Riding the relationship escalator (or not)


November 29, 2012 by aggiesez

“Is this relationship going anywhere?” If you’ve heard this cliché (or perhaps thought or said it yourself): welcome to the relationship escalator.

Relationship escalator: The default set of societal expectations for the proper conduct of intimate relationships. Progressive steps with clearly visible markers and a presumed structural goal of permanently monogamous (sexually and romantically exclusive), cohabitating marriage — legally sanctioned if possible. The social standard by which most people gauge whether a developing intimate relationship is significant, “serious,” good, healthy, committed or worth pursuing or continuing.

The steps in the relationship escalator vary by culture and subculture, and they shift a bit over time. Currently in western culture, the escalator that defines “serious” relationships usually involves these steps, in this order:

I'm writing a book about non-standard approaches to relationships. Want to help? Take this survey to share your views and experiences of relationships that aren't on society's standard relationship escalator.

I’m writing a book about non-standard approaches to relationships.
Want to help? Take this survey to share your views and experiences of relationships that aren’t on society’s standard relationship escalator

  1. Making contact: Flirting, casual/occasional dates, and sex (possibly).
  2. Initiation: Romantic courtship gestures or rituals, emotional investment (“falling in love”), and almost certainly sex (except for very religiously or socially conservative people).
  3. Claiming and defining. Mutual declarations of love, presenting in public as a couple, adopting and using common relationship role labels (“my boyfriend,” etc.), and expectations or agreements for monogamous intimate exclusivity (sexual and emotional). Transitioning to fluid-bonded sex (no barriers, except if this would present unwanted pregnancy risk). This is the point where the primary partner label starts to apply.
  4. Establishment. Adapting the rhythms of your life to accommodate each other on an ongoing basis. Settling into patterns for spending time together (regular date nights and sexual encounters, spending time in each others’ homes, etc.) and communicating (speaking, phoning, or texting daily, etc.). Expectations of mutual accountability for whereabouts and behavior. Starting to hint at, discuss, or plan for a long-term shared future as a monogamous couple. Meeting each others’ family of origin.
  5. Commitment. Moving in together, sharing property and finances, getting engaged to be married.
  6. Conclusion. Getting married (legally if possible) and having children (not mandatory, but strongly socially venerated). The relationship is now “finalized” and its structure is expected to remain static until one partner dies.
  7. Legacy. Buying a home, having kids. As Lily Lloyd noted in her comments, Some couples may not feel (or be perceived as) fully “valid” until they hit these additional benchmarks post-marriage — but they are often deemed less crucial to the escalator experience than would have been the case a few decades ago.

There can be some variation in these steps, but generally not much.

hetero couple riding escalator

Riding the relationship escalator.

To be fair, despite its restrictiveness the relationship escalator often does work well enough. Many people are genuinely happy and fulfilled living together in permanent monogamous marriages (or marriage equivalents).

Also, the strong social and legal sanction, recognition and support accorded to couples who make it to the top of the escalator and stay there offers a level of security and stability that is can be hard to match with other approaches to intimate relationships, families or households. (This benefit varies by ethnicity, class, and sexual orientation or gender identity.)

Of course, the escalator does not work for many people — either at all, or for some pairings, or for some part of their lives. This is commonly assumed to be a fault of these individuals, or just bad luck — but not indiciative of a problem with the escalator itself. Also, some people are happy blending escalator and non-escalator relationships, or relationship characteristics.

What can off-the-escalator relationships look like? Some examples include:

  • Solo people who value having ongoing relationships but don’t want to get married or live with a lover.
  • Polyamorous people who are open to having more than one intimate relationship at a time, with all-around knowledge and consent.
  • People whose core life focus is their work, studies, art, children, etc. — who can’t or don’t want to give a relationship the time or focus the escalator typically demands.
  • Swingers who consensually engage in recreational sex beyond their primary partnership.
  • People who desire emotional intimacy or life partnership that does not involve much/any sex and/or romance (asexual, “Ace,” “gray-A” or queer platonic)
  • Don’t-ask-don’t-tell or “permission slip” partnerships.
  • BDSM/kink relationships involving intimate power exchange dynamics which may or may not be sexual, and which may involve people other than their escalator partner.
  • Long-distance relationships, or where one or more partners are deployed military, incarcerated, or otherwise physically unavailable for long periods — these partners often have implicit or explicit allowances for additional relationships.

The relationship escalator is strictly a one-way trip. Partners aren’t allowed to step back (or aside) to a phase with less structure, or with a different structure. Your only valid options are to keep moving forward or to break up and start over with a new partner. Relationships that linger too long in an intermediate phase without “progress,” or that are intermittent are deemed “dead ends.”

