I don’t what it is about my racing mid-twenties that ruminate on relationships. Even when I don’t actively want one, there they are, all around me. The holidays draw them closer–an active spectator as opposed to peripheral voyeur. I cannot help but notice how complicated they are. “DUH” you respond loudly upon reading this. I know, I know. But is it supposed to be this hard? Are the puzzle pieces supposed to ram together into order to “fit”?
Schopenhauer and Freud use the Hedgehog’s Dilemma to describe the difficulty with human intimacy. In this scenario, it is a brutal winter. The hedgehogs are inclined to huddle together for warmth, but upon getting to close, often impale one another with their quills. So, the wounded animals separate and distance themselves. The cycle repeats itself over and over again– the closeness, the injuries, the repelling, the ache for warmth only to emerge more damaged than before. Neither man produced a solution for this quandary, but Schopenhauer observed that this cycle provided a metaphor as to why people keep a “safe distance”, that is isn’t a comment on the other person but on our own self-preservation.
If intensive therapy taught me anything, it’s that relationships cause damage. Again, I can hear you saying “DUH”. I find myself in this bizarre space– one where I’m unwilling to commit but also desire my person: someone I organically click with romantically and sexually. I want someone to share corny inside jokes with. I yearn for that camaraderie. But I would be remiss if I didn’t call myself lucky for having no romantic relationship history because it means I also lack the damage that often accompanies it.
Intimate relationships are where our demons emerge from their hiding places. Partnership affords us the comfort to liberate everything we police in public. Everything we can’t independently reconcile, we expect our partner to be able to assist with. Movies and novels and so many Taylor Swift songs preach that love will save us. Love is not enough. The answer to your problems is not your lover’s name, and whether or not they stay, a partner’s body is not the shield between you and your baggage. Your troubles will outlast the relationship every time, I promise. And when baggage entwines with baggage love sours into bondage. We stay because we feel obligated. We stay because we don’t believe we deserve better. We stay because we’d rather be warm and bleeding than alone in the cold.
A female friend of mine recently admitted that every man she’s ever broken up with has told her, “Yeah, I hurt you, but you made me a better person”. They intended it to be a compliment. Yes, you suffered in loving me. Yes, I failed you, but it was worth it because I’m better now– even if I damaged you in the process. Please, no one ever tell me this. Please spare me from being a rehabilitation center for someone else’s sorrows. Who taught us that the greatest sign of love is the number of sacrifices we make in the name of our partner? Because I know I am meant for greater things than to be the collateral damage in other person’s becoming. And vice versa. I won’t minimize your place in my life to a stairstep I stomped on in order to elevate myself. You mean more to me than that.
It’s 2019, let’s disabuse ourselves of this narrative wherein we need to be grateful for hurting. We don’t owe gratitude to all the things that have broken us. Reject some pithy line where it was all worth it because you made the villain of your story into a hero for somebody else’s. We shouldn’t be the sacrificial lambs in our own lives.
Part of the Hedgehog’s Dilemma is inevitable. We all hurt the people we love sometimes. Life draws us too close, and sometimes, there’s pain from that. But it hurts less when you work on yourself– untangle the knotted parts throbbing inside you and unburden others with the job of healing you. Go to therapy. Read self-help books, and gain the liberty of self-reliance. The work of personhood is never done. I’m perpetually working on myself. This is ugly and uncomfortable work. I get why many choose to take shelter in another person’s arms. I see why the veneer of Instagram posts is so alluring. But I want to seek warmth without hurting so many people. I can’t remove my quills but I can rethink my approach. I can develop better-coping skills and strategies. I am not the best example, but I’m trying. Because my job isn’t to make you a better person, but I’m still trying to be one.