Finding Milk in a Hardware Store

One of the most difficult things in relationship is when others fail to give us the love that we want or need. I see so much pain when parents aren’t sympathetic, when siblings aren’t thoughtful, when spouses aren’t affirming, or when bosses aren’t responsive. For myself and several of my clients, the following analogy has been very helpful;

           What would happen if you went looking for milk in a hardware store?

            That would be pretty frustrating.

            What if you tried really, really hard to find milk in the hardware store?

            I’d get even more frustrated.  

            What if you went to the manager and requested milk?

            The manager would tell me that it wasn’t going to happen.

            And what if you insisted?

            The manager would tell me to go down the street to the grocery store where they carry milk and stop trying to get it at the hardware store.

The analogy forces an uncomfortable grappling to take place. Are we trying to get milk in a hardware store when we try to get affirmation from a spouse who is not capable of giving it? Are we attempting to get a type of love that our loved one just does not carry? Some people may not be capable of the kind of love that we desire—perhaps their own wounding has blocked their capacity for it, either permanently or temporarily. Others may be consciously or unconsciously withholding the type of love we want out of their own hurt or defensiveness.

Some of the most poignant and productive tears I have witnessed in my office are when my clients really face their futile attempts to get certain responses from people who are not delivering them. The grieving process can begin in a new way when this level of acceptance takes place. And then something profound can happen; people can start to see what love their loved ones are capable of sharing. (After all, light fixtures and lumber have their place in our lives too.) And they also take a new responsibility for getting the milk they need from sources that actually provide it. Grief and radical acceptance unleash a new adult maturity that can be surprisingly freeing.

There is nothing wrong with wanting or even needing love and it is legitimately painful when it doesn’t come from our beloveds. But we can cause ourselves untold suffering when we try to get love from sources that we think ought to provide it but who just don’t. This is where our own relational and spiritual resources come in. Who are the milk providers in your life? Do you have access to God in a way that allows you to receive what you most need directly?

7 comments


  • Colinda Cole-French

    What a powerful and apt analogy. It seems tricky to acknowledge, grieve and accept. Sometimes seems too tempting to just jump to the “I have to just accept this” without processing the real need, disappointment, etc. Thanks for writing.

    September 19, 2013
  • Alise Skinner

    This is lovely and so very helpful.

    September 19, 2013
  • Dave

    What is interesting is that for some, who grew up in a hardware store and never saw milk, will still pursue milk in adulthood. Unfortunately, many will look for milk from someone who also grew up in a hardware store because they don’t have a good picture of what milk looks like. The milkless hardware employee is more familiar than the grocery store employee.

    September 19, 2013
    • Janice

      Wow, way to take the analogy to the next level. I think that you raise a great point about how we can unconsciously perpetuate patterns of NOT getting our needs met. Breaking out of that requires serious intention and effort.

      September 19, 2013
  • anonymous

    So, what if the problem is more subtle? Maybe you are looking for milk at the grocery store, but the grocer keeps trying to sell you chocolate milk? The trouble is, chocolate milk makes you very irritable, so you try to avoid it. Eventually you get pretty angry that the grocer keeps trying to give you chocolate milk, even if you are resigned to getting your regular milk from another source. Do you just change grocers altogether?

    September 20, 2013
    • Janice McWilliams

      Of course it becomes difficult to keep talking in the analogy about relationship matters. But here’s a shot, politely refuse the chocolate milk. Of the grocer keeps pushing chocolate milk, and your request that he/she stop has no impact, then a couple of options come to mind: 1–consider whether you want to create stronger boundaries or 2–whether you can accept the grocer’s imperfect gift (perhaps without drinking it!) as their limited expression of love. You can still get white milk somewhere else!

      September 21, 2013
  • Mark Phifer-Houseman

    Great metaphor. I wonder, though about the consumeristic view of love in general in America (and in my own soul). What if our healing and flourishing will come when we connect with other people outside the hardware store to build a habitat house and at that party there is plenty of milk (and cookies) but not under my control? The brain habits of filling my infinite gulf with “stuff” and people outside of me as fuel is more like the Borg ultimately — thus the destructiveness of people being swept up in the entourage of some celebrity with their 15 minutes of fame who use them and toss them like kleenex.
    What about the case where your spouse doesn’t have any milk to offer, but there are kids and vows involved? I have been close to couples where one person “quits” the marriage because of sex or a lack of listening or a lack of desire to bear children. I am not sure it’s admirable in those cases to walk away.

    September 29, 2013

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