In this episode, Peter McGraw continues the Solo series on conventional and unconventional relationships with the first part of a conversation with Amy Gahran. Amy is the creator of “the relationship escalator” – a concept covered in previous episodes. Amy and Peter discuss the hallmarks of the relationship escalator and explore the many ways that people diverge from it – including consensual non-monogamy, big friendship – and of course, a solo lifestyle. Check back next week for Part 2.
Listen to Episode #69 here
Diverging From The Relationship Escalator – Part 1
We continue our series on Conventional and Unconventional Relationships with part one of a conversation with a special return guest, Amy Gahran. Amy is the Creator of the Relationship Escalator, a concept covered in previous episodes. We discussed the hallmarks of the Relationship Escalator and explore the many ways that people deviate from them including consensual non-monogamy, big friendship and a solo lifestyle. I hope you enjoy the episode. Let’s get started.
Our return guest is Amy Gahran. Amy is a writer and journalist based near Boulder, Colorado. When she’s not writing about energy, technology, and business, she’s researching and writing about unconventional relationships and the power of social norms. She’s working on the second edition of her delightful, wonderful and useful 2017 book, Stepping Off the Relationship Escalator, a research-based guide to intimate relationship diversity. Amy was a guest on two of my favorite episodes, Getting Off the Relationship Escalator and Defining Solo. Welcome back, Amy.
Peter, how are you?
I‘m good. I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time.
Me too. You’re a good interviewer. This is always fun.
That’s high praise from a journalist. This episode is part of a series, Examining Relationships, both conventional and unconventional. This model of the Relationship Escalator has been tremendously helpful to me and my readers. I want to say thank you for that.
What we’re going to do is a follow–up to a previous episode in which I had Kris Marsh, a sociologist and Shane Mauss, a standup comic. We talked about the reasons for the hallmarks of the Relationship Escalator or what I would call the criteria of these necessary conditions for the Relationship Escalator and why they exist. What I want to do now is talk about how people may live an unconventional life diverging from this model. Before we do this, let’s assume for a moment that the reader is not a regular reader and they don’t know what the Relationship Escalator is. What is the Relationship Escalator?
The Relationship Escalator is the common bundle, at least in Western cultures, of social norms that define how relationships that are considered to be intimate in some significant way, what they’re supposed to look like, how they’re supposed to work, and how they’re supposed to progress. There is a trajectory. It works like this. You meet someone. You think they’re hot. You start dating. You’d probably start having sex. You have a lot of emotional investment in it. You fall in love. After doing that for a little while, you become exclusive. You move in together then will get married, probably buy a house, have a few kids, and until death do you part.
One thing you say is the kids are optional. The marriage is probably going to happen but even if it doesn’t, you’re supposed to be merged together. You’re going to live together. You’re going to merge your finances. People are going to see you as a couple. Is that fair to say?
When we start talking about merging, when we get into what the criteria of this Escalator are, it’s not just about how you do your relationship. It’s about your identity and who you think you are whether you’re a “me” or a “we.”
I’m sure we could do a whole episode talking about this. I have had this where I’ve had friends who are couples and you refer to them as a single unit merging their names together. This is pervasive. One of the things that are striking about the work that you’ve done is it’s something that we don’t even question. It’s just the way it is.
My whole process of doing this research in this book and books that will follow is, “Yo fish, there’s this stuff called water. You might want to think about it.”
It’s such a striking idea because not only do you see it in your own personal life, you probably have seen it with your parents, friends, siblings and with yourself but it is featured in songs, movies, and television.
It’s enshrined in law, finances and the tax code.
As that previous episode did, it talked about why do these elements, hallmarks, as you say, exist? Why is it that this coupledom is so important to the world, governments, procreation and to intergenerational wealth, etc. This will be familiar for anyone who read the previous episode. What I’m interested in is the criteria, the hallmarks of these relationships. You’ve done this work. You’ve surveyed thousands of people. You can see among those people who are on the Relationship Escalator who is riding it, until death do you part, that there’s this common set of criteria that are connected there.
What we’re going to do is we’re going to look at how some people, perhaps present company diverged from this. Before we do that, I have a general question for you, Amy. That is, suppose you’re not interested in diverging, or as I would say, using my narrative of solo of recognize, rebel, and re-invent, suppose you’re not interested in rebelling, why should someone continue to read the blog as we get into these alternatives?
