How Cognitive Dissonance in Toxic Relationships Keeps You Trapped?

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Are you confused about your partner? Do you think he or she is genuinely a good caring person, but it feels like something is wrong in the relationship? Something you cannot identify but it keeps you in constant state of anxiety. You’re experiencing something known as ‘Cognitive Dissonance’ in psychology.

Cognitive dissonance can happen in many kinds of scenarios. We are going to limit our discussion only to cases where people you are in an association with, are abusive, have some traits of narcissism, or are toxic in general.

It’s not only that when someone you’re dealing with is diagnosed as having NPD (Narcissistic Personality Disorder) that you have to take steps to protect yourself. Don’t wait for a clinician to diagnose these people – go with your intuition or gut feeling.

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Cognitive Dissonance In Narcissistic Abuse

Cognitive dissonance in lay man’s terms is about having two conflicting thoughts or beliefs about something or someone at the same time. It’s the inconsistency of thoughts in our mind that keeps us confused, and that in turn causes emotional stress.

For example, when we are in a relationship with a toxic person who is either your spouse, parent, sibling, or even your own child, we often come up with justifications to excuse their toxic behavior.

Let me illustrate this concept with a hypothetically staged situation. I introduce you to ‘Lily’ who plays the victim, and ‘James’ who plays the role of toxic husband. If you’re reading this article and your name is James, no offense.

So they decide to host a dinner party where they invite friends and relatives. Lily is busy making arrangements for food, drinks, and savories, and all of a sudden, James enters the kitchen and asks her what she’s prepared for dinner. On that, Lily replies that she has made special buckwheat crepes, which she believes everybody would relish.

All of sudden James face is red with anger, and he enters into a rage and yells at her, “You know how much I hate these things, I’ve told you so many times I’m allergic to buckwheat, you do this deliberately, I always knew you’re good for nothing”.

Lily is utterly confused and tries to confront him, “You never told me that you hate this dish or that you’re allergic to buckwheat”. Now James is ever more furious and replies, “That’s because you don’t ever listen, you never listened to me, you never listened to your parents, you’re a selfish person”.

After this heated argument, Lily feels heartbroken, depleted, and drained. Her exhaustion is visible to the people around her. Now she’s not able to enjoy the company of people who joined for dinner, while James, on the other hand, is seen laughing and boasting about himself, as if nothing happened.

After the party is over, James comes up to Lily and apologizes for his behavior. Now, this is not the first time that James behaved like this. He does it quite often and specially chooses occasions where Lily is not in a position to confront him on his behavior.

But Lily is now utterly confused, and she comes up with the following reasons to justify his behavior.

  • “It’s okay! James was mentally abused by his parents as a child, so his outbursts are but natural”.
  • “Maybe I didn’t pay attention when he mentioned his buckwheat allergy in the past.”
  • “No matter what, he’s a devoted husband and a father”.
  • “How well he treats me when he’s in a good mood”.
  • “Everybody in my family loves him”.
  • “I have a habit of overthinking and blowing things out of proportion. I’m the one who has a problem”.
  • “After all, he accepted his mistake and apologized”.

This is how Lily numbs her mind and suppresses her emotions. She’s left with an emotional discomfort that she’s not able to come to terms with. This emotional pain is because Lily’s mind is flip-flopping between two conflicting beliefs.

One of her thought says that “James is horrible and he does it all deliberately”, while the other one says – “After all, he is the provider of the family and loves me so much. Every time he feels so bad for me”.

This is known as cognitive dissonance. It’s because of this that most victims keep putting up with all the lies and abuse. Cognitive dissonance deludes you from the reality of your relationship with a narcissistic person.

An important thing to understand here is that James is a liar. He lies in order to manipulate. And this is also known as gaslighting.

In the example above, James lies about mentioning his buckwheat allergy and makes Lily think that she’s the one who’s going crazy. He tells her that she’s undergoing a lot of stress and that she needs to take it easy.

The effect of such gaslighting is that Lily thinks that she’s the one who missed on out something. She starts doubting her own senses. But in reality, James successfully manipulated her into thinking that she’s the one who’s at fault.

Next morning James would pretend as if nothing happened, and so would Lily. But the trauma has already been registered in her mind and body. In fact, she feels guilty of making him upset.

