The ‘Polyamorous Relationship Escalator’ — an essay.
*This essay assumes knowledge of polyamory and non-monogamy, and uses language that some readers may be unfamiliar with. There are quotes used in this article which are approximations and anonymized for use.
The ‘Relationship Escalator’ is a term coined in 2012 by Amy Gahran, under her pen-name Aggie Sez. As of 2021, the metaphor has weaved its way into common parlance in non-monogamous communities, and many have sought to ‘step off’ it. In this essay, I will test Gahrans original metaphor and lay out a view that we have, in fact, unconsciously replicated the escalator within our communities. By doing so have capped the revolutionary and radical elements of polyamory and so I will urge the reader to go further to break the ‘escalator’.
The ‘relationship escalator’ is made and powered by sociocultural norms, dictating the acceptable trajectory for relationships. It features a one-way progression to the presumed goal of lifelong monogamous love and family, and the features of this escalator are visible and are used by most people to gauge whether the relationship is serious, good, healthy or committed.
It features a one-way progression to the presumed goal of lifelong monogamous love and family
The default set of societal customs for the proper conduct of intimate relationships are different in different cultures, but in Europe this is what it looks like for me:
You meet another person (preferably of the opposite sex) at a public event. You will flirt and then start to date (think dinner and a movie). You might mutually initiate a sexual relationship, as a prelude to a romantic relationship. You enter this relationship under the assumption of exclusive sexual and emotional contact, and you build up ‘good faith’ trust by honouring that commitment, and through shared declarations of mutual love. You will begin to deprioritize your other relationships. You move in together, and you will meet each others friends. You might then get engaged (ideally the man will propose on one knee), and then meet each others families. You will get married (with a small family ceremony). You will always prioritize your spouse over any other human, include at times yourself. You will then have children (2.5 is standard), and share the role of raising them in an equitable capacity (and if it is unequal, the domestic load usually falls on the female). You may then stop having sex as often/at all, sometimes unspoken extra-martial affairs are expected (by the man only) but not happily. You will send your children to college, and continue to live together. You will remain monogamously and enduringly in love with this person until one of you dies (and if you are a man you would not necessarily expect to remarry).
By way of depicting the cultural nuance, here is the relationship escalator I encountered when I was dating in Malawi:
You meet another person (definitely of the opposite sex), at gatherings of mutual friends, or religious occasions. You meet their friends, and they meet yours. You flirt and then begin to date (during the day, think lunch or coffee). You enter into a romantic relationship, which is assumed monogamous. You are introduced to one another's parents. You may start an unspoken sexual relationship with one another (the man will initiate and the woman will acquiesce). You will get engaged (ideally with the man honoring the customs of your family with regards to asking permission etc), and can expect a public engagement announcement. You will begin to deprioritize friends of the opposite sex. You build up ‘good faith’ trust through shared declarations of mutual love. You will get married (with a public event) and then move in together. You may then have children (4.5 is standard). You may stop having sex as often, and sometimes unspoken extra martial affairs are expected (by the man only). You will send your children to school and then college, but you might also be expected to integrate them in the family business. You will remain monogamously married with this person until one of you dies (and if you are a women you would not necessarily expect or seek to remarry).
Regardless of the cultural and generational nuance the relationship escalator is the series of expectations that pace and shape ‘appropriate’ relationships. Anything that does not follow this is escalator is assumed ‘broken’, ‘failed’ or ‘a waste of time’. Universally, this escalator is shot through with hetero-mono-normative elements — such as whose role it is to initiate sex, marriage, and domestic roles.
…the relationship escalator is the series of expectations that pace and shape ‘appropriate’ relationships….anything that does not follow this is escalator is assumed ‘broken’, ‘failed’ or ‘a waste of time’.
The original author, Amy Gahran, used this metaphor to describe how one might step off of this escalator, publishing a book called ‘Stepping Off the Relationship Escalator: Uncommon Love and Life’ in 2017 (available here). In becoming aware of it, we can choose whether or not this escalator is for us, and can use it to negotiate the pace or place of our relationships. When twinned with polyamory — a philosophy and practice that allows multiple loving relationships — there seemed much hope that we could ‘break’ with a monogamous-oriented relationship escalator in our modern romantic relationships, and enter a world of designer, custom-created and ever-flexible relationships which would better suit our individual lives.
But after nearly a decade of use, I want to elaborate on the concept and ask — have we seen the emergence of a polyamorous relationship escalator?
All you need for a ‘relationship escalator’ is 1) an assumed shared goal, 2) a one-way trajectory, and 3) a series of socio-culturally prescribed events and actions that signify to others where the individuals are on that trajectory.
1) A assumed shared goal: Although polyamory offers the opportunity for many loves, simultaneously, the polyamorous ‘ideal’ is still shrouded in couple privilege . The dyad endures. The goal is still to find a partner — an ‘anchor’, ‘nesting’ or ‘primary’ partner — with which to pursue many goals shared with the monogamous couple. An archetypal ‘poster child’ polyamorous family unit is beginning to appear: a middle-class triadic unit (husband, wife and live-in girlfriend) with 2 children and a sanitized, spiritual approach to sex. Solohood and asexuality, as envisioned by the original author, does not seem to have permeated through polyamory the way Amy had hoped.
