Filling in the Gaps: Communication Failure in Relationships
If you’ve had any connections in life, you’ve engaged in some form of communication. At some point within any of those engagements there has occurred a disconnect where what the person is saying doesn’t quite match what the person says at another point or what the person says doesn’t align with how they act in another situation. There are any number of potential responses to this, from confrontation and declarations of hypocrisy to eager questions for clarification. However, what we often find ourselves doing, especially when the relationship is one we’ve become invested in, is what I call ‘fill in the gaps.’
The beauty of human beings, and there are many things beautiful about us, is that when we find a cognitive heuristic that works for us we tend to apply it liberally across our lives. Confirmation bias, where we only see the information that supports our presuppositions, is a classic example.
When I note the tendency to “fill in the gaps” in personal relationships I refer to the amazing capacity of people to turn into arm-chair psychologists, stretching the bounds of hubris to come up with any number of rationalizations for why disparate information isn’t making any sense. We’ve all done it and if examples in our lives don’t come to mind readily I’m quite positive examples can be brought to mind, situations where we sat back in wonder at why so-and-so continues to accept the mental gynmastics of their partner when confronted with behavior that doesn’t match. From declarations of love followed by dismissal and forgetfulness to the silences of personal revelation followed by protests of authenticity, others and ourselves are confronted almost daily with examples of missing information, gaps that we create to help solve the disconnect between what we hear and what we see.
Nor is this limited to romantic relationships, as parents who protest their good parental connections are followed by deliberately shortening time to be with their child(ren); managers declaring their support for their employees and then taking a pay increase while the worker languishes; and politicians, well, do I really need to go into examples there?
To ‘fill in the gaps’ is not a wrong action, in fact many times it saves time and nobody suffers from it. Other people and for that matter, our own self, exists as created narratives in our minds, set up for the purposes of holding a basic image that we can then project onto behavior. This helps us for we then do not have to create anew in every transaction a rationale for someone’s behavior, it’s already sitting there in our minds. Just as with confirmation bias however, the ease of this can fall into error when we are so set on what we project that we begin to ignore what is happening right in front of us.
There is plenty of room here to thwart this tendency into error. In dedicating ourselves to constant reevaluation of our narratives, in not shying away from the difficult questions, we can begin to see that the joy of emotional connection and the sense of sinking into another that often occurs does not become a sinkhole of suffering. In the end we may find lies and self-deceptions and we may also find our inner stories of others expanding to encompass more of the person we are only just now beginning to truly see. In either case we will not be set upon by the stress and insecurity of ‘filling in the gaps.’