Have you ever felt in your gut that something was not quite right about your relationship? Do you have moments that make you a little nauseous, and even question your beliefs? Do loved ones often tell you that your partner may not be right for you? Emotions tend to be the giant, gray, storm clouds that block the sunshine logic brings. This is what cognitive dissonance feels like when you're in a relationship.
When you get caught between the pulls of logic and emotion, it can cause a feeling of anxiety. This bittersweet sensation may be caused by a psychological, not physical, reason, a reason that can be indicative of an unhealthy relationship. Let's learn more by diving into what exactly cognitive dissonance in a relationship is.
What is cognitive dissonance?
A paper by the University of Iowa cites the research of Valérie Fointiat (of the University of Provence) to define cognitive dissonance as “an aversive state of psychological tension—called dissonance—aroused when an individual holds two cognitions that are mutually inconsistent.”
What this means is that you are being hypocritical towards yourself, “saying one thing and doing another thing.” In other words, when you do something that is against your code of beliefs or morals, a feeling of discomfort may arise.
To learn more about the basics of cognitive dissonance, read Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) by Carol Tarvis and Elliott Aronson.
When does it occur in real life?
I have personally witnessed many friends encounter cognitive dissonance in their romantic relationships. It is particularly frightening as a millennial since many of us have not yet had a lot of serious relationships. So sometimes get overly caught up in romanticizing our relationships and fail to pay attention to red flags.
This, however, is not our fault.
We are all still developing our moral compasses, and with that discovery comes a lot of confusion. For example, one partner might realize that the other is being verbally cruel towards them and would normally find this behavior unacceptable; however, due to an intense emotional connection, the victim of the aggression might stay in the relationship. The victim’s moral code (the belief that their partner’s actions are wrong) does not align with their behavior (being complicit). So, the tension between what is right, and how the conflict was or was not resolved, emerges. In short, it is a mismatch of information.
To combat this, the victim may justify their actions with an assortment of excuses.
What are the results of cognitive dissonance?
Soon after the onset of cognitive dissonance in your relationship, you might feel a sense of sadness, unsettledness, or even depression. Another common result is major stress.
It is as though our brains are being pulled into too many directions. Though psychological researchers disagree on whether the discomfort drives us to resolve the tension in a positive or negative manner, it is agreed that an underlying layer of cognitive dissonance can “threaten a positive self image” (The Encyclopedia of Human Behavior). Personally, I believe that the drive is usually more negative than positive.
Efforts to restore psychological stasis may actually be more harmful than beneficial. For example, the victim of verbal aggression may justify their partner’s actions as the result of a bad day and continue to date that person. In some cases, it will actually make the victim feel closer to their partner, as they will continue to improperly rationalize the actions in order to balance out the pressure.
How can I prevent this discomfort?
Ever heard of trusting your gut instinct? Well, in this case, your gut feeling can get a little confusing.
It may be difficult to make decisions as clearly as you normally would. I know firsthand how difficult it can be to trust anything when love is in the picture and nothing feels the way it should.
Eventually, you have to trust the people who love you the most. If friends or family or a mentor is telling you that something does not seem right, or that the person you are with no longer seems to be a positive influence in your life, it could be worth looking into. If you are on the other end and see a friend struggling, feel free to ask how the relationship is going and if there is anything they want to talk about.
You can make a difference just by expressing concern about the situation and hand and reminding your friend how much you love them. In reminding them of that, you will spark a deeper consideration of actions, emotions, and moral compasses.
Read the book Cognitive Biases by Jerrell Forman to learn more about overcoming cognitive dissonance.
Hopefully, being more aware of how cognitive dissonance shows up in relationships will help you and those you know have better experiences in love. If you experience anything discussed in this article, it's time to examine it further. Don’t let it go again; take control of your mental health.
For more information on cognitive dissonance and how to leave an unhealthy relationship, click here. It's also a good idea to consult a counselor or therapist to help you out. Don't be afraid to ask for help!
To read more about improving your relationship habits, read our article Check Out These 8 Books If You're In A Relationship!