When Milk Sours, We Throw it Out: So Why Do We Stay In A Relationship Past Its Expiration Date?

by Rachel Jablow

Letting Go

When you were young, how many times did your mom tell you, “Don’t let go of my hand!” while crossing a street or in a crowded shopping mall? Should you let go, you were sure to see the wrath of mom.

Remember that game, Red Rover? The one where you joined hands with your teammates to form a human wall and held on as tightly as you could while you screamed to the other team, “Red rover red rover, send Sally right over.”

 As Sally came running toward your team at full speed, you tightly squeezed your teammate's hands on either side of you, with a kung-fu grip, silently willing your human chain not to break. Don't let go. Don't let go. (Seriously, who comes up with these insane games anyway? )

Thus, it began: From a young age, we have been instructed not to let go at all costs.

As the obsessive-compulsive part of me took over last weekend, I decided it was time for a major cleanse. No, not the trendy kind of cleanse (I like food way too much). I was determined to tackle my closet and my refrigerator, letting go of anything that has far exceeded its expiration date. I opened my fridge, scanned the shelves and thought about the contents.

Is there a reason I am hanging on to the eggs I bought two months ago?  Would I really ever use that jar of minced garlic I bought for one recipe over the summer? Was there a sentimental reason for keeping the uncorked, half empty, bottle of wine from the last time I had company (like some sort of masochistic reminder of how long ago it had been)? There were so many items that were past their expiration dates. None of which I would actually use again, so why not just send them to their dreaded death in the very-convenient trash chute two steps from my apartment door?

Moving on to my closet — a much more emotional task. In a New York City closet, there just isn't room for everything, and I tend to feel anxious when any sort of clutter or disorder takes over. A few times a year, I try to go through my clothes and donate what I don't wear or need. Yet the anxiety I feel every time I run this exercise is the same: Letting go of anything I once felt connected to plagues me with feelings of guilt (“I only wore this once!”), loss (“I loved this dress!”), fear ("What if this comes back in style?”). Okay, okay, maybe I’m being a bit dramatic, but likely, we have all been there. But once it's over, don’t you feel much better, like a weight has been lifted and you can breathe again?

As I continued through, sweater after sweater, I realized the common question that we face across many aspects of our lives: Why do we have so much trouble letting go? Whether it's a friendship, a relationship or a carton of eggs, we tend to hold on way past the expiration date.

Relationships and Friendships

Only one relationship is meant to last forever, not all of them. And "forever," was given to the term "marriage" over 4,000 years ago so that men knew they were procreating legitimately. Not to mention, the establishment of this union was accepted when the maximum life expectancy was the ripe old age of 30, if they were lucky, (or unlucky, I guess, depending on your spouse.) We have come a long way since those days, with the freedom to explore relationships prior to taking the leap. We get to learn what excites us, what turns us off, both physically and emotionally. We get to grow from the different connections we make. But not all are meant to stand the test of time. As we grow and change, so do our wants and needs.

Friendships are similar, but without the pressure of a bound future. What once brought joy and fulfillment at a point in your life may fall short at another.

So when a relationship or friendship is no longer fulfilling, or we find ourselves unhappy, why do we stay past (and in some cases, way past) the expiration date?

Reasons for staying

The truth is, it’s just not that easy to walk away, even when you know you should. Excluding marriage and children as factors, there are three main reasons people stay in unhappy relationships.


Fear of change. Change is scary. The unknown can be daunting. Not knowing what your life will look like without this person; feeling unsure of who you are without this person. What will life be like when your daily routines and social circles change? Fear of change keeps us stuck in dead-end jobs, unhealthy lifestyles and, quite often, unhappy relationships.

Fear of being alone. If you aren't comfortable being alone, then you probably aren't good company to keep. Loneliness in a relationship is way more isolating than being alone. Have you thought, but what if I never fall in love again? You will. I have said this after every breakup. And each time, I have gone on to have several more successful breakups. (Wink, wink.)

Fear of failure. Again, all of your relationships are supposed to fail until you find the one that doesn't. It is not failure, but rather, just redirection. There is someone out there who is a better fit for both of you. Staying in a failed relationship defines failure.

Not knowing where you will land when you jump off a cliff is about having faith in uncertainty. Ultimately, we fear we will make a mistake. Yet, there are no mistakes in reality, just results. And if you look at life as a series of different adventures with highs and lows, successes and defeats, change begins to seem much less daunting.


Whatever the cause — not wanting to be the bad guy or to be disliked, not wanting to be disloyal or to hurt your partner — in the long run, hanging on to a relationship out of guilt will do far more damage than good. You can't be everyone's best friend.

Everyone is not going to like you, and you will not like everyone. Guess what? That is totally acceptable. Loyalty does not mean surrendering your own needs for the sake of your partners. Nobody would want you to stay involved based on sympathy or loyalty alone.


Confrontation is scary. It takes courage to deal with your situation head-on. It's easy to feel that a breakup is too difficult, especially if there hasn't been cheating, blow-out fights or anything to be angry about. Are things just "fine"? Sometimes it's just a change in feelings or growth in opposite directions, and sometimes, it’s no growth at all. Yet the security of the relationship, even when one or both are unhappy can be comforting and feel safe. But why settle for 'fine?' The apple I ate for breakfast was 'fine.'

I have friends who complain about how miserable they are in their relationships, typically facing the same struggles repetitively. Yet every time, they expect a different outcome. Isn't that the definition of insanity?

Remember, relationships aren't supposed to be so difficult. The right relationship feels easy. Yes, it should take work and commitment, and there will be ups and downs, but it should never feel like work.

Reasons for leaving

Sometimes love just isn’t enough. We all give and accept love differently. Loving someone is the easy part. Having similar morals, values, interests, passions, wants and needs are what sustain the love. Whether it's a friendship or relationship that's bringing you negative energy, why hold on? Feeling trapped is a state of mind. No one needs consent to leave a relationship. Take a breath, be honest with yourself and take action. Be the architect of your life and your happiness. The freedom of choosing what to do, where to go and how to live your life, is well worth the risk.

This decision should come from a place of balance. Ask yourself if this is how you want to live your life. Is there ongoing dissatisfaction? Are both parties fulfilled by the union? Does this person fit in your future? If you break up, when the dust settles, will you be happier in the long-term? We have all been through breakups. Whether the dumper or dumpee, neither is pleasant. But we are all able to survive and go on to find happiness. Don't waste someone else’s time, and certainly don't waste your own. Keep it movin'. You are not responsible for anyone else's happiness.

I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.  -W.E. Henley

Although not quite as early as the institution of marriage, the Declaration of Independence listed the pursuit of happiness as one of our unalienable rights. Why do we continuously sacrifice the right to happiness in any relationship that doesn't bring out the best version of ourselves?

Be selfish. No, I am not telling you to park in the handicap spot or to eat all the ice cream in the freezer, leaving your partner with none. I am certainly not telling you to be unkind or disrespectful. However, the only person who can create happiness for you is you.  If you continue to worry about all the reasons you can't, you are wasting time doing what you can.

This generation is so keen on the super annoying acronym, "YOLO." "You only live once." But as clichéd as it sounds, it's true. So if you do it right, one life is all you need. Spend it wisely, with people with whom you feel connected; the ones who make you smile and laugh and love yourself in their presence. No one else will provide the kind of happiness for you that you can provide for yourself. Going after that happiness is living.

So, when you know it's time to clean house, don't dilly-dally. Remember the feeling you had after throwing out that wine bottle. And when you stand in your closet and see an empty space for something new to hang, remember why it's there. A new sweater may be just what you need.

Top Photo Courtesy: Google+