Stepping Off the Relationship Escalator

It’s okay if traditional relationship models don’t work for you

Rachael Hope
Oct 7, 2019 · 8 min read
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Photo by Sascha Kohlmann via Flickr (cc)

When I first told my mom that I am polyamorous and that my new partner already had a long-term girlfriend, she was not thrilled. She had just witnessed the rather complete destruction of my heart by my imploding marriage, so I can’t blame her for feeling protective.

Some of our earliest conversation about the topic centered around the questions she (and I) had about whether we were “dating” or not. If we weren’t dating, what were we doing? I was falling in love. But our intention was not to move in together, parent together, or get married eventually.

I have distinct teenage memories of flirtation, that urge to ask the question. “Where is this going?” It would sit in the back of my throat like a too-big lump of food until the flirtation passed or I somehow gathered the courage to speak it into existence. If you’ve ever been there, you’re already familiar with the foundation of the relationship escalator.

What is the Relationship Escalator?

The Relationship Escalator is a particular, common set of societal expectations. Relationships exist in many forms, but when someone asks if you’re “in a relationship,” they’re talking relationship with a capital R, the kind that has a destination.

Amy Gahran, author of Off the Relationship Escalator, explains:

Relationship Escalator. The default set of societal expectations for intimate relationships. Partners follow a progressive set of steps, each with visible markers, toward a clear goal.

The goal at the top of the Escalator is to achieve a permanently monogamous (sexually and romantically exclusive between two people), cohabitating marriage — legally sanctioned if possible. In many cases, buying a house and having kids is also part of the goal. Partners are expected to remain together at the top of the Escalator until death.

The Escalator is the standard by which most people gauge whether a developing intimate relationship is significant, “serious,” good, healthy, committed or worth pursuing or continuing.

The relationships you daydreamed about as a kid, the Prince Charming white wedding ones, the ones that most of us saw modeled in our families, on TV, in church, and in society at large are based on this model. It assumes that there is a particular way that our intimate and romantic relationships are “supposed” to be, and that this is something we should strive for.

What are the Relationship Escalator’s milestones?

Traditional relationships begin at the bottom of the escalator with first contact — your meet cute. You bump into each other, begin flirting, grab coffee and begin casually dating, perhaps even sleeping together.

Patterns become established, and soon you’re stepping up to the next level, romance comes into play, and you start to have feelings. At this stage, many couples will have some sort of sexual relationship, and thoughts about the next steps they’d like to take.

The deepening emotional investment leads to the next milestone, exclusivity and defining of the relationship. Declarations of love and labels like ‘boyfriend’ and ‘girlfriend’ abound. This step usually comes with expectations and agreements about monogamy and the idea of the ‘one and only’ looms large.

Entering the couple zone usually means delving into molding your lives around each other’s needs, regular date nights or other patterns of spending time together, and an expectation of frequent communication. A level of comfort develops. Couples begin to talk about their long-term, shared future.

Continuing up the escalator, you’ll find couples merging their lives, cohabitating, integrating finances, perhaps purchasing a home. Sometime during this stage, engagement usually comes into play.

At the top of the escalator, you find the legal, binding, forever connection of marriage. The relationship is put into permanent status, and all others are left behind. Couples may exit here, or may move into the family stage of having and raising children.

Is the Relationship Escalator bad?

No! This model works for a lot of people, for a lot of reasons. When it comes to love, though, there is no one right way to do things. People are infinitely varied, and so are their hearts and needs. A plethora of relationship models can work, and this is just one of them.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the Relationship Escalator, but believing that it’s the one true way to do things does a disservice to the people for whom it isn’t ideal. This is the only relationship model that has been largely socialized into us, so when people find that they don’t want it, or can’t succeed at it, they often feel that something is wrong with them.

Let’s look at what Gahran describes as the 5 Hallmarks of Escalator Relationships:

Sexual and romantic exclusivity between two — and only two — partners.

Merging life infrastructure and identity. Sharing a home and other resources, such as finances. Also identifying strongly as a couple or family — perhaps to the extent that the individual identities of partners start to be eclipsed.

