The Hedgehog Dilemma: Why Miserable Couples Stay Together

The Hedgehog Dilemma: Why Miserable Couples Stay Together

Avatar of Olympia Villagrán

By: Olympia Villagrán

December 13, 2016

Lifestyle The Hedgehog Dilemma: Why Miserable Couples Stay Together
Avatar of Olympia Villagrán

By: Olympia Villagrán

December 13, 2016

hedgehog dilemma couple

Love doesn't seek warmth or the bitter cold, nor does it pursue salvation or abandonment; instead, it burrows in the most bureaucratic nooks and crannies it can find. Love seeks the bearable, and it is from this idea that the German thinker Arthur Schopenhauer decided to analyze the fragile fabric with which human beings weave their relationships. 

According to his theories on incomplete nature and mankind's imperfection, love seeks lethal proximity because distance is irreversible and fearsome. In other words, intimacy cannot occur without mutual harm, and it is this disappointing situation that Schopenhauer called "The Hedgehog's Dilemma." 

This parable originates from Schopenhauer's  Parerga und Paralipomena (1851).  The concept of love became a cruel necessity that no one can escape from. For the writer, despite the goodwill and desire between a couple, intimacy and love cannot occur without harm. The closer a couple is, the more damage occurs; the greater the distance and caution, the least likely you are to hurt one another, but the end results are weak relationship and loneliness. 

In theory, human bonds should grace us with stability, but ironically this is farther from the truth. While we love, we are willing to bear the brunt of pain and suffering the other party may inflict. We would rather die in the hands of another than tolerate the coldness of separation. This obsession to find happiness next to another is known as the Hedgehog Dilemma, and this explains why couples stay together even though they are hurting each other. 

hedgehog dilemma fear

"A number of porcupines huddled together for warmth on a cold day in winter; but, as they began to prick one another with their quills, they were obliged to disperse."
So begins Schopenhauer's parable, which refers to the moment cupid casts his arrow on unsuspecting victims. We meet someone, we think they're perfect, we are excited, and we become obsessed with the idea of being close to them. The process of falling in love is heady and overwhelming, and love suddenly becomes the solution to all of our problems. These encounters become our greatest comfort. The heat of another saves us from the perils of loneliness and isolation. So begins this masochistic bond. 

"However the cold drove them together again, when just the same thing happened. At last, after many turns of huddling and dispersing, they discovered that they would be best off by remaining at a little distance from one another."

The waxing and waning of  love is expressed in this part of the story. We love and heat in equal terms; romance elevates us, and the disappointments drag us back down again. No couple is perfect, and this is a bitter pill to swallow. While love may tie us to another, our selfish, insecure, and narcissistic tendencies shove us into an unstable spiral where the distance is inconsistent and painful.  

"the same way the need of society drives the human porcupines together, only to be mutually repelled by the many prickly and disagreeable qualities of their nature. The moderate distance which they at last discover to be the only tolerable condition of intercourse, is the code of politeness and fine manners; and those who transgress it are roughly told—in the English phrase—to keep their distance. "

The quills are all those words, acts, and attitudes that our partner uses to hurt us and viceversa. We allow this hurt to continue because love, despite the painful torture, offers warmth, patience, and understanding until it becomes one single thing: something bearable.  

"By this arrangement the mutual need of warmth is only very moderately satisfied; but then people do not get pricked. A man who has some heat in himself prefers to remain outside, where he will neither prick other people nor get pricked himself."

At this precise moment we become resigned to the nature of the relationship because we are terrified of the loneliness, and we have become used to this painful dance of distance and intimacy. Even if couples have the capacity to choose if they wish to separate or not, most of them continue this entanglement. We would rather be filled with holes and left bleeding than to bear the solitude. 

hedgehog dilemma love

Maintaining a prudent distance does not mean superficial relationships or false commitments. We are not animals, we do not need to burrow into the skin of another to survive a harsh winter. Nevertheless, we continue to behave like hedgehogs that huddle together and bear the brunt of pain. We all have the capacity to see to our own interests and welfare. There is nothing better in this life than to save oneself and find inner happiness. In many ways this dilemma is the result of social pressures, which continue to reject free and open commitments, and our own inability to feed a relationship that could nurture our spirits.