cognitive dissonance

In the field of psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort  (psychological stress) experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas or values. I describe it more as doing or not doing something that YOU believe to be wrong. It can be a small wrong, like eating chocolate when you have given it up for Lent; or big wrongs like living with a man who you believe is damaging your children.

The occurrence of cognitive dissonance is a consequence of a person’s performing / accepting an action that contradicts personal beliefs, ideals, and values; and can also occur when confronted with new information that contradicts said beliefs, ideals, and values.

The above is partially lifted from Wikipedia (with my own inserts.)

I’m writing this post because the Absence of cognitive dissonance in my life now is one of the most positive aspects of my sobriety and of my separation from my ex partner.

I have lived with the psychological stress of this for 16 1/2 years. Sometimes I think its no wonder I drank.

But my drinking cause untold stress and cognitive dissonance too. because I KNEW I was not a ‘normal’ drinker I worried about it constantly. The mismatch between what I believed – drinking excessively is bad for your health, bad for your kids and just bad. was totally mismatched  with the bottle of New Zealand Sav blanc that I drank every night, or the pissed person I was at the weekend.

My ex husband used drugs. When I met him, it was no big deal.  He didn’t drink, but had a spliff in the evening. My son no1 was 18 months old, so asleep in the evenings when ex H came round and not exposed to it. I’ve never really bothered with cannabis (thank God) but I had no real problem with this. Lots of his friends had the odd spliff too. We were in our mid 30’s ; It didn’t seem so weird. Or wrong,

Fast forward five years. By now we have three young children and he is smoking weed morning noon and night, and in front of the kids, and most of his friends (all of the ones with children) had stopped using weed because they realised it was a bad influence on the kids. Cognitive dissonance , being forced to live with something you feel deeeply uncomfortable about. That was easier in a way, everyone knew he took drugs, and everyone had seen his aggression to the kids in one form or another … so I had support from the beginning.

Same feeling, different issues, with ex partner. On the one hand “love” or at least “perceived love /need” and on the other “I’m afraid of your temper, I’m afraid of your anger, I don’t think you treat my kids right, etc”

Again my solution was to hide from those feelings in a bottle of wine. I was not the perpetrator of emotional abuse of my children, but I sat by, with my bottle, and Let it happen….

Dissonance increases with:

  • The importance of the subject to us.
  • How strongly the dissonant thoughts conflict.
  • Our inability to rationalize and explain away the conflict.

Dissonance is often particularly strong when we believe something about ourselves and then do something against that belief.  E.g. I believe it is very important to me to be “the best mother that I can”  but then I allow my partner to live with my children and treat them in a way that I think is wrong – then the discomfort I feel as a result is cognitive dissonance. Very strong and very uncomfortable cognitive dissonance.

On the positive side Cognitive dissonance a very powerful motivator which will often lead us to change one or other of the conflicting beliefs or actions. This reflects how I felt about my ex partner – torn between supporting him or supporting my children. (And sometimes son #1 did things that were so wrong it was impossible to disagree with ExP’s evaluation of his character) hence more dissonance . The discomfort felt like a massive internal tension between the two opposing thoughts. Something I could NEVER talk of, never reveal, try not even to THINK about, and so of course never resolve.

To release the tension we can take one of three actions:

  • Change our behaviour
  • Justify our behavior by changing the conflicting cognition.
  • Justify our behavior by adding new cognitions.

Dissonance is seen to be most powerful when it is affects our self-image. Feelings of shame, immorality, affecting my self image as a mother …. are dissonance in action. And it was so strong it drove me to the edge of my “sanity”. I can see this now, but I could not then. In April 2013, when I was really Mentally unwell with intrusive suicidal thoughts, it was because I was sober – and therefore could no longer ignore the feelings of dissonance (the issue at that time was between ExP and son1 – he didn’t start picking on son 2 till a bit later) – and I could not

  • change any other persons behaviour
  • justify either persons behaviour
  • add new cognitions to justify either persons behaviour

So I was stuck: being stuck , seeing it, and seeing no way out – I just dissolved myself.

I did not see the psychological dissonance clearly, and I did not / could not dissect it as clearly as I have above.  Although I saw the option of splitting with ExP , I could not imagine actually doing it. I don’t know why, I could say I loved him, but that would not really be the truth (I HAD loved him certainly, but actually I quite disliked him by then) I think it’s closer to the truth to say I believed I needed him…. and I thought he would still turn back into the lovely man he had been when we first met  if only I could solve ‘this problem” (son1). I considered trying to send son 1 to boarding school, I considered lots of options, but none were possible. Above all I could not change any one else’s behaviour, how ever hard I tried.

Looking back, I’m not surprised at all that I broke. In fact I’m astonished I managed for as long as I did. And of course getting “well” again involved medication, rest, and burying my head in the sand bottle again….

Dissonance increases with the importance and impact of the situation / decision along with the difficulty of reversing it. Discomfort about making the wrong choice of car is bigger than when choosing a meal from a menu… e.g.: I want x car but it’s more than I wanted to spend … if you buy it, you will experience dissonance, but will probably change your beliefs to justify it .. e.g. Well I can just cut back on coffees out etc , I can manage that, it’s worth it etc …

I wonder how I changed my beliefs to accommodate the horrors in my home ? Or how I tried to change them..? Or why I did that? Why I allowed myself to carry all that burden without unloading it anywhere.

i will need to think more about this. One thing I do know, the absence of dissonance right now is a massive, enormous relief and I will never go back to it again.



  1. Great insights and information here. I read a book a long ways back about the theory of cortisol and alcoholism being linked heavily. The author suggested that it was the *cause* of alcoholism, or at least a catalyst (I can’t recall). I understand, for me, that it involves a lot of things. I believe chemical, mental, physical and emotional issues all pile on one another like a car crash to create a perfect storm of sorts.

    Thanks for this – wonderful post!


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