We know so well what love should be like; we imagine our desired partners long before we meet them in real life. They will be kind, beautiful, gentle, thoughtful, inspiring and funny. They will be infinitely careful with the precious, vulnerable sides of us, and we with theirs. They will be our refuge and our home.
We keep them in mind through all the difficulties and tragic-comic ordeals of our romantic quests: the absurdities and puzzles of dating, the broken relationships, the fractious marriages, the unsatisfactory affairs. We mock this or that failed candidate or demented or evil partner; we never dare to mock love itself, we never question what we’re trying to do, we just insist that we haven’t yet met ‘the right person’ to do it with.
But we might take advantage of our sad mood to dare to be braver. We have met plenty of people, we have had many opportunities to make things work. Our ongoing travails aren’t a sign that we need to try out yet more candidates; they are evidence that what we long for in love and what other people can plausibly deliver are fundamentally opposed.
Porcupines are herbivorous rodents covered in sharp quills who have only a thin layer of subcutaneous fat to keep them warm. On chilly nights, they must huddle together in burrows with other members of their species – but in so doing, they often badly injure themselves against the quills of their neighbours. It isn’t uncommon to see porcupines stumbling out of the ground at dawn with traces of each other’s blood across their bodies. The rodents have to buy their protection at high cost: it is a choice between hypothermia and injury.
Sigmund Freud thought a lot about porcupines and in tribute to their perplexities around intimacy, he placed a bronze model of one on his desk, first in Vienna and later in London, where it remains to this day.
As his patients detailed their struggles – with wives who felt unloved, husbands who could not be faithful, partners who did not hear each other’s complaints, seducers who could only desire when they were rejected – Freud could look over at the razor sharp bronze quills and know that what he was hearing were no isolated cases of unhappiness, but further examples of the risks we encounter whenever we seek, as we need to, an alternative to our own company.
Psychoanalysis went on to build up an unparalleled understanding of why we should be so prone to bloody ourselves in relationships. Each of us arrives in adulthood with a history that militates against our chances of present-day contentment. The early weeks of passion may go well enough, but our complicated pasts soon make themselves felt. We were once, as children, made to feel worthless and ashamed; now the love of another person will seem unreal and in need of constant challenge. Or because our childhoods left us anxious about the unreliability of others, we don’t stop asking for reassurance and demanding signs of loyalty, which eventually drives away the very person we are so keen to keep close beside us. We may look sweet, we may have our kindly moments, we are not always perturbed, but sure enough, each one of us is covered in quills that will jab and gravely injure anyone reckless enough to come close to us.
We spend far too long regretting our specific choices, and far too little time gaining melancholy comfort from knowing that the task of intimacy is rendered inherently and impossibly problematic by our jagged psyches.
The very best candidates won’t be the ones who don’t hurt us, they don’t exist, they will be those who at least have some sense of how they will do so, and can warn us of the fact in good time, with grace and a touch of humour. We should, on our early dinner dates, learn to turn to a prospective porcupine and ask with a melancholy smile: ‘So how might you jab me with your quills?’