Engagement Anxiety Dismantled: The Grass Is Always Greener Syndrome

When my grandparents got 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.

13 comments to Engagement Anxiety Dismantled: The Grass Is Always Greener Syndrome

  • Natalie

    This post speaks to the heart of what was my engagement anxiety. It took me until a few months after my wedding to really get a hold of focusing on positive qualities instead of what was missing. It’s the classic self-fulfilling prophecy… if you are only focusing on what’s NOT there, think of how much you’re missing what IS there. Rarely (although it still happens occasionally) do I go to the super picky place with my husband anymore… and when I do, I realize it much faster and try to figure out what else is going on in my life. Usually, there’s some outside force that’s making me uneasy, which in turn brings about old habits of picking apart my relationship.

    I often envy my grandparents’ generation. Love was there in both sets of my grandparents’ marriages. However, in the 40s and 50s, it seemed that the commitment of marriage outranked the love aspect of marriage… and I’m talking more of the romatic love aspect of marriage so many women feel should be there today. I know my grandmother loved my grandfather (both sets, actually), but I also know that there were many issues that could not have been easy. World War II causing deployments overseas, leaving my grandmother home with two small children. Drinking issues. Little money. But, from everything I’ve heard, they had a fantastic marriage. Why? Because it’s what you did then. You committed. And the love was there. But the commitment is what I feel many people miss these days. They think it should be easy if the love is there. Well, if there’s one thing I’ve learned… love is almost the easy part. The commitment takes work.

    Thank you for this post. Even 3 years post-wedding, I find it refreshing to read this point of view that is slowly making its way into more and more conversations.

    • “Well, if there’s one thing I’ve learned… love is almost the easy part. The commitment takes work.” Yes! And then we have to question what we mean by the word “love” if it’s not just the romantic fluttery chemical feeling that happens in the beginning of a relationship. I’ll blog on that one soon… : )

  • Sarah

    I knew my future husband for at least a year before I fell for him. We were friends and worked together. He was with someone else, and I was dating – and had been dating extensively for years. I had had a lot of boyfriends in my history by the time I met him. He and I were friends and spent many hours talking and hanging out with groups of other friends and co-workers. He and I would talk for hours sometimes after everyone had gone home, and I thought highly of him. I never thought of him as a romantic possibility because he didn’t meet a single one of, what I thought of as important, criteria. Literally nothing.

    But one day I was sitting there working, and I had just broken up with yet another boyfriend who seemed “perfect for me”, who fulfilled so much of my little list of what I thought I wanted, but who ultimately was just another jerk. Anyway, I was sitting there ruminating about what I really wanted in a guy (tall, artist or musician, cool, sexy, into the same things I was into, etc.), and all the sudden it dawned on me – this list has never made me happy. I have dated lots of guys that fit my criteria. I dated the tall, skinny lead singer. I dated the sexy poet. I dated the drummer, the writer, the painter. The one who liked independent movies, the one who loved Indian food, the one who liked to travel. But none of them made me happy, and I didn’t make them happy either.

    What I realized I wanted was just someone who made me feel special. I just wanted to feel special, that’s it. So he didn’t have to be tall, or handsome, or a poet, or a singer, or whatever…a vegetarian or an art lover. I just wanted to be around someone who made me feel good. If you can distill it to just that, it’s not that hard to know if you are with the right person. Because someone either makes you feel good, or he doesn’t.

    Maybe that’s what our grandparents had. Just meet a nice boy and settle down. Not the perfect boy, but a nice one. Nice goes a long way.

    • If all of my clients followed your advice, I probably wouldn’t have any clients! It really is as simple as that: do you enjoy being together? Do you make each other feel good? Are you with a good, nice boy? Life is so complicated these days, and we seem to make it even more complicated with our requirements for “the perfect life.” Our grandparents weren’t searching for the perfect life. They weren’t trying to “have it all.” They just wanted a good life with a good partner. So simple…

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