Narcissistic Relationships: Dealing With Cognitive Dissonance
Cognitive dissonance is something that you've probably heard about when reading or researching about narcissistic relationships. A lot of people talk about it, but no one ever really seems to explain what exactly it is. "Cognitive" has to do with thinking and perception, and "dissonance" means things that clash or don't go together. If it helps, you could think of dissonant music, where something is played off-key. Basically, cognitive dissonance is what happens when the mind holds two pieces of information or belief systems that contradict each other or otherwise clash.
A good example is smoking. There is always cognitive dissonance involved in smoking. People want to smoke but they also know that smoking is bad for them. In order to relieve the stress created by this clash, this paradox, people come up with rationalizations that create a bridge between the two things. They might say something like, "Yes, smoking is bad for you but so are a lot of things." Or, "We all gotta die sometime." This helps them mitigate the information in a way that they can deal with, because if they can't do that then they can't continue to smoke and they don't want to stop.
The reason there is stress at all is because, as you can see, one set of information cancels out the other and in order to retain both belief systems, rationalizations and compromises must be reached within the brain. Otherwise, the brain would not be able to justify smoking and doing so would create a very stressful situation.
This is how cognitive dissonance works in every situation, not just with smoking. In any situation where there is contradictory information that must be accepted, there is cognitive dissonance. People who smoke must accept that smoking is bad for them. In this day and age, it's not possible to deny or disprove it. They also must accept the fact that they smoke and that they want to smoke. Because these two things cannot be denied - and they also cannot be accepted, the brain must come up with a way for them to co-exist. That is where cognitive dissonance comes in. It creates a bridge between these two things so that they can exist simultaneously.
A person who smokes can't say, "Smoking is not bad for me." They also cannot say, "I smoke because I don't care if it hurts me." Neither of these things are true, so the brain comes up with a compromise. It creates a way to reduce the impact of the unpleasant or contradictory information. It does this because the person in question wants to keep smoking.
We see this same mechanism at work in narcissistic relationships as well. When someone is in a relationship with a pathologically narcissistic person, there is a lot of contradictory information that must be held in the brain. For example, on one hand the person wants to continue the relationship. On the other, they know it is abusive and they should leave. Just as with the smoker, they experience stress because they know they are doing something that is harmful or unsafe. Unlike smoking though, there is a secondary threat tied to the contradictory information as well; if someone is abusing you, it means they do not value you. If someone does not value you, it means they don't care about you. However, the alternative - to stop - represents what is perceived as a more dangerous threat and so the contradictory information is mitigated with a bridge of cognitive dissonance:
Piece of information #1: I love this person.
Piece of information #2: This person abuses me.
If you accept Piece of information #2, that means piece of information #1 is in jeopardy. It also means the relationship would either have to end or you would have to admit to yourself that you actually don't care that someone is abusing you. Neither of these outcomes is tolerable but you cannot deny or disprove piece of information #2, so in order to continue in the relationship as you wish, rationalizations to mitigate the unpleasant, contradictory information are created:
- I deserve it. If I didn't _____, then they wouldn't ______.
- It's not that bad. Others have it worse.
- They had a bad day.
- They had a bad childhood.
- They are drunk.
- They are sick.
- They don't act like this every day.
- Nobody's perfect.
- They would never really hurt me.
As stated in other articles, the cognitive dissonance in this situation is supported by the narcissist's constant blame-shifting and projection but it is usually not created by these things. It happens because the person wants to stay in the relationship and goes against their instincts in order to do so. This is actually a good thing, because not only does it mean your instincts are in good working order and you can trust them, but it also means the power has been in your hands the entire time.
In order to combat cognitive dissonance, you have to stop creating a narrative you can live with and live with what is actually happening. There's no other way to say it. If someone abuses you, they are not good for you. End of story. It doesn't matter why. It doesn't even matter if you want to stay in the relationship or not. If you do, that's up to you. But be honest with yourself about what is going on. Some people might need to admit to themselves that this person treats them badly but it just doesn't bother them enough to want to end the relationship, or to be able to stay gone - because that is the reality of the situation. If this is you, please go to the mirror, look yourself in the eye and ask why.
- WHY are you OK with being unhappy?
- WHY don't you believe that you deserve better?
- WHY is it this important to stay in this relationship?
- WHY is abuse more acceptable than being alone?
If you can address these things, you can change them. This may sound harsh, but sugarcoating these topics is not going to help anybody who is in this situation. You can't crack cement with a feather duster. People in abusive situations are suffering. They are in danger. Many of them have created a wall of rationalizations and excuses around themselves in order to function. The dissonance needs to be broken through and you often have to hit it like a Mack truck in order to do that. It hurts, but it's better in the end. Otherwise, the only way it gets broken through is because the abuser has done something so terrible it cannot be excused or rationalized away. For some people, this realization comes too late and it is their families who must pick up the pieces. So get mad about how harsh this is. But please, listen.