Riding the relationship escalator (or not)

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November 29, 2012 by aggiesez

UPDATE: THERE’S A BOOK ABOUT THIS! This post proved so popular to so many people (not just poly folk) that I’ve written a book about the Relationship Escalator, and how people are stepping off of it in many ways.

Off the Escalator: Stories from Unconventional Loving Relationships will be published in late 2015. Learn about the book and subscribe to project updates.

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

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:

  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 same-sex couples now can ride the Escalator all the way to the top (at least, in the U.S. and many other nations), openly nonmonogamous relationships generally are barred from entry.

Cheating is really 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 hack of a relationship convention. It 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 automatically 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 unaware 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.

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

  1. […] person who has many deep, intimate, committed relationships, but doesn’t plan on going up the relationship escalator with anyone? What about the woman who balances both sides of her personality by having both an […]

  2. […] it wasn’t a beautiful, growing experience that was totally worth it. Kinda looped in with this article in a way (which I didn’t read fully, just skimmed to get the basic idea of). DISCLAIMER: Any […]

  3. […] of polyamory – I also just plain liked that it torpedoed the Vorkosiverse equivalent of the relationship escalator. Finally. I was getting tired of having so many sexual-romantic relationships in the Vorkosiverse […]

  4. […] It’s a concept that I’ve mainly seen explained in relation to polyamory, specifically in this post on SoloPoly and a follow-on book project on unconventional relationships. (I’ll be referencing these […]

  5. […] It’s a concept that I’ve mainly seen explained in relation to polyamory, specifically in this post on SoloPoly and a follow-on book project on unconventional relationships. (I’ll be referencing these […]

  6. […] the idea that you don’t have to have sex in a relationship, for example, or that the relationship escalator puts relationships under pressure, or that meta-communication is helpful. It feels very important […]

  7. […] and the Relationship Escalator”, which brought to my consciousness once again the relationship escalator, I saw the documentary A Will for the Woods. For those who do not know, the ‘relationship […]

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