Scanning the Horizon for Greener Grass on the Other Side

There's a phenomenon at cocktail parties where the person you're talking to darts his eyes around the room in search of someone more interesting, powerful, or famous. The guy is asking himself the question: Can I do better?

This is the same question that lurks in the minds of people in medium to long-term romantic relationships: Can I do better? Am I settling? Could I possibly date or marry someone more attractive, more intelligent, and more compatible overall?

The "grass is always greener on the other side" is the idea that we glorify what we don't have or can't see. When trapped in a long-term commitment, we overestimate the indeterminable opportunity costs.

I believe that in romantic relationships where neither party has significant relationship experience outside their current one, this can-I-do-better question is the most frequent ultimate cause for break-up. (The stated proximate cause usually differs.)

I wonder if the strongest, longest relationships are those that do have an extended break along the way. With a break, both parties can compare being in the relationship to being single or (preferably) to being with someone else. If you do get back together, you have a sense of whether you can in fact do better, or whether what you have going is as good as it gets.

The majority of couples that break up do not get back together; but my theory is that those that do are stronger in the long-run than those which never have the break in the first place.

Port this theory to the professional world. Say you're running GE's leadership development program. Say you hire a top-notch recent college grad, he spends 5-6 years working his way up the ranks, and you're grooming him for a future senior management position. If his career experience with other companies has been minimal, should you send him to work for a totally different organization for two years, and then hire him back at GE, to satisfy his can-I-do-better itch? Should non-competitive companies, with low turnover, in different but related industries, have exchange programs?

Bottom Line: Wondering whether there are brighter pastures on the other side is a source of stress and dissatisfaction for people in long-term commitments. They start scanning the horizon for something better. The commitment is therefore strongest when this curiosity has been satisfied, and they return to the commitment with a better understanding of their real (versus imagined) opportunity costs.

22 Responses to Scanning the Horizon for Greener Grass on the Other Side

  1. It’s always amazing to me how much romantic relationships can teach us about business, social media, life in general. I wonder why it is, then, that some accomplished people are SUCH disasters in that same arena?!

    My current job position was absolutely a piece of “grass is greener” as you stated. I worked in a small start-up for 3 years, decided it “wasn’t right for me.” It focused a LOT on sales and I wasn’t very good at that piece of the business. So I decided to go into PR for awhile.

    I learned there that I missed the culture of my previous company, the people and yes, I missed the opportunity to talk to people and sell them stuff based on what they needed (PR you hawk a LOT of stuff in bulk en masse just cause, individual sales you cater to your customer.) I was lucky enough to be re-hired by my start up employer, hit top sales goals 2 years in a row, and be promoted to my now management position (where I TEACH people how to sell…weird…)

    Just a real life anecdote for your theory.

  2. DaveJ says:

    This has a lot of validity for the “first time through” because there is nothing to compare an experience against. For those who have had a few long-term relationships, or jobs, or whatever, the “grass-is-greener” syndrome occurs primarily in people who have it perennially, probably because they crave variety.

  3. Chris Yeh says:

    This is another clear example of the benefits of satisficing rather than optimizing. There’s always “someone better” at any cocktail party. Better to simply spend time with people you find interesting.

    I also agree with Dave’s assessment. People in long-term relationships who suffer from the “grass is always greener” syndrome either shouldn’t have gotten into that relationship to begin with, or lack the experience to know when they are in a good relationship.

  4. Vimal Vora says:

    There is a great real life example of this, Bain Consulting. They offer externships to consultants where their salary is paid by the company (often a company with deep relationships with Bain) but benefits are still paid by Bain. I’ve heard the consultants that return to Bain invariably become lifers and are fired up on their return.

  5. Zoli Erdos says:

    I think there is a point when you stop calling it a romantic relationship and it’s just love. At that point there is no more greener grass syndrome. And if you don’t reach that point, it wasn’t the real thing anyway…

  6. jhl says:

    For non careful readers like me:

    fired _up_ on their return.

  7. LP says:

    I’ve been thinking about this lately, and I think the grass-is-greener problem is a basic cognitive bias, and for those prone to it, no amount of exploring alternatives can quell the sense of missing out on something better. In fact, for those experiencing this ‘known bug,’ the quest for comparison can lead to a whole lifetime spent gathering comparative experiences, without ever committing to a course of action. Better to simply acknowledge the mental glitch and move on, unless there’s actually something deeply unsatisfactory about your current situation, counterfactuals and comparisons aside.

  8. Adam Gilbert says:

    Ben, I love this post!

    LP – You hit the nail on the head! This is also something I’ve been noodling on for a while now.

    I think many ambitious people who want to change the world in their own little (or big way) have this problem.

    The problem is that the very thing that drives them to want to change the world, or achieve certain things, makes them not appreciate them once they make their goals or dreams happen.

    I think many people are constantly chasing wind or an illusion with business and relationships. And that doesn’t seem to be a very satisfying or fulfilling life.

    Eventually, you just have to pick something or someone that you’re into and choose to make the absolute best of it, in my humble opinion.

  9. Ben Casnocha says:

    Absolutely. The theory does not work as well for non first or second time experiences.

