What is Cognitive Dissonance?
Cognitive dissonance is a term that means “mental distress.” In particular, it’s the mental distress a person experiences when they have two conflicting thoughts about the same topic simultaneously, as it pertains to an action that they are going to take. The reason this is so distressing is that we need our thoughts and actions to agree with each other. If our thoughts and actions don’t line up, we act in a way that doesn’t make sense to us, which causes confusion, and, if left unresolved, mental anguish. To relieve this mental distress, we either have to change our thoughts to match our actions or change our actions to match our thoughts. Most of the time, we tend to change our thoughts about what we are experiencing until our reality becomes painful enough to take different actions. When we change our thoughts, we do so by either denying them, trying to suppress them, or rationalizing them.
Everyone experiences some degree of cognitive dissonance regularly; however, when a person is in an abusive relationship, the degree and frequency of their cognitive dissonance is extreme. This is because their brains are continually trying to make logical sense out of illogical behavior—from both their partner and themselves. This ongoing cognitive dissonance is a significant reason as to why they feel so emotionally and physically exhausted.
Examples of Cognitive Dissonance
Example #1: One morning Becky puts on her jeans. She is surprised when she finds they are tight. She experiences cognitive dissonance when she has two conflicting thoughts: “These jeans are tight, I must have gained weight,” and “These jeans are tight, but I don’t think I’ve gained weight.” Becky is mildly confused about what she’s experiencing and looks for an explanation. She might tell herself that her jeans shrank in the dryer, or that they don’t fit because she had a big breakfast, or that all the salt in her dinner caused bloating. If Becky accepts any of these rationalizations, her actions (what she’s eating or how much activity she’s getting) won’t change. If she tries these jeans on again in a week, and this time they won’t zip up, she might offer up the same excuses, or she might shift her excuses, telling herself that she’s getting older and some weight gain is to be expected, or she’s put on a few pounds because of the holidays.
If she can smooth over her cognitive dissonance by continuing to rationalize what she’s experiencing, she won’t take a different action. Then, six months later, a friend posts a picture of them online, and Becky is shocked by what she sees. She doesn’t even recognize herself. If she continues rationalizing her actions, she might tell herself that it’s a bad photo, or a poor angle, or the outfit isn’t flattering, and so on. She will continue rationalizing her behavior until her weight gain causes her enough mental distress that she is motivated to do something different. It’s this continual rationalization and revision of reality that is the real issue.
Experiencing cognitive dissonance is hard enough when we are experiencing it by ourselves and about our behavior. Things get confusing if there’s an emotional manipulator in the mix.
Example #2: Carla is married to Ryan. She finds out through a mutual friend that he is cheating on her. Carla experiences mental distress (cognitive dissonance) because she now has two conflicting thoughts. 1) She doesn’t want to stay married to a cheater, but she doesn’t want to divorce Ryan. 2) If her action is to stay married to Ryan, she must pick a thought (and rationalize it) that aligns with that action so she can feel okay about staying.
While Carla is experiencing this confusion, Ryan may deny that he cheated, or depending or give her a bunch of excuses, saying that the other woman threw herself at him and that he only cheated on her once, that he was drunk when it happened, and that the other woman means nothing to him. He may blame Carla because she wasn’t attentive or affectionate enough or plead that it will never happen again. He may also suggest getting into couple’s counseling so they can work through things.
Since Carla still believes that she doesn’t want to be married to a man who cheats, but she wants to stay married, she rationalizes his behavior. To do this, she may buy into his excuses that his behavior isn’t his fault or his promises that this will never happen again.
Carla also accepts Ryan’s excuses that she wasn’t giving him enough affection, and he had been unhappy for a while but didn’t feel comfortable bringing up issues in their marriage. These excuses make her think that she can change her behavior to change his behavior, so she can make her marriage work. Because Carla can’t stay mad at Ryan, as doing so would potentially cause a divorce, she redirects her anger away from Ryan and towards the other woman. Carla blames this other woman for being a home-wrecker and for seducing Ryan. Carla also doubles up her efforts at keeping Ryan faithful and making her marriage work. Notice how Carla is doing all the work, and all Ryan has to do is throw out enough excuses to continue to keep her on the hook.
The problem with Carla’s actions is that she can’t change enough to keep Ryan faithful. Cheating partners, especially those who have no sincere accountability or remorse for their actions, don’t stop cheating. They learn to hide their deceptive behavior better. Generally, they’ll start having sex with someone new. The spouse who was cheated upon slowly becomes a physical and emotional wreck trying to convince themselves that they need to trust their untrustworthy partner. They wear themselves out, trying to save their marriage and keep their partner faithful. And as always, in every situation where there is deception involved, what the other person finds out about is often only the tip of the iceberg.
If Carla’s friend continues trying to point out that Ryan is a jerk, or if she isn’t supporting Carla’s decision to stay with Ryan, Carla will most likely distance herself from her friend because it causes her too much mental distress to be around her.