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Cognitive Dissonance

Better Living through Cognitive Dissonance

How I feel about you is how I feel about me.

Misinterpreting the message of cognitive dissonance ruins marriages, a fact that totally eludes marriage therapists and relationship authors who promote "getting your needs met."

Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort of self-image colliding with reality. Such collisions are inevitable, as self-image tends to be based on values - what is most important to you - while behavior is routinely directed at short-term comfort, pleasure, and utilitarian goals.

The common cognitive dissonance in intimate relationships is:

I am a loving and compassionate person.
Yet I am not loving and compassionate to you at this moment.

The way we resolve cognitive dissonance helps determine health and well being. The following choice gives you the best chance of achieving a solid and authentic sense of self while improving your relationship.

I am a loving and compassionate person.
Yet I am not loving and compassionate to you at this moment.
Therefore, I must try harder to understand your perspective and sympathize with any discomfort or pain that underlies it.

The choice below guarantees a precarious sense of self based on victim identity or self-righteousness, not to mention failure of all attempts at intimate relationship.

I am a loving and compassionate person.
Yet I am not loving and compassionate to you at this moment.
Therefore, there must be something wrong with you - you are selfish, irrational, ignorant, unworthy, crazy, personality-disordered, abusive, damaged by childhood, etc.

Using Cognitive Dissonance to Improve Self and Relationship
It's easy to avoid the trap of cognitive dissonance in intimate relationships. Instead of asking what is wrong with your partner, ask, what in me is making it hard to be compassionate right now. The answer will almost always be guilt (I've hurt or neglected you), shame (I feel too inadequate), or fear (I'm afraid of your response).

The only thing that relieves guilt and shame for violating a value is investing more energy in the value. Ignoring it or continuing to violate it by blaming your behavior on your partner will only aggravate guilt and shame, no matter how much you try to hide your failure beneath resentment, anger, or self-righteousness. If fear blocks your compassion, share that with your partner, which will give him/her a chance to feel compassion for you. What you want to arrive at is a relationship mantra that goes something like this:

I want to be more compassionate to you and I know that in your heart you want to be more compassionate to me. Let's figure out how we can make it easier for each other to be compassionate and pursue what is best for both of us.

Resolving cognitive dissonance in this way makes you less likely to seem critical or attacking, which makes it difficult for your partner to be defensive.

The stakes of accurately interpreting cognitive dissonance are high. Fidelity to values generates energy, confidence, and vitality, while violation of values depletes all three, which is why it is requires adrenalin - usually in the form of anger or resentment - to temporarily restore energy and confidence. Like all amphetamine effects, these dissipate in an hour or so, in favor of a depression that is likely to be relieved by more resentment or anger. Continuing this roller-coaster ride of disaster leads inevitably to contempt of self (however hidden by chronic resentment and self-righteousness) and a deeper contempt for the former loved one.

The alternative choice is to invest in a deeper compassion for self and loved ones.


More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
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