Why Cognitive Dissonance is So Traumatic for Survivors of Pathological Love Relationships

by Kristen Milstead, Ph.D. | October 3, 2021

In the 1950s, social psychologist Leon Festinger studied a group of people in a cult who were convinced an apocalypse was looming, and that UFOs were going to visit from planet Clarion and take the group members away in their spaceships before destroying Earth.

The next day when the UFOs didn’t come, the cult leader explained to the members that the aliens had been so pleased with their faith that Earth had been spared.

Festinger and his colleagues came up with the term “cognitive dissonance” to explain why some of the cult members became even more devoted to their belief in the aliens from Clarion even after the prediction that they would visit Earth failed to come true. Cognitive dissonance can be explained at its most basic level as psychological tension that arises when there is an inconsistency between our behavior and our beliefs. When we feel this tension, we experience a strong urge to change something to get rid of it. For example, we might deny or minimize one of the ideas or actions or change our perception to make the contradictory actions or ideas compatible with one another.

Sandra L. Brown, M.A, found in her study of approximately 600 survivors of pathological love relationships that cognitive dissonance was the symptom that they reported as the most traumatic, disruptive, and intrusive. In fact, cognitive dissonance was such a pervasive symptom of their trauma, Brown wrote that, “If a survivor does not have cognitive dissonance, they were probably not in a pathological love relationship.”

Today, there have been thousands of studies to measure cognitive dissonance which have uncovered specifically the conditions under which two inconsistencies in beliefs or actions result in cognitive dissonance. These factors shed light on why survivors cite cognitive dissonance as the most traumatic symptom, and why the psychological damage to survivors of pathological love relationship is so extreme.

Inconsistencies in beliefs and actions result in what Brown refers to as “atypical trauma” in survivors, in which traumatic triggering by negative memories is accompanied by triggering due to intrusive positive memories of the blissful moments in the relationship. Atypical trauma results in the survivor’s cognitive decline and difficulties in executive functioning. Survivors also report a feeling of “losing themselves” and identity disruption.

Social psychologist Joel Cooper found that inconsistency between just any two beliefs or actions will not necessarily result in cognitive dissonance. As he notes, cognitive dissonance occurs when:

  • we are more strongly committed to one of the two competing beliefs or actions,
  • we think that the event that violated our beliefs caused something bad to happen,
  • we can foresee that something bad could happen before the occurrence of the event that violated our beliefs, and
  • we feel responsible for the negative result.

Put another way, we likely won’t feel cognitive dissonance when there aren’t any real negative consequences to acting against one of our values or if we couldn’t foresee them. Furthermore, when we are coerced to act or lack the freedom to choose, we aren’t plagued by psychological tension over the negative consequences, because we feel absolved of responsibility for what happened.

Another social psychologist, Elliot Aronson, found that we must also strongly identify with one of the beliefs or actions. He specifically characterizes cognitive dissonance as a violation of the self. In his research, he found that we have a psychological need to believe that we are moral, competent, and reasonable. Any evidence that contradicts that idea will cause dissonance so we must find a way to eliminate the importance of that evidence.

These findings help to explain the special and severe trauma experienced by survivors of pathological love relationships. Pathological love relationships are characterized by psychologically manipulative actions taken by the pathological partner that begin early on and set up an unstable relationship foundation. This instability leads the survivor to inevitably develop cognitive dissonance.

In Brown’s research, she found that survivors struggle with three levels of inconsistencies. The inconsistencies arise in this order as the relationship progresses and survivors are unable to resolve the dissonance:

  1. Their pathological partners (“He’s good to me” and “He’s bad for me”)
  2. The relationship (“This relationship makes me feel happy and loved” and “This relationship makes me feel worthless and miserable”)
  3. Themselves (“I don’t tolerate abuse” and “I’m still here in the relationship”)

 

The foundation for these inconsistencies is laid through the manipulation that begins as soon as the pathological love relationship starts. The survivor is bombarded with “love-bombing,” which psychiatrist Dale Archer describes as an attempt to influence another person using dramatic spectacles of positive attention. He writes, “We’re not just talking about romantic gestures, flowers and trips.”

Love-bombing is so over-the-top and intense that it can overwhelm a person’s ordinary psychological defenses. It speeds up emotional attachment and bonding by creating a false sense of intimacy early in the relationship and flooding the survivor’s brain with a neurochemical love cocktail of dopamine, oxytocin, vasopressin, and norepinephrine.

