In this two-part blog, we are going to look at and begin to understand Cognitive Dissonance. We are going to look at this through the lens of recovery and discover how it can help you understand yourself as well as your personal and professional relationships.
The occurrence of cognitive dissonance is a consequence of a person performing an action that contradicts personal beliefs, ideals, and values; and also occurs when confronted with new information that contradicts said beliefs, ideals, and values.
A person who experiences internal inconsistency tends to become psychologically uncomfortable, and so is motivated to reduce the cognitive dissonance, by making changes to justify the stressful behavior, either by adding new parts to the cognition causing the psychological dissonance, or by actively avoiding social situations and contradictory information likely to increase the magnitude of the cognitive dissonance.” – Wikipedia
Cognitive simply means a thought, idea or belief, a mental process or perception, reasoning or judgement. Dissonance is a musical term that means a lack of harmony between musical notes, a harsh sound, or discord. It also means a lack of agreement between beliefs between one’s behaviors, a state of unrest, distress or an unpleasant state.
First, think of Cognitive Dissonance as a state of thoughts, ideas, or beliefs being in discord or out of harmony with behaviors or behaviors being in discord with beliefs and values. We will call this Type 1.
Secondly, this also occurs when one’s mental perception or beliefs are in a state of unrest or discord with new information they are receiving, which creates an unpleasant state. This can be a distressful and unpleasant cause in one or all forms such as physically, emotionally, relationally, financially, spiritually, physiologically etc. We will call this Type 2.
Today, we are going to look at Type 1 Cognitive Dissonance.
Let’s look at this practically speaking and how it might apply to the addict and then the partner/spouse.
- The addict may change their thought/core belief to match their behavior. For example, “Monogamy is overrated. It’s too difficult. Sex with my partner is no longer exciting. What they do not know will not hurt them.” (This is what I refer to as self-betrayal, and it starts with our thinking.)
- The addict may justify or rationalize their behavior by changing their thinking/core beliefs. For example, “That was my last time. It was just sex. Everybody does it. It did not mean anything. I do not love them. I love my partner” (This is further self-betrayal now displayed through their behavior.)
- The addict may change their behaviors to match their thoughts/core beliefs. For example, “Having sex with and sleeping with others is not who I am or who I want to be.” (The person can no longer live with this discord and distress with themselves – aka cognitive dissonances. Further self-betrayal causes too much distress, and they return to their valued thoughts or core beliefs.)
Now, let’s look at the partner.
- The partner changes their thought/core belief to match their behavior. For example, “I know they have been unfaithful and cheated, but I will stay. We will tray and work it out.” (Their core belief has been violated by another person; and now, they are in distress but choose to stay and not betray themselves even though they have been betrayed.)
- The partner justifies or rationalizes their behavior by changing their thinking/core beliefs. For example, “I cannot believe that they cheated me. It is far worse than they first told me. I deserve better than this. I will find someone else who will really love me. I am out of here.” (The distress, discord, disharmony, and cognitive dissonance intensifies, and they betray their core beliefs and leave.)
- The partner changes their behaviors to match their original thoughts/core beliefs. For example, “I meant what I said and am committed to my partner. I will move back in and work on the relationship.”
- PLAN A: Time has passed, and they might see positive behavior changes from their partner and can no longer live in self-betrayal or cognitive dissonance, so they re-enter the relationship.
- PLAN B: Time has passed, and the addict continues to show unchanged negative behaviors by breaking trust or acting out. Now, the partner will generally choose one of the following:
- To leave, divorce, separate or end the relationship
- To leave and work on their own recovery
- To stay in the relationship and be codependent and miserable
- To stay and work on their own recovery
- To stay or leave but remain a victim by accusing, blaming, criticizing, staying bitter, resentful, or offended
This example can be applied to any addict and their addiction whether it is sex, drugs, alcohol, gaming, smoking, eating, shopping, etc.
Now, sometimes we can have two core beliefs in conflict which will create a great deal of anxiety and cognitive dissonance until the stronger core belief wins out. For more information, read the blog, The Anxiety of Intimacy Anorexia (https://www.transformedhearts.com/the-anxiety-of-intimacy-anorexia/). For example, the woman has a strong core belief about “having a voice and speaking up for herself” AND an even stronger core belief from her family or faith practice that “you never get divorced no matter what.” Time is the great equalizer, and her behavior will tell you which one is stronger.
For the addict, they will have a strong core belief about being a “good responsible person of integrity” but an even stronger core belief about “needing to be perfect to be loved or believing they are loved for what they do.” The second one usually wins out, and the addiction stays secret and hidden. Because in their mind, to be imperfect and struggling with drugs, sex or alcohol would mean they are unlovable.
Both are in cognitive dissonance.
Cory Schortzman is an author, speaker, teacher and licensed mental health professional. Since 2008, he has served as the Executive Director of Transformed Hearts Counseling Center in Colorado Springs, CO. He is the founder of SARA, the Sexual Addiction Recovery Association. Cory is passionate about helping couples and individuals overcome sex addiction. He is also passionate about bringing awareness to the public and supporting the elimination of sex and human trafficking. Cory has been married since 1998 to his beautiful wife, Kerry, and lives in Colorado with their four daughters. He and Kerry have been seen on the CBS Early Show, Inside Edition, and ABC Good Morning America, Fox 21 News, and TLC/Discovery discussing the harm of sex addiction and the joys of recovery. He has also been heard on numerous radio programs.
Cory’s books include: Out of the Darkness, Into the Light the Workbook, Into the Light the Steps, Ashes to Beauty the Steps, 301 Dating Ideas, 301 Conversational Ideas, 301 Ways to Say I Love You, 301 Ways to Love Your Children & 301 Recovery Tools & Tips.