Cognitive Dissonance in Emotionally Dependent Relationships

July 22, 2019
What’s cognitive dissonance? And what does it do in emotionally dependent relationships? Read on to find out.

In this article, we’ll be talking about Leon Festinger’s famous theory of cognitive dissonance. For this particular article, we’re going to study it in the context of an emotionally dependent relationship. We decided to do it due to all the damage that can occur when we don’t deal with cognitive dissonance correctly.

Cognitive dissonance is a classic concept in psychology, coined by psychologist Leon Festinger in 1957. It refers to the fact that people usually strive to maintain an internal coherence between their beliefs, values, ​​and behavior.

When this balance is threatened, the person feels very uncomfortable and seeks to restore it. Cognitive dissonance is a very common psychological effect. The truth is that we’ve all experienced it to a greater or lesser extent. Today, we’re going to focus on the effect of cognitive dissonance on emotional dependence.

Strategies to Deceive Ourselves

We’re often not aware of this dissonance. However, when we do detect it, we usually have different strategies to try to face it, sometimes even unconsciously. We either trivialize our behavior (“it doesn’t matter” or “we have to die from something”) or self-deception (“I’m sure that things will change”).

On other occasions, we can change our own opinion and try to influence others to change theirs. We can even create strategies so that we don’t have to compare ourselves to other people. For example: “Yes, it’s true, he died of cancer because he smoked, but he had a family history and I don’t “.

Cognitive dissonance in relationships with emotional dependence is a fairly common topic. When someone is immersed in a toxic relationship, deep down they know they should really get out of it. But, at the same time, there’s always something that prevents them from doing it.

The fear of loneliness and of experiencing loss go hand in hand with the discomfort that you feel on a daily basis when you’re living day in, day out, in a destructive relationship.

A sad woman with head in hands.

When “I Must” Meets “I Need”

The cognitive dissonance in emotional dependence arises when the person starts to feel that each day with the other person is like a prison sentence. This can be because their partner humiliates them or blocks them out. It also arises when they’re aggressive, argumentative, or even unfaithful. The result here is that the dependent person’s self-esteem is increasingly affected.

Whenever the emotionally dependent person has a spark of lucidity, they open their eyes and are able to see things as they really are. They become aware of the pain they’re suffering. Everything becomes like a whirlwind for them and they realize that they have to end the relationship because it’s hurting them so much.

Unfortunately, emotional dependence harbors something even more powerful: fear of rejection or loneliness. The fear of being alone holds a terrible grip. Because of that, that moment of lucidity often vanishes in a puff of smoke.

Trusting in False Comfort

Instead of doing the logical, coherent thing and deciding to end the relationship, the person takes refuge in the false comfort of “needing” the other person in order not to be alone. Because of that, things just continue as they did before and nothing changes.

The dependent person stays in the toxic relationship and this leads to a very uncomfortable cognitive dissonance. Although you know you need to escape, the thought of an impending solitude terrifies you.

Cognitive dissonance in emotional dependence becomes even more unpleasant when those around you, from their own point of view, clearly see that you should end the relationship. They have the best of intentions and want to help. They say things such as “Don’t you see that they’re being unfaithful?”, “You shouldn’t have to put up with being shouted at” and “Get out before it’s too late”.

This, obviously, creates an even greater internal conflict and the dependent individual may argue with these people or even cut them off to avoid causing any more dissonance. This cognitive dissonance worsens when people, especially if they’re important to us, are at odds with our way of behaving.

A couple embracing.

Cognitive Dissonance in Emotional Dependence: Excuses and Self-Deception

Within the framework of toxic relationships, excuses and self-deception are often very common. They come to the surface in an attempt to reduce the discomfort produced by cognitive dissonance. In this way, people end up thinking that the things they have created in their minds are real to try to (falsely) make sense of the situation.

Cognitive dissonance in an emotionally dependent relationship gives us the key to be able to detect self-deception. The best clues of all are our emotions. When you’re in a harmful relationship and your behavior is at odds with this fact, you feel uncomfortable.

Sometimes, this can even lead to depression, with all that that entails: insomnia, lack of appetite, apathy…

Rethinking Our Internal Dialogue

If we feel really uncomfortable or unsettled, then perhaps we should rethink our internal dialogue. If we do, then we’ll realize just what we’re saying to try to convince ourselves to keep on as we always have.

Thinking about the Break-Up

Another way that we deceive ourselves is when we think about the possible break up and experience it as if it were a deep abyss. We’ll surely be filled with an intense fear of the uncertainty that may result from a future with all these changes on the horizon.

This can often make us even more sure that we need to be at our partner’s side. Not so much for love, but, rather, due to fear of being alone. We quite simply don’t trust in our ability, resources, or potential.

Going to therapy is essential if we want to uncover all these tricks that our minds play on us. We do it to have a secure, yet unwanted future.

Psychological therapy can really help us to reduce this dissonance using strategies that won’t harm us in any way. What we really need to do is to start taking steps that will lead us to eventually face reality and take decisive action.

  • Morales, F.(1994). Psicología Social. Madrid: McGraw-Hill.