Love is not, and never has been, one size fits all. Most people know this. Yet, it’s still incredibly common for people to believe that serious or healthy intimate relationships all look a certain way and follow a certain path.
That “certain way” has a name: the Relationship Escalator. This is the bundle of socially acceptable traditions for intimate relationships: monogamy, living together, sharing a sexual and romantic connection, always prioritizing one’s spouse above almost every other adult, and permanence (that is, the relationship will persist in this form until someone dies).
Most people ride this Escalator through dating, marriage and beyond, or they hope to. That’s fine; the Relationship Escalator suits many people quite well. Also, it’s attractive because it can confer substantial social, legal and other advantages — hence the same-sex marriage movement.
It’s just not the only game in town.
The Relationship Escalator ideal holds so much social power that it tends to overshadow its alternatives. However, there are other viable and potentially happy and fulfilling ways to share life and love. They’re not quite so visible, but they are becoming more popular for many reasons.
In a survey I conducted, more than 1500 people told me how they’ve stepped off the Relationship Escalator. They had plenty to say — and much of it surprised me, even though I’ve been having unconventional relationships for nearly two decades.
A week ago, I published a book featuring their stories, experiences and insights: Stepping Off the Relationship Escalator: Uncommon Love and Life, There, I quote more than 330 people who have explored various kinds of unconventional relationships: from polyamory and swinging, to deeply committed nonsexual relationships, to treasured connections that pause and resume, and much more. Some people even manage to step off the Escalator in more than one way at once, such as solo polyamory: engaging in nonmonogamy with all-around informed consent, while also choosing not to share a household with any intimate partners.
Many of my survey participants expressed profound relief at discovering a relationship style that fits them well, or at least better than the Escalator ever did. Because monogamy isn’t for everyone. Nor is living together and staying together until death. And also, (I know, heresy on Valentine’s Day), not everyone desires sex or romance.
Stepping off the Escalator with the people you love is one feat. The harder trick can be escaping the Escalator inside your head. Most of us grow up learning, and believing, an implied threat. That is: if you step very far off that Escalator, or fall off, or get pushed off; or if you never manage to jump on it or get very far up it; or if you simply don’t wish to ride it at all— then you may have failed at love and life.
So why do it? What might make stepping off the Relationship Escalator worth the risk, effort and learning curve? One surprising benefit is that having this experience might improve skills and resilience in any kind of intimate relationship, conventional or traditional.
I had a conversation about this with Addie, a woman who has had considerable experience with both traditional and unconventional intimate relationships. At various points in her life, she has been partnered with women and men, monogamously and nonmonogamously, living together and living apart. She’s enjoyed both deeper and lighter intimate connections, from recreational sex to marriage.
Right now, Addie prefers a relationship style that, from the outside, might appear to be firmly on the Escalator. However, her experience with several relationship styles, as well as knowing lots of people from across the spectrum of relationship diversity, helps her feel uniquely empowered.
Here’s one of her key insights that might prove valuable for anyone who’s curious about different ways to love.
“There is a stigma against changing feelings,” Addie told me. “People generally don’t get much support or practice to sit down and talk honestly about this. When someone’s feelings change, or they might want to handle some important aspects of a relationship differently, it’s tempting to just assume that they ‘have intimacy problems.’ Anyone who develops doubts, or whose feelings no longer align with the original plan for the relationship, can easily be labeled ‘broken’ by others — and by themselves, too.
“I now believe it’s crucial to periodically have a conversation just to take the pulse of how everybody in the relationship feels. How does it feel to be monogamous or polyamorous? How does it feel to be having sex, or not? How does it feel to live together or apart? How do we feel now about having children, or about how we are parenting? Do we want to be married or not? Do we want to be public or private about our relationship? This stuff does not stay static.
“Having these conversations, practicing this skill, has helped me accept that it’s completely normal to feel different things at different times, or to want things that are unconventional. And you can’t really have these conversations without understanding that you really do have options.”
As I readied my book for publication in a time of deep social and political absolutism and divisiveness, I knew that unconventional relationships might not seem like the most pressing topic. But Addie reminded me that awareness, acceptance and appreciation of all kinds of diversity hold deep value — not just for individuals and their relationships, but for society and the world.
“I think one of the core things that makes us suffer is the assumption that if someone does something different from what you’re doing, then that means they’re criticizing you,” said Addie. “It sounds crazy, right? Well, I look forward to a day when people will consider that nobody needs to be wrong.
“I hope that someone who is learning about unconventional relationships, for any reason, understands that you don’t have to judge anyone’s relationship as right or wrong. You don’t have to agree with what they’re doing, and you don’t have to change what you’re doing.
“Most people who have unconventional relationships are not claiming that traditional relationships have no value. I think they’re just advocating choice. They’re advocating close examination of relationship traditions and seeing which ones resonate. They’re brave enough consider a particular tradition and say, ‘You know what? I’m gonna pass on that one.’”
Learn more about unconventional relationships, get the book, and get updates about upcoming books in this series: OffEscalator.com