Cognitive Dissonance

By Dana Morningstar

This term means “mental distress.” In particular, it’s the mental distress a person experiences when they have two conflicting thoughts about the same topic at the same time, as it pertains to an action that they are going to take. The reason this is so distressing is because we need our thoughts and actions to be in agreement with each other. If our thoughts and actions don’t line up, then we act in a way that doesn’t make sense to us, which is why we experience this mental distress. In order 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 that we have to take different actions. When we change our thoughts, we do so by either denying them, trying to suppress them, or by rationalizing them.


Everyone experiences some degree of cognitive dissonance on a regular basis; however, when a person is in an abusive relationship, the degree and frequency of their cognitive dissonance is extreme. This is because their brain is continually trying to make logical sense out of illogical behavior—from both their partner and from themselves. And because of this ongoing cognitive dissonance, this is a major reason as to why they feel so emotionally and physically exhausted.


Here’s an example that I think most people can relate to:


One morning Susan puts on her jeans. She is surprised when she finds they are really 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.” Susan 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 she accepts any of these rationalizations, then 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 that 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 Susan 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 bad 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 own behavior. Things get really confusing if there’s an emotional manipulator in the mix.


Here is an example:


Carla is married to Ryan. She finds out through a mutual friend that he is cheating on her. She experiences mental distress (cognitive dissonance), because she now has two conflicting thoughts: She doesn’t want to stay married to a cheater, but she doesn’t want to divorce Ryan. If her action is to stay married to Ryan, then she must pick a thought (and rationalize it) that is in alignment with that action so she can feel okay about staying.


While Carla is experiencing all this confusion, Ryan may deny that he cheated, or depending on how much proof Carla has, he may 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 holds the thought that she doesn’t want to be married to a man who cheats, but since she wants to stay married, she rationalizes his behavior. In order to do this, she may buy into any or all of his excuses that his behavior really isn’t his fault, or his promises that this will never happen again or that he’ll change.


Carla also accepts Ryan’s excuses that she wasn’t giving him enough affection, and that he had been unhappy for a while but didn’t feel comfortable bringing up issues in their marriage. These excuses make her feel that she can change her behavior in order 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 simply learn to hide their deceptive behavior better, and generally they’ll start having sex with someone new. The spouse that was cheated upon slowly becomes a physical and emotional wreck trying to convince themselves that they need to trust their untrustworthy partner, and 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.


In addition, 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, then Carla will most likely distance herself from her friend because it causes her too much mental distress to be around her.


The other major part to understanding how cognitive dissonance works is understanding that the level of mental distress experienced is in direct proportion to how emotionally invested a person is in a relationship or dynamic. The harder it is for them to walk away, the greater lengths they will go to in order to deny or justify what they are experiencing.


For example, it’s a lot easier to walk away from a squirrelly business partner if you haven’t invested any money yet. It’s a lot harder when your life savings are on the line, or if that business partner is your brother. It’s a lot easier to walk away from an abusive or toxic relationship before you develop feelings for the person, or when before have kids, a house, or bank accounts together. It’s a lot easier to leave a cult if you haven’t sold your house, given all your money to the cult, or renounced your friends and family.


Because abusive behavior tends to happen as a series of smaller boundary pushes over time, it can be really hard to see that things are a problem until they are really bad. Cognitive dissonance and the resulting justifications that occur are how people get involved with narcissists at any level—from abusive relationships to business scams, to online dating scams, to cults, to following dictators such as Hitler—because these dynamics rarely start out as overtly problematic—if anything, narcissists usually come across as a great person and, over time, slowly start to turn abusive.


In addition, most abusive behavior often happens erratically, so it can be easy (and understandable) to rationalize what we are experiencing. In the same way, abusive relationships don’t usually start with a person getting cheated on, called names, yelled at, stolen from, or hit. The behavior that tends to come before that is often controlling, possessive, boundary pushing and not taking no for an answer, bouts of unwarranted or inappropriate anger, rage, or jealousy, but if we are emotionally invested in this person, we may interpret their actions as caring or troubling but workable.


Keep in mind that cognitive dissonance—and many of our rationalizations—often happen at a subconscious level, as we are often driven by either our vulnerabilities or our childhood “programming” about what is or isn’t dysfunctional.


Because it can be so incredibly difficult to think straight when we are experiencing cognitive dissonance, especially if we are emotionally invested in the outcome, this is why it’s crucial to know our deal breaker ahead of time. This way we know what our deal breakers are; we can recognize when we are being manipulated off course—whether those manipulations come from narcissists or from friends with well-intended bad advice who justify bad behavior or try and talk us into staying in a toxic situation. Some great ways to tell if you are experiencing cognitive dissonance is to ask yourself the following three questions:


  1. If my best friend or child came to me for advice about their relationship with a person who had the kind of “strange” behavior that I am experiencing, what advice would I give to them?

  2. If I were to ask the opinion of someone whom I thought had healthy boundaries and good judgment, what would they say about this situation?

  3. Am I telling my friends or therapist the full truth about my partner’s behavior, or am I minimizing it and only focusing on this current event and leaving out major chunks that would show a consistent pattern of deceitful, manipulative, or abusive behavior?


If you find yourself minimizing or rationalizing what’s going on, odds are it’s a problem.

Dana Morningstar is a former psychiatric nurse turned domestic violence educator who specializes in abuse awareness and prevention. Her passion is working with survivors of abuse to reclaim and rebuild their self-esteem, boundaries, confidence, and identity. She is an author of multiple books on the subject, and also has a blog, podcast, and YouTube channel, as well as several online support groups, all of which you can find under the name “Thrive After Abuse.”

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