Can You Say Cognitive Dissonance?

COGNITIVE DISSONANCE: a theory of human motivation that asserts that it is psychologically uncomfortable to hold contradictory ideas, knowledge or understandings. The theory is that dissonance (a lack of harmony or agreement) is unpleasant and motivates a person to change his understanding, attitude, or behavior. Social psychologist Leon Festinger, the first to explore this theory, argued that there are three ways to deal with cognitive dissonance. He did not consider these mutually exclusive.

    1. A person may try to change one or more of the beliefs, opinions, or behaviors involved in the dissonance;
    2. A person may try to acquire new information or beliefs that will increase the existing consonance (agreement or compatibility between opinions or actions) and thus reduce  the total dissonance; or,
    3. A person may try to forget or reduce the importance of the beliefs, opinions, or behaviors that are in a dissonant relationship (Festinger 1956: 25-26).              

As a follow-up to big reveal # 5, J said that he has realized now that he was not really in love with her, and had not been in love with her in the present, that he convinced himself that he had to be in love with her because it made what he had done seem less awful. He still insisted, however, that they had a strong emotional connection from high school – that he had loved her but had been ready to have sex and she was too “good” for that. In processing the newest information, I decided I wanted to know more. I looked her up in his high school annual so that I could see what this long lost love had been like in high school – to try to figure out how he could have loved her so much but no one who knew him had any idea about it.

Once I saw her picture, I actually started laughing out loud and really wished that I had looked her up when I first heard her name. The beautiful dancer with the straight sunny blond hair and the enormous sky blue eyes was nowhere to be found. Instead, I saw a reasonably cute girl with bushy, shoulder length, very dark brown hair and eyes that might have been very dark blue or brown.  I stopped laughing, however, when I saw Jeff’s reaction. He was baffled at what I said, and actually refused to look at the picture, just glancing in that direction and attempting to change the subject.

I had had enough, and I was not willing to let it go. The next day I made him sit down and look at the picture – really look at it. He didn’t even recognize her and couldn’t bear to look at the picture, and instead searched frantically for some other picture that showed the girl he thought he remembered – locating someone he thought was her in a drill team picture who turned out to be someone else all together. I really wanted a clear understanding of what had happened – both in the distant past and in the recent past and the connection between the two. He had a lot of trouble wrapping his head around the new information, and started trying to reconstruct their relationship.

He said that he had dated her and really liked her, but that she was a good girl and he was ready for the next level, and his next relationship had been sexual. I asked if he had not dated anyone from his freshman year until his junior year, and he just seemed confused. When I clarified that he had always told me that he was 17 when he sex for the first time, and he had dated that woman when he was barely 15, so did that mean that he had not dated between that minimal relationship and a serious sexual relationship at 17 – which is not exactly a rush to sex. He started madly trying to do the math and rearrange the dates of the events. He suggested that he must have dated her when he was older than 15, that he must have dated her the next year and she had looked different, I pointed out that was his junior yearbook, and that I thought he was in a serious relationship with someone else at that time. By this point, he looked even more confused and started to back track, reviewing girlfriends, and time lines. He realized that the gap between his evil dumping of her so that he could have sex and his actually having sex was filled with 2 ½ years of other girlfriends and opportunities to have sex that he did not take…and when he really looked at the picture of her and tried to remember their actual relationship, he said that he couldn’t remember much except one incident when he had been punched in the face by a drunk while he was with her in the park. All he could remember was what she had told him.

When he first told me about her and their reconnection, he told me told me that she was the girl who had set the standard for beauty in his head, the girl who led him to always be attracted to blonds, especially blonds with big blue eyes ( I have green eyes). He told me that when his first marriage fell apart, he actually wished that he could find a woman like her to love (he found me instead). He praised her, refused to hear criticism of her, and said that he had suggested they meet, but she had refused even though he was the love of her life because he was married. He had also insisted and maintained for a year that she was a really good woman who had been trying to help him repair his marriage during that month after his weekend at her apartment.

The discovery that she had never been the blue-eyed blond of his teenage fantasy was almost too funny, until the enormous difference between the truth of the past and the past he had managed to construct in his head freaked both of us out….not blond, not blue-eyed, not last innocent relationship, NOT LONG LOST LOVE. We both had a lot to process, but we seemed closer as we tried to figure out what exactly this meant. He made a concentrated effort to tell me anything that he had neglected. In order to  to reassure me, he answered questions and repeatedly insisted that he had told me everything. I had trouble believing it. I explained that as long as he was still keeping secrets, incidents like this one would continue to happen. He might think he was safe, and then she might decide to mail me all the emails he had sent her, or if he had given her presents, 10 years from now she could mail them all back in a big box, and we would be back at square one again. He denied that any such thing could ever happen – he had told me everything.

So – who was actually suffering from cognitive dissonance? J knew he wasn’t a cheater or a womanizer, that he didn’t ever hurt people to get what he wanted, but the facts said otherwise – and he couldn’t alter the behavior since it was in the past, so he altered the context of the behavior and then tried to forget or to reduce the importance of the details that created dissonance – hence the long lost love AND his absolute refusal to discuss anything about the affair unless he had pushed me to the breaking point. I, on the other hand, felt like I had a solid, happy marriage that had lasted for almost 30 years, but my honorable husband had sex with another woman….so I tried to reduce dissonance by acquiring more information – anything that would help me make sense of the chaos. Are all marriages like this?

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