Love & Sex Magazine

Grass is Greener Syndrome: The Pain of Loss

By Nathan Feiles, Lmsw @therapynathan

Grass is Greener Syndrome (GIG) is a complicated issue. What is understood and experienced as GIG Syndrome is actually the larger symptom of an underlying process that has been building for some time. It’s generally a combination of separate issues coming together to create a larger scale problem. I am a therapist in New York City, and coach people long distance all over the world on overcoming and managing GIG Syndrome. In my experience, there’s a lot to say about the complexity of this issue, of which only a piece can be addressed in this post (see The Grass is Greener Syndrome for a previous article).

What makes it tricky is that for each person who struggles in the GIG process, many similar elements tend to be present in some form or another, however from one person to the next the strength of the components varies. It’s not as simple as ‘just making a choice’, or ‘wanting what you can’t have’. It is much more complicated than this, which is why it can be very hard to break free from the grasp of GIG syndrome or effectively manage it without help.

Some examples of the issues underlying the GIG process are issues with decision-making, commitment, intimacy, fear of boredom, finding/maintaining passion, and several others not listed here. Essentially, when working to overcome Grass is Greener Syndrome, you’re handling a combination of issues all at once. But first, it’s necessary to understand for each person which issues are leading the charge and which are playing more a supporting role.

Another of the underlying issues is pain. Whether it’s a romantic relationship, place to live, career, or otherwise, the element of pain in the GIG process is significant, as it often has a strong hand in keeping people trapped, or bouncing back and forth between two entities.

What does pain have to do with Grass is Greener Syndrome?

The GIG mechanism is, most simply stated, a desire for perfection. To complicate the picture a bit, it’s actually an externalized projection of perfectionism. Without going into too much depth on the projection here (it’s a topic that will have its own post), people struggling in GIG processes are often unknowingly acknowledging the emotional product of human limitation (and the frustration of this) by trying to perfect their external environment. This generally involves a strong emotional need to have ‘more’ than the present situation is providing. There are many possible emotional processes lending to this need, but for now suffice to say that as long as those needs are not being met, a deep void and lack of fulfillment is experienced.

When this happens, even if the current relationship (whether to the person, place, job, or otherwise) is good, the missing pieces begin to wash out any sense of fulfillment or satisfaction. The person struggling with GIG syndrome starts to experience a deep sense of loss regarding the pieces of her/his self that are not being fulfilled.

GIG syndrome tends to be an all-or-nothing, or black and white process. There is either fulfillment, or lack or fulfillment of each need, with little room for in between. Therefore, the parts that are not being fulfilled end up feeling starved. The starvation creates an emotional pain and an urge to fill the void. This is generally when the person stuck in the GIG process will move to the other choice that will satisfy the longings and stop the pain.

However — and this is a crucial point — in making the change, they leave a situation that was already doing its own job to satisfy many other needs. These needs just weren’t as well noticed because they were being fulfilled. The pain of the unfulfilled needs had all the attention. So now, a whole new set of needs just opened up where the new relationship isn’t able to satisfy these areas. This is fine for a period of time, as the new greener grass has taken over in the new relationship. Call it a honeymoon phase, if you will. So for a while, there is a feeling that you’re getting everything you ever wanted. You feel fulfilled.

Then, as the needs that aren’t being fulfilled anymore begin to be starved out, once again, a feeling of pain emerges where the new voids are experienced. And again, the focus goes to the pain because it is calling more attention than what is currently being fulfilled. And again, the search for something to fulfill these needs is underway. The cycle continues.

Why is this so significant?

To go a little deeper, the pain behind this process is often related to dissociated loss. It doesn’t necessarily have to mean loss by death, but could be loss of pieces of oneself, or loss of caretakers, parental divorce, death, and so on. Generally, these points of loss originally were so painful, and possibly not well-mourned or processed, that there is a deeper unconscious need to avoid emotional pain at all costs.

Therefore, each time the pain of unfulfilled needs shows up, the urge to go back to the either the other relationship, or find the next greener grass becomes the priority. It feels too overwhelming to fully work through the pain of the loss of one side or the other (and some interpret the presence of pain and yearning to indicate that they’re supposed to be in the other place — which isn’t necessarily the case).  This keeps the GIG mechanism rolling forward.

What do I do about it?

Keep in mind, there is more to the Grass is Greener process than only the pain element. But it’s an important element on a list of important pieces that need to be addressed. If you find yourself repeatedly jumping over the fence, starting over in relationships, career, moving, or otherwise, this is something to address with a professional. GIG syndrome is difficult to manage without outside help, as once you’re actually experiencing the issue, the underlying process tends to be controlling your emotions. This is why it can be so hard to conceive of a healthy solution when stuck in GIG process. A professional who is versed in the complexities of Grass is Greener Syndrome can help you to manage your current crisis, while also shifting your cognitive and emotional process to prevent and better manage this issue in the future.


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