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
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- Why Is It So Blooming Hard Leaving a Narcissist? - December 9, 2022
I just found your website through Facebook. I was the victim of Narcissistic Abuse for 25 years. I am now divorced. Which I’m sure you are aware is extremely difficult with a Narcissist. I have two teenage children so I can not completely distance myself from him. My 14 year old son spends a lot of time with his Father. Too much. He doesn’t socialize out of school. He spends his free time with his father who buys him whatever he wants. A recent example is his father bought him a very expensive guitar (the third in three years) but insist that it stay at his house.
My son and daughter do not understand why I don’t want to go visit colleges with my ex narc and my daughter. I explained that I am very uncomfortable and I don’t want to subject myself to his belittling and insults. When we have done things together (birthday dinners) my ex says inappropriate things and I’m not suppose to respond unless my kids get mad at me.
My son now is very oppositional towards me. Wants to live with his father. My son tells me I am broken and mentally ill because I don’t want to do things as a “family”. He forgot what it was like living together as a family. His father has convinced him that I was the reason he had nothing to do with them when we lived together and somehow has convinced my children that I am the crazy person.
This coming from a man who is an alcoholic, extreme bulimic but 400+ pounds and doesn’t work. Has multiple medical issues but does nothing to help himself. His family doesn’t talk to him and he has lost most of the friends he had.
I work full time and take care of a home. My kids. Can not date because I’m afraid my ex will make my life even more difficult .
I feel like I am being abused through my children through him. The sad part is the damage he is doing to them.
Am I crazy? Am I mentally ill?
To Marilyn Bader-Nesse,
Melanie Tonia Evans “Quanta Freedom Healing” should help to reveal the truth.
Great explaining Christine, Thank you. I’m tired of explaining to people ‘ why I can’t leave just like that’.
I have just found your website. Thank you! I am the daughter of a narcissist mother. I am 43 year old now and recognized that my mother is narcissist when I was in my early 30s. The emotional damage she done to my father, sister, grandchildren, myself has been horrible. I no longer have contact as I have finally stepped away. This has been the hardest part of it all. I am a mother myself so I have guilt for not supporting her but I had to save my own mental health.
I would love to read more on the effects on adult children. I have become a hovering parent, basically spoil my children as I believe I am overcompensating for the lack of love i felt as a child i beat myself up over every mistake and am prone to depression. Are these traits common?
The fact that you found my website, you probably know quite a bit about narcissism by now. It is now time to look at yourself, see what it is that makes you fall for this kind of personality. You will need to learn about your own defense mechanisms (i.e. your “pleasing”, your passivity, etc.), and then you will need to work on your boundaries. All these things together make you vulnerable to another narcissist, and the next one may not be a romantic one, but it could be a friend, or someone in the workplace. The one common denominator in all your relationships in “you”, therefore you need to learn your part in your victimisation too. There is no shame-blame intended, but as we can never change another person, the good news is that we can change our reactions to them (even narcissists). I had to do the same myself, it was the best thing I ever did. So you may need to get a therapist to work with. Warmest regards. Christine
I am a 58 year old woman who has come out as gay; in the last 5 years. I have been in serious relationships with 4 narcissistic men,the last being the worst. it ended in 2000 when both of my kids ended up in an psychiatric care.. hospital. after 16 years I got a girlfriend. we lived together for almost a year and she was a narcissist… the worst of ever, loved, loved, then disregarded, she got into driving rages and I froze, anger at bank people etc. I realized I loved being in a relationship but now im terrified. what should I do. to heal…
I have a client who lost her children 2 yrs ago, after raising the children over 8 yrs by herself. The court granted the father, highly narcissistic my belief full custody w very limited visitation. I saw the pictures of him strangling her, she has his chriminal history, isn’t even allowed in Canada (her country), she lives here in US near border. Court didn’t even take any of this into account. The Guardian ad Litum and school psychologist is on his side. I have a 40 yr history of work with children and families in all fields and can’t figure out how to get the court to see what he is doing. Any ideas. I’m very concerned for the daughter and son they are 9 and 12 yrs old. Mom is seeing changes in their behavior.
Thank you for identifying cognitive dissonance as a understanding for us to comprehend how to internal it for ourselves and to be conscious of how we are all contributors to this illness in the mind.
Wow. That sounds very familiar to me right now. I only just worked this out about one month ago after being married for ten years.
Your work about narcissist is amazing! I can’t stop to read you.
A fan from France.
I was familiar with the term “cognitive dissonance” but I really didn’t understand what it fully meant. With this article, I now do fully understand what it means. It explains the unease I felt while still in the relationship and why my mind is so much calmer after finally leaving the relationship.
He dumped me nine years ago, put me through five years of having to defend the truth of our covenant vows by trying to “annul” our 37-year marriage through the Catholic church (no,neither of us was Catholic!) and just recently sent a note praising me as a mother to our sons,then asking me for thousands of dollars. I don’t think so! he told me,”Just move on,;I did!” so I did, andGod brought me together with a truly upright, compassionate, generously giving, God-reverencing man!
The “ uncomfortable tension “ experienced in such a relationship, can not be adequately described. It causes loss of self confidence, generalized weakness, and a great urge to faint. A most awful experience, from which it takes some days to recover, even after just one such experience.
Recommend , if staying in a Narcisstic relationship in order to maintain a home for your children, do GO as soon as they are independent. Life certainly changes, particularly after many years of marriage;; life can be lonely at times, but keep your good friends, find new hobbies, keep busy. Christine was quite correct when she told me “ it’s better to be lonely than emotionally abused”. Very true words!!
Thank you Christine for all your sound advice, both over recent years, and ongoing, through your regular writings, as I , at times, struggle to establish a much more self confident, content, emotional abuse free life in my, almost, 74 th year.