2) A one-way trajectory: Although in principle, polyamory offers the opportunity to find meaning, worth and value in many different forms of relationships, we constantly see mononormative ways of valuing relationships mirrored in our communities. Explicitly a relationship higher up on the escalator is one of more value and worth — one that is sexual, one that is lifelong, one with children, or one with many shared experiences. In addition to this, we still lack any meaningful ways to deescalate or walk back a relationship. Once on the relationship escalator it is nearly impossible to get off. If left unsupervised and unless explicitly negotiated, polyamorous relationships often tend to take on value in the same immutable ways that monogamous relationships are.
3) A series of socio-culturally prescribed events/actions: Although polyamory has added a few socio-culturally flags to the mix (think: burning man and swinging parties), we also still adopt many of the same events and actions as the relationship escalator. For example, although on paper polyamory offers the opportunity to radically rethink family structures and time allotted to childrearing (for example, the possibility of creating a cost-shared domestic commune of sexual friends raising the offspring of their part-time lovers who live and work elsewhere), polyamorous relationships tend to follow the same expectations of childrearing (that a biological unit will take care of much of the childcare whilst juggling their individual career/work). Similarly, culturally significant moments (such as getting married or meeting parents) maintain their importance and equivalent timing even in polyamorous relationships.
By way of illustration, this is the polyamorous (or polyam-informed) relationship escalator I have encountered whilst dating non-monogamously the USA:
You meet a person (online), form a connection and (digitally) flirt. You meet in person, and mutually initiate a sexual relationship as a prelude to a romantic relationship. You may enter this relationship under the assumption of consensual non-monogamy (with consent maybe carrying the power to ‘veto’ or to ‘share’) but you may also move into a ‘couple’ with assumed monogamy. You build up ‘good faith’ trust through shared declarations of mutual love, and form a ‘primary’-type connection. You will begin to deprioritize your other relationships. You go to burning man/kink event/polyamory event and engage in group sex. You may meet (or hunt for) a ‘unicorn’ and form a closed triadic/vee relationship. You move in together (nesting), and meet each others friends. You might then get engaged (ideally the man will propose on one knee). You will then meet each others families. The primary pair may then get married (with a small community ceremony). You will have children (2 is standard), and share the role of raising them in an equitable capacity (and if it is unequal, the domestic load usually falls on the female). The relationship with the third may dissolve. You will form close sexual friendships with other polyamorous parents. Explicit extra-martial affairs are happily expected. You will send your children to college. You may try/begin swinging, and community building. You will continue to live together. You will remain non-monogamously and enduringly in love with this person until one of you dies. Your other partners will support you in this grief.
This escalator has all the seven steps that Amy Gahran theorized — Making contact, Initiation, Claiming and defining, Establishment, Commitment, Conclusion, and Legacy. If there is a polyamorous relationship escalator, it is slightly wider than it’s monogamous counter-part, maybe allowing three abreast if you squeeze close to one another. It certainly may offer a more interesting journey, and it’s still less used that the monogamous one. But it still operates like an escalator, getting off it is still very difficult, and it’s endpoint is still very similar.
For Amy, 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’. But what next?
We are not, simply by virtue of being polyamorous, able to sidestep the escalator. In fact, our culture has mirrored and replicated the mononormative notions of value and worth. And so our communities amplify the shared experiences, events and actions that most closely align to existing hetero-mononormative visions of which relationships are valuable, worthy and good. Maybe in a bid for acceptance, we have at times played poster child to mononormative visions of relationships — “see, it’s not all about sex — we can raise a child like anyone else”. At others, we have clung to the ‘safe’ and ‘easy’ escalator, because it fulfills a function in the way we achieve validation and security among others — “I do want to have children and so can’t spend precious child-bearing years experimenting with alternative relationship structures”.
Polyamorous communities have not taken to activated the radical possibilities inherent in polyamory — such as relationship anarchy, asexual intimacy, or queering friendships. In some spaces, those that do try to activate these potentials, are spurred or excluded. Those radically testing the frameworks of short-term love or asexual-kink intimacy are ‘fringe’ and potentially tainting the social validation and acceptance others may way — “We would love polyamory to focus less on sexuality or kink. Other parents don’t understand polyamory as it is… this centering of sexuality makes our work a bit harder”. In other spaces, those open to using polyamory in conjunction with other political work — queering gender, anti-capitalist work and anti-racist education are ‘hostile’ and made to feel unwelcome— “Are polyamorous people talking about white-supremacy inherent in their spaces yet — or are they still talking about jealousy?”
Faced with a common understanding of a polyamorous relationship escalator, we realize that to truly ‘step off ’ (and not onto another one), we must let those radical possibilities of our love come through. We have to have hard conversations with our partners, families and friends, to explicitly reject assumptions, expectations and norms. We have to build and test the full range of bold relationship strategies and models available to us. And, as a community, we must diversify the stories of shared experiences that we tell ourselves and others.