Updated: May 11, 2020
The concept of the relationship escalator has existed for as long as modern nuclear families, but the term was coined in 2012, when Amy Gahran, a writer who published a blog under the pseudonym Aggie, wrote a blog post* that has gone around the poly world on her site, Solo Poly. We owe her a debt of thanks for the metaphor I’m going to clarify and expand on below.
The Relationship Escalator is the series of expectations for shape and pace of relationships that we’ve probably all heard some of from family or friends. If you’ve been asked “well, but is it going anywhere?” or “are you two thinking about kids soon?” or heard “you guys are next!” at a wedding, you’ve experienced the relationship escalator. That pattern that sounds very 1950s: To casually spend time together, to date “steady,” to get engaged, then married, move into a house together, and have children, then live at that plateau, that “top floor,” until death; that is the relationship escalator. In a modern context, some of the steps can have in a different order: moving in together can be expected before or around an engagement; some families have let go of the expectation of children or understood that it comes later than it used to. But still, it is real - most of us get some of those questions.
One of the expectations that most varieties of polyamory let go of, is that relationships are only valuable if they last until death. Relationships are valuable if they help you grow, if you learn something from the partner you’re with about yourself or your boundaries, if you have pleasure and joy in the time you are together, if they make you laugh. All of these things are just as real as holding yourselves together “until death do you part.” There is no magic to “forever,” that makes it more valuable, if both of you are no longer happy.
While our culture has started to accept this - no-fault divorce exists in every state in the US; it’s not wildly unheard of for someone to have had multiple marriages - those are still widely viewed as “failed” relationships. Serial monogamy is seen as a way to find “the one” with whom you can enjoy the whole escalator.
Polyamory gives us permission not only to seek multiple relationships, but to choose if we want to ride the relationship escalator with one, some, or none of them. Choosing to do so in none of them, and to embrace different markers of intimacy than these “milestone points” on the escalator, is generally called “Solo Polyamory.” Solo poly is the practice of making yourself your own primary and prioritizing your own needs, negotiating individual relationships as they come, with a ceiling on how far up the escalator they’d like to go. For example, many solo poly people put a ceiling at cohabitation - they don’t ever intend to live with any partner they may have.
Other forms of intimacy and relationship progression become more important when you’re off the escalator. Things like -
Developing nicknames for each other;
Celebrating holidays; hitting different levels of vulnerabilities and secret sharing with each other;
Visiting important places from each others’ pasts;
Keeping photos of each other publicly;
Going away together;
Being each other’s plus ones to events;
Anything else important to the members of that relationship.
These matter more when one is in a relationship off the escalator. Not all relationships off the escalator are solo poly people’s.
Other relationships that might be off the escalator could be those of people in secondary hierarchical relationships; those of people with a number of partners where they don’t intend to ride the escalator with more than one or two who are also compatible with one another; those that are time or location limited and don’t have an easy way to work around that. Even a “traditional looking” relationship might skip steps on the escalator - they never get married or have kids though they intend to be together forever.
The relationship escalator is a construct that we need to examine our expectation of as we negotiate individual relationships in our polyamorous experience. It’s a monogamous expectation and set of programming that we have to consider the impact of on our relationships that start later than others. Coming at polyamory with the intention that all our relationships will be escalator based and all our partners compatible enough with each other for that is a recipe to hurt people, most of the time.
We have the ability to separate ourselves from cultural conditioning. We have the ability to become more self-aware and thereby decide what we want and need and work with our partners to make the parts that work for both of us real.
Getting off the escalator gives us options, and those options are part of what makes polyamory great and a true choose your own adventure story independent of monogamous conditioning.
If you're going to be in Rhode Island for Tethered Together 2020, I'll be teaching two classes on polyamory, and I'd love to see you for either one or both. Polyamory and Power Exchange runs at 3:45 pm on Friday in the Barrington Room, and Beyond the Kitchen Table: Parallel Polyamory runs at 9:30 am on Sunday in the Greenwich Room.