I’m glad you asked that because a lot of times, people who do want conventional relationships, whether they’re monogamous or merged in terms of living together, legally married or whatever. If that’s what you want and value then when you start to research the Relationship Escalator on Google, a lot of the first things you’ll find will have stuff having to do with polyamory or various forms of non-monogamy. That’s because a lot of times, people who have already stepped off the Relationship Escalator in some significant way have the most reason to talk and write about it. This is not a concept for people who are non-monogamous or otherwise wanting to diverge significantly from social norms. You mentioned, why is this idea of coupledom so important and why is it so enshrined in social laws, as I mentioned, even like laws and in health insurance?
I would call them both written rules and unwritten rules.
A big reason why that is when you think about why people have relationships, any kind of relationship at all. A lot of that is to have a sense of belonging, psychological and emotional wellbeing, and also logistical support. None of us is an island. Everybody needs some support from other people in a variety of ways. The reason why we have relationships is to help do that. The thing is, people are complicated. If you are relying on other people to help support you in your life, or if you are willing to help support other people in their lives, it helps to have a grammar for how that works. That’s why social norms exist. If you walk into a bar and I walk up to you and say, “Banana,” rather than “Hello,” you’d be like, “Huh?”
Social norms take the friction out of the interaction. Relationships provide support so that you can scale up. You’re not dependent on yourself for all parts of your life. Those things matter but they can happen in a lot of different ways. The more they become popular and reinforced, social norms fade into the background and people forget that there are other ways of doing things, which isn’t a big deal about greetings, walking up, and saying, “Hello.” When it comes to how you run some of the most intimate and vulnerable relationships in your life, they can become too limiting.
For some people, those norms can become difficult or even oppressive. The reason why people who want to follow those norms should know about this is, if you are looking toward having a particular relationship that’s gone beyond that escalator, ride it all the way to the top, gold star and that’s what you want. You’re going to want to make sure that you are not coasting on assumptions and finding out after the fact that the other person has very different assumptions about what say monogamy means. Whether or how to merge finances, how close you should be to your friends or how important sex is in your relationship. It’s called the Relationship Escalator for a reason because it’s coasting on this background of assumption. It feels like it has a momentum of its own. You’re being carried along. All the way, you’re making decisions. It’s the staircase except that if you aren’t always conscious about making a decision to go along and follow social norms, it feels like you’re being carried.
If I understand you correctly, if you’re not interested in diverging, rebelling as I would say, you should know this to make sure that you and your partner are on the same page so you don’t discover something many years from now.
That would be a crappy surprise many years down the line. This is more important. We’ve learned a lot in the past decade, but especially in the last few years in the US and many other Western cultures of the importance of diversity and inclusiveness. There are lots of different cultures, backgrounds, and sub-communities. Diversity is a good thing. The Relationship Escalator is such a strong and heavily privileged collection of social norms that alternatives to that escalator. Other ways of doing other kinds of significantly intimate or committed relationships tend to be diminished or stigmatized. That’s why they say, “Just friends.” That’s a diminutive just.
That’s why when people even raise the idea of not being monogamous, other people go, “What?” They get a little freaked out by that. That’s what is called a disturbance in the force because there is a stigma there. Something is not normal, literally, not conforming to social norms. That can hurt people. That hurts everybody. It hurts people who are stigmatized because their approaches and needs to life and to love are more difficult because they face a lot of stigma, barriers, prejudice and bias. It hurts people who might want to be on that escalator who like it. I’ll bet you that every single person on the escalator knows and cares about people who aren’t on the escalator or don’t want to be. You don’t want to hurt them. It helps to know more about this diversity so you can make the world safer for people who you probably know and care about who do life and love a bit differently than me.
I appreciate you bringing that up. In this show, I have married readers who are on the escalator and they read this because they want to be better at supporting their solo friends and family. There’s an old movie with Sidney Poitier called Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. The modern–day version of that is Guess Who’s Coming to the Dinner Party. It’s Joe and Jane who are well-known swingers and someone would be like, “I’m not sure we should invite them to the dinner party because they’re different and they’re a little scary.” Whatever it is, there’s misinformation about them. They were not even asking people to celebrate it. We’re asking them to accept it.
To accept it and make accommodations. If you’re having a wedding and you send out invitations and it’s plus one. Somebody wants to bring their best friend or their two partners, are you going to allow some flexibility for them?