This early stage of the relationship can cement a positive persona of the pathological partner in the mind of the survivor, which becomes embedded in the survivor’s perception of reality. Later the pathological partner’s behavior sharply contradicts this image, through disparagement of the survivor or suddenly treating the survivor as if she doesn’t exist. The survivor may uncover evidence of adultery, financial fraud, sex addiction and use of prostitutes, drug use, other relationships or families, or additional behavior that does not align with the original perception developed during the love-bombing phase of the relationship.

After the survivor has been exposed to these dual presentations of the pathological partner, the pathological partner uses additional manipulative tactics that undermine any trust survivors have in their own judgment that their first positive impression was wrong. Some of these tactics include:

  • Gaslighting and pathological lying
  • Using projection and false equivalencies to shift the focus to the behavior of the survivor
  • Playing the victim
  • Instituting double standards for relationship expectations
  • Alternating positive and negative treatment, resulting in intermittent reinforcement
  • Using double-talk, circular conversations, and language to instill fear, obligation, and guilt
  • Isolation from others who can frame the relationship as abusive
  • Other tactics that attack and alter the survivor’s perception of reality

 

The pathological partner’s action instills inconsistent beliefs that violate the self. Survivors subjected to these tactics are unable to accurately settle on the idea that the relationship is harmful. They are left feeling as if they should be walking away from the relationship and that their inability to do so is their own fault. The tactics pathological partners use to instill blame and responsibility in survivors for their own abuse hide that they are, in fact, manipulative tactics.

Because of this ongoing manipulation, survivors of long-term pathological love relationships are exposed to unresolvable cognitive dissonance over a long period of time, as Brown notes in her book Women Who Love Psychopaths. She writes, “Cognitive dissonance… has the least written about psychological treatment for this pervasive phenomenon that affects almost anyone with a conscience. The handful of theorists who threw their hat in the ring had little to contribute toward the idea of cognitive dissonance resolution or even reduction.”

The key to understanding the damage of pathological love relationships is recognizing that abuse is kept hidden from survivors through deceptive and diversionary psychological manipulation. This deception denies them the agency to act on the truth that the relationship is destructive. As I have argued in another article, this deception is the special harm of pathological love relationships that makes this type of abuse unique among other types of abusive relationships. Survivors are not able to see the relationship for what it is because the pathological partner overwhelms them with a perfect storm of all the factors needed to create confusion that is never cleared up.

References

Archer, Dale. “The danger of manipulative love-bombing in a relationship,” Psychology Today, March 6, 2017, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/reading-between-the-
headlines/201703/the-danger-manipulative-love-bombing-in-relationship.

Aronson Elliot & Carlsmith, J. Merrill. (1963). Effect of the severity of threat on the devaluation
of forbidden behavior. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 66, 584–588.

Brown, Sandra L. (2007). “Cognitive dissonance perceived as traumatic in pathological love relationships,” unpublished study conducted for The Institute for Relational Harm Reduction, as cited in Women Who Love Psychopaths, 2nd Ed. Balsam Grove, NC: Mask Publishing.

Brown, Sandra L. and Young, Jennifer R. (2018). Women Who Love Psychopaths: Inside the Relationships of Inevitable Harm with Narcissists, Sociopaths, and Psychopaths, 3rd ed. Balsam Grove, NC: Mask Publishing.

Cooper, Joel, & Fazio, Russell. H. (1984). A new look at dissonance theory. In L. Berkowitz
(Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 17, pp. 229–266). Orlando, FL: Academic Press.

Festinger, Leon, Riecken, Henry and Schachter, Stanley. (1956). When Prophecy Fails. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Milstead, Kristen “Defining narcissistic abuse: The case for deception in abuse.” PsychCentral, July 18, 2018, https://psychcentral.com/lib/defining-narcissistic-abuse-the-case-for-deception-as-abuse#1.

About the Author, Kristen Milstead, Ph.D.

About the Author, Kristen Milstead, Ph.D.

Dr. Milstead holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Oklahoma. During her academic career, she helped launch the academic journal Feminist Criminology and designed the first course on race, class, and the criminal justice system for the University of Illinois at Springfield while working as an Assistant Professor. She is a writer, researcher, and activist supporting survivors of traumatic pathological relationships. She is passionate about using her knowledge base in social psychology, social norms and deviance, criminology, gender and sexuality, and sexual assault to expand our understanding of “invisible” power dynamics that allow some individuals to benefit at the expense of others. Her book, 'Why Can’t I Just Leave? A Guide to Waking Up and Walking Out of a Pathological Love Relationship’ is due out in October 2021.