In real life, of course, the vast majority of all relationships (in any configuration) end in a breakup of some sort. Generally, once a relationship reaches the “establishment” phase, then if it ends (divorce, permanent separation, moving into separate households, or breaking up if unmarried) it is deemed “over” and thus “failed” — despite whatever good was achieved during its lifespan, and any intimacy, affection, support or friendship that may persist afterward.

In fact, since marriage (or its equivalents) represents the escalator’s pinnacle, there’s no good way to go down. Consequently our society suffers from a dearth of models to transition or conclude relationships well. Breakups are almost always horrible and wrenching for the partners involved as well as their families, friends, and communities.

That’s why it’s tragic, and wasteful that the most common outcome for former partners is to consider each other enemies, or to vanish from each other’s lives as much as possible. If we had better models for ending or changing relationships, we’d develop better skills and social support — and so might wreak far less damage.

The relationship escalator holds considerable power. Most of us automatically adopt it as a roadmap for defining our personal goals for relationships and lifestyle, choosing partners, evaluating our relationships, and judging the relationships of others.

The “automatic” part is crucial: Most people don’t think clearly about or question the relationship escalator. Rather, most of us subconsciously buy into the social premise that the escalator is not really a matter of choice or preference, but a natural and even supernatural force of its own; a mix of physics and magic. It’s just how “good” relationships “naturally happen” (like water flowing downhill), and how they’re “supposed to be” (as if predestination exists).

Even if you’re not in a primary-track relationship, as long as you’re actively seeking or strongly desire one, you’re still riding the escalator. You don’t need to have a partner to ride; you just need to adhere to the escalator’s goals and process.

What if you don’t want to ride, or if your relationships don’t end up conforming to this pattern? That’s a problem. Our society reflexively trivializes, ignores, or vilifies other choices or preferences for conducting intimate relationships. Getting to the top of the escalator socially validates you as an adult and as a person worthy of love and respect. Not succeeding in getting there, voluntarily stepping off — or worse, not wanting to ride at all — marks you as immature, defective, damaged, selfish, untrustworthy and possibly even dangerous.

The relationship escalator may be one-way, but it relies on circular logic. Its rationale is the social myth that there is “The One” (and only one) “right” mate for you — who will ride the escalator and stay with you forever. OK, so how can you tell whether the life partner you’ve chosen is indeed “The One” for you? That call is almost entirely outcome-dependent: If you get to the top of the escalator together and stay there, then the person you’re with must by definition be “The One” for you.

…Unless, of course, you and your mate eventually part ways in any significant or permanent sense. In that case, they obviously could not really have been “The One” for you, no matter what you once thought, or others believed.

What if one or both of you ends up desperately unhappy, lonely, unfulfilled, or even endangered or disenfranchised by your marriage? There’s still a ton of inertia and pressure pushing you both to at least appear to remain exclusively and personally committed. Doing so demonstrates allegiance to the default social order, which reassures other people by not leading them to question their own relationship choices. It also allows you and your mate to retain social “couple privilege” and (usually) avoid significant personal upheaval and material sacrifice.

The escalator is only wide enough for two people at a time. Relationships that don’t require sexual exclusivity, or that openly welcome additional intimate partners (polyamory and open relationships) typically become the object of scorn, ridicule, suspicion, anger and fear. Indeed, this option is so threatening that even though most people in western culture now accept that same-sex couples can ride the escalator too, openly nonmonogamous relationships are specifically barred from entry.

Cheating is actually part of the escalator. Ostensible monogamy is far more common than actual monogamy. Secretly connecting with additional sexual or intimate partners is a long-acknowledged (and in some cultures, moderately accepted) aspect of life on the escalator.

Cheating reinforces, and thus honors, the escalator hierarchy. Secret additional partners are assumed to be shameful. They’re denied all relationship recognition or rights, and they’re expected to be complicit in concealing their own relationship. Also, primary partners can acceptably pretend their additional partners don’t exist — or they reserve the right to explode into a “justified” jealous rage when confronted with that reality.

Occasional high-profile scandals and outrage concerning unfaithful public figures serves mainly to consolidate the power of the escalator — but this has virtually no impact on the practice of cheating.

Cheating also is an escalator-friendly option to end a relationship, since it often provides a new relationship ready to escape into. You’re simply replacing your escalator partner midstream, not really jumping off. This reduces the risk that you might have to shoulder the stigma of being a completely unpartnered adult. (Of course, the partner you’re abandoning probably will face that stigma — but that’s their problem.)

