Cognitive Dissonance in Relationships: What is CD?
The term cognitive dissonance (CD) is used to describe the mental discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs, values, or attitudes. People tend to seek consistency in their attitudes and perceptions, so this conflict causes feelings of unease or discomfort.
This inconsistency between what people believe and how they behave motivates people to engage in actions that will help minimize feelings of discomfort. People attempt to relieve this tension in different ways, such as by rejecting, explaining away, or avoiding new information.
Everyone experiences cognitive dissonance to some degree, but that doesn’t mean that it is always easy to recognize. Some signs that what you are feeling might be related to dissonance include:
- Feeling uncomfortable before doing something or making a decision
- Trying to justify or rationalize a decision that you’ve made or an action you have taken
- Feeling embarrassed or ashamed about something you’ve done and trying to hide your actions from other people
- Experiencing guilt or regret about something you’ve done in the past
- Doing things because of social pressure or a fear of missing out (FOMO), even if it wasn’t something you wanted to do
Cognitive Dissonance in Relationships: Causes of CD
Several different situations can create conflicts that lead to cognitive dissonance.
- Forced Compliance: Sometimes you might find yourself engaging in behaviors that are opposed to your own beliefs due to external expectations, often for work, school, or a social situation. This might involve going along with something due to peer pressure or doing something at work to avoid getting fired.
- New Information: Sometimes learning new information can lead to feelings of cognitive dissonance. For example, if you engage in a behavior that you later learn is harmful, it can lead to feelings of discomfort. People sometimes deal with this either by finding ways to justify their behaviors or finding ways to discredit or ignore new information.
- Decisions: People make decisions, both large and small, on a daily basis. When faced with two similar choices, people often are left with feelings of dissonance because both options are equally appealing. Once a choice has been made, however, people need to find a way to reduce these feelings of discomfort. People accomplish this by justifying why their choice was the best option so that they can believe that they made the right decision.
Cognitive Dissonance in Relationships: Influences
The degree of dissonance people experience can depend on a few different factors, including how highly they value a particular belief and the degree to which their beliefs are inconsistent. The overall strength of the dissonance can also be influenced by several factors, including:
- The importance attached to each belief: Cognitions that are more personal, such as beliefs about the self, and highly valued tend to result in greater dissonance.
- The number of dissonant beliefs: The more dissonant (clashing) thoughts you have the greater the strength of the dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance can often have a powerful influence on our behaviors and actions. It doesn’t just influence how you feel—it also motivates you to take action to reduce feelings of discomfort.
Cognitive Dissonance in Relationships: Impact
Cognitive dissonance can make people feel uneasy and uncomfortable, particularly if the disparity between their beliefs and behaviors involves something central to their sense of self. For example, behaving in ways that are not aligned with your values may result in intense feelings of discomfort. Your behavior contradicts not just the beliefs you have about the world, but also the beliefs that you have about yourself.
This discomfort can manifest itself in a variety of ways. People may feel:
Cognitive dissonance can even influence how people feel about and view themselves, leading to negative feelings of self-esteem and self-worth. Because people want to avoid this discomfort, cognitive dissonance can have a wide range of effects. Dissonance can play a role in how people act, think, and make decisions. They may engage in behaviors or adopt attitudes to help relieve the discomfort caused by the conflict.
Some things that a person might do to cope with these feelings include:
- Adopting beliefs or ideas to help justify or explain away the conflict between their beliefs or behaviors. This can sometimes involve blaming other people or outside factors.
- Hiding their beliefs or behaviors from other people. People may feel ashamed of their conflicting beliefs and behaviors, so hiding the disparity from others can help minimize feelings of shame and guilt.
- Only seeking out information that confirms their existing beliefs. This phenomenon, known as the confirmation bias, affects the ability to think critically about a situation but helps minimize feelings of dissonance.
Cognitive Dissonance in Relationships
Cognitive Dissonance in Relationships: How CD Affects Friendships
Think of a friend you’ve known for many years. If you were to trace your friendship back to the very beginning, you’ll likely realize you bonded over a shared interest or circumstance. Maybe you attended junior high together or met in a theater group in college.
