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How We Justify Staying in Problematic Relationships

Experiencing cognitive dissonance can lead to unhealthy relationship decisions.

Key points

  • Cognitive dissonance describes the uneasiness one feels when their actions and attitudes do not align and can influence relationship decisions.
  • People may alter how they feel about a relationship to justify the effort put forth.
  • Being aware of one's internal dialogue about a relationship, including one's justifications for staying, can lead to a better assessment.
Courtesy of Pexels, Vera Arsic
Source: Courtesy of Pexels, Vera Arsic

Leon Festinger used the term cognitive dissonance to describe the uneasiness one feels when their actions and attitudes do not align. When this situation occurs, the person is motivated to reduce the dissonance so that they no longer experience psychological discomfort (Festinger, 1962).

In order to reduce the dissonance experienced, a person can change their behavior/action, change their cognition, or add new cognitive elements (Festinger, 1962). To explain this in more concrete terms, imagine that you are assigned a position on the debate team that you simply do not believe in. In such a scenario, what you firmly believe and what you are told to argue do not mesh. This is likely to cause an uneasy and uncomfortable tension.

To reduce this, one option may be to ask the teacher who assigned you to your role to switch sides. If that’s not possible, you may change your beliefs to bring them in line with the position to which you were assigned. The third option, adding new cognitions, would involve you realizing through researching for the debate, that the argument may not be so black and white. You may find comfort in knowing that you are touching upon some of the issues in that murky grey area.

Effort justification stems from cognitive dissonance and is a term from social psychology that describes a situation in which a person attributes a greater value to an outcome that requires more effort to achieve. For example, a person planning on entering the Greek system in college may value a specific house, just because it is known to be more selective and challenging to rush. If the process is more challenging, you may deceive yourself into valuing it more than another house (which may be equally as fulfilling), just so you feel as if the effort put forth during the pledging process was worth it. If not for this justification, you will experience dissonance between the effort put forth and your feelings about the house.

Dissonance and Relationships

So how might this relate to relationships?

Suppose two people (let’s call them Susan and Bill) are in a relationship for 18 months. Once enamored with one another, Susan starts to realize that they are growing apart and no longer derive happiness or satisfaction from their union. As a result, dissonance is experienced. Her behavior of staying in the relationship doesn’t coincide with her attitude about the relationship itself.

Rather than change her behavior, or end the relationship, she may justify her actions by noting that she has already invested a year and a half into it. Susan may choose to focus on how much effort she put forth into getting Bill to commit in the first place, and into making their relationship work for all of this time.

This sways how she feels, and she starts to value the relationship solely because she is justifying the effort put forth. This, in turn, reduces the dissonance experienced, and as a result, she stays in a relationship that is not ideal. An extreme example of this would be a person staying in an emotionally or physically abusive relationship.

Why It Matters

While dissonance may be uncomfortable to experience, it is important that we are aware of any internal dialogue we have regarding our relationships, including any justifications that we are making for staying in them. By being aware of this, we are better able to assess the relationship and how it is affecting us. In the case of an unfulfilling or toxic relationship, rather than change our beliefs, we should change our behaviors, and exit before the relationship causes even more sadness or pain.


Festinger, L. (1962). Cognitive dissonance. Scientific American, 207(4), 93-106.