In 2010, 31-year-old Kait met “S” on an Air Force base in Wyoming. The ban on openly gay military service, also known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” wouldn’t come to an end for another year, so the female lovers moved into an off-base apartment where they could openly date without fear of being caught and discharged.
When their enlistments ended, they left the military and moved around the country together until, several years later, they settled down in New York City. “The relationship was great,” Kait tells me.
It was in the Big Apple, in 2016, when Kait appealed to the VA for PTSD treatment. They prescribed her Lexapro, a popular SSRI, gradually upping the dosage until she was taking a sizable 30 milligrams a day. “I almost immediately lost my sex drive and the ability to orgasm,” she says. “S noticed the change and wanted me to stop taking it, but I was afraid I’d never get better if I didn’t keep trying. We went from having sex three to four times a week to going months without it.”
Making matters worse, Kait’s emotional state wasn’t getting much better. In fact, she became almost entirely apathetic. “I couldn’t feel extremely happy or sad,” she explains. “I was still depressed and stopped leaving the house.”
This is when Kait began to notice that her inability to feel anything at all, coupled with a nonexistent sex life, impacted her fondness for S. “She started feeling like more of a friend than a lover,” she tells me. “This went on for a year and a half before we finally called it quits and went our separate ways.”
Just like that, Kait’s seven-year relationship was over, and she blames Lexapro. “If I could go back, I’d definitely never start the SSRI,” she says. “The loss of emotional and physical connection was too high of a price to pay.”
Sadly, Kait’s story isn’t uncommon. Joe, 35, tells me that he almost immediately fell out of love with his boyfriend — and soon-to-be fiancé — after going on Prozac in 2012. “I quickly went from acute depression to what felt like a chemical lobotomy, and I was suddenly incapable of feeling literally anything,” he says. As a result, his boyfriend thought he was being intentionally distant and callous, and the pair never recovered.
“It was the demise of our relationship,” Joe says. “It was 100 percent the Prozac.”
While SSRIs are notorious for their side effects, “falling out of love” isn’t one that many of us talk about, nor one that psychiatrists commonly mention. “I got excessively negged by my doctor, who basically said I was making it all up and that these weren’t known side effects,” Joe says. Likewise, Kait tells me her psychiatrist “doesn’t seem to care” about the love-busting side effects she’s complained of.
The thing is, these side effects are known — they’re just not widely discussed. Anthropologist Helen Fisher, who’s conducted many brain studies on the topic of love, has been warning of SSRIs and their potential to “cause emotional blunting and dysfunction in sexual desire, arousal and orgasm in both men and women” since the 2000s.
Interestingly, a 2014 study found that men’s feelings of infatuation tend to be more affected by SSRIs than women’s for some unknown reason. Overall, the experiment showed that participants on SSRIs were more likely to say they felt less wishful that the love for their partner would last forever, compared to people taking tricyclic antidepressants, which have less of an effect on the serotonin system.
Studies aside, falling out of love aligns with everything else we know about what SSRIs do to the body and brain. Stephen Ilardi, psychology professor, depression researcher and author of The Depression Cure: The 6-Step Program to Beat Depression Without Drugs, tells me that they increase serotonin-based input to the amygdala, which is central to how we process strong emotions. This can ultimately reduce the intensity of all our feelings, which may be great when you’re overwhelmed by sadness, but less so when you’re full of love.
To be clear, as with anything related to SSRIs and especially relationships, all of this is complicated. People fall out of love on a daily basis, regardless of whether or not they’re on SSRIs. In fact, just as SSRIs can be the last nail in a relationship’s coffin, they can also bring people closer. For example, I asked the medicated people of r/SSRIs about their experiences with love and antidepressants, and while the replies were mixed, one person emphasized how medication pulled her out of a depressive state that was getting in the way of her relationship. That same person also explained how SSRIs helped her realize she was previously in an awful relationship, which ultimately prompted her to leave — not because the pills unplugged her ability to love, but because they helped her see reality for what it really was.
All of which is to say that SSRIs are fickle medications, and that you should be mindful while taking them. If you feel a sudden loss of love for someone after starting on an SSRI, ask your psychiatrist to lower your dosage or change your medication. In a 2017 study, 75 percent of Cymbalta users experienced emotional blunting, whereas only 33 percent of people taking Wellbutrin did, so don’t be afraid to switch pills if the one you’re currently on isn’t working for you. (Keep in mind that Cymbalta is an SSRI, whereas Wellbutrin is a norepinephrine-dopamine reuptake inhibitor, meaning it doesn’t target serotonin.)
As for Kait, she stayed on Lexapro well after the breakup because she was feeling even more depressed after her longtime partner left. She’s since tapered off of it, though. Meanwhile, Joe gave Prozac a few more weeks to see if things would turn up, but they never did, so he also abandoned the pills. “I couldn’t handle it,” he says. “The damage was done.”
Still, hard as breakups can be — SSRI-induced or otherwise — the good news is that life goes on, and as Joe puts it, “It’s all well behind me now.”
If there’s anything we can learn from stories like his, it’s that love and SSRIs have a lot in common. They can both make you happy when you’re sad. They can both spark feelings you never knew you had. But they’re unpredictable, and if you’re not careful, you might end up feeling really bad.