Love and Cognitive Dissonance Theory

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When it comes to ideas about why we stay in abusive relationships, I have drawn a conclusion (of sorts) from a few different philosophical and psychological theories. In order to tie this all together, I want to describe these theories first.

In social psychology, we are learning about the way external social forces impact our thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Part of this discussion requires that we understand more about why we (as human beings) do the things we do in order to survive. For example – human beings classify things. This is not something we do for sport; it is a necessity. In order to safely exist in our own environment, we must find a way to understand our environment. This is how we ascertain which berries are safe to eat, why it’s important to stay a safe distance away from the edge of a cliff, and at what speed we should take a turn while driving. We are constantly collecting information about everything around us, and it is how we make decisions about what we see. This has kept our species alive. While some animals can easily survive with their speed or sharp fangs, human beings have only their minds. We are capable of considering the environment around us.

We do the same thing with people, as well. Just as we are aware we shouldn’t eat a certain berry because it is poisonous (something we learned from trial and error – it is not instinctual), we also learn about certain types of people. We subconsciously feel safer around people that match us – whether it be gender, race, socioeconomic status, or simply the way someone looks. Research indicates we gravitate toward other people that remind us of ourselves, because we trust ourselves, so therefore they must be trustworthy, too.

When you enter a room for the first time, your brain is busy taking it all in and making decisions in the background. You may not notice this happening at all. But, you enter a room and note several individuals also in the room. You need to take a seat. You will subconsciously sit near a person who feels safe, perhaps because they are well-dressed or dressed like you, or perhaps because you have a gut feeling that the person is probably okay. You might avoid someone who looks dangerous or unlike you, just to be on the safe side. You might also sit facing the exit, or sit in the seat closest to the exit, or simply pick a seat that is far away from strangers. We make these decisions based on feeling, sometimes without pausing to think about where the feeling comes from.

Our minds also categorize and gain information about people. We judge others despite our best efforts to be impartial – but don’t feel badly about this. Again, it’s all a part of the safety mechanism. Without claws or teeth or an especially strong hide (skin), we have to use our minds to give us an edge. Once we make an initial judgement, it tends to stick. In addition, a lot of the subsequent information we receive gets filed away to support our initial judgement.

So, that addresses exactly what our brains do, but let’s take a look at why that puts us at an extreme disadvantage. I’ll use a leaf as an example. This theory was explained to me with the leaf example, and it’s the easiest to understand.

Let’s say you pick a leaf up off the ground. You look at the leaf and remark: “This is a leaf.” By saying that out loud, what you are also saying is that the leaf is NOT the million things that make it a unique object in and of itself. You forever limit the potential of the leaf to be anything but that: a leaf. It’s a catch-22, of course, because if we didn’t call a leaf a leaf, the world would have no order. We must assign names and values to things, but by doing so, we are removing the possibility to see such things as anything but.

A person, of course, is more complex than a leaf. While a leaf has one million things that make it different than all other leaves – exact dimension, shade of color, intricate vein system – people have tens of millions of things that make them unique. We know this, of course, but as stated in the beginning of this post, our brains are busy categorizing and classifying things to determine what something is and what something is not; namely, what is safe and what is not safe.

When we meet someone, there are a few things we can determine right off. A person is male or female, a person appears to be a certain race or socioeconomic status, a person is such-and-such height and weight. Even more nonverbal cues can help create the picture of who this person “is”: he is wearing a baseball hat, ergo he must like baseball. Or, she has styled her hair, ergo she must take a lot of pride in her appearance and go to great lengths to look nice. Add to that the cultural and social knowledge we either subscribe to or has been taught to us from birth, and we might (unknowingly) make these assumptions: he is probably a “guy’s guy” because he is into sports, or she might be shallow because she takes so much time with her appearance.

This is all happening in the subconscious, mind you, whether we want it to or not. Again, it’s our way of defining the universe to feel safe and in control.

Let’s say baseball hat asks you on a date, and you accept. You go to dinner and discuss your hopes, dreams, families, and hobbies. Everything baseball hat tells you gets filed away in your brain under the folder “baseball hat”. The folder has probably been changed to “Peter”, because that is baseball hat’s name. So, Peter has a good relationship with his parents and is the oldest sibling. He works as an accountant and likes to spend the weekends taking his nephew to baseball games. Peter also enjoys music, but his favorite is country. The list goes on.

Fast forward again – six months – and you feel like you know Peter pretty well. You’ve fallen in love and you spend a lot of time together. You are confident that you can anticipate what Peter will and will not do under certain circumstances. You know he likes a lemon with his iced tea, and you also know that when he feels frustrated, he likes space. He always leaves a wet towel on the bathroom floor, but also always closes the shower curtain. To your knowledge, he has never lied to you, and he seems quite open about his thoughts and feelings. Peter loves you, too.

All in all, you feel great about your relationship with Peter. Things are going well. You are thinking about taking your relationship to the next level.

