Lasting love cannot exist without the ghosts of its many iterations; as the years pass, you have to re-meet your partner as they grow, and get to know them again (and again, and again) otherwise, you grow apart. Stay in a relationship long enough and so begins the pull between longing for the rush of first dates and slow seduction, while simultaneously basking in the joys of familiarity: a favorite show, a knowing look, staying home. For some couples, psychedelics offer a chance to examine the entirety of the relationship without judgment. In a single trip, couples may explore what they’ve created together, and recreated, for better or worse, through the passage of time.
Growing or repairing your relationship, however, isn’t as simple as popping a pill, or going on a trip. It takes work, both during the psychedelic experience, and more importantly, the integration period afterward. Still, some couples are finding that experimenting with psychedelics like psilocybin mushrooms, MDMA, or LSD, helps them examine the foundation of the partnership, address strains or psychological barriers, and then incorporate those learnings into their sober-minded lives.
During a journey weekend or “shared trip,” a couple dedicates a day or two to using psychedelics as a trusted truth vessel to facilitate open communication about the relationship. “A psychedelic experience that may not seem positive or that makes you feel uncomfortable can teach such beautiful lessons, and most of those connect back to self-love and enjoying the experience with someone you care deeply about,” says Molly Peckler, founder and CEO of Highly Devoted, a cannabis-friendly matchmaking and coaching service. “This medicine allows you to learn deep truths about yourself and that can save you from a lot of heartbreak.” Working through issues together, she says, can be deeply therapeutic.
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Going on a trip is not about escaping issues within the relationship, but about finding your way home. And you can feel that in your bones. “Psilocybin is something that can help you, and make you a better person and partner or parent and child because it releases the obstacles we’ve built up around ourselves,” says Peckler. Psychedelics can help us tap into a different, deeper, and more meaningful reality—compared to our default, waking mindset.
“Psilocybin is something that can help you, and make you a better person and partner or parent and child because it releases the obstacles we’ve built up around ourselves”
Sex and relationship coach Ashley Manta tried mushrooms with her lover just four months into their relationship. The trip was intense, she describes, with hallmark features like ego death and distortions, as if the walls were talking to her. “I saw my inner self, child, and queen,” she says. “There was universal wisdom living inside me. I realized I need to remember it instead of just finding it on the outside.” The trip led Manta to tell her partner, for the first time, that she loved him. It also gave her the foundation upon which she learned to cultivate the proper set and setting for optimal intimacy.
To that end, her first suggestion is to set an intention by discussing which sexual acts are on the table and which aren’t during the shared trip. “The more you do in advance to prepare from a comfort perspective—blankets if you get cold, soft fabrics that feel good to touch, soft lighting, fresh fruit, plenty of water, cool patterns on the ceiling, lit incense, and a sexy playlist—the better,” she says.
When it comes to location, Manta suggests being near nature with plenty of daylight, ideally beginning a few hours before sunset. “Being able to smell the fresh air and connect with plants is important to feel grounded,” she says. “I remember having conversations with trees.”
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As for guiding the conversation with another human, establish what you want to co-create. Do you want to have deep dialogues that require processing; how do you want intimacy to be integrated into the process; what kind of sexy supplies, such as toys, lube, and condoms, do you want to have available?
Emotions can feel heightened in such sensitive, telling situations. But where vulnerability might seem like an obvious by-product of mixing sex and psychedelics, it’s not about feeling exposed, but rather, about the release that comes with honesty.
Where vulnerability might seem like an obvious by-product of mixing sex and psychedelics, it’s not about feeling exposed, but rather, about the release that comes with honesty.
“The mushrooms helped me know that I could love someone so quickly, and let go of the things that would have held me back from believing it,” Manta says. “Even if he never loved me back, it was okay. It was a moment of ‘This is what I feel; do with this information what you will.’”
Because psychedelics like psilocybin could help form new connections within the brain, you might gain new insights into old problems. MDMA, on the other hand, stimulates the release of hormones like oxytocin, which is associated with feelings of trust and intimacy, while simultaneously reducing activity in the amygdala, which regulates fear and anger (and is the reason MDMA can help treat PTSD).
In the 1970s, before MDMA was added to the drug schedule, therapists began to quietly use it in couples therapy to facilitate feelings of empathy, love, and compassion for the self and others. In couples’ work, evidence suggests that MDMA can help couples communicate with each other in an unguarded way, free from shame, defensiveness, and fear.
