Cognitive dissonance is a theory developed by social psychologist, Leon Festinger, in the 1950s. The theory explains how people respond when their attitudes and beliefs do not match their behaviours. We humans are driven to have harmony between our attitudes and our behaviours and to avoid dissonance, that is, to avoid contradiction. Cognitive dissonance theory explains why women who stay with abusive male partners adapt their beliefs and behaviours. They do this so there is no contradiction between staying with him and their thoughts, attitudes and beliefs.
If a woman believes she has married a charming, caring man, but then he goes on to control, manipulate and abuse her, this can be extremely confusing. There are many many reasons why women continue to live with a psychologically controlling partner. However, when women go down this path they experience cognitive dissonance. In other words staying with an abusive partner causes her to have feelings of discomfort and disharmony because her thoughts and beliefs about his abusive behaviours don’t match her action of sticking with him.
So, the theory of cognitive dissonance explains that people find ways to reconcile the discrepancy between their thoughts and their actions. Cognitive dissonance theory explains the ways we all go about achieving such reconciliation. In this instance, women do the following:
- Adopt beliefs and attitudes that are in harmony with the situation.
- Change perceptions about his abusive behaviours.
- Change her behaviours to match her beliefs and attitudes.
Here are some examples of ways the women I interviewed for my Masters research attempted to eliminate the discord they felt by continuing to live with their controlling partners.
1. Women changed their beliefs and attitudes so these were in harmony. They did this by altering or trivialising the importance or value of their belief that their partner was the wonderful man they used to know e.g.
No marriage is perfect
Adriana said, “There are always trade offs. I wouldn’t have stayed if there weren’t the good bits”, Pauline said, “No marriage is smooth all the way”, and Susan said, “I always gave him the benefit of the doubt”.
Disbelief he would abuse her intentionally
Victoria said, “I was never sure if he was doing it intentionally because I think that would be a really horrible thing to have to admit that he was doing that intentionally. So we excused him a lot in my family saying he’d had a really rough upbringing and he didn’t really know any better”. Likewise, Teresa said, “I trusted him not to hurt me and he kept hurting me. But because I loved him and trusted him not to, I couldn’t believe that he was doing it, so I must be misinterpreting it. Teresa said, “I didn’t know I was abused, I would have said no, no, no he really loves me”.
Belief there was still potential for the relationship to work
Karen’s partner worked as a caregiver. She said, “There really was potential. I could see the love and support and patience that he offered his clients. He’d bring them around home and I saw the love and the patience he had”.
Waiting for the old him to come back
Heather said, “I always thought back to the person I first met, I thought where’s that person gone, he’s got to be there somewhere, he can’t just disappear altogether. I just wanted him to come back. I thought he might look and say, ‘Gosh this is a lovely little boy, I love his mother and how can I go about this to get it to work out for a family situation?’ which is what he claimed he wanted the most.”
Pauline thought, “That it would get better. It would actually go back, right back, rewind to the time …. I was waiting for my old husband to come back, that whatever was bugging him or was going wrong, that would go away and we would go back to how it used to be”.
2. The women changed their perceptions about his behaviours. They achieved this by: emphasising beliefs that supported their decision to stay; by finding justifications for his behaviours; by focusing on his positive qualities and ignoring his abusive ones; and, by blaming themselves; e.g.
Finding justifications for his behaviours
Raewyn thought perhaps he behaved as he did because he had “troubles at work, a bit of conflict at work. And therefore he’d bring it out on me…. Or that he’s sick I think actually something physiologically and mentally wrong with him”. Teresa said, “At the time I thought he behaved the way he did because he loved me so much and maybe that that’s what people did when they loved each other that much. Then later in the relationship I thought he behaved the way he did because he was an alcoholic. Now I think he behaved the way he did partly because he was an alcoholic but I think the reason he was an alcoholic also is some of the reason he behaves the way he did, and I think he’s sick, almost psychopathic really, in terms of not having a conscience, of being charming and manipulative, being able to turn on the tears and appear remorseful, and he’s not”.
Holding onto the positives
Susan said, “I put up with it for so long coz he’d be really nice for a week after he’d done that and it’s like ‘far out this is cool’. He’d do things for me. He’d cook the tea, he’d help out and then he’d go out and do that sort of thing again….. Every time he upset me, he’d then be nice to me. And I always thought something good always comes when something bad has happened”.
Believing it’s her problem and she’s to blame
Elizabeth said, “I just thought that was the way it was. There must be something wrong with me. Other women didn’t seem to be having the problems I was having. He kept telling me it was my problem and I just believed him”.