But how do we know that James is really a narcissist? Doesn’t this kind of thing happen to regular folks as well? And the answer is that It does, but there’s a difference. If James were not narcissistic, he would do the following:

  • He would not lash out at Lily with rage; rather, he would calmly discuss the issue with her. Even if he shows anger, it would be controlled.
  • He would not make degrading remarks about her character, personality, or involve her family into the discussion.
  • He would not lie to her.
  • His discontent would have a rational, logical reason behind it.
  • He would not blow things out of proportion and act like a maniac.
  • He would apologize and accept his mistake if he was out of line.
  • He would not keep repeating this behavior over and over again.

Please note that when a narcissistic person says, “I’m sorry – I’ll never behave like that again”, sends you gifts or flowers, it’s usually an indication that they’re love bombing you now because they don’t want to end the cycle of abuse.

In my personal experience, I have seen that the apologies rendered by such people are very superficial. They never accept that it was their fault. And even if they do, their narrative changes very quickly, and blame is shifted onto someone else very soon.

For example, the very next day, James would send flowers to Lily and say, “I’m sorry for yelling at you, but you know this would’ve never happened if you had listened to me in the first place”.

Please note that it’s not that only men are narcissistic, even women can be very narcissistic. I’m a guy, and I have faced narcissistic abuse from women. Let me share a little of my own experience with you.

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My Own Experience With Cognitive Dissonance

I was raised in a narcissistic family and was always told to suppress my real thoughts and feelings to please the head of the narcissistic clan. The goals and aspirations of my parents were impossible for me to achieve.

Whenever I failed to achieve their aspirations, I was met with the silent treatment, stonewalling, and disgust. I was shamed and made to feel guilty through passive aggression.

It was made very clear to me that if I wanted to be a part of the family, I had to follow what was decided for me by them blindly.

At that time, I didn’t know anything about narcissism, and I blindly believed my parents. I thought that whatever they decide for me is for my own good. That was the reasoning given to me by my mother. She played havoc of emotions on me whenever I tried to argue or rebel.

I was very naïve, and I bought into her lies and manipulation. There’s no way I would have doubted her intentions then. In Asian cultures, especially in India, a mother is revered as this goddess who can do no wrong. How could she be wrong? And so, I used to take the blame on myself.

As a result of this narcissistic abuse, I completely lost my self-esteem, had strained relationships with friends and other members in the family, I was facing acute anxiety and depression, and I also started doing poorly in my career.

I kept changing jobs one after the other and was also struggling financially. Despite working hard and doing everything in my capacity to please them, I was not good enough because I was not doing what they wanted me to do.

However, every time I kept justifying the abuse and use to repeatedly tell myself, “They are your parents, and they want the best for you. Even if they are harsh sometimes, it’s because they want to see you flourish; they want to see you do well in life”.

And none of this was my own thinking. I was brainwashed into believing all this. Back then, I never questioned or challenged my parent’s authority. So I used to reason myself into believing that I was the one at fault. And that it was all about me, whereas, it was nothing about me – it was them.

Even after my father’s death, my mother kept tormenting me emotionally. She kept on playing the victim card and created rifts between my wife and me. 

But I still kept justifying her toxic behavior in my mind – “she is my mum, after all, what pleasure can she get by troubling her own child”.

But at the same time, there was another thought in my mind that said, “Why does she have to be so mean every time I disagree with her”.

My cognitive dissonance kept me trapped in this cycle of emotional abuse for a very long time. It was only when I learned about narcissism; I knew how I was being emotionally manipulated.

It’s been more than a year now, and I keep minimal contact with my family. I maintain distance, interact as minimally as possible, and never share anything personal with them. I don’t give in or react to their emotional dramas anymore.

Relationship between PTSD and Cognitive Dissonance

People who undergo narcissistic abuse over long periods develop ailments like PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and C-PTSD. Such people experience cognitive dissonance very often. It keeps them trapped in the cycle of narcissistic abuse.

We usually associate PTSD with war trauma, but it can also be caused by exposure to prolonged narcissistic abuse.

Final Thoughts

Please understand that narcissism is a spectrum, and people who are on the higher side of this spectrum are quite capable of inflicting great physical or psychological damage.

To safeguard yourself from abuse, you need to have a clear understanding of what cognitive dissonance is in a toxic relationship. Breaking your confidence and keeping you confused is the way your abuser keeps you trapped in a relationship.

If you think you can convince your abuser to talk to a therapist, I’d say forget it. Most of these toxic people will never agree to visit a therapist in the first place. Some of them are so covert that they will outrightly lie to the therapist (even in your presence) and make you look bad.

They will convince the therapist that it’s you who’s overreacting and that you’re the one who needs help.

Being in a relationship with a toxic person in general (narcissistic or otherwise) can cause you to experience high psychological and emotional stress. And as a human being, you have the right to live life the way you want to.

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