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  • Writer's pictureFullerRelationships

The Porcupine Dilemma: On Becoming Relational

Updated: Dec 10, 2023

Most likely, you have not met Arthur Schopenhauer, but for sure all of you know Sigmund Freud. Although we all know Freud as the father of psychology, in managing our relationships, I believe we would be better served in getting to know Arthur Schopenhauer.

Schopenhauer was known to be the father of pessimism; however, he was one of the first 19th century philosophers to contend that at its core, the universe is not a rational place. He believed that the human condition is fundamentally painful, but through the arts, through morals and through giving up self-indulgence, we can tolerate and hopefully overcome this condition.

When you are having relational problems this Christmas holiday, remember that Schopenhauer knew that relationship trumped logic. Logic is about having an indisputable truth with the goal of winning an argument. However, when we are in a relationship, when someone wins, the other loses, and who likes to lose? When we are in a relationship, sticking to logic and being right, will win you the argument, but I guarantee you this is the fastest way to lose that relationship.

Schopenhauer presented the fable of the porcupine to illustrate the state of an individual in relation to others and the challenges of human intimacy.

In this fable, on a cold winter’s day, a group of Porcupines huddle together to generate warmth so as not to become frozen. As they inch closer, they start to prick each other and they instinctively move apart, but they become cold again, and they try to move closer again. This back and forth continue, as they try to balance closeness and warmth, with distance and safety.

What has been proven time and again, is that the sense of connection that healthy relationships provides us is what makes us happy. And the lack thereof, is what brings us mental and emotional problems.

There is a reason why breakups feel like you have lost a part of you, because we are a part of each other. And even if you show me someone who says, “I have always been a loner.” I propose that that becoming a loner was how they resolved their porcupine dilemma.

So how do we resolve this dilemma? My proposal is that we learn how to become relational. And how do we become relational?

First, we must be connected to ourselves. We must get to know ourselves, accept our failings and our strengths; we must learn to be authentic, know that we ae not perfect and that the world is not perfect; we must learn to accept that while it is good to have an ideal, it is only in being real that we feel accepted; and when we accept ourselves as flawed but still lovable, we become whole and we can then tolerate the pain that is inherent in being in a relationship, because of the possibility that it will end. When we make ourselves whole, we do not feel abandoned when our relationship ends, we are left.

Second, we must accept that feeling pain is what makes us human, and the only thing that can keep us from being offenders. When we no longer feel pain, we are no longer human. And pain is what we all try to avoid by doing everything we can to make the relationship stay. We control, we cajole, we bribe, we manipulate, and we acquiesce, because we believe we can make our partner stay and therefore avoid our fears of abandonment, of not being good enough and not being loved. So, we compromise ourselves and we give up our sense of self.

A relationship is not about winning or losing, or who has a greater pain and therefore deserves better. We cannot believe that we will get what we deserve, rather we will get what we negotiate; negotiating for the greater good, not for our self-interest. When we think beyond ourselves and when we value the self that we become when we are connected, we become relational and whole.

In conclusion, we know we are not perfect, the world is not perfect. We will get hurt and we will suffer, despite our best intentions. However, we also need to learn to make our world bigger than our pain so that we can then come to the table and negotiate for our needs, while being fully aware that each of us has our own porcupine dilemma to resolve. We are all in it together, regardless of who we are, where we are or what we have. Having this connection will only benefit us, and at the end of it all, when we know it is time that we, or our loved ones, leave this world what else remains? Grief, we all experience grief because we feel the loss of our loved one.

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