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 being genuinely convinced of 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 longer have to 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 quite sincerely and honestly did 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."

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 sincerely believes 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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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.