Cognitive Dissonance

When you live your entire adult life being fed lie after lie after lie, you become numb to it. You learn to just expect it. I realized one day that I no longer believed anything that came out of his mouth. I assumed he never told the truth. If he told me he was going to take care of something, I assumed he wouldn’t. If he promised he wouldn’t do something, I assumed he would. Big things, or small inconsequential things, it didn’t matter. He lied about it all. Truthfulness required some ability to think about others, and he is selfish. Honesty requires action, and he likes the easy button. He doesn’t like things to get too hard, so he chooses what’s easiest for him in the moment. I still don’t know that he understands how difficult this makes life in the future when it all catches up to you. 

He’s been lying to his family since he moved out in August. While promising to do the work and get the help he needs for his addictions, his deceit, and his anger- he was continuing to feed them all. Immediately upon moving out, he started going out to bars violating his commitment to me; both his affairs were women he picked up in bars. He started dating someone within weeks and kept it a secret, deceiving the boys and me, while acting like we were still going to be a family and telling us he missed us and wanted to come home. In fact, he kept that secret for months, lying to us every day for months. When he wants something, he will lie and deceive to get it and keep it. He’s smooth and charming, telling you just enough to make you think he’s being truthful, but he has no idea what honesty really is. Yet, he still believes himself to be a “good guy.”

This leads me to the lesson about cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is that uncomfortable feeling we get when we hold two contrasting values or beliefs. It’s the inconsistency in what people believe and how they behave. We’ve all felt minor forms of it- that unease when you’ve told a lie and know it’s wrong, or you’re ashamed because something you did will hurt someone else. I tend to think of it as my conscience. That little guy that sits on my shoulder and tells me I’ve done something against the core of my beliefs, something that violates how I view myself. It causes tension deep in your soul, and you must explain it away somehow or apologize for your wrong.

In music, dissonance is a lack of harmony; in the everyday world, it’s a lack of agreement. In our minds, it’s the exact same thing- a lack of harmony and agreement in our actions versus our thoughts. While I wholeheartedly agree that some abusers know they are abusers and frankly don’t care who they hurt, others truly believe they are good and occasionally just make mistakes. Mine falls into the latter category. He is deeply disconnected from his reality and cannot comprehend the damage and pain he causes. He believes that his lies were to protect us and his deceit was to keep us from hurting. He doesn’t seem to see at all that his actions are purely selfish and for his own benefit. He believes in integrity, honesty, and faithfulness, yet does not live those; but because he believes in the importance of those values, he MUST have them, thus he MUST be a good man. The “mistakes” he makes are not things he’s chosen to do; they all happen accidentally and aren’t his fault, since he didn’t mean for them to happen. With every new lie, deceit, and hurtful action he always tells me he “didn’t mean to, it just happened.” He cannot stand to see that these are actions he has chosen, because that would mean he has chosen deception, which means he does not live with integrity, honesty, and faithfulness. He has to choose between believing his actions or believing his own words and thoughts. Since these two things are not in agreement, he can only choose one. Facing the reality that he is not a good man, that he is a liar, abuser, and cheater, is too hard, so he chooses to believe his own thoughts, rather than his own actions. To accomplish this, he must minimize his actions, explain them away, or pretend they never happened. One example of this was when I accused him of calling his affair partner on three different phone numbers. He denied repeatedly and claimed he only ever called her on one number. I had the phone records in my hand proving the long conversations with her on three different numbers and he still denied it. It wasn’t until I told him I had called all three numbers and they were all hers that he finally accepted the truth and seemed shocked that his deceit ran deeper than he remembered.

For the abused, cognitive dissonance plays a very similar role. We also have core beliefs and values that we hold important. I’m sure for every one of us who has been abused, we never expected to be in this situation, never imagined it could happen us. Our values do not believe that abuse is ok, so there is no way we would accept it. I know this holds true for me. Every time an abuse occurred, every time a lie was told, every time his deception was brought to light, I felt the discord, the dissonance, the lack of harmony deep within me. Somehow, I had to get rid of that contradiction between the actions of a man who abused me and the belief that I had married a good, caring, kind man who loved me. The easiest way to get rid of this discord was by adjusting my beliefs. Not the beliefs that he was a good and kind man, I needed those to be able to stay, much like he needed that same belief just to survive. I adjusted my beliefs and values of what marriage was supposed to look like, of what love looked like. I so desperately didn’t want a broken home for me or my children, that I began to accept abuse as a part of relationships. No marriage is perfect, right?

There are many beliefs and attitudes the abused may change to learn to accept the abuse- the abuse is not intentional on his part, the old him will come back at some point, there’s something psychologically wrong with him and he can’t help it, or maybe you just come to believe that you’re the problem. Rather than adjusting our beliefs to eliminate the cognitive dissonance in our life, how about we adjust our behaviors and actions? Make positive changes to ourselves rather than detrimental changes to our values? I have friend who has begun texting me affirmations to not listen to my brain, reminding me that I am stronger than I believe I am, and to remember to follow my heart and what Christ tells me about who I am and what I value. While I still cannot always see past my belief of my abuser as a good man whom I love, my friends do not share that same mental discord and can see him for who he really is- and they remind me daily not to trust my mind. Get your friends to do this for you! Write it on a post-it and put it where you see it constantly! Examine the values that you hold dear to your heart, and don’t compromise them. Don’t let your brain tell you your value, listen to your heart! God knows your worth and if you will listen, He will remind you every second of every day. 

Cherry, Kendra. “Cognitive Dissonance and Ways to Resolve It.” Verywell Mind, About, Inc. (DotDash), 2 July 2020, www.verywellmind.com/what-is-cognitive-dissonance-2795012. Accessed 25 Feb. 2021.

“Dissonance.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/dissonance. Accessed 25 Feb. 2021.

Murphy, Clare, PhD. “Three Reasons Why Women Stay with a Controlling Partner.” Speakoutloud.Net, SpeakOutLoud, 2009, http://www.speakoutloud.net/myths-about-domestic-violence/belief-in-a-just-world/cognitive-dissonance-family-violence. Accessed 25 Feb. 2021.

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