Juan-Carlos and his wife Sophie – not their real names – were in a near terminal rut. Ten years of couples therapy had done little to alleviate the dark cloud of jealousy and trust issues that hung over them. Once they’d been experimental and open in the bedroom; now the 50-year-old and 48-year-old New Yorkers were having sex only a couple times a year.
Then their relationship therapist began offering ketamine-assisted psychotherapy: in an open, hyper-plastic state thanks to the drug, patients are thought to more easily delve into the drivers of their behavior, including inherited familial patterns. “They were able to see their own wounding,” says psychotherapist Jayne Gumpel. “It was amazing. We were all crying.”
Juan-Carlos had been violently abused by his father and, under the influence of a ketamine lozenge, realised that it had led him to become absent, jealous and insistent that Sophie was unfaithful. “Afterwards he could really see and take in the love she had for him,” adds Gumpel. Empathy began to replace anger and hurt.
Their marriage had been on the brink, but now — following further psychedelic therapy sessions and structured psychiatric integration – it has never been healthier. Sex became far more frequent and trust more evident. “Ketamine can be a gift in this way,” their therapist tells VICE. “It’s pretty phenomenal when it comes to opening one's heart to one's partner.”
Gumpel runs her couples retreats at a luxury Buddhist health resort established by the Dalai Lama in upstate New York. Participants — including while high on the dissociative drug — are guided through talking therapy addressing their sex lives, intimacy and the obstacles they face as a pair. Meditation, mindfulness and consensual touch sessions follow. Coaxed into a fertile and flexible state, they can go back to their rooms to consummate the new era of their relationship.
“We want to give people the opportunity to reconnect and create space for joy,” says Gumpel. She also works as a trainer for Fluence, an organisation that has taught hundreds of clinicians how to support clients using psychedelics. “We recognise that suffering is a human condition and that psychiatry has gone way off course – partnering with big pharma and pathologising suffering.” She helps couples dig into their malaise and “come home”, as she puts it, to their sexuality and pleasure of connection.
Other couples therapists prefer other psychedelics, such as magic mushrooms, 2CB, LSD or MDMA. (Though commonly thought of as a stimulant, MDMA is also classed as a psychedelic – and is primed to be the first approved by federal regulators.) Writer Ayelet Waldman and her husband were one of the first people known to have undergone psychedelic couples therapy, following advice from the pioneering psychonauts Sasha and Ann Shulgin.
“Ann said one session would equal six years of therapy and I was intrigued,” Waldman tells VICE. “We found it really transformative: MDMA allows people to address emotionally fraught issues from a place of compassion and reciprocity, without fear or anxiety defense responses.”
The proof is in the pudding, she adds, since her marriage is now into its fourth decade, partly thanks to their now-annual trips. “It brings us back to a place of deep infatuation.”
Since Waldman’s first session, psychedelic therapy has emerged from the countercultural fringes and is now primed to hit mainstream. Professionals like Gumpel, some of whom were previously operating illegally, now offer retreats to improve relationship satisfaction in countries like Holland, where some psychedelics are legal. (It is unclear if any professionals have faced legal action while offering treatment under the radar, although a US nurse narrowly avoided prison recently for growing her own mushrooms.) Others in the US work with ketamine – which is legal – and many therapists have already been trained to dispense MDMA and psilocybin.
A clinical research base is sparse – with recent research overlooking post-study effects on the sex lives of participants – but that’s beginning to change. A small 2022 pilot study on MDMA saw couples describe moments of “intimate bonding” and “positive effects on communication”, echoing the positive outcomes of a previous 2020 trial. The new research follows a limited clinical study conducted before the 80s US ban on molly, in which subjects overwhelmingly reported improved communication with their partners.
“The intersection between psychedelics, romantic relationships and sexual satisfaction is still mostly ignored by modern academic research, as most of the focus of the psychedelic renaissance has been on people affected by severely debilitating psychiatric conditions, rather than wellbeing and human flourishing,” says Tommaso Barba, a PhD student at Imperial College London’s Centre for Psychedelic Research. “However, the widespread anecdotal evidence suggests that there might be something of value there.”
His team is expected to release a research piece on the effects of psychedelics on sexual satisfaction later this year. “Psychedelics have been proven to enhance our awareness of the present moment, improve interpersonal connections, and reduce ruminative thinking,” he adds. “As a consequence, it's not difficult to imagine how they could positively impact our romantic lives.”
Almost all of the couples who go into therapy with couples therapist and psychedelic guide Sarah Tilley, who is based in the UK but hosts retreats in Holland, are on the brink of separation and divorce, she says. But the vast majority then stay together.
Reconciliation can also have material effects. “I've seen loft conversions, household extensions, locks going on bedroom doors so parents can have privacy, and bank accounts being opened up for true sharing,” she says. “People start going on holidays again and open new chapters of their lives.”
Given that some attest to the best sex of their lives under the influence of psychedelics, it’s no surprise that a seemingly growing number of couples are becoming trip buddies.
Charles Wininger, a psychotherapist and the author of Listening to Ecstasy: the Transformative Power of MDMA, tells his patients to stop thinking of sex in a goal-oriented manner. “Even though MDMA is not a sexual drug, and might make it difficult for men to perform, it can still be a good way for a couple to find their way back to each other,” Wininger says.
He has undergone some 80 MDMA journeys with his wife — initially because she wanted to heal from a repressive first marriage and was ready to spread her wings.
“It added a whole layer of depth, joy, and play to our relationship,” he says. “It was quite a revelation to two older people with conventional careers. We realized we could still have great fun: either dancing the night away with wild abandon or just staying at home and enjoying each other’s company in a very intimate way.”
They also found eating magic mushrooms “to be very sexual in nature.” But 2-CB, a psychedelic compound also known as tripstasy (as the effect feels like a combination of ecstasy and acid) created by Sasha Shulgin, could be even better. “It is terrific for sex,” he adds. “That’s been my and my wife's experience. Psychedelics are all about connection.” If there’s a decrease in divorce rates over the next decade or two, we may have hallucinogen-toting couples therapists to thank.