Understanding Cognitive Dissonance, Trauma Bonding & Infantile Regression

Cognitive Dissonance is a psychological term that describes the uncomfortable tension that victims experience when in a relationship with a narcissist; it is not something that happens in healthy relationships.
It is a common defence mechanism that the victim uses for coping with the deception, domination and abuse that occurs in such a relationship.  The cognitive dissonance really results from the victim having two conflicting thoughts at the same time, or from engaging in behaviour that conflicts with their beliefs and values.
The concept of cognitive dissonance is almost self-explanatory by its title: ‘Cognitive’ is to do with thinking (or the mind); while ‘dissonance’ is concerned with inconsistencies or conflicts.

Simply speaking, cognitive dissonance is the discomfort a person experiences whenever they are holding two conflicting ideas simultaneously.  Naturally, people do not like the discomfort of conflicting thoughts; this theory proposes that when this happens, people have a motivational drive within them that allows them to rationalize and change their attitudes, beliefs, values, and actions, anything that allows them to reduce or dissolve the dissonance they are experiencing.

For example, a woman who is being abused by her narcissistic spouse will hate the conditions she is living in. However, with the real fear of a violent reprisal from her captor, if she tried to leave, she will more likely choose to stay put.
The cognitive dissonance shows itself through rationalization of the truth and denial: On the one hand: she abhors her unhealthy relationship and all the abuse that goes with it (truth); while on the other hand, she tells herself that he only fights with her because he loves and cares for her (denial). Of course, this reframing of abuse as ‘love and kindness’ is simply an extreme form of everyday denial, and it can take many forms.
For example, it can manifest itself in a way that allows her to convince herself that the relationship is still in the idealisation stage when, in fact, it has moved into the devaluing stage. It can also allow her to shift the blame for any injustices in the relationship away from the narcissist (because it is too dangerous to accuse him) to either herself or another victim.
It can also help in hiding her shame of being in such a dysfunctional relationship, something that she does not want others to know.
This inner dialogue reduced her anxiety, allowing her to trauma bond (Stockholm Syndrome) with her abuser, to the point that she will even protect him from the outside world if people attempt to rescue her or encourage her to leave.

The result is that a massive draining conflict ensues between the person’s emotional self and their rational reasoning self.
Their “cognitive dissonance” is a sign of the disharmony the victim is experiencing because of two conflicting ideas going on at the same time; i.e. the victim knows that they should get out of the abusive situation, but they also know that to do so will put them (and possibly their children) in great danger and hardship.
In the cognitive dissonance theory, the decision that decides which path the victim will take is likely to be the path that causes the least emotional stress. To reduce the dissonance, the victim will choose the path of least resistance, and their motivational drive will support their beliefs and justify any decision that helps them stay safe.

As you can imagine, the cognitive dissonance can lead to irrational decision making as the person struggles to reconcile these two conflicting beliefs. Researchers suggest that it is the cognitive dissonance that causes the victims to choose to stay put with their abuser. Furthermore, to support their seemingly irrational decisions to stay put in the abusive relationship, the victim makes heavy investments that almost cements them into the bad relationship forever. There are six types of investment the married victim may get embroiled in that helps to reduce their cognitive dissonance: –


1.     Emotional Investment (the victim interprets their abuse and trauma bonding as love).

2.     Social Investment (the situation dictates that the biggest social investment the victim must make is to their narcissist).

3.     Family Investments (investing everything in their narcissistic partner is the only way the victim finds to keep the family going).

4.     Financial Investment (Narcissist typically seeks to control the family finances. Trapped by the situation, the victim finds themselves waiting for a better financial situation to develop so that they can make their exit and detachment easier.

5.     Lifestyle Investment (Sharing financial security with the narcissist, the victim may fear to lose their current lifestyle for themselves or their children. So, they stay because of their fear of the poverty trap that awaits them if they manage to leave.

6.     Intimacy Investment (Narcissists use a type of blackmail of intimacy against their partner.  Finding themselves in a hopeless situation and broken, the victim feels the only way out is for them to stay.

While experiencing cognitive dissonance the victim may adopt a pattern of denial, diversion, and defensiveness to control their discomfort.  So, to survive, they must find ways of reducing their cognitive dissonance, the strategies they employ may include; justifying things by lying to themselves if need be, regressing into infantile patterns, and bonding with their narcissistic captor. 

Infantile Regression is a marvellous unconscious defence mechanism that is triggered when a person is exposed to terror.  Narcissists render their victims to mental emotional and physical terror, a terror that must be denied if the individual is to survive the unrelenting onslaught of abuse over time. Trying to survive under these conditions, the victim is reduced to becoming pretty much like an infant that first comes into the world; that is, helpless and dependent on its survival from their main caregiver (which usually begins with the infant’s mother).
Nature is a wonderful thing; it pre-programmes the infant for survival by providing it with a way to bond with their primary caregiver.
In effect, this is the infant’s first emotional attachment in a frightening world, and they instinctively bond with someone who possesses the attributes for maximizing their survival, that is, a caregiver that displays a sense of power, security, safety, and compassion. In effect, every child instinctually goes through the process known as Stockholm Syndrome as a natural defence mechanism against its own annihilation

The Gaslighting Syndrome

When Shame Begets Shame

The 3 Faces Of Evil

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Christine is a Psychotherapist, Educator, Author and Supervisor of mental health professionals for over 28 years. She was part of a team in the Trauma Unit of St. Brendan’s Psychiatric Hospital, Dublin, and has worked specifically with victims of pathological narcissistic abuse in her private practice for many years.
Her books, “The Three Faces of Evil: Unmasking the Full Spectrum of Narcissistic Abuse” and “When Shame Begets Shame: How Narcissists hurt and shame their victims” set out to to help those who have been affected by a narcissist and also to address the shortfalls in a therapist’s education, so that they become better equipped to work with survivors of narcissistic abuse.Much of her knowledge has come from her post-grad studies in Criminology and Forensic Psychology, and it is through these disciplines that she has gained her understanding of “The Dark Triad”, (Narcissism, Machiavellianism and Psychopathy).
These three faces of evil are vital information for understanding the full spectrum of narcissistic abuse and the dire effects on the victims.It is her vision that narcissistic abuse becomes part of the curriculum of all Mental Health clinicians.
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