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What is the Relationship Escalator?

I was having coffee with a friend the other day and catching up about our recent dating lives (and their complications in labels and lack thereof) when he said "you know, it's not like the old days when folks went steady and it was obvious that 'This Is Dating' - is that part of the problem?" And on the one hand, he's right - a hesitance to be clear about what "hanging out" is and whether we're invested emotionally is a dating scourge on people my age (35) and younger - but it's not solved with "going steady" and a cultural script that any time alone must be a date, it's solved with clear communication about what we're intending to do (or that we aren't sure yet, but we're having fun).


That cultural script - the time spent together becomes exclusive dating, becomes an engagement, becomes moving in together, becomes marriage (these two may be in reverse order), becomes children, and staying together for life as THE marker of success - is the relationship escalator. The term was coined by Amy Gahran, a writer who kept a popular blog called Solo Poly, in 2012.


It's called an escalator, rather than stairs or steps, because this system or script is seen as a set of foregone conclusions. The aunt at a wedding who asks you if (or tells you that) "you're next!" is feeding into these; so are the people who ask you if a relationship is "going anywhere" and mean "are you hoping to get married?"



Traditionally, the escalator is wide enough for two to ride to the end, and only ends if one or the other members of the dyad dies - although a "failure" of the relationship at any stage frees you both to seek a new escalator relationship. The pressure to engage in escalator relationships is baked into all kinds of media and messaging we receive about relationships throughout our lives.


Polyamory can subvert the relationship escalator in several dimensions - we'll talk in my next post later this week about engaging in relationships that are long term but avoid the escalator altogether (while still being clearer about their intentions than the amorphous "hanging out" my friend was complaining about) but polyam folks can also ride the escalator with more than one relationship at once. While we can't get legally married to more than one person at once, folks merge households, coparent, and otherwise share their lives in more than two configurations. Some folks see this as "riding the escalator more than once" because they met their partners at different points in their lives; and some people see it as "riding the escalator together" (especially in cases like triads). In this way, it can be seen as always or often undercutting the dominant social norm of the escalator, even if there is sometimes an escalator relationship within a relationship network.


So, in summary, the relationship escalator is that first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage series of steps that form the underlying social norms for relationships we grow up with and can choose to subscribe to or not.


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If you want to chat about an approach to diverse and negotiated relationships, I'm teaching Relationship Anarchy Applied to Play Partnerships for Wicked Grounds on December 5 at 6pm Pacific, 9 Eastern. Tickets are sliding scale and available here.

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