It’s interesting to know this because this notion of singlism comes up. If you start talking about single living, you talked about how single people are stereotyped and prejudiced. The arguments are like, “It’s not the same as heterosexism or racism.” The answer to that may be okay. However, we know to your point that diversity is good and all diverse place is good. To stigmatize single people or folks who are diverging in these other ways is an act of prejudice and we should be striving to avoid that. Moreover, sometimes these things intersect.
For example, to be prejudice against single people, oftentimes, they may be single mothers and folks who are already oppressed, to begin with. I agree with you, regardless of whether you want to ride the escalator or diverge in some way, this will be a helpful lesson. Let’s jump in. I’m going to talk about one of these hallmarks, one of these criteria, and then let’s have a conversation about how people may not conform. Let’s start with the 800–pound gorilla. What’s that?
I didn’t make these up out of whole cloth. I did a fair amount of research on this. Just so people know, my book is based on a survey that I did where I got 1,500 in-depth responses from people to several questions that are various versions of, “Do you believe that your important relationships are unconventional? If so, how?” Some of the things that we’re going to be covering these hallmarks are things I know about but a couple of them toward the end didn’t occur to me, but they are very important.
I haven’t done the research but reading through this list and talking about it at length, both on the show and at dinner parties, they pass the smell test. They seem self-evident once they’re pointed out. I don’t think we’re going to run into many controversies, but the idea of having there’ll be some survey research behind this is helpful. As a behavioral scientist, I appreciate it. The 800–pound gorilla, sexual and romantic exclusivity AKA monogamy.
It’s not just exclusivity. It is exclusivity between two and only two people.
It’s commonly called monogamy. Where do we find people who are in a relationship that may not follow this?
First of all, let’s understand what monogamy is. A lot of times think that it’s about those two people in the monogamous relationship agreed to only share sex and romance between themselves. What it comes down to is that you agree not to share sex and romance with anybody else because it is very common in monogamous relationships for the sexual and romantic part of it to wing. You are not entitled to always have sex with your partner forever but if you’re in a monogamous relationship, you’re not supposed to do that with anybody else.
I get what you’re saying. It’s about who you have sex with and who you don’t have sex with.
Who you’re allowed to have sex with, but who you are not allowed to have sex with?
You’ve already alluded to something about sex versus romantic. What’s the difference?
A sexual connection can mean two things. It’s an erotic connection. That can be either the physical, you’re banging genitals or other bodily parts together in a radically charged way or some people might even construe it to be kissing, hugging, cuddling, holding hands, or the physical contact. There was the erotic charge to it. For instance, phone sex, no physical contact, but people who are partners in a long-distance monogamous relationship might engage in that kink. It can be emotionally charged and erotic but doesn’t necessarily involve anybody getting naked or bumping anything up together.
Before we get into some of these ways, when I think about infidelity, it’s that you had sex with someone else and you shouldn’t have done that. You flirted with someone else, you shouldn’t be doing that. It’s expressing some interest. This idea of sharing emotional details with some other person that you might not be with your partner.
This is why I’m working on a whole other research project and a book called Monogamy, The Fine Print. The point of monogamy is there’s only one person that you share these important forms of intimacy with. Non-monogamy is very common and it’s a social norm in two circumstances. The first is what’s commonly known as casual, uncommitted dating, casual, or uncommitted sex which is commonly accepted in most social circles in Western culture with the exception of very socially or religiously conservative. The point is that’s something you do until you find the one person that you want to settle down with. The other circumstance in which non-monogamy is socially normative is cheating. The thing is that cheating people often look down on it.
That’s when you have sex with, share a romance with, or otherwise, violate a monogamous commitment without letting your monogamous partner know you’re doing it. The thing is there’s a lot of grammar of social norms. People know how cheating works and it is extremely common. When somebody finds out that somebody else has been cheating, they may be angry or hurt. They won’t be confused. They know what’s going on. There were a lot of conventions that support the practice of cheating. Non-monogamy is common.
What’s not common is consensual non-monogamy. That’s when people who are intimate with each other agree, they’re transparent with each other, that activity is not exclusive to the two of them. There are a variety of ways that they might engage sexually or romantically with other people. Some people set a lot of rules about it. Some people say, “That’s something that we do as a couple like we might have a special guest star in the bedroom sometimes.” This can range from everything from this special guest star the more monogamous approach all the way up to polyamory where you can have multiple concurrent, emotional relationships, more than one at a time that might achieve some level of depth or commitment.
