THE BLOG

Engagement Anxiety Dismantled: The Grass Is Always Greener Syndrome

10/30/2011 02:12 pm ET | Updated Dec 30, 2011
  • Sheryl Paul International counselor for anxiety; Author, 'The Conscious Bride'

When my grandparents married in the 1930s, I'm quite certain neither one of them had the kind of engagement anxiety I see among people today. My grandmother did experience grief about leaving her mother and two sisters, and the difficult feelings were displaced onto her wedding dress and veil (a mosquito net -- so an understandable disappointment on her part!), but she didn't spend a moment wondering if she was making the best possible choice or if she loved my grandfather enough or if he was her soul mate -- or any of the other anxiety-based questions that wreak havoc on my clients' minds. At the ripe old age of 21, she knew that it was time to marry. She had had a series of boyfriends in her teenage years so she knew what was out there. When my grandfather -- who had grown up three miles away from her on a neighboring farm -- asked her out, she said yes. Three months later they were married and a year after that my mother was born.

Why the lack of soul-wrenching anxiety? She knew he was a good egg. He was hard-working, honest, responsible, kind, and good-looking to boot. Having grown up in proximity to one another, there was a familiarity in terms of lifestyle, ethics, culture, and values. Having wondered if she was destined to be a spinster, she felt grateful that such a good man came along and wanted to marry her. Their marriage was far from perfect, but they loved each other for over sixty years and enjoyed a fine companionship, including shared interests, an extensive community of friends, and love of family and travel. In essence, they appreciated each other and never lost sight of how lucky they felt to have each other as their spouse.

When my clients wonder if their partner is the right match for them, it's usually because they're looking to "have it all." Brainwashed by an unhealthy culture that inundates them with buzzwords like "the one", "soul mates", and phrases like "I just knew the moment I met him that I was meant to marry him," when that sense of unwavering knowing is lacking, they understandably wonder if they're with the right man. And when the engagement anxiety kicks in full force and causes them to nitpick their fiancé and put his or her every perceived flaw under a microscope, a downward spiral of focusing on what's missing usually begins.

They start to look around at their friends' relationships and wonder at what appears to be unilateral ease and bliss and passion. They reminisce about past boyfriends and long for the trait that he or she possessed that's missing in the current husband or wife to be. In short, they become obsessed by the grass is always greener syndrome where everyone else's relationship and their own past lovers are elevated to the status of perfection. And in so doing, they miss the wonderful man or woman that is standing before them, ready and available and wanting to forge a shared life. They've moved from appreciation and gratitude to negativity and criticism.

"Having it all" is a fantasy and the grass is always greener syndrome of comparison is a futile place to live. There is simply no such thing as the perfect partner. By extensive, there's no such thing as the perfect job, the perfect place to live, or the perfect house. When I hear that a client is falling prey to the grass is always greener syndrome, I ask if they've found themselves in a similar place of obsessive comparisons regarding other aspects of their lives. They almost always respond affirmatively. One client recently said to me, "Not only do I compare my fiancé to other men, I'm always thinking about other places we could live and other jobs I could have. The truth is that I'm with a great guy and live in an adorable town and have a stable, good-paying job, and I'm missing it all."

We live in a "you can have it all culture", and no where is this message more pronounced than around the wedding and one's choice of marriage partner. We're indoctrinated to believe that we can and should have it all, and that anything less than perfection in a mate is settling. When I ask my clients to tell me about their partners, they almost invariably reply with some version of this: "He (or she) is kind, caring, responsible, loyal, honest, hard-working. We enjoy each other's company and are attracted to each other. He's my best friend and the person I want to be around most." When I ask about any potential red-flag issues -- abuse, addiction, betrayal, irreconcilable differences regarding core values or religion - the clients laughs and says, "Oh, no, nothing like that!" Do your parents and friends think you're a good match? Yes. Is he or she someone who would make a good lifetime partner? Definitely. Hmmm... sounds like a far cry from settling to me. It sounds more like a bad case of the grass is always greener syndrome.

The antidote? Connect to and express appreciation and gratitude. One of the most common exercises I suggest to my clients is to write a love letter every day to their partner (to send or not). I ask them to write down all of the qualities they love and appreciate about their spouse-to-be, even if they're not connecting to those positive qualities right now. I suggest that they actively express appreciation and gratitude to their partner every day either verbally or through writing. Appreciation and gratitude will automatically shift the person's attention so that instead of focusing on the negative - what's missing - they begin to focus on the positive and what's working.

And then, instead of focusing on the fact that their fiancé doesn't make the best conversation over breakfast in the morning, she focuses on the fact that he does make a delicious breakfast. And instead of focusing with hawk-like attention on the fact that her fiancé isn't the funniest guy at the party (unlike her previous boyfriend), she focuses on the fact that he's always looking out for her, opening both the door and his heart for her (unlike her previous boyfriend, who always seemed to have one foot out the door). Through attention to what's working, she remembers all of the reasons why she chose this great guy in the first place. And at least one prong of her engagement anxiety begins to loosen its hold on her mind so she can begin to enjoy her partner and look forward to her wedding and marriage with excitement. It's what your grandmother would have wanted.