Hierarchy. Some relationships are considered more important than others, and thus “win” by default in many situations. On the Escalator, since you’re allowed only one sexual/romantic partner, that relationship is considered more important than almost every other relationship (such as friendships), with the possible exception of parenting.

Sexual connection, at least at the beginning of the relationship. (Sex often fades or disappears, especially in long-term monogamy.)

Continuity and consistency. Escalator relationships aren’t supposed to pause or step back to a less-merged state. Also, Escalator partners have defined roles as partners — they aren’t supposed to shift between being lovers and platonic friends, for instance.

What happens if these are not things you want? What if you don’t want to be monogamous, either sexually or in terms of deeper relationships and love? What if you and your partner envision forever, but want to keep your own spaces? Perhaps you are flexible to being apart for long periods of time, to living together, and then moving apart when life demands it. Does that make your relationship less legitimate? Perhaps sometimes sex takes a back burner to other things in your lives, but you don’t see it as a problem like we are generally told it is.

In polyamory, hierarchy can be a problematic aspect to escalator relationships. Many people prefer to practice non-hierarchical polyamory, where no one partner is primary or viewed as being more important than other partners.

Stepping off the escalator

Leaving the relationship escalator behind is a common topic of discussion in poly circles. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that there are hundreds of valid ways to relate to people and to practice polyamory. Some people will have a primary relationship that largely sticks to this model, only leaving out the step of exclusivity.

Many polyamorous people still get married, cohabitate, or have children. They enjoy and look forward to traditional milestones with each partner they have. If you don’t want to be on that path, how do you step off of it, and what effect does it have on your feelings about relationship milestones and commitments? What do you celebrate?

Some people choose to set their own milestones. The first time they visit each other’s hometowns, first holidays together, first vacations, or first time meeting one another’s families. Some choose to completely leave traditional markers behind and just celebrate each other as often as they can.

One interesting thing about the relationship escalator is that it does have an end point. The traditional Relationship Escalator virtually ends after “get married and have a family.” How do you level up after that? What do you look forward to?

Reprogramming your mono mind

Stepping outside the box of “successful relationships” that our culture ingrains in us from birth is far from easy. Even people who know that they don’t want to ride the traditional escalator sometimes find themselves wanting to escalate. We are conditioned to see traditional milestones as markers of whether a relationship is successful or not, so it can be hard to leave them behind. So, what can we do?

One of the biggest things I’ve realized is that the length of a relationship does not dictate its success or worthiness. I can have a real, deep, wonderful connection with someone even if it only lasts a year, a month, or even one night. Staying together for a long time does not mean a relationship is good or successful.

Create your own milestones, celebrations, and traditions. Is there a particular holiday that you and your partner enjoy? Decide to celebrate it together. Build traditions in annual staycations, or local events that you can attend together. Life is full of infinite things to look forward to.

Imbue your relationships with intention. One of the great things about stepping off the escalator is that your relationships are not just a means to an end. When there is no expectation of legal commitment, you know that you are making a choice every day to nurture your connection with your partner. Celebrate that intention!

Figure out shared goals you can work towards together. So, maybe you don’t want to buy a house, but you do both love road-tripping. Start a nest egg to take an epic road trip you can look forward to. Maybe you don’t want kids, but you’ve both dreamed of a house with land and a family of goats. If it makes you happy, it’s a great goal! The more non-traditionally you think, the easier it will come.

Redefining what makes a good relationship

I’ve ridden the relationship escalator, and it turned out terribly for me. Despite the fact that we use these things as a measure of success, the reality is that half of marriages end in divorce. So, is that relationship model really working for the majority of people?

Like many things in polyamory, there is no one relationship model to follow. The most important thing in any relationship, monogamous or not, is that the people involved are having their needs met. If something works for you and your partner(s), then that is the right thing for you. You and your partner(s) get to define your own success.

In my current relationship, things have changed, and now we are both cohabitating and co-parenting. Still, we don’t have a ‘traditional’ relationship by any means. We live together, and though our children take priority over things like dates, we do not use the term primary partner. We share finances to some degree, but have our own bank accounts, and most of the money is managed by me. We still don’t have plans to get married.

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