When your partner is unreliable

16 June 2020

Is your partner unreliable?

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

More seriously, it can take the form of emotionally draining behaviour. An unreliable partner is unpredictable in the way he or she treats people: freezing you out and refusing to talk, or swinging between being kind and short-tempered. This form of unreliability can impact your security and self-esteem, and easily stray into becoming emotional abuse.

Why is it so frustrating?

Often, small stuff accumulates to shape how we feel about someone. Instances add up to become our perception of how trustworthy people are – how secure we feel around them, how much we can rely on them when it comes to the big stuff. Trust isn’t just about how much you believe your partner when he or she says something, or feel certain that your partner wouldn’t cheat on you – it’s a general feeling of putting your trust in them: a belief that your partnership is strong and enduring.

When unreliability becomes emotionally unpredictable, trust can 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 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 your partner, instead of secure and happy.

If that sounds familiar, it’s important to recognise that this can constitute 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?

Lack of reliability can be triggered by various things. 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 – and they may not even realise that they’re causing annoyance when they’re unreliable.

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 sometimes express this in a passive aggressive way – by giving less than we could, or doing so in inconsistent ways. Such behaviour can be adopted consciously or unconsciously.

Unreliability can also stem from a desire to have more control. 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. Similarly, when we freeze someone out, or refuse to give the emotional support they need, we  make them more dependent on the times we are kind, and so exercise 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 be something the perpetrator is unaware of.

How do you deal with it?

As with many other issues in relationships, the best starting point tends to be an open and honest conversation. If what your partner is doing really affects you, it’s important 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 for resolving issues. You may find that your frustration comes out in other ways anyway – so better to head off difficulties before they get worse.

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 your partner is unlikely to respond well to a broad discussion about behaviour, focus on individual instances. That way, you can begin to talk about what you’re finding difficult with a smaller risk of your partner shutting the conversation down.

Of course, in some cases, your partner 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’re willing to tolerate. One question we often ask in counselling is: ‘If this were still happening in a year’s time, how would you feel?’

If you’d like to talk with one of our counsellors about these issues do give our friendly appointments team a call on 01234 356350.


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