Cognitive Dissonance In Relationships: How Contradictory Behaviors Affect Couples

By Kelly Spears|Updated July 1, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Laura Angers, NCC, LPC

Cognitive dissonance affects 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 experience constant dissonance.

In many cases, however, cognitive dissonance can be helpful, allowing individuals and couples to tap into their values, beliefs, and desires and understand better how these 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 34 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 a smoker’s values, he might choose to stop smoking, conduct research with the hope of proving that smoking isn’t harmful, or ease his discomfort by justifying the behavior. He 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 members 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, members were slowly conditioned and alienated from their friends and family. When the flood didn’t occur on the prophesized date, members dealt with the cognitive dissonance in various ways. Some men and women 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

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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’re dating. Perhaps your ideal mate loves children and wants to have a big family. Let’s say you have great chemistry with a man you met through a mutual friend. Nearly all of your values align, but he’s not keen on having kids. He’d much rather travel the world, which you think you’d 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’re 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’s a disconnect between reality and how the cheating individual perceives herself, her partner, and her relationship in many cases. Cognitive dissonance also occurs within the person who learns his 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. More on this later.

When Cognitive Dissonance Is Helpful

In some cases, cognitive dissonance can provide us with a much-needed reality check. Some people have a long 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 doesn’t exist, and without compromise, no potential partner will meet these unrealistic expectations.

For instance, let’s say a single man is looking for a partner who values financial security, time with family and friends, and shares his love of football. He goes on several dates with a woman he meets on a dating app. They have similar values and plenty of things in common. Most importantly, she prefers financial stability to shopping sprees and loves spending time with her family and group of friends. The problem? The woman has never been to a football game and has no interest in the sport, but she appreciates the man’s enthusiasm. She wouldn’t mind accompanying him to the occasional game.

At this point, the man must make a decision. Should he continue to date this woman whom he can see spending the rest of his life with, or should he move on and attempt to find the “perfect” football-loving woman?

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 deal with conflicting beliefs or values. In these cases, communication is key. The problem? Many individuals and couples struggle to communicate effectively. Later in this article, you’ll find a list of helpful resources for effective communication.

The Role Of Cognitive Dissonance Plays In Unhealthy And Abusive Relationships

In unhealthy and abusive relationships, victims often question their perception of their abuser and the relationship as a whole. When the abuser’s mood shifts abruptly, the victim is filled with confusion, and cognitive dissonance comes into play. While the victim loves the abuser and fears being apart, she knows deep down that the abuse cycle will continue. These contradictory thoughts and feelings perplex the victim, making her feel anxious, frozen, and unable to make rational decisions. To calm the storm inside her, the victim might justify or downplay her abuser’s behavior. This often becomes a vicious cycle that is incredibly difficult to break. In most cases, a trusted individual must validate her feelings and confirm her reality before the victim can break free for good.

Individuals who are currently in unhealthy or abusive relationships and 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/Maintaining 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:

  1. “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 will open your eyes and mind to the justifications we make as human beings and why good people often make bad decisions.
  2. “A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance” by the theorist, Leon Festinger, dives into cognitive dissonance, including supporting data. Despite being published in 1957, this is a valuable resource that’s just as relevant today as it was decades ago.
  3. “201 Relationship Questions” by Barrie Davenport is a great relationship builder that will 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 will help you and your partner communicate more effectively and form a stronger connection.
  4. “The 5 Love Languages” by Gary Chapman is a bestseller for a good reason. It will help you and your partner understand each other’s needs, as well as your own. It’s a must-read resource for anyone who values relationships. There are also editions written specifically for men and singles.

Learning To Tolerate Cognitive Dissonance

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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 don’t correlate with urges and behaviors can positively change.

As Buddhist author Robert Thurman once said, “Wisdom is tolerance of cognitive dissonance.”

“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.”

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