How many times have we heard the cliche, “The grass is always greener on the other side?” While the overuse of this phrase has mostly dulled its impact, people who experience the “grass is greener syndrome” endure a significant struggle with commitment.
What causes this issue?
The hallmark of the “grass is greener syndrome” is the idea that there is always something better that we are missing. So rather than experiencing stability, security, and satisfaction in the present environment, the feeling is there is more and better elsewhere, and anything less than ideal won’t do. Whether it’s with relationships, careers, or where you live, there is always one foot out the door.
The problem with this is the greener grass is usually based on fantasy and fear. The fear comes from several possibilities, including fear of being trapped in commitment, fear of boredom, fear of loss of individuality, and fear of oppression.
Along with these fears comes the issue of compromise. In people who fear commitment, comprising certain desires, needs, and values for the sake of the unity can feel like oppressive sacrifice. When this happens, the perception is that there is something else out there that will allow us to have all that we crave, want, and value, and that it will happen on our terms.
This is where the element of fantasy comes in, and with the fantasy comes projection. We’re going to want what we don’t have, and there’s a fantasy that we’ll get what we don’t have, and that the parts that we’re currently happy with won’t be sacrificed in this change. However, what ends up happening is that after the “honeymoon phase” of making the change, we find ourselves wanting to flip to the other side of the fence again because we discover that there are other things that we don’t have, and because the novelty of the change wears off. It ends up being true, that we always want what we don’t have, even if we’ve already jumped the fence several times.
This is where projection comes in. When the grass is greener on the other side, we’re usually (if not always) placing personal unhappiness with ourselves onto something outside of us — generally a partner, career, living environment, etc. We rely on polishing our external environment to soothe a deeper internal dissatisfaction. Though the environment changes when jumping the fence, after a brief internal high, without constant stimulation and newness, the dissatisfaction becomes the same.
I think the cliche should be changed to this: “The grass is only as green as we keep it.”
The grass always starts out a nice and shiny green (‘honeymoon phase’), but will begin to wear a bit with use. Then, it still needs to be maintained in order to stay a nice shade of green. The dulled green (or even brown) grass on our current side of the fence would be greener if we nurture it. The shiny green grass on the other side of the fence is our wish for our internal selves — to be happy, unscathed, and fully satisfied.
The truth is, as human beings, we are all in some ways less than perfect, and therefore, the shiny grass is an illusion. Our job is to keep the grass as green as possible, which may take some outside help. But no matter what, it won’t remain as green as the moment we first set foot on it.
I must insert that there are certainly situations where another situation is a better situation than the current one (for example, a healthy relationship versus an abusive one; a job that’s more fulfilling to you versus an unfulfilling job). But the “grass is greener syndrome” has its own particular presentation, primarily rooted in patterns:
• Repetition. A pattern in your life of constantly wanting better and repeatedly seeking change in relationships, jobs, environment.
• Perfection. It’s one thing to go from an abusive relationship to a positively-functioning relationship, but it’s another to feel that a string of functioning relationships are never good enough. There may be a search for the fantasized ideal taking place.
• Wanting to have and eat your cake. This is in line with the struggle of compromise. If you must have every want and perceived need that stimulates you, then it’s likely that the grass will never be green enough unless you’re the only one on the grass — and even then, it won’t be green enough because of what may be missing from this picture.
• Wanting to run away. If you see a pattern of being unable to settle in one geographic place, relationship, job, etc., there are deeper reasons for this than just not being in the “right” environment.
• Ultimate dissatisfaction. If you enjoy constant change, and living out this sort of life, then there’s technically nothing wrong with this. But if the reason for the constant change comes from repetition of dissatisfaction, and if you’re looking to become more secure, stable, and settled, then this is an issue to look into.
The best way to deal with the “grass is greener syndrome” is to learn the underlying reasons beyond the abstract ideas of idealizations, perfectionism, and the inability to commit. Psychotherapy is a good way to facilitate this process. The other piece is learning how to nurture and increase connection to what’s current so the relationships maintain and strengthen rather than become unsatisfying. The idea is to build an internal place of stability, rather than jumping around in your external life to compensate for a lack of internal stability.