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Marriage: Demonstrating the Value of Cognitive Dissonance, Every Day

This blog was published in 2011 at

Few institutions invite—perhaps require?–cognitive dissonance like marriage. It’s remarkable, a marriage’s capacity to say one thing and do another, while all the time beinggenuinely convincedof its sincerity and integrity. Cognitive dissonance is an adaptive ingenuity for reconciling contradictions, and for fitting round pegs into square holes, and spinning delicate, usually lovingly-intended worlds of interpretive nuance to maintain a pleasing status quo.

And there’s something ingenious, and perhaps even beautiful, to it, isn’t there? It’s akin to “magical thinking,” perhaps.

Probably, the capacity for cognitive dissonance is one of a marriage’s most valuable survival skills over the long haul, notwithstanding what a gazillion marriage counselors, psychologists, and trained experts will tell you about honesty and candor and opening up. You can find self-improvement and advice books aplenty to give you that message, but it doesn’t happen to be mine.

I have sympathy, not judgment, for the adaptive strategies that marriages develop, because it’s my view that the problem, too often, isn’t the husband, and it’s not the wife. It’s Marriage, and what Marriage asks of us in an age when the old Marriage Imperatives have faded, when we no longerhaveto marry for a meal ticket, a legitimate sex life, social standing, or even to raise children.  We live longer than ever, we have more autonomy in our lives and finances.

President Kennedy once commented of the Democrats that, “sometimes, the Party asks too much.” In this context, it may be that “sometimes, Marriage asks too much” also.

Cognitive Dissonance comes to the rescue. It allows a spouse to tweak and bend the conventions of marriage to get something they need while still maintaining a loyalty to those conventions. My example in this post concerns sexual infidelity, but what I’m describing is by no means limited to sexual conduct. Cognitive Dissonance works on a range of marital stress points, from money to childrearing.

Cognitive dissonance isn’t “hypocrisy,” per se.  It’s a more delicate arrangement, or truce with reality, because spouses are convinced of the logic and coherence of their worldview.

The marital hypocrite, for example, would say, “I disapprove of infidelity, but, still, I’m unfaithful.” The spouse with cognitive dissonance says, “I disapprove of infidelity and I don’t do it” even though 9 1/2 out of 10 outside observers would agree that he or she is, indeed, precisely doing it.

The spouse–and I have in mind one husband, with children, maritally semi-happy, middle-aged, genuinely concerned about not being a jerk in life, and very thoughtful–honestly doesn’t see himself  in the category of the “cheater.” In this case, “Adam” had had a very intense love affair that was only fleetingly consummated physically and then had two other dalliances after that, which may or may not have involved some kind of contact but that were, nonetheless, fiercely-held secrets from his wife in his marriage, and passionate alliances of the soul and mind if nothing else.

Adam and I exchanged an occasional e-mail about my book, Marriage Confidential, two years ago, and at one point in this correspondence, as I described the shifting ethics around monogamy and the new forms of marital cheating out there today, Adam wrote back, incredulous and shocked, “You know people who play around like that?”

Huh???  It was one of those delicious, classic moments of “Pot, This is Kettle: You’re Black.” Not only did I encounter and “know” such people, I was, at that very moment, e-mailing with one of them! But what fascinates me is that the errant husband in question here quitesincerelyandhonestlydid not feel himself to fit the category of “cheater” or a spouse who “played around”–even though, again, our Greek chorus of 9 out of 10 observers would have agreed that he was, precisely, just that…

Now, the Marital Purists who tend to have (or imagine that they would have) very strict,  unforgiving, zero tolerance, Right out of a Country Music Song standards of cheating, will probably say, “Adam’s just a liar.”

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That’s not the case as I glancingly saw it. The interesting part of this story is that I’m convinced that the spouse in question sincerelybelieves himself to be a non-cheater as he cheats.

Cognitive Dissonance reconciles the unreconciliable. Maybe it buys you a few more years before you slide into divorce or marriage therapy. Maybe it buys you a whole lifetime of trying to get what you need through the back door, who knows.

I’m not really a marriage purist, and I find that marriage always seems complicated to me, the deeper down you care to look.

As for the spouse who inspired this brief meditation, he is still married, so far I know; the wife is no less happy than she was before, so far as I know; their marriage,in toto, sounds like it’s stably semi-happy, on good days, and likely to stay there for some time. Is that a triumph or a tragedy, a good thing or a bad thing?

It’s genuinely hard to tell.


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