Cognitive Dissonance In Relationships: How Contradictory Behaviors Affect Couples

Updated March 9, 2023by Regain Editorial Team

Cognitive dissonance can affect our lives in a multitude of ways, often causing conflict and confusion. When it comes to relationships, cognitive dissonance can be particularly perplexing. People in romantic relationships often don’t realize the role this dissonance plays in interactions with their significant others. While an occasional lack of harmony is to be expected in any partnership, folks in unhealthy and abusive relationships may regularly experience cognitive dissonance.

In many cases, however, cognitive dissonance can be helpful, allowing individuals and couples to tap into their values, beliefs, and desires and better understand how such things relate to their behaviors and interactions. This journey can be enlightening and often brings couples closer together.

If you’re eager to learn more about cognitive dissonance and how it affects you and your relationships, read on to learn the history of the theory, common examples of cognitive dissonance, and information about additional resources.

Cognitive Dissonance Defined

So, what exactly is cognitive dissonance? This internal conflict is essentially a discrepancy between our attitudes/beliefs/values and behaviors. Perhaps the best way to further explain the theory is with a common example: Even though over 16 million Americans live with a smoking-related disease, more than 30 million people currently smoke in the U.S., according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The vast majority of people who start smoking have no trouble comprehending that the habit could harm or even kill them. Yet, the understanding that smoking is bad for their health isn’t enough to dissuade them from picking up the habit.

The History Of Cognitive Dissonance Theory

The roots of the cognitive dissonance theory are truly fascinating. Back in 1957, psychologist Leon Festinger introduced the theory. The researcher explained that, as humans, we live with an innate need for cognitive consistency. When a lack of harmony occurs between our beliefs, values, urges, and behaviors, an uncomfortable internal struggle arises. The desire to decrease this discomfort drives us to either change our beliefs or behavior, seek out new information to set our minds at ease, or diminish the importance of our beliefs and values. For instance, if smoking doesn’t align with the values of a person who smokes cigarettes, they might choose to stop smoking, conduct research with the hope of proving that smoking isn’t harmful, or ease their discomfort by justifying the behavior. They might think, “Nobody lives forever. I might as well enjoy this only vice.”

Festinger’s interest in the theory of cognitive dissonance was born from his observations of the Seekers: a now-infamous UFO cult. Many of the religious group’s participants gave up their jobs, families, money, and personal belongings while waiting for a prophesized flood that would supposedly cause the apocalypse. Although it seems unfathomable that any rational individual would willfully join such a group, people were slowly conditioned and alienated from their friends and family. When the flood did not occur on the prophesized date, people coped with cognitive dissonance in various ways. Some left the cult and attempted to return to their former lives, but others became increasingly fanatical, believing that their faith had prevented the world-ending flood.

As you can see, cognitive dissonance can impact people in some life-altering ways, so it probably comes as no surprise that this dissonance can deeply impact our relationships.

The Effects Of Cognitive Dissonance In Romantic Relationships

Are Your Actions Not Aligned With Your Beliefs?

Compromise is necessary for virtually any relationship. While deciding where to vacation or which board game to play won’t necessarily cause much dissonance, continuously compromising or ignoring one’s core values or desires to please a partner often results in internal conflict and relationship problems.

Most of us have a list of qualities and values we look for in a potential partner when we are dating. Perhaps your ideal mate loves children and wants to have a big family. Let’s say you have great chemistry with a person you met through a mutual friend. Nearly all of your values align, but the person is not keen on having kids. They would much rather travel the world, which you think you would also enjoy. Despite your longtime desire to have a large family, you convince yourself that a life filled with travel will ultimately be more fulfilling. Deep down, you know that being a parent is more important to you than globetrotting, but you ignore the red flags to calm the dissonance you are experiencing.

Cognitive Dissonance And Infidelity

Another prime example of cognitive dissonance in relationships occurs when infidelity occurs, despite the deep-seated belief that cheating is hurtful and wrong. Often, the person cheating justifies or diminishes the behavior to relieve discomfort. Ironically, the affair may have started due to cognitive dissonance in the committed relationship.

There is a disconnect between reality and how the cheating individual perceives themselves, their partner, and their relationship in many cases. Cognitive dissonance can also occur within the person who learns their partner is cheating. This clashing of head and heart in both people often makes it difficult to make rational decisions and move on as a couple. Many duos turn to a couple’s therapist to help navigate the relationship after one or both partners are unfaithful. 

When Cognitive Dissonance Is Helpful

In some cases, cognitive dissonance can provide us with a much-needed reality check. Some people have an extensive list of personality traits, values, and other factors they’re looking for in a partner, and they’re unwilling to settle for anything less. The problem? This perfect person likely does not exist, and without compromise, no potential partner may meet these stringent expectations.

Let’s say someone goes on several dates with a person they met on a dating app. They have similar values and plenty of things in common. Most importantly, the person they went on a date with prefers financial stability to shopping sprees and loves spending time with their family and group of friends. The problem? They have never been to a football game and have no interest in the sport, but they appreciate the other person’s enthusiasm and wouldn’t mind accompanying them to the occasional game.

At this point, it is decision time. Should the person continues to date someone whom they can see spending the rest of their life with, or should they move on and attempt to find the “perfect” football-loving partner?

