When it comes to relationships, unreliability can take a variety of forms. 

At the less serious end of the spectrum, it can be things like always being a bit late when you arrange to meet up or taking longer than you would like to reply to texts. Little, niggling stuff that can really get on your nerves, but isn’t necessarily a bit problem in itself. 

More seriously, it can take the form of emotionally draining behaviours. An unreliable partner is unpredictable in the way they treat people: freezing their partner out and refusing to talk (stonewalling) or swinging between being kind and short-tempered. This form of unreliability can have serious and adverse effects on a persons’ sense of security and self-esteem, and can easily stray into being a form of emotional abuse.

Why is unreliability so frustrating?

A lack of reliability can be really damaging in relationships because it can make it more difficult to trust someone. 

Often the little things form the backbone of why we trust someone. The small stuff accumulates to shape how we feel about a person. Bad things like forgetting to call if you’re coming home late, changing plans last minute, not asking how someone’s day was - and then, on the obverse, good things like remembering something they said in a previous conversation, going out of your way to help them with something, surprising them with a gift. 

Together, these instances can add up to become our perception of how trustworthy a person is - how secure we can feel in and around them, how much we can rely on them when it comes to the big stuff. In this context, trust isn’t just about how much you believe your partner when they say something, or feel certain that they wouldn’t cheat on you - it’s a general feeling of putting your trust in them: a belief that your partnership is a strong and enduring one. 

When unreliability takes the form of being emotionally unpredictable, trust can obviously be affected in even more extreme or painful ways. If you can’t predict how someone is going to behave towards you on any given day, you can feel like you’re always treading on eggshells or feel constantly anxious about your status in the relationship. You might worry that today is going to be the day that there’s going to be another ‘incident’ or find yourself feeling worried or cold when you think about them, instead of secure and happy. 

If the latter sounds familiar to you, it’s important to recognise that this can constitute a form of emotional abuse. Although there are different ideas on what defines abusive behaviour, if you feel that your sense of self-esteem is being consistently undermined, there’s a significant risk that this is the case. 

Why are people unreliable in relationships?

A lack of reliability in a person can be triggered by a variety of reasons. 

Sometimes, it’s just a part of who they are. Some people are simply less organised than others and find it hard to stick to plans or keep arrangements. They may not feel these things are particularly important - they may not even realise that they’re causing annoyance when they are unreliable. 

Interestingly, unreliability can stem from uncertainty or a lack of commitment. When we’re feeling unsure of something or the extent to which we feel invested in a relationship, we can sometimes express this in a passive aggressive way - by giving less than we could, or doing so in inconsistent ways. This is a behaviour that can be carried out either consciously or unconsciously - the person who is unreliable in this way might be aware of what they’re doing or it may be something that ‘comes out’ unintentionally. 

Unreliability can also come from a desire to have more control over a situation. This applies to both the small stuff and the big. When we make someone wait for us by turning up late, we’re attempting to gain control over their actions. We make them appear to be the person who ‘cares’ more - and so gain the upper hand in a small way. Similarly, when we freeze someone out or refuse to give the emotional support they need, we might make them more dependent on the times we are kind, and so exercise a kind of control over how they feel. 

Again, this can be either conscious or unconscious - it may be part of a pattern of planned behaviour designed to undermine the self-esteem of the other partner or it may the expression of a desire that the perpetrator is unaware of. In the case of the latter, this can come from a variety of places, but one of the most common is an inferiority complex - a lack of self-worth that causes them to want to place others on a lower status than themselves. 

How do you deal with an unreliable partner?

As with many other issues in relationships and communication, the best starting point tends to be an open and honest conversation. If what your partner is doing is really affecting you, then it’s important you try to address the situation rather than brush things under the carpet. 

Not talking is the biggest cause of resentment in long-term relationships, so even when it’s awkward or difficult, it really is the better option when it comes to resolving issues. You may find that your frustration comes out in other ways anyway - so better to head difficulties off before they get worse. 

Our three communication tips to try with your partner is a good starting point for having this kind of conversation. These tips will help you think about ways to talk without things turning into an argument, and to express yourself in a way that your partner is likely to engage with, rather than become defensive.

The benefits of talking things over are twofold: firstly, you’ll be able to express how you’re feeling, and secondly, you’ll be able to get a better understanding of what your partner thinks. If punctuality or getting prompt replies to your texts is important to you, you may be able to help your partner appreciate this better. Conversely, coming to understand that your partner doesn’t necessarily do these things to hurt you may help you feel less aggrieved if they do happen to exhibit the behaviours in future. 

However, if your partner’s behaviour is at the more serious end of the spectrum, it can be a good idea to proceed with caution. If you feel like your partner is unlikely to respond well to a broad discussion of their behaviours, it can be an idea to focus on individual instances. That way, you can begin to talk about what you’re finding difficult with a smaller risk of them shutting the conversation down. Of course, in some cases, they may be unwilling to talk no matter how carefully you try to express yourself. At this point, it’s worth thinking hard about how much more of this behaviour you’d be willing to tolerate. One question we often ask in counselling is: ‘if this was still happening in one year, how would you feel?’ 

Further support

If you need further support, you can speak to a counsellor online via our Live Chat service. Our counsellors can help you think about what’s happening, how it’s affecting you and discuss any potential next moves. Likewise, you can also come in for Relationship Counselling together or just by yourself.