Relationship Reliability and Availability

The quality of an existing relationship might be thought of as a combination of reliability and availability. At first glance these seem like very similar concepts, but perhaps we can tease apart some distinctions. Availability means that when we turn to the relationship for the functions it offers, it will be available to be engaged most of the time. Reliability means that over time, the relationship will be able to function as it is represented with fewer rather than more losses.

Sometimes we confuse reliability and availability and sometimes we use measures that are misleading. For example, availability means that a significant relationship will be there for us to turn to in case of crisis. It also suggests that in an ongoing way, that person will prioritize finding time to be together. So there is urgent availability and ongoing, low-level availability.

There may be times when we have strong feelings that we are having difficulty managing, and we would like the other person to be there. On the one hand, this is reasonable. On the other hand, feelings are not a crisis, even if they seem to be. In some respects, this kind of situation is more about ongoing availability and not urgent availability. So we would like to be able to talk to that person, but it need not be at this minute. If there is an ongoing security that sooner rather than later we will have some time together, that security will help us internally even if we do not get together until later.

Reliability, on the other hand, means that when we do get connected with that person, we can count on him or her to come to the relationship with constructive motives. We can expect a sympathetic hearing, a constructive, growth-encouraging response, and a caring perspective–at least most of the time. Over time, little by little, with reliability we come to trust that we can turn to that relationship and allow ourselves to be vulnerable to it.

Being in a relationship is an activity that you do, like playing tennis. If you never have a game together, there is no tennis. In other words, if one person is mostly unavailable, you cannot engage in the activity of relating. If you hit the ball and the other person doesn’t hit the ball back, or if they hit the ball too aggressively, you have no game either. This means that when you do not get a response, or you get a destructive response, it is no game or a bad game. Once we have many small interactions that show us that the other person is both available and reliable, we have an internal sense that the relationship exists even when we are not together.

As adults, we can understand that lapses in availability or reliability may be simple human lapses, not necessarily signifying a lack of connection. However, there may be times when the other person just feels disconnected from us, either through lack of availability or frequent lapses in reliability. At those times, the trust we have built allows us to bring that perception into the relationship by telling the other person, in a caring way, that we are feeling a disconnect. These moments are opportunities for repair and reassurance. It is the capacity to repair ruptures that becomes part of the  process that strengthens our conviction that the relationship is trustworthy and constructive. Through careful, open conversation, we can share our inner experience with each other and recreate the deep connection that continually redraws the inner structure of that relationship.

About norasblog

I am a psychotherapist with a private practice in downtown Chicago.
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2 Responses to Relationship Reliability and Availability

  1. jss says:

    I like your tennis game analogy. To go with it I would like to ask what happens when I/m the one to hit the ball across the net too aggressively? It matters very much how the person on the other side handles my volley. Will they stand their ground and deftly send the ball back , whether aggressively or gently with lots of top-spin it doesn’t so much matter. When that ball comes screaming across the court at them will it be absorbed and sent back or will they flinch, move out of the way in fear of getting hit by it and take themselves out of the point?
    Availibility and reliability do not just speak to when and where but also to how.

  2. norasblog says:

    Hello JSS, This is a profoundly important question you are asking. I was talking to a young man who got married and actually WAS playing tennis with his new wife. He played aggressively because he loves the game. She cried. He was puzzled. He said, “I thought the point was to try to win.” She said, “I thought the point was to have a good time and a lot of volleys.” So part of it is no doubt a question of what your goal is. If you are a strong, assertive person, you do not want to be made to feel like an aggressor if you are fiercely engaged in a discussion. On the other hand, if you are not terribly assertive, even if you are fiercely opinionated, you might find high energy debate uninteresting at best. It seems to me that in each relationship the two people create a process together that will meet the needs and interests of both of them. Otherwise, you don’t have a game. So it depends on what your goals are, it depends on what you agree on as your process rules, so to speak, and finally, it depends on how much trust you have already built into the relationship. People who know each other well and can trust the motives of the other person are more likely to be able to engage in a process that is more risky.

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