While cognitive dissonance often plays out in new relationships, it also creeps into long-term relationships, including marriages. Change and growth are normal, and at some point, most couples will manage conflicting beliefs or values. In these cases, communication is key. The problem? Many individuals and couples struggle to communicate effectively

The Role Cognitive Dissonance Plays In Unhealthy And Abusive Relationships

In unhealthy and abusive relationships, people experiencing harm may often question their perception of their partner and the relationship as a whole. When the person perpetrating abuse’s mood shifts abruptly, the partner on the other end may be filled with confusion, and cognitive dissonance can come into play. While the person experiencing abuse loves their partner and fears being apart, they may know deep down that the abuse cycle will continue. These contradictory thoughts and feelings can cause someone to feel perplexed, anxious, frozen, or unable to make rational decisions. To calm themselves or de-escalate the situation, someone might justify or downplay the behavior of the person hurting them. This often becomes a vicious cycle that is incredibly difficult to break. In most cases, a trusted individual must validate someone’s feelings and confirm their reality before they can decide to leave the harmful environment.

Individuals who are currently in unhealthy or abusive relationships or who have experienced abuse in the past can greatly benefit from confiding in caring professionals. An online therapist with Regain can help regardless of where you are in your healing process.

If you are facing or witnessing abuse of any kind, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or Text "START" to 88788. You can also use the online chat.

Resources For Personal Growth And Building Healthy Relationships

In addition to online therapy, there are many other great resources available to help you build and maintain healthy relationships. Tried-and-true favorites include:

  • Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me)” by Carol Tavris and Elliott Aronson explains cognitive dissonance through insightful storytelling. Appropriately described as “inspiring” and “life-changing,” this book can open your eyes and mind to the justifications we make as human beings and why “good” people often make bad decisions.

  • A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance” by Leon Festinger. Despite being published in 1957, this is a valuable resource that is just as relevant today as it was decades ago.

  • 201 Relationship Questions” by Barrie Davenport is a great relationship builder that can help you build trust and emotional intimacy with your partner. Openness and honesty are key in any relationship and can help keep uncomfortable dissonance at bay. This resource may help you and your partner communicate more effectively and form a stronger connection.

  • The 5 Love Languages” by Gary Chapman is a bestseller for a good reason. It can help you and your partner understand each other’s needs, as well as your own. It is a must-read resource for anyone who values relationships. There are also editions written specifically for men and single people.

Learning To Tolerate Cognitive Dissonance

Are Your Actions Not Aligned With Your Beliefs?

While cognitive dissonance is a normal part of living, it doesn’t have to wreak havoc on your everyday life. Armed with the information and resources in this article, you can make strides towards finding harmony in your relationships. Simply being aware of the imbalance that naturally occurs when attitudes, beliefs, and values do not correlate with urges and behaviors can lead to positive change. As Buddhist author Robert Thurman once said, “Wisdom is tolerance of cognitive dissonance.”

Can Online Therapy Help With Cognitive Dissonance?

You do not need to have a diagnosed mental health condition to reap the benefits of therapy. Talk therapy can be useful in helping people hear new perspectives, identify problems, and make connections. Online therapy may be useful for people who want to further explore their own cognitive dissonance or disturbing behaviors going on with someone whom they love. Online therapy platforms like Regain enable users to schedule appointments at convenient times and from preferred locations – a reliable internet connection is the sole requirement. You can even text your therapist questions in tense moments, should you need someone to confirm your reality.

In fact, many people have consulted online therapists for support in navigating partnerships with a loved one who lives with a substance addiction. After thematically analyzing 90 transcripts of online counseling sessions with family and friends of people who used alcohol, opioids, and/or amphetamines, researchers identified online counseling as an effective treatment for relieving distress, planning appropriate action, improving communication, and connecting with local resources for assistance. 

In a separate study, researchers examined the efficacy of internet-delivered cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for survivors of intimate partner violence. On average, therapists spent approximately two hours collaborating with participants. Results highlighted how more than half of participants showed reliable improvement regarding post-traumatic stress symptom reduction and how 70% made reliable improvement in reducing both PTSD and depression symptoms. These results were similar when compared to a control group of in-person patients.

There are many more scenarios in which people may experience cognitive dissonance outside of the extreme examples of partner violence and substance use. If you are interested in learning about how others have achieved positive results from online therapy, consider reading some of the reviews of Regain therapists from empowered participants below.

Counselor Reviews

“Working with Ralph was a great experience for me and my boyfriend. My boyfriend was apprehensive about any form of therapy, but Ralph’s approachable and non-judgmental demeanor made it easier for my boyfriend to be receptive to him. He cited a lot of techniques and had us learn and use them in our communication. What helped a lot was also the small attainable goals he helped us set that we actually achieved, which made us feel productive without feeling overwhelmed. He’s very flexible with his schedule and always checked in to see how we were doing. I would highly recommend him to any couple who could use some guidance.”

“Anet is very competent at her job. She is trustworthy, doesn’t “take sides”, asks great questions, is empathetic, and has helped my boyfriend and I in more than just our direct relationship issues… She is also familiar with addiction, that my bf was dealing with. My BF and I have grown significantly closer since we have had our sessions with Anet over the last few months. We understand each other’s needs much more now, and as a result, we don’t accidentally hurt each other like we used to do. I highly recommend choosing Anet as your counselor.”


People may experience a range of emotions when they realize that their beliefs and values do not match up with their actions; however, it can be empowering to know that recognizing cognitive dissonance can be a stepping stone toward growth. It is in these moments where opportunity lies to either change our behavior or re-examine our beliefs. Regardless of what you are grappling with, know that an empathetic, nonjudgmental licensed therapist at Regain is available to help you explore your inner world and make decisions that serve your future and wellbeing. Take the first step by reaching out today.

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