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Office Hours With Dr. Jim
by James Houran, Ph.D

In this column, "Dr. Jim" honestly and candidly answers your questions about dating, love and sexuality. He doesn’t tell you what you want to hear – he tells you what you need to hear. Dr. Jim is committed to offering you guidance based on responsible clinical practice and hard data from the latest scientific studies. Send Dr. Jim your questions today for consideration in an upcoming issue.

"Grass is Greener on the Other Side" Mentality

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The Grass is Always Greener on the Other Side?

What causes the "grass is greener on the other side" mentality in dating relationships?


Admittedly it’s a paradox, but human beings are simultaneously creatures of habit and creatures that tend to get bored easily. People do what’s familiar to them because familiarity and predictability equal safety and comfort. But when excitement wanes in a relationship for either person in a dating relationship, we look for ways to add excitement. Sometimes the couple does new and novel activities to add spice, and sometimes one or both partners look outside the relationship for something new. From a neurochemical perspective, excitement from new and novel things can induce the same feelings as being in love. With all this in mind, it’s easy to see why some people may start thinking that the “grass is greener on the other side.”

I could stop there, but there’s more information you should consider. When people want to stay in a relationship, they find reasons and maintain a mindset whereby they are better off in the relationship than out of it(5,6,7). For example, high levels of relationship satisfaction can involve positive distortions(4) or what is known as social desirability bias in an individual’s perceived relationship quality(3). This tendency to describe one’s relationship in unrealistically positive terms strongly resembles psychological constructs such as positive illusions(12) and unrealistic optimism(9). On the other hand, people who want to leave a relationship look for evidence that supports that belief. This is motivates many cases of Fear of Commitment (FOC).

FOC is an ambivalence or lack of desire to commit exclusively to one romantic partner. Commitment seems to involve three factors: Long-term Orientation, an Intention to Persist and Psychological Attachment(8). These three factors significantly predict how well a couple functions as well as whether they’ll break up. Long-term orientation especially figures heavily in the formula for successful maintenance of a relationship over time.

In comparing men and women’s perceptions of romantic relationships, one study(11) found – contrary to previous research and theory on male experience – that few men mentioned fear of intimacy or fear of being controlled. Moreover, about the same number of women reported these feelings as did men in the study. However, significantly more men than women expressed fear of commitment, among other factors. This same research also analyzed the reasons men gave for why they experience fear in relationships within the context of sex role expectations. Men expressed anxiety over their perceived need to be the dominant partner and to be in control of and responsible for making decisions in the relationship, according to social mores.

Similarly, other researchers(10) studied the “dismissing” form of adult romantic attachment orientation across 62 cultural regions. Dismissing attachment orientations are indicated by an avoidance of close personal relationships and the tendency to prevent romantic disappointment by maintaining a sense of relational independence and emotional distance(1,2). A major finding from this important cross-cultural study(10) was that “Men are more dismissing than women in almost all cultures, but these differences are usually quite small in magnitude” (p. 322).

Therefore, “the grass is greener on the other side” phenomenon is not confined to men and can involve a number of separate or entangled mindsets:

» Fear of intimacy

» Fear of losing control

» Fear of settling

» Fear of living up to social norms

» Fear of letting your partner down

» Fear that your partner will not meet your expectations

This is why it’s so crucial for individuals first to sort out their own issues and understand their mindsets before pursuing a serious, committed relationship. The grass will always be greener on the other side if you’re looking for an “out,” but the grass is just fine where you stand if you have a realistic and healthy view of relationships and have found a truly caring, loving person who meets your “must haves.” Funny how our hearts follow where our heads go


1Bartholomew, K. (1990). Avoidance of intimacy: an attachment perspective. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 7, 147-178.

2Bartholomew, K, & Horowitz, L. M. (1991). Attachment styles in young adults: a test of a four-category model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61, 226-244.

3Edmonds, V. H. (1967). Marital conventionalization: definition and measurement. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 29, 681-688.

4Fowers, B. J., & Olson, D. H. (1993). ENRICH marital satisfaction scale: a brief research and clinical tool. Journal of Family Psychology, 7, 176-185.

5Johnson, D.J., & Rusbult, C.E. (1989). Resisting temptation: Devaluation of alternative partners as a means of maintaining commitment in close relationships. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 57, 967-980.

6Levinger, G. (1986). Compatibility in relationships. Social Science, 71, 173-177.

7Neff, L. A., & Karney, B. R. (2003). The dynamic structure of relationship perceptions: differential importance as a strategy of relationship maintenance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29, 1433-1446.

8Rusbult, C. E., & Buunk, B. P. (1993). Commitment processes in close relationships: an interdependence analysis. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 10, 175-204.

9Scheier, M. F., & Carver, C. S. (1992). Effects of optimism on psychological and physical well being: theoretical overview and empirical update. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 16, 201-228.

10Schmitt, D. P., Alcalay, L., & Allensworth, M., et al. (2003). Are men universally more dismissing than women? gender differences in romantic attachment across 62 cultural regions. Personal Relationships, 10, 307-331.

11Sweet, H. B. (1995). Perceptions of undergraduate male experiences in heterosexual romantic relationships: a sex role analysis. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Department of Counseling, Developmental Psychology and Research Methods, Boston College: Boston, MA.

12Taylor, S. E., & Brown, J. D. (1988). Illusion and well-being: a social psychological perspective on mental health. Psychological Bulletin, 103, 193-210.


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