Then, Peter does something that you don’t see coming. Something that makes you sad, hurts your feelings, or confuses you.

It is quite natural for you to feel confused. After all, by this point, the Peter folder in your head is full of information. You think you know him pretty well, in fact.  Suddenly, you feel a cognitive dissonance.

The cognitive dissonance theory is a simple one – even though it sounds really fancy. Cognitive dissonance is made up of two words: cognitive and dissonance. The word cognitive comes from the word cognition, which by definition is the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses. Synonyms include learning, apprehension, and understanding. Simply put – cognitive is what we think. The word dissonance is typically used in music, and it refers to a lack of harmony between music notes. It can be simplified to being defined as a lack of harmony (in general), or, even simpler, a clash.

In essence, cognitive dissonance happens when we think or believe two ideas that contradict one another.

In terms of a relationship, cognitive dissonance happens when your partner does something to hurt you in some way. It can happen on a small scale (your partner doesn’t call when he says he does) or something major (your partner hits you). The dissonance appears because you are holding two attitudes simultaneously: I love my partner; I do not love my partner’s behavior.

At this point, you feel quite uncomfortable. Most people are acutely aware when dissonance occurs, because it is an uncomfortable sensation. When any cognitive dissonance occurs, the mind tries to create balance by solving the dissonance. The two attitudes cannot exist simultaneously, so one of them has to change. The attitude “I love my partner” is emotional and intense. The attitude “I do not love my partner’s behavior” is also emotional, but has more to do with self-concept and self-esteem/worth.

In the end, you have a tough choice to make. Do you accept the behavior in order to preserve the love, or do you end the love because the principle of the infraction is more important? For some examples, it is quite easy to resolve dissonance. For example, Peter doesn’t call when he says he will. This upsets you because he left you hanging, and you feel disrespected. You later have a conversation with Peter and explain your feelings, and he apologizes and tells you he will not do that again. You know you are upset, but at this point, might think you are overreacting and in the interim you might have minimized the behavior with such thoughts as “He must have gotten held up at work” or “Maybe there was an emergency”. After all, it’s only a missed call, right? The love you share with Peter is so wonderful that a missed call won’t end your relationship.

Now, in the other example, Peter hits you. You know immediately that this behavior is not okay, but it has never happened before. You are very distraught because the Peter folder SAYS he won’t hit you, but then he does. You are confused and terribly saddened. The love was perfect, but then he hit you. Peter apologizes later, of course, and promises it won’t happen again. You crave his love and affection so much that you are able to rationalize his behavior. After all, even though Peter never said anything to you about it, maybe some part of his part makes him behave this way. Everything else feels great, this was just a blip. And, you are sure the message sank in.

This is where things get a little tricky. Although I think we can all agree that missing a phone call is a far cry from hitting someone, the thought process is still the same. Peter behaved out of character, and a dissonance resulted. You are upset about the behavior, you talk about it, and apologize. Since you love him very much, you want to work things out. Add to this the complex expectations socially and culturally, and you find yourself in a losing battle. It’s a no-win for you, because there is pressure everywhere. Maybe your parents are divorced and you want to create a lasting relationship. Maybe you are lonely and willing to let some things slide (since everything is okay for the most part) with Peter. Maybe other partners have told you in the past that you are far too sensitive and you have a complex about it. Are you overreacting AGAIN? It doesn’t really matter what kind of pressure it is, only that it’s there. You and Peter do not exist in a vacuum.

All throughout this process, you can’t help but shake the feeling that Peter feels like a stranger to you, and for good reason. Since human beings are biologically wired to classify and organize the world around us (including people), it would make sense that Peter seems like a stranger. After all, nothing in the Peter folder prepared you for this. But remember the leaf – by saying it is a leaf, you are also saying it cannot be the million things that a leaf is unto itself. The same goes for people – Peter can be anything included in the folder, surely, but can also be anything outside of the folder.

Once you consider that fact, it seems a little crazy to fall in love at all! If Peter can be anything he wants, what are the odds he’s secretly a serial killer or is really interested in joining a commune? What if he proposes the very next day? What if he decides to become a priest? This is why we classify the world – because chaos would be the only other alternative. But, as with Peter and the leaf, we see that classifying the world doesn’t make it so; that is just what we SEE.

Upon reflecting on all of this, you decide to ultimately stay with Peter. Maybe he hits you again or forgets to call again, maybe he doesn’t. Maybe it was truly a fluke or a result of some other set of bizarre circumstances that (hopefully) never come up again. Or, maybe you ultimately decide to leave Peter, because once is enough. Either way, now you know the ugly truth about the world: there isn’t a way to know everything about everything, including yourself. Future relationships seem scary because you don’t trust your own judgement when it come to picking a partner. You might feel embarrassment or shame, and don’t want anyone to know.

