Porcupines and Intimacy

One of my favorite psychology books, Shopenhauer’s Porcupines (by Deborah Luepnitz) begins with a parable about…you guessed it…porcupines.

The parable tells of a troupe of porcupines in the winter. The prickly little animals face a dilemma at night, when they must huddle together for warmth to keep from freezing to death. As you can imagine, problems arise when they get so close that they begin to prick each other with their quills. However, if they move too far apart, they lose the body warmth that keeps them from freezing. There is no optimal spacing to prevent both harming each other and freezing. So, the porcupine troupe has to develop a rhythm of moving together and apart, together and apart, in order neither to prick each other too deeply nor to freeze.

What I love about this parable (and this is the point of Dr. Luepnitz’s book) is that it correlates to ways that we humans struggle with intimacy. We long for togetherness. We yearn to feel less alone in the world. And yet, when we find relationships which can fill our longing for closeness, we begin to prick each other. However, if we move too far away, we have to face our loneliness.

Like porcupines in winter, we have to find ways within our relationships to move together and apart. We come together until it begins to hurt, and then we pull away to heal and restore ourselves. And this together-apart, together-apart rhythm is, in my view, as good as it gets in relationships. It is what relationships are all about.

We all vary in the degrees of closeness we want and can bear in relationships. So, for each of us, individually and in pairs, we must develop our own rhythm, our own timing. And the extent to which we can know what our own individual rhythm is, the better we can tend to our own needs, and the needs of our relationships (prickly as they may sometimes be).

©2013 Stephanie Heck, Ph.D.

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