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The Hamster of Love

Romantic relationship lessons via pet ownership.

Key points

  • Many of us "bite" our partners when they reach out to us, driving them away and leaving us alone.
  • Many people in relationships have deep feelings that they have a hard time being vulnerable with.
  • On a subconscious level, we might feel like we don’t deserve love, and this feeling is expressed as anger.

My daughter has a pet hamster. Which means I have a pet hamster. She is a cute little dwarf hamster, a great pet, relatively easy to care for, not too much poop and pee, and did I mention she’s really cute? She eats nuts, which is great, because I hear nuts are good for you, so whenever I put some almond slivers in her cage, I have some, too. She is docile and easy to handle, and she doesn’t run away when you pick her up. Her cage is across the room from my desk, and I can hear and see her while I’m working. She’s super cute. We used to have a great relationship.

A Changed Relationship

I say "used to" because, eventually, things changed. I used to enjoy taking her out of her cage and holding her, petting her, or putting her on my desk while I was working. But then one time I went to take her out of her cage and she bit me. Not a strong bite, not nearly hard enough to draw blood, but enough of a nip to make me yank my hand away. It surprised me more than it hurt. And even though it didn’t really hurt that much, it was enough to make me rethink taking her out and cuddling with her. I just closed the cage, talked to her a little, and then went back to work. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, but things had changed between us.

The next day, as I sat at my desk, I looked over at the cute little hamster who was sitting in her cage looking back at me. I thought about taking her out and playing with her, but then I remembered the bite she gave me and had second thoughts. You see, I have an aversion to animals biting me. In fact, it took me a couple of days to build up the desire to try again. But this time I was prepared. I decided I wasn’t going to flinch. I would let her take a little nip at my thumb, try not to react, and let her warm up to me. Maybe this was part of her process, a quick moment of self-defense, and then a removal of defenses so we could cuddle again. I was going to be the bigger mammal.

So, I put my hand in her cage, let her sniff my fingers, and, after a moment of pawing and sniffing, she nipped me. I didn’t flinch, though. I was pretty proud of myself, too. I was happy with the process, and about to pick her up, when she bit me. And this time it was definitely a bite. It hurt. It drew a little blood. And this time I yelped in pain and yanked my hand away. I might have even yelled something like “Bad hamster!”

I sprayed some Bactine on it, put on a bandage, and went back to my desk. I was still pretty mad, and looked over to see this cute little hamster looking back at me, innocent and pure, like she didn’t do anything wrong. But had she done something wrong? Or had she just done something hamster-ish? Either way, there was a rupture in our relationship. Things had changed between me and my hamster.

I wasn’t quite ready to give up on her, though, so I did a little research and found that dwarf hamsters, after not having been handled in a while, will sometimes start to bite like this. Apparently, it’s a common occurrence. The more time that elapses between loving moments of being picked up and held, the more likely they are to bite. It can take some time for them to get used to being handled again after some time not being handled. The hamster owner just has to be patient and let the hamster warm up again. That made sense. However, I was still hurt, and I didn’t want to give her a chance to warm up again. Did she really deserve it? Here I am, just trying to love her, and she hurts me. I resented her.

This made me realize my relationship with my hamster mimicked what many of our romantic relationships are like. Many of us "bite" our partners when they reach out to us, driving them away and leaving us alone, looking cute while we stuff our cheeks with almond slivers. I know my hamster wants to be picked up and cuddled, to be loved, but her instinct is to protect herself by biting.

Being Vulnerable

Many people in relationships have deep feelings of fear or shame or some other strong emotions that they have a hard time being vulnerable with. What does this mean, to be vulnerable? It means to share your deepest emotions and fears. To reveal your true self to your partner in a way that brings you closer together. On a conscious level, we want love, we want our partner to reach into our cage and take us out and cuddle with us. On a subconscious level, we might feel like we don’t deserve this love, that we’re not worth it, and this feeling is expressed as anger in response to the love we are shown, and, therefore, we bite. We bite to establish some distance between us and our partners, so we don’t have to confront the shame or fear or other strong emotions that bubble up when we get really close to someone and start to reveal our true selves in a vulnerable way.

How did I react to my hamster biting me? I got angry and removed myself from interacting with her. But did the hamster really want this? I don’t think she did. She continues to look at me from her cage with what I now consider a look of longing, but I’m afraid if I engage with her she’ll bite me. So now I don’t cuddle with her. I feed her, change her cage, and do all the things I usually do to continue our relationship, but we’re not as close as we could be. So, our relationship has reached a stopping point. We can’t grow any closer now. She’s protecting herself, and I’ve learned not to reach out to her in the ways I had in the past.

Does this dynamic seem familiar? I think it’s more common than people realize. It’s so hard to be vulnerable with the deep-rooted emotions that we have learned to protect at all costs over the course of our lives. Then along come romantic partners who want nothing more than to love us for who we truly are. And that’s what we want, right? I would say yes. The hamster-related irony here is that another part of us says no, and bites. If you can relate to this process, think about how you bite and why you bite. Or how your partner bites and why they bite. Relationships sometimes involve more biting than cuddling, whether we’re talking about humans or hamsters!

Update: Mel (the hamster) and I have made up, and she is letting me hold her again without biting me!

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