Cheating is a kludgy relationship hack that attempts to reconcile escalator mythology with human nature. It often works (at least for a while), but it sets everyone up to behave badly, shirk responsibility, and treat each other shabbily. Unfortunately, since it’s the only model of nonmonogamy most people know, too often honestly nonmonogamous relationships adopt many of the shame- or hierarchy-based conventions of illicit affairs.

It’s important to recognize that the relationship escalator is a matter of personal choice as well as social convention. It’s rare (at least in modern Western culture) that people are forced to jump on it and stay on it. At each step of the escalator, the people involved are making conscious and subconscious choices. When you’re riding the escalator it may feel like you’re being carried along, but in reality everyone is taking the stairs.

Each of us is responsible for the types of relationships we have. Social conventions and pressures do strongly influence which relationship models are easier or yield more social privilege and validation. While some people remain ignorant of off-escalator relationship models, the internet is certainly helping to change that.

But regardless of which type of relationship you choose for yourself, if you also choose to ignore, ridicule, or vilify non-escalator relationship alternatives, the consequences of that choice extend far beyond your own life. How much awareness and respect you accord other relationship choices ultimately affects everyone who might consider, or perhaps truly need, a relationship that’s somehow off the escalator.

A big part of curbing the tyranny of the escalator is simply to acknowledge that it exists, that it is a matter of choice, and that there are other valid choices. Ultimately substance, not structure, should be what determines the success or value of any intimate relationship.

93 thoughts on “Riding the relationship escalator (or not)

  1. […] understandings of relationships, undermines perceived importance of relationships that are not on the relationship escalator, and, by extension, limits personal choice and autonomy.  It tells people what choices they can […]

  2. gregoryhaley says:

    Reblogged this on MyTexas Haley and commented:
    I so love this awareness that is being created. Thank you for putting this into words. Keep On Keep’n On!

  3. […] riding The Romantic Relationship Escalator; a need or sense of validating the relationship through the traditional acts of romantic progress (like marriage) […]

  4. […] partner might “send the wrong message” (particularly about whether we’d like to ride the relationship escalator with that person), “start a rumor,” confuse/offend the person we touch or cause anyone […]

  5. […] context of romance. Just like male-female friendships are uncommon because they don’t “lead to something” (as if a friendship is not end enough!). Hugging a man, especially as a single woman, might […]

  6. Quora says:

    What are some things that people generally believe are wrong or bad, but are actually not?
    If you think that the ways people make non-traditional relationships work and the expectation of “one plus one” being best for everyone are intriguing topics, you might also be interested in the discussion surrounding the “relationship escalator”.…

  7. […] sé okkar að samlagast þeirri forskrift. Okkar er að finna réttu manneskjuna til að stíga á rúllustigann með okkur, þar sem bara er pláss fyrir tvo. Fólk sem fer ekki þessa leið glímir oft við […]

  8. […] will fall at different points on that spectrum.5- I love Aggie Sez’s article on “Riding the relationship escalator.” Just, love it. Even though I have been in a primary relationship, and enjoy the coupled […]

  9. […] immer interessanter werdenden Thema Polyamorie anzunähern, lohnt sich meines Erachtens das Lesen dieses Textes von Aggie Sez, dessen deutsche Übersetzung im Blog “Mehr Platz für die Liebe” zu […]

  10. […] frighteningly nebulous way. Here’s the thing: In Monogamy-Land? There’s a whole script (an [ http://solopoly.net/2012/11/29/riding-the-relationship-escalator-or-not/ escalator] pitch, perhaps?) around how long you’re “just seeing each other” before “going […]

  11. […] [Today's food for thought: The Relationship Escalator] […]

  12. […] [Today's food for thought: The Relationship Escalator] […]

  13. l says:

    This is a very interesting topic and sheds light on the the difficulty of sustaining, in the eyes of society, any relationship that is not a cisgendered, heterosexual, monogamous and state approved one. Anything outside this basic setting is perceived as less “real/official/valid” and sadly those participating in any other type of relationships will have to struggle to make them accepted.

    However I see a bit of a mix up in the terms. The progression of the relationship that is so aptly described seems to be affecting many more of us. It is present in most relationships, even those that you described as not being part of the limiting and basic structure. Polyamorous people will still court and establish relationships, they might even wait for their primary (if they have one) partner to fulfill a number of these stages before introducing new people. Swingers and kinky folk will also often prioritize certain steps (there will be some establishment and some commitment). Those seem to be patterns that we are all prone to. Some will be changed to fit the particular type of relationship, a legal marriage might be made into a ceremony between multiple partners or for kinky relationships.

