Grass Is Greener Syndrome (GIGS)

Tom Jones. How could you not love that crooning voice? And Jerry Lee Lewis. He made pianos come to life!

And what did they have in common? Just a year apart, they recorded the ballad, “The Green, Green Grass of Home.”

Most people don’t know that what seemed like a sweet story was only the dream of a man about to die (on death row).

The lyrics started with:

The old home town looks the same
As I step down from the train,
And there to meet me is my Mama and Papa.

Down the road I look and there runs Mary,
Hair of gold and lips like cherries.
It’s good to touch the green, green grass of home

“Green grass” has become a symbolic thought process many of us have: the grass is always greener on the other side.  On the other side of what? The other side of the fence? The other side of the tracks? The other side of the country? The other side of COVID? The other side of this relationships?

The state of mind that produces these distracting thoughts is so prevalent that psychology has a name for it: the grass is greener syndrome — GIGS.

So what is GIGS? It has been defined as:

  • A condition where a person believes that they already have, or may in the future, miss out on something “better.“
  • The toxic idea that if everything is not perfect, the person is missing out on the better things that are possible.
  • The constant feeling that one is “missing out” in their life.

The definitions sound benign. But when you really grasp the syndrome, it becomes clear that GIGS is extremely damaging. And damaging not just to the person who has it, but to everyone around them.

GIGS has a long list of symptoms. Here are a few:

  • Being critical
  • Continuous complaining
  • So future-focused, unable to be present in the moment
  • Noticing what is wrong, instead of what might be right
  • Perfectionism
  • Feeling trapped
  • Fear of boredom
  • Sabotaging opportunities and relationships
  • Noticing flaws in every good thing
  • Impulsivity
  • Having multiple relationships (even if some must be secret)
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Issues with commitment
  • Sleep problems
  • Low-level depression

The list could go on. Psychology says that if you struggle with at least four of these at the same time, you could be classified as suffering from GIGS.

Research indicates that GIGS is normally a battle between fear and fantasy. Fear that one might be trapped (in a relationship, in a job, in a situation.) – and the fantasy that there is something more perfect out there.

Those suffering from GIGS cannot enjoy or appreciate their current situation. They end up running hard from the fear in search of something better, the fantasy.

Does this remind you of the Rolling Stones?

I try, and I try, and I try, and I try

I can’t get no,

I can’t get no,

I can’t get no — satisfaction.

Some researchers call GIGS a state of “ingratitude.” 

I’m sure we all have experienced a bit of this. While looking for the perfect outfit for a special event. we like one outfit we’ve found, but we have to keep shopping and shopping and shopping. We fear that there is another outfit that is just perfect, or at least, better. We just have not yet found it.

Sad to say, GIGS seems to show up most often in relationships. We become obsessed with the notion that there is “someone better” out there for us.  This thought process damages our self-esteem, creates a sense of being “unrespectable,” and leaves us less able to trust.

Actually, both partners end up severely affected by GIGS.

My intent here is not to shame the person suffering through this false obsession. It is easy to fall into.  But I want to help you find a way forward, where you can be grateful for the moment you are in.  Where you can give up you fear/fantasy dance.

And I would speak encouragement to those in a relationship with someone who is struggling through this terrible syndrome. It hurts!

Four stages have been identified for people doing the fear/fantasy dance of the green grass syndrome:

  1. They silently gather “evidence” to prove that there is too much “wrong” with their current situation. That they should be looking for something better. Sadly, what they tell themselves is evidence of a need to get out of their relationship is usually minor relationship challenges. Challenges that call us all to growth when we work together with our partners.
  • The second stage is exploring options. They will actually say they need a break to see if there is something better out there. I remember experiencing that once in my life. I was in a solid relationship. We were having a wonderful time together when he got the notion that he needed to make sure there was nothing better out there. I was devastated. It’s not that I thought I was “all that and a bag of chips!” But it made no sense for him to be searching.  We were having such a great time! Then he made a laundry list of what was wrong with our relationship. I was stunned at how minor the things on the list were. They seemed quite normal! I remember the deep damage it caused me.
  • The third stage is when reality hits. They certainly do not like this stage.  They discover over time that the person they had their eye on also has flaws!  Wow! They often try to fix this by turning to extreme behaviors, or perhaps addictions.
  • The fourth stage in GIGS is experiencing deep regret. The tragedy is that, since they are relying on external forces to bring their satisfaction, their history repeats itself, over and over.