Decades later, you probably aren’t the same people you were back then. “Oftentimes our beliefs and values will change as we grow up, and we may encounter new differences between ourselves and old friends,” says Corrine Leikam, PsyD, an associate director at Sober College in Los Angeles. But that doesn’t mean you need to break up with your friend because you don’t have as many things in common. Instead, you’ll likely adjust your values and beliefs so they get in sync with your friends.
For example, if you stop liking acting that doesn’t mean you won’t support your friend’s pursuits as an actor — though it may require some personal reconciliation to accept that this interest is still important to your friend despite it not being important to you anymore.
Cognitive dissonance also comes up in everyday friend situations. Let’s say your friend was supposed to meet you at the movie theater. “I arrive and they’re already in the theater, and now I have to stand in a long line by myself and might not even get a ticket because it’s almost sold out,” Dr. Noulas says. Why didn’t they buy you a ticket and wait for you? You’ll then face the dissonance: Do you stay? Or do you go?
Your mind naturally will start filling with examples of other situations when your friend wasn’t super helpful. You experience dissonance because you like your friend and you’re typically happy to spend time with them, but you’re also angry with them for this time and potentially others when they acted in a way that frustrates you or makes extra work for you.
“You either decide that yes, she’s a great friend and this isn’t important, it’s no big deal to wait in line,” Noulas says. Or ultimately you decide, no, she’s constantly doing inconsiderate things like this and you’re tired of it, so you leave or start to invest less energy in that friendship.
Cognitive Dissonance in Relationships: How CD Affects Dating
Similar situations occur within romantic relationships, but it can become a bit more complicated if and when the person involved is someone you see as a potential life-long partner. Many women and men have a checklist of what they may be looking for in a partner — they should come from a good family, should be well-educated, should be kind. “It will be very rare to find someone with every single characteristic on your list or exactly matching goals,” Dr. Leikam says. So you compromise for the relationship to work.
Let’s say you fall in love with a man or woman from a different religion, for example. “Your family is against marriage, and you also never thought you’d marry someone outside of your religion,” Noulas says. You’re left with a choice: You can magnify the importance of religion and break up with them, justifying your decision by saying it never would have worked out.
Or you can choose to stay with him or her and tell yourself religion isn’t all that important to you. You’ll rationalize that choice by saying you don’t practice your religion much anyway or that it’s more important to find someone who is kind and faithful than someone who comes from the same religious background, Noulas says.
To make the relationship work, “we may rationalize the negative characteristics in order to align with our vision of what the relationship should be,” Leikam says. It can be positive if you decide to drop unrealistic expectations. Or it can be negative if you end up minimizing concerning personality traits (“red flags”), Leikam says.
Cognitive Dissonance in Relationships: How CD Affects Marriages
Similar to friendships, in marriage “you will grow and change and make an effort to keep the relationship alive and thriving,” Leikam says. Cognitive dissonance can result when you and your husband or wife have different views, attitudes, or behaviors.
Sometimes, you’ll just let your partner’s behavior slide, and other times you’ll adjust your own beliefs to be consistent with theirs, such as when you start rooting for a sports team or following a particular type of music because your partner is into that and you want to share that activity.
But things get sticky if you end up compromising your values for the sake of the marriage. For example, if you stop volunteering for an organization you’ve always cared about or stop a hobby because your partner doesn’t support it or isn’t interested.
How severe the dissonance depends on the behavior and how big of a gap there is between the behavior and your beliefs, Leikam says.
Let’s say you stop playing in a ping-pong league you used to be part of with some coworkers because after you get married you realize it’s cutting into a night you and your spouse have together. Though you used to enjoy the ping-pong league, you realize you’d rather devote that time to your marriage, ping-pong is not a passion of yours, and you see your coworkers at the office anyway. The dissonance or discomfort you feel is likely not that great.