As a quick aside, I get a kick out of this, that special guest star. A couple might have a threesome where they bring someone in. Maybe it’s a sex worker or it’s someone who volunteers for this just for the fun of it all. That person has a particular moniker in the world which is a unicorn. It’s like a special person. I always get a kick on being on the dating apps or whatever. There are these women who describe themselves as a unicorn. They’re not talking about themselves as a unicorn in that threesome way but as a one of a kind special mythical creature that’s not supposed to exist. I get a kick out of the fact that these ladies may not realize that there’s a double meaning to that term.
Terminology frequently conflicts in different subcultures. Welcome to the 21st century, roll with it.
You said consensual non-monogamy, this might be swinging that I mentioned earlier.
It could even be “don’t ask, don’t tell” relationships where they consent to having other connections but you are not allowed to disclose to each other. You’re supposed to pretend it’s not happening. All those relationships are consensual non-monogamy is possible. I’m polyamorous and my personal experience is it is the consent that freaks a lot of people out more than a non-monogamy. They’re like, “You get to have sex with other people, but you’re agreeing with it? I might make this other person and talk to them and you might expect me to be at least nice to them?” That’s the thing that freaks a lot of people out because the consent means that you are acknowledging the existence and validity of these other connections.
You said monogamish. Does Dan Savage get credit for that term?
As far as I know, he had a contest for it at some point.
What is monogamish?
It tends to refer to relationships between two people where they are primarily sexually monogamous and they were definitely socially monogamous. They present as a couple or as a unit. They might occasionally have recreational sex with other people. Sometimes, they do that on down low and sometimes they’ll go to sex parties, strip clubs, or swinger events. That’s more of something that they do occasionally, usually as a recreational thing. It’s not usually an ongoing feature of the relationship on a day-to-day basis.
I have a buddy who describes himself to potential partners. He says, “I’m 90% monogamous.”
That’s a fair way to describe it.
Let’s move on to the next one, merging life infrastructure and identity. You move in and you merge your finances. How might people not do that?
Merging is basically making a relationship difficult to disentangle yourself from. It demonstrates commitments by making it hard to leave. That’s one way of looking at it. It’s also a way of pooling resources to build a shared foundation, being able to scale up. Both of these are valid ways to look at it. However, because it does make a relationship more difficult to leave and other people tend to see you less as an individual and more as part of a unit, you may begin to see yourself that way. A lot of people don’t like to do that because they don’t like to lose their individuality and autonomy within a relationship.
If I may, I’m glad to know that you say this because in our previous episode, those are the reasons that we came up with. One is survival when is easier when you pull your resources in order to survive in a world that is expensive. The other one is it’s harder to walk away when you have all this stuff. Shane Mauss who was the guest on this jilt, he has furnished several apartments of his ex and he never took a couch with him on the way out the door.
Aside from matters of choice like wanting to preserve your autonomy, there can be logistical considerations. For instance, people might want to live together if it was possible but maybe immigration restrictions. They might be in different countries or continent. There might be logistical considerations like somebody might be neuro–diverse somewhere along the autism spectrum. They cannot stand to have a lot of chaos in their environment and the other partner has young children. Living together isn’t an option or somebody might be low–income and receiving public benefits that if they legally married, shared a house with somebody, or got any financial support from a partner, they would lose that financial support from the public benefit. There were a lot of reasons why not people not wanting to merge but there are a lot of reasons why people don’t, for one reason or another.
A guy said to me, “I want my wife to be my neighbor.” He’s okay with getting married but he doesn’t want her living in his house.
How do people not do that? A very increasingly common way to do it is what a lot of people call a living apart together relationship or sometimes called “apartners.” This is a relationship where it’s usually two monogamous people in a committed relationship. They might even be legally married. They might be co-parents, but for one reason or another, they choose not to, or cannot share a home.
It could be apartments in the same building. They could be homes on the other side of the country.
They do not share domiciles full-time. They may live together part-time or something like that. Another approach to it is when people may live together but they choose to keep their finances very separate.
As a result, they might have budgets or they have, “I pay this, you pay that.” They have agreements about how they divvy up and pay for things.
If they are moving in together or getting married, they might have some prenup, mutual, or other agreement specifying out, “This is my money and property, that’s yours,” which is very important because in the US, many states have common law marriage, where if you live together for a certain amount of time, you were legally considered married. If the relationship ends at that point, somebody might be entitled to part of your property or funds.