So chasing greener grass becomes far less glamorous than it sounds. As a matter of fact, it reminds me of the saying attributed to Albert Einstein: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.“

So how on earth does one step out of GIGS?

Here are three powerful starters:

1. Water your own grass! Somehow it’s easier to enjoy looking into options. That way we don’t have to work on our current relationship. To step out of GIGS, you must learn to water your own grass. What does that mean? First, It means to be present in your current situation. Find things to enjoy about it. Invest in it. The investment may not work out in the long run. But you will certainly have a better perspective than sitting on the fence and looking at the other side. This is the step I find most difficult for my clients. They are so busy figuring out what they are going to do once they get divorced, that they never take the time to make true investments in their relationship.

2. Stop comparing! Usually, we use comparisons to diminish our current situation. I mean, get real! It is not fair to compare your current relationship to someone else you are infatuated with. You don’t really know what that situation is going to be like. And you likely would not be nearly as dissatisfied in your current relationship if you were not practicing comparison. Interestingly enough, research provides a sobering truth. When a person struggling with GIGS leaves their current relationship for a “greener grass” relationship, the chance of the next relationship succeeding is about 5%. You must stop comparing!

3. Spend time noticing the good things on your side of the fence NOW! Recently I was asking a man with GIGS what was good on his side of the fence right now. He was already engaged to be married. But he was considering leaving that relationship for something he thought would be better. When I asked the question, he said, “I’m not sure there’s that much good on this side of the fence.” I asked him if he would be willing to take one week and not speak to the “greener grass” woman. Then write a daily list of 25 good things he saw or experienced in his current relationship for that one week.

When he returned, he was totally amazed at all of the good things he had failed to notice.

Actually, my assignment simply sent his reticular activating system (RAS) to looking for some good things. Click here for my blog on our RAS. Sure enough, he found them! Then we were able to work through all three of my suggestions above for getting him out of his GIGS. 

In my practice, I have found that one of the key components of GIGS is being in the state of “ingratitude.” I’m not saying that every relationship is meant to be. But, I’m certainly 100% for saving marriages. On the other hand, if we can’t be grateful for what we have, we are not likely to find things better out there. Not everything that glitters is gold.

So I would add suggestion four to our initial list: learn to be grateful for where you are and what you have!

And just a bit of my experience for those of you who may be in a relationship with someone looking for greener grass; or maybe they’ve already left you behind. First, I want to tell you I’m so sorry for how your heart has been hurt. But secondly, I’d like to look you right in the eye and take your hands and say to you, “This is not about you. You are amazing! Do not allow this to lower your self-esteem or dampen your confidence. There are great things ahead for you, and you deserve the very best!”

Most of my readers know that I am a Christian and that I enjoy studying the Bible. I hope you can give me a moment of grace to share a story from the Bible that helps me help people with GIGS.

In the story (Mark 6), Jesus and his disciples had been doing a lot of teaching. Jesus told the disciples that they should go to a desert place and rest. When they got there, a huge crowd was wanting to hear Jesus teach. Jesus had compassion and begin teaching them. Most people know the story about the fish and the loaves that fed thousands on that day. But I think the best part of the story was when Jesus told the disciples to have the people sit down on the green grass.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think there’s much green grass in the desert. (Golf courses excepted, and I’m pretty sure there were no golf courses back then!)

But I tell people all the time that there is green grass right in their own dry place. I think that whether we have GIGS or we’re in any adverse situation — the grass is not likely to be greener on the other side. The grass is green right here if we will just find it. Sometimes that green grass is a friend who will encourage us. Sometimes that green grass is a coach who can help us focus on the good in our relationship. Sometimes that green grass is just a moment of peace while we are out on a walk.

I’m a big believer that there are two things you can do in any unfortunate situation:

1. Be grateful. Not necessarily for what you’re going through, but the things for which you can be grateful.

2. Look for the green grass right where you are! 

You can always do these two things.  They cost nothing and take little time. But they have the ability to restore your peace, your self-esteem, your confidence, and your hope!

The grass is rarely greener on the other side, my friend. There’s green grass right where you are, even if you feel like you are in a desert.

Look for it, hope for it, pray for it. You will see it, and you will move forward in peace, joy, and hope!

And as always, if you see someone else in the desert, reach out to them. Help them see the green grass too!