man can get an erection without some kind of medication, and even rarer that a man can finish,” he says.)
“By reducing this activity, MDMA may help people feel less afraid of their traumatic memories, and therefore to be able to share them more comfortably with their therapists and partners.”
Given MDMA’s role in enhancing communication and promoting bonding, it makes sense that it would be used by long-term couples who may be well past the limerence stage of their relationship. “In the context of couples therapy, MDMA may facilitate the psychotherapeutic process by helping people feel safer and more connected to themselves, to each other, and to their therapists,” says Burge.
In a supervised context with a trained professional, the idea is that the effects of an MDMA trip can last well beyond the comedown. Some researchers theorize this is due to the subsequent depletion of serotonin levels.
“It’s likely that the psychotherapeutic approach, which includes daily phone calls and follow-up non-MDMA therapy visits, reduces the impact of the post-MDMA serotonin depletion,” says Burge. “With MDMA-assisted psychotherapy, the psychotherapy is key — people aren’t just taking MDMA and going home.”
Some couples swear that MDMA has borderline magical properties for relationships. Jane*, 30, regularly takes the drug with her husband. “The empathy that you feel, that dump of serotonin flooding your brain,” she says. “It opens us in a way that no other thing can.”
Research supporting the idea that MDMA is a relationship miracle worker is, however, scant. It’s unclear exactly how many couples have used MDMA together for therapeutic purposes, and due to the drug’s current legal status, many relationship therapists reached by Fatherly refused to comment on the record about its potential therapeutic effects (or lack thereof).
“We do not have a lot of research in this area,” an email received from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) stated. Regardless, NIDA appears to take the stance that the substance should be used sparingly, if at all, in a treatment setting. Per the NIDA website, “proponents of MDMA-assisted therapy recommend that it only be used for reactive disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder because it can worsen some psychiatric conditions.”
What is clear, however, is that proponents of MDMA are deeply invested in promoting the narrative that MDMA can help save marriages, as evidenced by the proliferation of glowing testimonials about the drug’s benefits on subreddits like r/MDMA. “MDMA simply allows you to let how you REALLY feel out,” one person gushes on a thread about MDMA’s possible help repairing their stagnant relationship. Another user is more circumspect: “If you REALLY want to fix your relationship, a roll might be an OK thing to do — but you better accompany it with actual therapy and working on the problems in a sober environment.”
MAPS and other such organizations advocate for MDMA to be administered with the supervision of a couples’ therapist. “If drugs like MDMA are ever to feature in a responsible plan for relationship healing or enhancement — assuming that this becomes legal — it should be in a facilitating or adjunctive role,” write Earp and Savulescu. “Such drugs should never be taken in a vacuum, alone or with unprepared others, without the right mental or emotional groundwork.” That said, it seems that many couples who use the drug for this purpose do not do so (although Mike says that he received his therapist’s implicit endorsement: “She wouldn’t have suggested it, [but] she also wasn’t going to knock it.”)
It’s also clear that couples are using MDMA following life-changing events, such as infidelity, the birth of a new child, or the loss of a pregnancy — events that are proven to have seismic and often devastating effects on a marriage. When Jane started taking MDMA with her husband early last year, it was right after their second child was born, just a few months after she’d stopped nursing.
“The primary issue was me and my lack of desire and interest in connecting with my husband or even myself,” she says. “My hormones were out of whack … I had lost myself as an individual and my husband was frustrated and didn’t know how to connect with me. I kind of felt stuck, like a zombie.”
Following a positive experience treating his depression using LSD, another psychoactive drug, Jane’s husband suggested using MDMA together as a bonding exercise. To hear Jane tell it, it was nothing short of a life-changing experience.
“We were able to lay all of our feelings on the table. It was so much easier to listen and truly hear what the other was saying. Without judgment. Without either becoming upset,” she says. They talked about everything from their sex life to their past relationships to their fantasies to how amazing their children were. “Really,” she says. “no topic was off the table.”
It’s like MDMA was that initial key we needed to get into this new place. Our sex life has never been better. Our communication is more open than it has ever been. It’s like we broke down this wall we didn’t even know was there.”
In the years before their trip, Jane and her husband had experienced a great deal of stress: Her husband struggled with alcohol abuse, and she had lost a pregnancy prior to the birth of her first child. Following such traumatic life events, it’s safe to assume that most medical professionals would advise against the use of psychoactive drugs — and indeed, Jane said that her physician did.
“She went over the known dangers and let me know of markers to watch for if I took it, [such as] overheating and irregular heartbeat,” she said. “It was a pretty short conversation and she just advised me to take caution and she couldn’t tell me it was ‘okay,’ but it was my choice.”
For his part, Burge maintains that most of the side-effects associated with MDMA stem from studies of “the recreational use of MDMA or Ecstasy, which often contains no MDMA at all and usually contains more harmful adulterants,” and that moderate amounts are relatively safe for use in a supervised clinical setting.
Yet for those who have tried MDMA with a partner and reported positive effects, the proof is in the performance. Jane says her relationship with her husband has improved beyond measure, long after the drug wore off.
“We created ways to talk about things outside of using MDMA, when we might be feeling distant or frustrated,” she says. “[It sounds] so simple but it’s like MDMA was that initial key we needed to get into this new place. Our sex life has never been better. Our communication is more open than it has ever been. It’s like we broke down this wall we didn’t even know was there.”
* Names have been changed at the sources’ request.