If I may disclose myself, when I have reluctance within relationships, this often comes up for me. It shouldn’t be surprising because I host a show called Solo. I have a very strong approach towards autonomy. I like my space a certain way. I’ve worked hard to achieve financial independence. It was uncertain for the first 40 years of my life. The idea of inviting someone into that and the risks which can come along with that, both emotional, financial and psychological. It’s not one of those things where I say, “I would never do it,” but it’s not an obvious one for me. You were good in your previous episode defining solo in talking about that solo mentality. Does that fit within?
The unmerge relationship or as I like to think of it as a more autonomous approach to intimate relationships? Yes, quite definitely. Solo is a way of approaching life. It doesn’t necessarily mean avoiding intimate relationships. It’s not synonymous with single, as single as conventionally defined as having no committed or ongoing intimate relationships. The thing about solo–hood for a lot of people is you have worked hard to build your own nest egg. I’ve done that in my own life. I was married at one point and got unmarried over a decade ago. I’ve been long time self-employed. Personal resilience is very important to me. I worked very hard. I own my own home. I have housemates. They are housemates, they pay rent.
I make sure that my property is my property in part because I didn’t have this experience with my own divorce. I have known so many other people who experienced severe financial disruption and even impoverishment and homelessness as a result of a bad divorce. It’s very important to me as a matter of personal resilience to maintain my own financial and property independence. I do that. That’s beneficial for me and that does have some limitations. If I were married to somebody and we had twice the income, we could put down a hell of a lot bigger down payment on the house.
If I’m being fully honest with myself, as I reflect on this, and this is to your point, it is useful for people to consider each of these criteria, to see how much their own preferences and lifestyle gels within that. To me, my reluctance with merging is less about the finances and more about my space. The idea of inviting someone into my space, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 12 months a year is not appealing to me no matter how much I like them. This is not about how much I like or love someone. It’s about I enjoy some level of solitude. It’s good for me. It’s good for my relationship that I have a certain amount of solitude.
I have a similar experience. Me being a solo and having structured my life that way means that I bring my best self to everybody I care about in my life. That’s not about my two sweethearts. That’s about all my friends. That’s about my family. That’s about my work relationships. That is very useful and valuable. For me, it was a late discovery. I’m fifth out of six kids. I grew up in a crowded house and I went from there to moving in with my boyfriend at that time who I later married. It wasn’t until we got unmarried that I used to be terrified of the idea of living alone. It wasn’t until we got unmarried that I sat around and says, “This rocks.” I discovered a whole new level of psychological, emotional health, and resilience that I had never had access before because social norms prejudice me against the very option that was healthy for me.
You and I are similar, not in our story, but in our inner value. I’m working on a forthcoming series about the value of solitude and the mythology of solitude. One of the things that happens a lot is, as someone who values creative work, solitude is often a very good space to do creative work reflection. This is not to be modest, but to your point about bringing a full cup and being able to pour it for others is I had some old friends that I visited them and they said, “You’re not always around, but when you are around, you are fully present. You are 100%.” That was a touching thing for someone to say and to notice.
I’m going to misquote this, but Neal Brennan, who’s a comedian and a solo. That’s fair to describe him as having a solo mentality and who listens to the show on occasion. He has a joke about partners who want him 100% of the time. He’s a charming, funny, and smart guy. This is not quoting directly, but he’s like, “You can get me 40% of the time, but it’s a great 40%. You get to be my date to the Oscars. You can have 100% with someone else and it might be okay.” This is a matter of partners matching in a sense.
I’ve found that most numerical or mathematical analogies to relationships breakdown because people and relationships don’t work like that. It comes down to what does function, what is healthy for the individuals involved and within the context that they are connecting to each other. It’s like if you try to break down love according to how many people are involved, then my parents didn’t love me very much because I’m the fifth out of six kids. I find that the more good quality connections that I have in my life and they are very different types. They all take different levels of time and energy and that changes over time because people are moving targets. What matters more is how good is the quality of the connection? What is it bringing to the people involved in it? That almost never breaks down numerically.
That’s fair to say. I know this intimacy coach, her name’s Amy Petoskey. She says, “Feel over formula.” She thinks often people have a set of rules when they should use their emotions to guide their judgments and choices. When it comes to people especially, that’s useful.
This discussion about numerical analogies breaking us down brings us into the next hallmark of the Relationship Escalator, which is hierarchy.
Some relationships are considered more important than others. It becomes perhaps zero–sum where some win and some lose when it comes to choices.