  10. Ben Casnocha says:

    I’m not sure if this is true, Zoli. Relationships can be love-filled but decline over time, and the grass in greener syndrome can enter anew into one or both partner’s heads.

  11. Grant says:

    Adam and LP have it right, in terms knowing when to pick something, and move on.

    Longterm relationships take a pro-active act of will. It’s not something you are in because you can’t “do” any better, but because it’s the commitment that you made, primarily to yourself.

    And the decision to make that commitment is related to the realization of the “glitch” that LP referred to – and the futile nature of always wanting something better.

    The decision is to commit to something better (in this case, the longterm relationship itself) rather than leave it up to chance and unavoidable disappointment.

  12. Kevin Cassidy says:

    Ben – I think different definitions of “love” are butting up against each other here. A relationship can be filled with great and intense long-term good feeling and still not describe what Zoli is talking about.

    I think the way Zoli is defining “love” isn’t only feeling but commitment that is capable of outlasting the decline of the good feeling.

  13. Eric Arias says:

    My wife and I are moving to Portland, Maine to satisfy our curiosity about life in the northeast being better for us than life in San Antonio and Austin.

    However, regarding romantic relationships, my experience differs perhaps.

    Before I dated my wife I dated only 1 other girl for less than a month.

    Once, in a long chat into the early morning, we considered breaking up and what it would mean for us and decided we’d rather be together.

    I think I wasn’t much curious about life with other girls because of mediated experience. Books, movies (The Last Kiss, YPF, etc.), my friends’ relationships, my brother’s relationships all gave me a taste of how couples could behave toward each other.

    Perhaps your theory can be amended to allow for mediated experience?

    It would be lovely if I could find better mediated experience about life in Portland. For that and, I suppose, working at other companies it’s difficult to find good stories to simulate what it would be like.

    It’s always a pleasure to read your thoughts Ben. Keep it up. Cheers.

  14. Krishna says:

    Man’s quest for (illusory or even non-existent) perfection has no end. That search for novelty/variety is a kind of rejuvenation, something that keep us on our toes, always on, filled with everlasting hope. The greener grass – is not a syndrome, it’s a part of our being. Even when you have the best of everything, your quest for `better than the best’ will continue because the best poem is yet to be penned and the best portrait is yet to be painted.

  15. Joy Chen says:

    Very interesting post and comments. As someone who played the field romantically for many years (got married at 39), I understand the itchy-feet syndrome. Those experiences made me happier than ever for the marriage we have now. As a headhunter, my professional experience is that I can get nearly anyone to talk or meet to discuss greener pastures. Good or bad, the concept of company loyalty is waning. I wonder how the recession will impact that trend.

  16. Russ says:

    I am not sure that the grass will get greener in due time. I have already seen a trend of more people working harder for less. I think every person needs to revisit their values and stay true to them. There will be some bright spots of hope though.

  17. Maxine says:

    The older I get, the more I realise that “something better” is a function of me being more skillful not the other person being more impressive.

    A skillful conversationalist can make the most timid recluse seem like the most fascinating person in the room whereas someone who has a “come on, impress me” attitude will rarely ever scratch the surface or make a real connection.

  18. David says:

    I think Ben and LP both concluded this condition nicely…

    Humans always want that other “greener” side, partner, conversation, or life.

    But I don’t know if this desire for the “greener” is always a bad thing. This same “itchy-feet” that Joy was talking about is what led humanity to push farther and discover more about their surroundings.

    If humans were more prone to be content with their current situation, would we push further and harder into the unknown?

  19. Any half-conscious mensch can do better in social situations than the loser who “darts his eyes around the room in search of someone more interesting, powerful, or famous”, because it’s rude.

    Power and fame are vastly overrated anyway, except for those with the soul of a craven whore.

    How many times in my young bisexual salad days did I walk into a crowded raging bar and sweep my eyes over the room in search of the most beautiful woman in it.

    When I found her, more often than not she was alone, because all the brave players were too intimidated to approach her.

    Even Jerry Lewis could do this. I’d walk straight to her, and stand just a hair too close so she could feel my body heat (loud music is conducive to such an approach, naturally).

    Then I would insinuate myself into her consciousness with what amounted to an interview. Invariably she was so grateful.

    It didn’t really matter whether I scored or not– seduction is an art form best practiced with the artist’s appreciation for nuance and the beauty of simplicity (conversation is an artistic medium, too).

    The key to success with women (and men) is to make them feel fascinating, in public life as well as a marriage.

    He who makes the effort will always outperform the groupthink crowd.

  20. Anne Good says:

    I love this post! I’ve been married for over two years and together with my husband for over 8 years—except for a break up period that lasted about 6 weeks. That break up was the best thing that ever happened to us. I was ready to settle down, he didn’t know and it just took separating (no contact during that period) for him to realize what he wanted.

    I really feel like we have a rock-solid relationship built on all the right principles. We talk about the strength of our bond all the time, especially after seeing various interactions of our friends and their spouses. I guess that old cheesy adage of the butterfly is true. If you let it go and it flies away, it was never yours to begin with, but if it comes back it’s yours forever.

  21. For some, the jumping back in the puddle is the difference between making a choice to be in a relationship versus being in something that is based more on dependency. I would guess that in more cases than not this is closer to genuine love.

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