“We all live in relation to others, be it intimate partners, friends, family, community—but sometimes those relationships can keep us stuck,” explains psychologist Anne Wagner, founder of Remedy, a center for mental health innovation and home for MDMA research. She focuses on MDMA’s potential, especially in combination with couples therapy (Cognitive Behavioral Conjoint Therapy) when one partner is struggling with PTSD.
“A hallmark of PTSD is avoidance and turning away from the memory of traumatic experiences. PTSD can cause difficult and negative emotions which makes it difficult to be with and relate to other people,” Wagner explains. “It can also cause numbing, which makes it challenging to experience positive things like joy, love, and happiness. It’s hard to maintain, foster, and grow intimate relationships with other people. People with PTSD will avoid anything that brings up strong emotions—negative or positive. MDMA allows one to sit with their emotions and examine them.”
MDMA therapy is not currently legal outside a research setting, however, in one 2017-18 study, Wagner and her colleagues were able to take six couples (each with a partner suffering from PTSD) through a trial. After each couple underwent about four to five hours of therapy that focused on effective communication—sharing thoughts and feelings, paraphrasing each other, and talking about what to do if someone gets really activated or upset—Wagner and her team introduced MDMA.
During the MDMA session, the couple is set up in two recliner chairs so that they’re close enough to reach out and hold hands, sit up, or lie back. They are provided eye shades and headphones, which they can choose to wear or not. And there are also two therapists in the room. “We encourage them to spend a lot of time ‘inside,’ which is internal and reflective of their experiences,” says Wagner. “The partner within the couple suffering from PTSD often goes back to that place of trauma, and then [has] the time to share with their partner or with the therapists, as well.”
It can take years even for a therapist to learn how to help facilitate and navigate the moments when one person wants to talk and the other isn’t ready, she adds. “It’s hard work, but it’s good work.” And perhaps not the kind of work that can be totally articulated with words, but better felt—like love.
Are love and drugs all that different? The euphoria that accompanies the passion-filled beginnings of romantic love is not dissimilar to the pleasant high of a psychedelic experience. When you fall in love, the brain releases a flood of feel-good chemicals: Norepinephrine boosts your energy, dopamine enhances pleasure, and serotonin lifts your confidence levels. Similarly, psychedelics bind strongly to the brain’s 5-HT2A receptor, which is a serotonin receptor that’s part of the same system responsible for the antidepressant effects of SSRI medications (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors).
The euphoria that accompanies the passion-filled beginnings of romantic love is not dissimilar to the pleasant high of a psychedelic experience.
“Our love story started with psychedelics,” says Jessica Cole, founder of White Rabbit High Tea, retelling details of an LSD trip in LA that helped form the connection between her and her partner. Nine years later, psychedelics are still an important part of their relationship and something they explore once a year. “It doesn’t matter if you stay in the house or go on a walk, it’s a mental journey together where you can be fully open and see things that aren’t always visible in a normal state of mind,” she says. “Everyday life can get so muddled in the haze of normalcy.”
Setting aside time with a lover to intentionally experiment with psychedelics is something Cole describes as a labyrinth that leads you to the foundation of the relationship. “You can get caught up in the bills, the house, and the baby, but [psychedelics] bring you back to core humanity and love,” she says. “When you step back and look at the bigger picture, you see the person you fell in love with and built this life with.”
If you’ve never mixed love and drugs before, Cole suggests having a “babysitter” present—someone who is proficient in its uses and effects—to help guide the experience. Often, the emotions you’re feeling when you go into the experience are intensified, so it’s best to be in a level or positive mental state. “Ask the question: Are you ready to do the work right now?” she says. “There is a point in the night where you will have to face whatever it is that is going on in your life.”
Some days, love is like walking a hallway haunted by ghosts, and other days, it’s clouds parting on a sunny day to bask you in light. Either way, you feel alive because you’re brought back to the awareness that you are. If falling in love stimulates the same part of the brain as a drug, hell, you might as well do both.
Nicolle Hodges is a sexual freedom philosopher, journalist, and founder of @girlswhosayfuck—an incubator for ideas and conversation that instigate change—including the feminist project and podcast @menwhotakebaths. Her first book, @theorgasmbook, is publishing in March 2020.