Cognitive Dissonance in Relationships

I’ve described cognitive dissonance elsewhere, at its core it concerns dealing with two opposing ideas in your head. I’ll give an example related to my childhood.

It all started with the death of my father. I was eight years old and he shot himself. My mother had just left him and took us four children with her. Now I never really talked to him, when we left I was six years of age. Now obviously my father realised that he actually loved us very deeply but somehow couldn’t express this. Since he no longer had the possibility of seeing us, he had no way out (at least he thought this at the time) other than shooting himself.

My mother always said she loved him very much, even now. And here comes my very first cognitive dissonance: why if you loved him so much did you leave him? And leave him in such an impossible situation. So two opposing feelings of love and hate for the same person. That is the cognitive dissonance.

This is cognitive dissonance is relatively easily resolved; my mothers love towards her children was great than the love towards her husband and she was willing to live forever missing her husband for the sake of her children. Besides that, she could not know what my father was going to do.

Ex-Partners, Parents, Friends & Airplanes

By far the most common occurrence of cognitive dissonances in relationships are related to ex-partners, parents and friends; and always made me want to get on a plane and fly away.

Disclaimer: I will avoid gender bias in this text. So it became more complex reading and I apologise for that.

The basic setup is this. You get together with a new partner. This partner has had a long term relationship that suddenly ended. However in the meantime their have smoothed over their differences and are best of friends. Unfortunately they can’t get to back together again since the ex-partner of your new partner already has someone else.

In a worst case scenario, you actually remind your new partner of their ex-partner. This is really bad. You end up being casted into a role that isn’t yours to play.

So where does the cognitive dissonance come in? It comes in at the point where you new partner tells about all the bad things that happened in the previous relationship. So you begin to build up an image of their ex-partner. Of course, this image is hardly going to be flattering for the ex-partner. If it is, then its time to take that plane!

You are made to listen to stories about how bad this ex-partner was. What went wrong in the relationship and how horrible it all was. Now that is fine, tell me more. We all have stories about our past lives — fair enough. However, here comes the cognitive dissonance: you have to meet this ex-partner and you have to be politely pleasant.

This can be a most awkward experience. I’ve always managed to be polite even in the face of agonising bluntness. However it is having to deal with the ex-partners directly that feeds the cognitive dissonance. It is one thing to hear stories, it is quite different having to deal with the lead actor of these stories.

Now I’ve had several different experiences similar to this. Not just involving ex-partners, also parents. Or even friends however that to a lesser extent, since friends can stop being friends.


One ex-partner warned me not to emotional hurt my new partner. Where I had only to think about how much their actions had actually hurt my new partner. I can only assume that since they had “made up” again, the ex-partner had forgotten how much damage they had caused in the past.

Another ex-partner told me that my new partner is brilliant and a really motivated person. Unfortunately I already knew that the burn out and depression were the order of the day; caused partly by the relationship and breakup with the ex-partner. In this case, the ex-partner was simply not quite well enough informed.

In these kind of situations everyone pretends to like each other, but the truth is far simpler: everyone is slightly jealous of the other and no one has completely resolved or broken with their past.

A slightly different case is dealing with parents. So new partner has a difficult relation to parents. Partner explains how horrible everything was. I meet parents, find out they are quite normal and simply not at all like the stories. Parents change and that is what had happened.

However the worst thing I did was to agree with the parents not on an emotional level rather because they had sensible arguments. That is, I agreed because I genuinely logically agreed with them. My partner then pointed out that regardless of my opinions, I should always agree with them — thankfully only when the parents were involved. Obviously my partner could agree with whomever they wished, i.e., they can also agree with their parents.

I’ve also had this experience with friends of my partners but these events have been far less dramatic. Basically friends just end up not being friends anymore. So there is less cognitive dissonance to deal with.

Boarding that Airplane

In all these relations I was quite happy to board that plane out of the relationship. Of course, I spent a lot of time thinking about these relationships and it took a while until I realised what was going on. Otherwise I might well have taken different route.

I definitely now know that if I experience this again, I will make a point of getting my partner to read this text.