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.