October 9, 2020

Dear Drama Observers,

A few years ago, I wrote about something called “the porcupine dance,” a phrase that depicts what characterizes many relationships. Even for those of us who have no rhythm, we can cut quite a rug with this one.

I’ve summarized it below:

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A desire for connection draws us toward people. But the fear of hurt causes both of us to stick out “quills” for protection. The pain of getting poked causes us to move away. Alternating between moving in and moving out is the dance. Let’s look now at the individual dance steps.

MOVING IN

Understanding the fundamental need for connection, many songwriters have penned lyrics that reflect this deep human longing. That’s why our radios are flooded with romance songs that express notions like: “I can’t live without you,” “I can’t get enough of you,” “I’m only happy when we’re together,” or “I’m not a whole person without you.”

Throughout the lifespan, we need and desire what psychologists refer to as attachment. Infants need attachment so much that depriving them of it may even cause death in some cases. Adoptive parents are warned about possible difficulties if an adopted child’s early attachments were deficient. As we proceed through the developmental stages, we relish inclusion but hate being excluded.

We form friendships, join clubs or teams, enroll in associations, join fraternities or sororities, go to parties, hang out together, visit chat rooms, text message each other, connect through the internet, date, get married, and attend family gatherings.

Some people join gangs. Others join churches, sing in choirs, enroll in small groups, or serve on committees. We yell with others at sporting events, laugh together at comedy clubs, and cry together at funerals. Ex-soldiers recall fondly, not the combat they endured, but the deep friendships formed in times of battle. Retiring athletes talk about how much they’ll miss the locker room camaraderie.

If we get sick, studies show that restoration of health is facilitated by healthy interpersonal connections. At the time of death, we prefer to be surrounded by those we love.

From one end life to the other, we spurn loneliness and seek the company of others. In short, the “moving in” step of the dance is driven by this universal need to attach.

GETTING POKED

But when we attach ourselves to someone, we invariably discover that this sought-after object of attachment has flaws, rough edges that hurt when encountered. Indeed, there is something wrong with all of us. Psychologists call it “abnormal psychology” or “psychopathology” while theologians call it the “fallenness of man” or “depravity.” Most of us use colloquial terms like “screwed up” to express it.

Someone once said, “There’s a little larceny in us all.” We are imperfect people living in an imperfect world with imperfect others. We’re drawn to people’s positives but experience their negatives when we move in close. And coming in contact with those negatives can hurt.

While romance music expresses our attachment wishes, some country music speaks to the pain experienced when affections turn sour. I once heard a few spoofs on country songs that expressed these notions: “Now that we’re so miserable, I hope you’re happy,” “She chews tobacco but she won’t choose me,” and “Ain’t been no trash in my trailer since the night I kicked you out.”

Anticipating the potential pain of connection, we instinctively stick out “quills” for protection, the internal thought being, “If I let you in too close, I could get hurt.”  When we move in, we get poked, and then the next dance step occurs.

MOVING OUT

We crave attachments but hate pain, so we move out. For protection purposes, we distance ourselves from the relationship—the very thing we desire the most. This strategic maneuver of using “relational geography” is displayed in several common renditions:

Buffered Connections

The basic stance here is, “It’s OK for us to be close, but not that close. We’re not going to talk about it, but I only let people in just so far.” These people have relational moats and drawbridges used to deny access to the castle’s inner sanctum.

I once watched a TV interview with a notable public figure and his wife. When the questions turned personal, his wife said, “Most people see my husband as friendly, gregarious, and warm. And that’s true. But what people don’t see is the steel wall that drops when you get in close.  We’ve been married for a long time and even I have never seen on the other side of that wall.”

The intrigued interviewer turned to the man and asked him to comment at which point the camera framed his head and shoulders. He paused, stammered, and began talking about his public achievements. The interviewer interrupted him and repeated her request for him to elaborate on his wife’s comments. The camera then zoomed in for a face shot only. Once again, he paused and began waxing eloquent about his career accomplishments.  The television audience got a chance to see for themselves the very wall his wife described.

Walls aren’t bad as long as they have gates. In healthy relating, we need walls and gates to let some in, to let some in closer, to let a small number in very close, and to keep others out who don’t belong there. But for some people, “We’ll do fine as long as we keep our distance” is the unspoken relational imperative that governs all of their relationships.

Pretend Closeness

Here, the thought is, “Real relationships are way too risky.  Let’s have make-believe intimacy for a while, what do you say? That way, nobody gets hurt.” This is the philosophical underpinning of friends-with-benefits, the casual hook-up, or the one-night-stand.

Anesthetized Connections

Since actual, up-close relationships involve pain at times, some people numb the pain with pain-numbing substances which serve as relational lubricants.  “Closeness requires anesthesia to kill the pain if something goes wrong,” the thinking goes. Little wonder, therefore, that drinking holes often double as popular pick-up spots.

Purposeful Distance

When families move frequently, some kids sidestep attachments to avoid the pain of detaching. They deliberately keep their distance because they know how much it hurts to lose a friendship. Soldiers sometimes purposely decide not to get close to other soldiers, having experienced the pain of losing comrades in battle. Some people deliberately isolate themselves from others to avoid the complexities of relationships. There was a time when most houses were built with front porches, a place where neighbors could sit and visit.  Now, we’re more likely to build houses with privacy decks that hinder us from knowing our neighbors.

Vicarious Closeness

“I get my closeness needs met by watching others do it.  That way, I don’t get hurt.” Some people are spectators in the stands watching characters from pop culture, television, movies, or books taking hits on the relational field of play. Another form of this is pornography in which paying customers substitute contrived connections for ones that are real.

Techno Connections

“I’ve been burned so often in person that I prefer cyber-anonymity. It seems safer and quicker and, if I encounter a loser, I can always hit delete.” In some ways, technology is a means of connecting with others. But some people use it for protection, a way to form what they perceive to be low-risk attachments.

MOVING BACK IN

Distancing, in whatever form it takes, protects us from pain. But it gets lonely out there. Eventually, we’ll move back in, seeking the attachment we so desire. The cycle has now run its course only to repeat itself.

IN SUMMARY

The porcupine dance is an attempt to handle the tension between two competing drives—attachment wishes and pain avoidance. We want to be close but don’t want to be hurt. We seek what relationships provide but shun what relationships bring—problems. But the dance doesn’t resolve the tension, it only perpetuates it. And for some people, it’s a marathon dance that lasts a lifetime.

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Till next week.

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