How cognitive dissonance can keep you stuck in an unhealthy relationship

Julie Lynn
Upset man walking away from a womanPhoto by RODNAE Productions from Pexels

Your relationship is great...sometimes.

Sometimes you go on fun dates. Sometimes you are lavished with attention. Sometimes you feel cherished and adored. Sometimes you feel seen and heard in ways you never have before.

Sometimes your partner seems like your dream partner.

But then there are the other times.

The times your partner can't be bothered with communicating or spending time with you. The times your partner puts you down or makes mean jokes at your expense. The times your partner becomes cold and withdrawn. The times your partner dismisses, invalidates, and minimizes your concerns.

Sometimes your partner seems like a living nightmare.

Yet you stay.

You stay because even though the bad times are really bad, the good times are really good.

You stay because it's hard for you to reconcile how this person who treats you great sometimes is the same person who treats you terribly other times.

You stay because of cognitive dissonance.

What is cognitive dissonance?

According to Very Well Mind, "the term cognitive dissonance is used to describe the mental discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs, values, or attitudes."

You want to believe that your partner is a good person who cares about you. But their behavior indicates otherwise. To alleviate the emotional discomfort you would feel if you believed your partner's actions indicated they do not care about you, you engage in techniques to rationalize away their poor behaviors.

You may make excuses for your partner's behaviors. You may tell yourself that it could be worse. You may tell yourself all relationships are like this. You may tell yourself the good times make up for the bad times. You may believe your partner's promises to change. You may believe that when your partner returns to treating you well again, they are going to stay this way.

You may even see your partner as two different people in your head, as you are unable to believe the two side of Jekyll and Hyde are the same person. Your brain can't handle the reality of bringing together those two opposing beliefs. Therefore in your mind, there is one person who treats you well and another person who treats you poorly.

Believing anything else would be too painful.

How to resolve relationship cognitive dissonance

To resolve the cognitive dissonance that is created by your inability to hold opposing beliefs about your partner, you need to change your beliefs to reflect reality. You need to focus on the facts and on how you feel about the way your partner treats you when they're not treating you well.

Start by keeping track of the hurtful things your partner says and does. Write down what was said or done and when. And write down how you feel.

You can also keep track of when your partner returns to treating you well and how long it lasts.

If you continue tracking your partner's behaviors, you will be able to see if there are recurring patterns to your partner's behaviors. You will begin to gain clarify around who your partner really is. You will gain perspective on how often your relationship is causing you to feel negative feelings.

Once you complete this exercise, take a step back and think about what you would say to a friend who is in this situation. If you would tell your friend to end the relationship, this is a sign that you should consider ending the relationship.

Also think about showing your notes to a trusted friend. If this causes you to feel uncomfortable, it is sign something is wrong in your relationship. Although there are certain things in a relationship that should remain private, you should not feel uncomfortable divulging the way your partner treats you.

If you feel stuck, seeking the assistance of a therapist is also an option to explore, as a therapist can objectively evaluate your relationship and give you additional clarity regarding your situation.

It is important to remember that although all relationships have conflict, a healthy relationship is based on mutual respect. A person who treats you well sometimes and poorly other times does not respect you, even if they say they do. You need to look at their actions, not at their empty promises. And you need to know that you deserve to always be treated with respect.

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A happily divorced love and relationships topic expert. I use my prior experience in couples therapy along with with extensive relationship and psychology research to provide advice on how to have happy and healthy relationships. I also explore the reasons once happy relationships become unhappy and unhealthy. Email:


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