“One cold winter's day, a number of porcupines huddled together quite closely,
in order through their mutual warmth to prevent themselves from being frozen.
But they soon felt the effect of their quills on one another,
which made them again move apart.
Now when the need for warmth once more brought them together,
the drawback of the quills was repeated so that they were tossed between two evils,
until they had discovered the proper distance
from which they could best tolerate one another.”
I cannot think of a better description of relationships than the fable above, penned by the 19th century German thinker, Arthur Schopenhauer.
It captures with exquisite resonance what is likely the most important tension in any long-term relationship – spouse, child, parent, sibling, work colleague, friend, or mentor - namely, the “two evils” of too much togetherness and too much separateness.
What does it mean to have too much togetherness?
It means the “we” has completely taken over the “I,” my own self is subjugated, and I have lost my voice in the relationship.
It means I don’t know what I want, because I automatically (without thinking) attend to what the other wants. What the spouse wants, what the boss wants, what the kids want, what the parents want, overwhelms my clarity about what I want.
It means I am afraid of being honest, clinging to a person or group for a closeness that feels oh so good at the expense of my own clarity and honesty. Relationships stay platonic, because I cannot risk the twitchy question or the sensitive topic that leads to real growth and connection.
This is the intense togetherness that overwhelms personal responsibility for self.
What does it mean to have too much separateness?
It means I keep busy with work and play, leaving no time for meaningful connection, collaboration, or deeper understanding.
It means I am hesitant and uncomfortable with self-exposure and self-revelation. It scares me to be truly known.
It means the world revolves around me – and my selfish decisions. My “I” overshadows our “we.” In important relationships, I’m prone to cutting off, or not showing up.
It means I consistently choose comfort over “keeping it real.” I tend to run away from the hard work of understanding myself and others.
One can be emotionally “joined at the hip” with another who lives thousands of miles away. For example, seeking geographical distance because you can’t stand your mother doesn’t mean you are emotionally free from her. It probably means the opposite. There is no need to escape someone with whom you are relatively calm.
In a similar way, one can be estranged and disconnected from another whom one works with every day – or sleeps with every night. Physical proximity and physical touch do not necessarily indicate emotional connection.
Do you tend more towards connection or more towards distance?
Your responses to three questions offer clues:
1. TIME: Do you spend more time growing yourself, or helping others?
2. THINKING: Do you think more about what others expect from you, or what you expect and want from yourself?
3. MONEY: Do you make money decisions mostly on your own, or mostly not before seeking approval from others?
As you ponder these questions, I suspect you already wrestle with the tension between the need for closeness and the need for separateness. You might come to see, as I have, that enough separateness actually helps connectivity, and healthy togetherness leaves plenty of room to be a separate self.
Like the porcupines in the cold, the challenge is to find enough of each, to give up neither togetherness nor separateness, and to find a balance that works for each and all.