Cognitive Dissonance and the Victim of Abuse

The following is taken from an article written by

Joseph M. Carver, Ph.D., Clinical PsychologistImage

“Cognitive Dissonance” explains how and why people change their ideas and opinions to support situations that do not appear to be healthy, positive, or normal. In the theory, an individual seeks to reduce information or opinions that make him or her uncomfortable. When we have two sets of cognitions (knowledge, opinion, feelings, input from others, etc.) that are the opposite, the situation becomes emotionally uncomfortable. Even though we might find ourselves in a foolish or difficult situation – few want to admit that fact. Instead, we attempt to reduce the dissonance – the fact that our cognitions don’t match, agree, or make sense when combined. “Cognitive Dissonance” can be reduced by adding new cognitions – adding new thoughts and attitudes. Some examples:

  • Heavy smokers know smoking causes lung cancer and multiple health risks. To continue smoking, the smoker changes his cognitions (thoughts/feelings) such as 1) “I’m smoking less than ten years ago”, 2) “I’m smoking low-tar cigarettes”, 3) “Those statistics are made up by the cancer industry conspiracy”, or 4) “Something’s got to get you anyway!” These new cognitions/attitudes allow them to keep smoking and actually begin blaming restaurants for being unfair.
  • You purchase a $40,000.00 Sport Utility Vehicle that gets 8 miles a gallon. You justify the expense and related issues with 1) “It’s great on trips (you take one trip per year)”, 2) “I can use it to haul stuff (one coffee table in 12 months), and 3) “You can carry a lot of people in it (95% of your trips are driver-only).”
  • Your husband/boyfriend becomes abusive and assaultive. You can’t leave due to the finances, children, or other factors. Through cognitive dissonance, you begin telling yourself “He only hits me open-handed” and “He’s had a lot of stress at work.”

Leon Festinger first coined “Cognitive Dissonance”. He had observed a cult (1956) in which members gave up their homes, incomes, and jobs to work for the cult. This cult believed in messages from outer space that predicted the day the world would end by a flood. As cult members and firm believers, they believed they would be saved by flying saucers at the appointed time. As they gathered and waited to be taken by flying saucers at the specified time, the end-of-the-world came and went. No flood and no flying saucer! Rather than believing they were foolish after all that personal and emotional investment – they decided their beliefs had actually saved the world from the flood and they became firmer in their beliefs after the failure of the prophecy. The moral – the more you invest (income, job, home, time, effort, etc.) the stronger your need to justify your position. If we invest $5.00 in a raffle ticket, we justify losing with “I’ll get them next time”. If you invest everything you have, it requires an almost unreasoning belief and unusual attitude to support and justify that investment.

Studies tell us we are more loyal and committed to something that is difficult, uncomfortable, and even humiliating. The initiation rituals of college fraternities, Marine boot camp, and graduate school all produce loyal and committed individuals. Almost any ordeal creates a bonding experience. Every couple, no matter how mismatched, falls in love in the movies after going through a terrorist takeover, being stalked by a killer, being stranded on an island, or being involved in an alien abduction. Investment and an ordeal are ingredients for a strong bonding – even if the bonding is unhealthy. No one bonds or falls in love by being a member of the Automobile Club or a music CD club. Struggling to survive on a deserted island – you bet!

Abusive relationships produce a great amount on unhealthy investment in both parties. In many cases we tend to remain and support the abusive relationship due to our investment in the relationship. Try telling a new Marine that since he or she has survived boot camp, they should now enroll in the National Guard! Several types of investments keep us in the bad relationship:

  • Emotional Investment – We’ve invested so many emotions, cried so much, and worried so much that we feel we must see the relationship through to the finish.
  • Social Investment – We’ve got our pride! To avoid social embarrassment and uncomfortable social situations, we remain in the relationship.
  • Family Investments – If children are present in the relationship, decisions regarding the relationship are clouded by the status and needs of the children.
  • Financial Investment – In many cases, the controlling and abusive partner has created a complex financial situation. Many victims remain in a bad relationship, waiting for a better financial situation to develop that would make their departure and detachment easier.
  • Lifestyle Investment – Many controlling/abusive partners use money or a lifestyle as an investment. Victims in this situation may not want to lose their current lifestyle.
  • Intimacy Investment – We often invest emotional and sexual intimacy. Some victims have experienced a destruction of their emotional and/or sexual self-esteem in the unhealthy relationship. The abusing partner may threaten to spread rumors or tell intimate details or secrets. A type of blackmail using intimacy is often found in these situations.

In many cases, it’s not simply our feelings for an individual that keeps us in an unhealthy relationship – it’s often the amount of investment. Relationships are complex and we often only see the tip of the iceberg in public. For this reason, the most common phrase offered by the victim in defense of their unhealthy relationship is “You just don’t understand!”

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3 Replies to “Cognitive Dissonance and the Victim of Abuse”

  1. Excellent article! it hits the nail right on the head. Especially about being loyal and committed. That is what my parents modeled to me growing up, it’s the way I thought marriage should be. Unfortunately, my ex had deception, cheating and irresponsibility shown him. Big disconnect!
    Thanks Carrie for posting this!

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    1. KL, that IS what a loving marriage should be all about, we just weren’t told about the narcissists in the world waiting to take advantage of our dedication and loyalty.
      Thanks for commenting
      Hugs
      Carrie

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  2. We also get cognitive dissonance from the abusive partner himself. His own words and behaviors are dissonant. We try to make sense of them but there is no sense, no reason behind them because it’s all gaslighting and manipulation. Before we fully embrace the reality that we cannot reason with insanity, we may try to reduce the discomfort by projecting reasonable meanings onto the abuser’s words and behaviors. It’s hard to accept that what he’s giving out has “no sense” and let it go at that. It means we are on our own and can’t depend on him–in fact we have to actively avoid depending on him in any way–and that is a discomfort we would prefer not to deal with.

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