Heather said, “I found it quite hard especially when he blamed me for the relationship not working. I’d say the relationship’s only not working because of the way you are treating me and I don’t want to be with you. He’d say, ‘That’s your fault, if you were living here it wouldn’t be like that, if you were living with me I’d be the same person I was when we first went out, you’re making me be like this.’ I’d start to believe him and thought maybe I should move there and things would be different if I was living with him, maybe I’m being too hard on him.”
3. The women adopted behaviours to match their beliefs and attitudes that the marriage had to work at all costs, e.g.
Belief she has to make the relationship work
Teresa thought, “That I would be able to make a success of it. That I would be able to change him into being a normal person (laugh) and that we would be able to have this stable, happy relationship…. I perceived it as a failure on my part to have a good relationship with a good person, so I didn’t really want to talk about it to friends or family because I felt that they would see me as a failure and that I’d buggered it up. And I guess also that they would want me to do something that I wasn’t ready to do, like you have to leave. Whereas my feeling was that if you’re in a relationship, then you have to do everything you can to make it work and you can’t just get up and walk out because you’ve made a commitment”.
Belief it’s the woman’s job to make the relationship work
Victoria said, “I didn’t want to lose face. I wanted to be married, because without my marriage, who was I? I was nothing again and I was worse than nothing because I was a failed wife and that was worse than being a spinster, to have been a failed wife. It was just dreadful to admit to my family that my husband was treating me like he was because by the end of it I truly believed that I was worthless, there was just no point and to leave the marriage would have been to confirm that I was of no worth, I wasn’t even worth keeping as an abused wife. God I’m pleased I’m older, got over that!”
Marriage is a commitment that must be worked at in order to overcome any problems
Elizabeth said, “I think I stayed because I thought it was wrong to leave”. Likewise, because Elsie had “a very religious upbringing. I had the belief that marriage is forever and if you make the commitment you have to stick it out”. Teresa also, “saw it as a long term commitment, not as a convenience thing…. I certainly believe that the couple unit was the most important unit and that all steps should be taken to preserve it and protect it and nurture it”. And Victoria, “believed we were going to be together forever, that’s what marriage for me was. I never believed divorce was the right answer. I thought it was an easy way out and that if you worked hard enough at it, if both of you decided to marry in the first place, then there must be something that you had together, so what you should be doing is try to find out what had changed, what had you lost that you needed to work on getting back together. Divorce was a big sign of failure. I didn’t want to confirm the suspicions that my family held, so I was determined to make it work”.
Belief he needs her help
Teresa said that, “for a long time I thought it was my fault and then once I discovered the drinking pattern, I thought that was my fault as well and that I was responsible for it because that was the way he would fling it back at me, and that because I was in a relationship with him it was my duty to help him. It would be wrong to walk away and leave him, that he needed help and that I should be able to help him”.
Children need a family that stays together
Pauline said, “The whole religion expectation, I felt really guilty for my children. I thought, ‘what am I going to do to them?’ I was the big bad person because I was going to initiate a separation I was going to initiate a split of this family. I felt guilty because of what I was going to do to my children, never mind the fact what their father was doing to us all, all those years. But all of a sudden that wasn’t a part of it, it was I’m doing this I’m the one to be guilty”.
Similarly, Teresa wanted to ensure her stepson had stability. She said, “that it was really important to create a nice family home for him”.
Belief that children need a father
Susan said she stayed, “Because I’ve got this thing that children have the right to be with their father”.
Belief that being married has higher status than being single
Susan said, “You’re taught back then marriages stay together and you try and hold it together. I can remember thinking I didn’t want to be a solo mother”.
Believing she has to make it look like she tried hard
No matter what abuse the women experienced, many such as Elsie believed that, “After a while I’d always hoped that I would leave one day. I started thinking if I put up with it for a year or two maybe I can leave, it won’t look so bad, I would have tried hard”.
Women draw from social messages about how to be a woman
The attitudes women adopt, in order to reconcile staying in relationship with their dysfunctional partner, do not come out of thin air, women draw from dominant social messages about how to behave – as a woman – in an intimate relationship. Unfortunately, these dominant social messages do not take into account how to recognise and protect themselves from mind-games, manipulative brainwashing, and crazymaking tactics of psychological power and control.
Therefore, women do what comes naturally – that is, do what it takes to find ways to explain the contradiction between committing to a relationship then staying in it after discovering their partner was not the man they expected him to be.
When women make these adaptions to their thoughts and behaviours they silence or bury beliefs they once held dear. However, most women continue to hold onto an inner spirit and conviction, so that no matter how many months or years later, if or when they reach the limit of their tolerance, they will be able to excavate remnants of themselves again – despite this often being a long painstaking process.