Cognitive dissonance is the fancy term for the stress that occurs when a person holds two contradictory thoughts, beliefs, values, opinions or attitudes. This often occurs during the divorce process. If I believe that I am a good person and I do something truly bad, the discomfort I feel is the result of cognitive dissonance. People have an internal desire to feel that their actions, beliefs and ideas are consistent. Cognitive dissonance develops when a person takes two opposite beliefs or actions.
In the divorce arena, a parent may know that it is best for his/her child to have equal access and time with both parents; however, that parent also fights to have the child much of the time because he has the belief that it is beneficial to punish the other party.
When this occurs, when a person harbors two different beliefs, he is a candidate for cognitive dissonance and the stress that it brings. To reduce the dissonance, in the above example, a person may modify his self-concept or his actions (determine that punishment is a belief that should be secondary to what is best for the child); unfortunately, many people cope by justifying the mistake that they made by either no longer caring about a self-image or their willingness to lie to themselves about their self-image.
An example may be a person who believes that she is a healthy person and eats well. Then she has a large fast food double sized cheeseburger with a large order of fries and a shake. That person may:
1. Change behavior ("I will not finish the last half of the food");
2. Justify the behavior ("I can cheat on my diet");
3. Justify the behavior by adding a new concept ("I'll spend an extra 30 minutes at the gym"); or
4. Ignore and deny information that conflicts with beliefs ("This meal is not full of fat and calories").
How a person reacts to the cheeseburger example, or a child custody issue will vary based upon his/her rationalizations and his/her objectivity and willingness to remain true to the stronger and higher standard belief. Oftentimes, it is difficult to remain focused on what is important when going through a divorce.