Let’s say your spouse gets transferred to a different state for work. The conflict you feel having to leave behind friends, family, and your old routines to be with your spouse is probably greater. And sometimes dealing with and accepting a bit of dissonance helps marriages last. According to an article from the American Psychological Association, people in happy marriages tend to give their partner the benefit of the doubt and focus on the things that make their spouse wonderful rather than dwelling on their shortcomings.
For instance, if one person comes home cranky one night, someone in a happy marriage would chalk it up to a bad day at work rather than deciding their partner is a jerk and the marriage is doomed. In these cases, accepting that there will be some conflicts and disagreements — such as over a paint color for a bedroom or who’s turn it is to fold the laundry — allows happy couples to focus on the more significant things keeping them together, like family values, honesty, and genuine care for one another.
Cognitive Dissonance in Relationships: The Role CD Plays in Abusive Relationships
It’s important to note that too much dissonance can enable abuse in relationships, too. Oftentimes the victim is motivated to make the relationship work, Leikam explains. In abusive relationships, the victim may justify the abuser’s behavior and downplay what happened and how it made them feel to reduce the dissonance, Noulas says.
One study noted that victims in these types of relationships have trouble deciding whether to stay or leave since they may view the violence as an exception that doesn’t represent the person’s past behavior. So a woman might say it’s okay that her boyfriend hit her because it was a one-time thing and usually he is more loving. Or she may come up with reasons it was her fault, not his.
Cognitive Dissonance in Relationships: Dealing With Dissonance
When there are conflicts between cognitions (thoughts, beliefs, opinions), people will take steps to reduce the dissonance and feelings of discomfort. They can go about doing this a few different ways, such as:
- Adding more supportive beliefs that outweigh dissonant beliefs: People who learn that greenhouse emissions result in global warming might experience feelings of dissonance if they drive a gas-guzzling vehicle. In order to reduce this dissonance, they may seek out new information that overrides the belief that greenhouse gasses contribute to global warming.
- Changing your belief: Changing the conflicting cognition is one of the most effective ways of dealing with dissonance, but it is also one of the most difficult, particularly in the case of deeply held values and beliefs, such as religious or political leanings.
- Reducing the importance of the conflicting belief: A man who cares about his health might be disturbed to learn that sitting for long periods of time during the day is linked to a shortened lifespan. Since he has to work all day in an office and spends a great deal of time sitting, it is difficult to change his behavior. To deal with the feelings of discomfort, he might instead find some way of rationalizing the conflicting cognition. He might justify his sedentary behavior by saying that his other healthy behaviors—like eating sensibly and occasionally exercising—make up for his largely sedentary lifestyle.
Cognitive Dissonance in Relationships: Potential Pitfalls
Sometimes, the ways that people resolve cognitive dissonance can contribute to unhealthy behaviors or poor decisions. In “A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance,” Leon Festinger, the psychologist who first described this phenomenon, gave an example of how a person might deal with dissonance related to a health behavior by discussing individuals who continue to smoke, even though they know it is bad for their health.
There are a few ways that a person might resolve this dissonance:
- According to Festinger, a person might decide that they value smoking more than they value health, deeming the behavior “worth it” in terms of risks versus rewards.
- Another way to deal with this dissonance is to minimize potential drawbacks. The smoker might convince themselves that the negative health effects have been overstated. They might also assuage their health concerns by believing that they cannot avoid every possible risk out there.
- Festinger also suggested that people might try to convince themselves that if they do stop smoking, they will then gain weight, which also presents health risks. By using such explanations, the smoker is able to reduce the dissonance and continue the behavior.
Reclaim your life by understanding Cognitive Dissonance
Cognitive Dissonance is a mental discomfort that can lead to a variety of toxic and addictive behaviors, like substance abuse disorders or abusive relationships. We Level Up CA Treatment Center can provide you, or someone you love, the tools to manage negative results of excessive dissonance with professional and safe treatment. Feel free to call us to speak with one of our counselors. We can inform you about issues like Cognitive Dissonance in Relationships by giving you relevant information. Our specialists know what you are going through. Please know that each call is private and confidential.
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