    • aggiesez says:

      Relationships progress along all sorts of paths, depending on the people involved. Lots,of people follow some parts of the escalator but not others. There are lots of options. It’s not that the standard escalator (or its semistandard derivatives) is wrong; the point is that it’s an option, not a requirement.

  14. Luna says:

    I wanted to ask permission to translate this article to Spanish and post it on a website for my local community with a link to the original post. I’m looking forward for your answer!

    • aggiesez says:

      No problem — just please do not edit or change the content (except for translation). Please also link back to the original English version.

      I believe there are already a couple of Spanish-language translations of this article floating around, you might want to search for that first before going to this effort.

  15. […] is that I can never coast in my intimate relationships. When you’re this far off the standardrelationship escalator, you can’t afford to make assumptions about how relationships work, or about partners or […]

  16. […] want to be saving for a car or a house. I don’t want to be riding the relationship escalator http://solopoly.net/2012/11/29/riding-the-relationship-escalator-or-not/ of a certain amount of dates before taking it to the next level, a certain amount of time living […]

  17. […] where is this relationship going?” Usually that person is referring to a move up the Relationship Escalator — “the default set of societal expectations for the proper conduct of intimate […]

  18. […] entre parenthèse sont sujettes à changement d’ordre. La théories en anglais s’appelle le relationship escalator (je sais, toutes mes données viennent de sites en anglais, mais j’ai pas encore trouvé de […]

  19. […] théorie en anglais s’appelle le relationship escalator (je sais, toutes mes données viennent de sites en anglais, mais j’ai pas encore trouvé de […]

  20. yboris says:

    Reblogged this on YBoris.

  21. […] a while I thought this was somehow related to the “relationship escalator“. But it doesn’t really… relate. I don’t want to be on the relationship […]

  22. […] been spending a lot of time recently thinking about holidays and the relationship escalator and what society says a healthy relationship looks like. I’m positively allergic to the […]

  23. […] Mull’s essay reminded me of some contention I’ve seen of a drawbacks to a “Relationship Escalator” proceed to regretful relationships: […]

  24. […] that none of my relationships have to follow the relationship escalator, but it’s okay if they […]

  25. […] this rhetoric about how a relationship works that revolves around the idea of progress: getting to the next ‘stage’ or ‘level’ of intimacy, be it practical (like moving in with someone), physical (like having sex for the first time) or […]

  26. […] Book – Sex From Scratch by Sarah Mirk Article – SoloPoly: Riding the relationship escalator (or not) Book – Redefining Our Relationships by Wendy-O […]

  27. […] — solopoly, “Riding the relationship escalator (or not)” […]

  28. […] recent blog article on how relationships are often thought of as an escalator, with a standard path of an upward trend […]

  29. […] Q10: Do you have any advice for young polyamorous people? Yes. Read these articles. Also, as I’ve talked about a little bit before: don’t apologise for who you are. I put myself through hell in high school because I fell in love with two people simultaneously and so inevitably concluded that I was broken and fucked up and obviously just didn’t love my boyfriend enough. I’m still in the process of convincing myself that that conclusion wasn’t true, just as I’m still working on trying to convince myself that it’s ok if I want to have sex and it’s also ok if I don’t. We are force fed a lot of really fucked up messages by every thing around us and it is really bloody hard to resist or unlearn those messages. But it is ok to be poly. It is ok to be capable of loving many people in many different ways and with many different combinations of desires and wants and activities. It is also ok if this isn’t what works for you. It is ok to want to not do romance or sex, and still want intimacy and closeness and reliability from the people who are important to you. Seriously, you do not need to be having sex every other night and spending all your money on buying people chocolate to deserve people in your life who care about you and make you a priority. It is ok to have expectations of your friends and it is ok to be confused about what you do want. Don’t beat yourself up because your life doesn’t fit on the relationship escalator. […]

  30. […] what am I even trying to get at? I think it’s my rage against the Relationship Escalator as well as the Physical Touch Escalator and knowing – or at least strongly fearing and […]

  31. […] un suo partner sessuale, ma tutte le sue relazioni sessuali sono aperte e nessuna di queste è una relazione-ascensore[8]. Jessica ha anche un partner abitativo di nome Tracy, da cui non è attratta sessualmente o […]

  32. […] und was diese mit einer Rolltreppe zu tun haben könnten –  macht sich Aggie auf Solopoly Gedanken. Manche Menschen sehen die Liebe als ein Geschenk des Himmels, für andere tut es auch ein Konzert. […]

  33. […] or inconsistent; as players, as whores? When we live and love in a world that privileges the relationship escalator, and where loving multiple people is seen as having one’s cake and eating it too, a […]

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