The only thing left to do is focus all of that energy inward. When it comes to setting boundaries in your relationships with others, you are in control. People will only treat you the way you allow them to treat you. In a fashion, most things we experience are a direct result of our choices. This is not to say that the behavior of others is excusable, because the allow them to get away with it, because the two conversations are independent of one another. You can simultaneously hold these two attitudes: This is how I want to be treated and This is how I am being treated. It will feel uncomfortable, which is an indication that something needs to change.

My advice to anyone contemplating this: if something about your relationship makes you uncomfortable, there is a good reason for that. There is, somewhere, a dissonance that needs to be addressed. Although love is important and precious, only preserve that love which creates minimal dissonance. It takes a long time to find the right kind of partner – the one who creates dissonance rarely. It’s a rather clinical way of looking at it, which is a good thing. The love is mushy and you get the feels – they cloud your judgement. Your partner falls into one of two categories: this is working and I know it’s working because I rarely feel dissatisfied, or this isn’t working and I can tell because the majority of our conversations are fights surrounding our behaviors and how they make us upset. We are not compatible, and likely never will be.

As an afterthought: no one gets to decide what makes you happy. Only you know. Never settle for less than exactly that.

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9 thoughts on “Love and Cognitive Dissonance Theory

  1. I have a hypothetical – I am sure you have seen The Truman Show. Truman was confronted with cognitive dissonance to the 9th degree as he slowly realized that his entire world was false, and that even his best “friend” was lying to his face in an attempt to convince him he was wrong. Of course he wasn’t wrong. What precisely should Truman have done if there hadn’t been an exit to his artificial world?

    • Are you asking what I think Truman would have done if he could not correct the external circumstances which caused the dissonance? Well, I think he would just have to keep trying. Some dissonance course-corrections do not offer immediate relief to the discomfort. So, in Truman’s case, he would try to escape. If not, he would end up aligning his mindset with those who created the circumstances in order to solve the dissonance. Stockholm syndrome.

  2. Thank you for a wonderful article. Maybe you can assist in this scenario. I have been in a relationship for 18 months now. We had ups and down towards the end of last year for almost a month and decided to part ways . We agreed to become friends with this guy. The reason for the breakup was that he felt we are not emotionally connecting but only connecting cognitively, he said we are good as friends , he enjoys my company , likes me a lot and I have all the attributes that he wants from a woman but we seem not to be connecting emotionally. I didn’t fully understand how one says we connect only cognitively and not emotionally. In my understanding best relationships are the ones where there is friendship which I can relate to emotion. We then became friends and spent most of the time together but within 2 mnths we were back together again and everything looked smooth sailing on my side. At my surprise when we had an argument he responded by saying things never went back to normal since our breakup , he still feels we are better of as friends. Kindly assist in unpacking this cognitive and emotional connection it confuses me a lot.

    • Hi Kim,

      I am by no means a relationship expert, but I can certainly give feedback based on the information you provided.

      It seems to me that this person you have been on and off with is not the person for you. The biggest indicator would be his own words – that he does not want to continue a romantic relationship with you. Listen to him and respect what he says. This isn’t how you feel about him and the situation, but it is how he feels.

      Beyond that, I have never found success in a friendship with a recent ex. It’s only after many years later we can attempt a loose friendship. Especially if you still have romantic feelings for him, I can see you getting hurt in the future when he starts dating other women.

      Best of luck to you,

      Kyrston

  3. I would love to get feedback if it is available… This excellent article explains what I have been experiencing. I have been dating a man for four months. Prior to our meeting online, we had not dated anyone at all for at least two years. When we met, it seemed perfect and there was (is?) so much compatibility. Our political opinions, education level, affinity for quality, our sense of adventure — all so similar. We are deeply in love, but something happened. For the past month, I have been under increasing pressure from many directions. I also felt under pressure to monitor and make sure that the relationship didn’t go south. Of course because of the super focus on it, it did. The more I was weird about things, the further he pulled away. Why can’t it be simple, he said? It was at one time, simple. Easy. We craved each other’s company. Now he acts like he hates me. In my desperation to keep things working, I became paranoid and suspicious about his wants and intentions. I lost trust in him. I could make things up about how he did this or that and how that contributed to it, but it is really all me in the end. I know this. I need him and want him, but I can’t seem to behave in a rational manner. The cognitive dissonance you write about is exactly how this feels. Help.

    • Hi Jen,

      My advice to you is to speak with your partner about how you feel about him and the relationship. See how he feels about the possibility of a future.

      If you’re both interested in the same things, try to identify areas in your relationship that can use improvement. Figure out what makes you each uncomfortable and think of solutions you can both live with. I will say this: it’s never “easy”. And his desire for it to be easy makes me wonder how deep a relationship he wants to have with you.

      You have to be honest with one another, but more importantly, be honest with yourself. If you believe as you say, try to understand why you feel that way or how you came to feel that way. I find journaling to be very helpful.

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