Getting Off the Relationship Escalator

Were you on the relationship escalator before becoming polyamorous? Did you get off the relationship escalator?

Polyamory is not just about non-monogamy. It’s about autonomously designing and defining relationships for ourselves, rather than letting them be designed and defined by social, cultural, religious, and political traditions and institutions.

The relationship escalator is the relationship model that most people take for granted as the best or only option. But others are getting off of that relationship escalator and choosing different paths to connection and happiness, such as ethical non-monogamy or polyamory.

Read: ENM Relationships: 10 Examples of Ethical Non-Monogamy

What Is the Relationship Escalator? 

The relationship escalator is a social script that is deeply woven into culture, an assumption about how relationships should work that is ingrained into everyone’s psyche. It is a set of societal and personal expectations about what relationships are and should be.

The relationship escalator is about the idea that we date with the objective in mind of finding “the right person” and then staying with them in a committed relationship, moving “up” to marriage and having a family and shared property.

The general assumption is that the relationship escalator is the normal, healthy, desirable way of forming sexual and romantic relationships. Other options are seen as immature, deviant, unstable, or otherwise socially unacceptable.

Read: Why Monogamy is Better than Polyamory (and Vice Versa)

8 Steps on the Relationship Escalator

The image of the relationship escalator illustrates that the steps along the way are socially perceived as “moving up” or “going somewhere” and that the destination is preferable and more important than the earlier steps or alternate relationship designs.

The steps on the relationship escalator are more or less as follows.

1. Dating 

On the relationship escalator, you begin by dating, seeking a person that you connect with so you can start moving on together and “going somewhere” together.

Read: 11 Types of Monogamy

2. Emotional and Sexual Connection 

You may date one person or several at a time or serially, and then choose a person with whom you have an emotional and sexual connection. If you connect emotionally and sexually with several people, you choose the one you feel is most suitable, or perhaps the one who feels the most connection towards you.

Read: How to Find a Primary Partner

3. Defining the Relationship 

After a few dates you begin to talk about “where you’re going” and decide if you are a couple. You will use terms like boyfriend and girlfriend, partners, etc.

4. Establishing Patterns 

Eventually you’ll decide to start establishing patterns of monogamy, and commit to dating only each other. You’ll start to merge aspects of your life and decision making.

Read: Why People Choose Monogamy

5. Commitment and Future-Planning 

You’ll form a commitment to a “serious” relationship and perhaps get engaged. You’ll start thinking about making financial and major social decisions and work decisions together. You’ll think about where you will live and the direction of your life together.

Read: Commitment vs. Containment: An Important Distinction

6. Cohabitation 

You’ll decide to live together and become common law. If you are very religious or traditional minded, you may skip this step and go right to marriage, but most people in today’s society live together before marrying.

7. Getting Married 

Then you will get married, a ritual and ceremony to celebrate your love, but also to declare yourselves off limits to anyone else and to get full social sanction for your relationship.

Read: 6 Alternatives to Monogamy that Don’t Involve Cheating 

8. Having Children

Most couples on the relationship escalator path will have one or more children.

Pros and Cons of Riding the Escalator 

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the relationship escalator. It works for many people. For those whose lifestyles and passion patterns happen to fit into the current social norm, finding a person they connect with and moving towards marriage and a merged life can be the most rewarding path to intimacy.

The problem with the relationship escalator is that it is a dominating social script that usually excludes other ways to live and love. 

Read: 13 Unconventional and Alternative Relationships Explained

Historically, gay and lesbian people were excluded, even if the relationship escalator model worked for them. Society and culture simply didn’t allow them to participate in community in this way. Thankfully today they have the option and the rights to this path if they wish.

Many polyamorous people ride the relationship escalator, too. They may be happily married with children already when they decide to open the relationship and explore intimacy outside of their own marriage.

Read: What Is an Open Relationship? An Introduction

Primary partners who discreetly date other lovers or have secondary relationships may still be able to work inside this model to some extent.

But the relationship escalator doesn’t accommodate or value non-monogamous expressions such as throuples, polycules, swinging, independent polyamory, communal childcare models, childless choices, or people who date for its own sake without striving toward monogamy or marriage.

The benefit of getting off the relationship escalator for those who don’t really fit into the script is enormous: the privilege of designing your relationships in the way best suited to you and your ideals, values, needs, and desires. 

Read: Non-Monogamous Dating Tips

How to Forge Your Own Relationship Path

You can create your own relationship models when you choose non-monogamy. You can choose how to value and explore love and sex on your own terms. You can reject the hierarchy of the relationship escalator, or rewire your hierarchy in any way you like.

You can prioritize your autonomy and independence, prioritize friendships over romance, or prioritize a non-traditional relationship.

You can include long-distance love and ongoing love affairs. You can design your relationships around power-exchange dynamics in a BDSM context. You can choose other cultural norms for family and relationships, and you can make up your own. 

Break Free of Monogamous Conditioning 

Monogamy is rewarding and satisfying for some people. They relate best to one person or choose to explore their sexuality in a monogamous context. But monogamy is not hardwired into our biology or into our cultures.

We are naturally polyamorous and polyamorous arrangements have been common throughout cultures through history. We feel like monogamy is the norm because of monogamous conditioning. 

Read: A Brief History of Polyamory in America

Some of us do not feel monogamy is the highest goal because we do not subscribe to the relationship escalator model. The idea of breaking off a wonderful relationship because we have feelings for another person feels severe, violent, violating, and destructive. 

Breaking free of monogamous conditioning is easy for some people. They simply don’t feel monogamy at all and are only going through the motions. Others feel the indoctrination and conditioning deeply and feel guilty or feel like a failure for their unique instincts about love and sex.

Either way, breaking free of monogamous conditioning is really a decision to do so. Once we make that decision we can begin to live the way we design our lives, let the chips fall where they may.

Read: 24 Polyamory and Non-Monogamy Terms and Definitions

Be Honest with Friends and Family 

It can be tough to share with those close to you that you are getting off the relationship escalator. There is so much pressure from loved ones and community circles.

Your mother may pester you about whether you’ve found someone. A doctor may ask if you are going to choose one partner. You most likely can’t show up at your synagogue or mosque with three of your boyfriends! Even best friends may tell you it’s time to grow up and settle down. You can use all of these as opportunities to tell those around you that you choose non-monogamy, or share with them that you have designed your relationships to work for you.

Read: Coming Out as Poly: Is It the Right Time?

Be Proud of Yourself and Your Lifestyle 

It takes a lot of courage to live your authentic truth against the grain. Be proud that you have chosen to get off the relationship escalator and live life on your terms. 

Find Like-Minded People

There are lots of people who choose non-monogamy. There are countless scientists, psychologists, and anthropologists who simply report their professional findings and they are on your side. More and more media are reporting on the variety of human networks possible, not just the socially dominant relationship escalator. Polyamory is being presented as a viable option in many contexts. Find those books, articles, teachers

Read: 10 Polyamorous Blogs to Follow for ENM Exploration

In your personal life, cultivate your circles to include people in non-monogamous relationships. Form friendships and alliances with siblings, cousins, workmates, and friends who have chosen alternatives to the relationship escalator.

Are you looking to get off the relationship escalator? Please share!

Tell us what you think

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments