Slipping Down the Escalator
What happens when your step off the relationship escalator isn't as graceful as you want it to be?
Sometimes polyamorous people talk about relationships being "on" or "off" the relationship escalator, or "de-escalating" relationships, either in the sense of going "backwards" a step on that escalator or moving off it in an intentional manner. If you're not familiar with the concept, the Relationship Escalator (a term coined by Amy Gahran several years ago) is a way of conceptualizing mononormative relationships - first you meet, go exclusive, catch feelings, (those last two can be reversed) get engaged, get married, move in together (sometimes this one can be sooner), have kids, and stay together til death do you part. Any monogamous relationship that ends before completing all these steps is considered failed and you start riding the escalator again with a new partner. Polyamorous people can choose to ride the escalator with one partner, or more, or with none at all. The principle of a non-escalator relationship is that we pick our own milestones, landmarks, and moments of meaning and lean into those rather than traditional steps like combining finances or moving in together.
When trying to find the versions of our relationships that work best for us, sometimes polyam folks choose to have transitions or de-escalations where we adjust the stated expectations of our relationships. This can be a wonderful feature of this style of relationship - saving a relationship where we have deep emotional connection, and/or a great time living together, but are no longer sexual, for example - but also it can be challenging to have the person you're de-escalating with in your life in a different capacity than they once were. When the other person or people in a relationship suggest the deescalation, it can feel for the person receiving that message like they've "fallen off the escalator." Because we have so many cultural messages about how relationships work (and what it means for them to no longer function in a relationship escalator manner) this can feel like a failure we're starting over from. Things that aren't a neat step sideways, or where other relationships are proceeding up the escalator (by negotiation or assumed), can cause pain when we see our partners engaging in other relationships as ours "stagnates."
The need to reframe changes in our relationships as an embrace of the best parts of them, rather than staying still part way up the escalator, can be helped by thinking of other metaphors. Players of TTRPGs, who use "sandbox" as a metaphor for playing in a realm with defined edges where there's material to build your own ideas, can cross-apply that metaphor. You and your partner build the edges of your sandbox, and come in with your shovels and pails to make a unique relationship structure. I like to think of relationships as filling in the map, where it just says "here there be dragons" - that might be equally nerdy of me though. The point is that we create our own landmarks and milestones, and keep a wild majority of them even if we veer off the traditional path. No longer having a shared bank account doesn't mean we don't know how we like each others' coffee, which chores we share happily and which are a challenge in an unwelcome way, or how to talk in an emotionally vulnerable manner to each other. Moving house doesn't mean we don't still have nicknames and shared hobbies and an awareness of each others' preferred way to receive care. That mutual care may be the most essential part of a relationship with someone - romance aside.
The "slip down the escalator" being hard or ungraceful can lead to folks leaning hard into "let's actually break up" and not exploring the options available to them. It creates an alternative narrative of deescalation as a slow roll into a breakup. This is not saying you have to de-escalate always, sometimes breakups are what we need! The good things in a relationship may not outweigh the ways that you aren't a fit and they may not form a relationship you need. If you have a big, strong network of friendships and the person you're ceasing to be romantic with or sexual with doesn't fit your expectations of a friendship or they have different expectations than you do, it's okay to say "finding the space we both are comfortable in is too hard, we'd rather not and maybe we'll figure that out upon reconnection later." But, at the same time, it's ok to keep a fluid line of communication open and decide you're going to define and redefine your relationship as it takes new shapes over time. If deescalating and taking time without re-labelling relationships; or with queering those labels in the way we apply them, works best despite containing some discomfort -- DO IT.
Doing what works for you, regardless of the reactions of others and even if it feels a little like the slip off the escalator twisted your emotional angle and you need a few weeks to heal, is the most essential drive behind engaging in our relationships authentically.