Monogamy is such a weighty benchmark of the Relationship Escalator. It’s one hell of a hierarchy because there can be only one. You cannot get any more hierarchical than that. Hierarchy takes a lot of forms. For people who are in conventional relationships, who were riding the Relationship Escalator, it means that escalator partner, it’s not about who’s more important or who you love most. It is practical. It’s about which person or relationship takes default priority over any other relationship that is not rooted in caregiving.
That’s why people say, “Your kids come first.” If they’re not adults on their own then you may have a caregiving responsibility. You have a caregiving responsibility to an elderly or disabled person. In a sense, working relationships or caregiving responsibilities because you have responsibility to keep that part of the working relationship functioning. When it comes to personal relationships, your escalator partner is supposed to take priority for your time, attention, and resources over your friends, family members that you do not have care-based responsibility for over community commitments, over anything more than the absolutely most essential work or career commitments, and over your commitments to yourself. That’s a hell of a hierarchy.
This is not exclusive to the Relationship Escalator. For people who practice consensual non-monogamy, hierarchy is often, but not always, a feature or bug, depends on what side of the fence you’re on about it, of those relationships. For instance, swinging is a very couple–centric approach to consensual non-monogamies. It’s often something that people usually a married or a cohabiting heterosexual couple, not always, but usually want to engage sexually with other in a very organized setting where recreational sex of various kinds is available. That’s something that they do as a couple. They set a lot of rules. They set the rules because they assume that as a couple, as a privileged entity, they are entitled to set certain rules of engagement with other people.
If a single person came up to a couple in a swinger’s club. The single person’s requirements or rules conflicted with the couples. Guess who’s going to win that? Hierarchy in polyamory gets very different because in polyamory, it’s not recreation. It’s not romantic because remember people who are aromantic along that spectrum can be involved in any intimate relationship, including polyamorous ones. For people who feel a certain deep level of emotional investment or other kinds of commitment to an intimate relationship, it can suck to realize that you were going to beat your needs, feelings, goals, and priorities will be intrinsically deprioritized during that relationship because somebody else comes first. A lot of people do hierarchical polyamory or non-monogamy because they want to reassure their partner that, “You matter to me because you’re going to be first out of everybody.” Think about how that plays out in real-time and in the real world for other people who you claim to love.
I understand what you’re saying. This is related to what you were saying at the outset of this about the value of friends and how important they are, not only to survive but for us to thrive and flourish. I set out in a previous episode, Solo Thoughts 5, where I talk about a new narrative with this idea of recognize, rebel, and reinvent for the solo. In the reinvention stage, I talked about taking care of your foundation. Your health, your wealth, and your team, as I like to say, “Who are the people in your life that help keeps you afloat,” to use Scott Barry Kaufman’s term. They even can help you flourish. They can help you catch wind to use his model.
I’ve seen this a number of times. To be honest, it bothers me. It bothers me even more now that I understand it all. I have a friend, someone comes along, he or she becomes intimate with that person. That person suddenly becomes unavailable or their behavior changes where you can see that special status, that hierarchy comes out. You know it’s because of that person. Should they break up that the person wants to go back to business as usual? I find that to be a bit of a problem in part because it’s waving it in your face. You are not as important as you thought you were to that other person. I am forgiving of it because I don’t think these people even know it. It’s not a conscious choice. It’s what you do. It’s the way it is. You’re swept up in it. It’s what’s normal. It’s normal to that. It would be abnormal to continue to treat the friendship and give it the importance that it deserves.
Not just as an ordinary, but it’s socially normative.
That’s my mini–rant. As someone who’s finished a series on how valuable friends are, you could see why I might rant in that way without actually ranting. How do people diverge from this? How do they rebel against this special status of this hierarchy?
First of all, you’re preaching to the choir.
I’m preaching to the audience, also. I get emails from people who say, “It’s the only podcast I listen to that I find myself saying, ‘Amen,’ when I hear stuff on there.”
Why do people have relationships at all? A lot of that is to have a sense of belonging and to have a mutual support network. Friendships are relationships that are completely voluntary. There is no legal enforcement of friendship. If you break up with a friend, nobody gets alimony. When people decide that hierarchy does not align with their values or at least hierarchy as determined by social norm does not align with their values. They have people who are important to them and they are not going to choose between those people or those choices are made situationally and not by default. You don’t necessarily always have to put your spouse ahead of your close friend or somebody who might not be as close or friend, but as somebody who’s in need of support right now or something that is a pursuit for yourself, needing some more time alone, develop your own interest, or do your own education.
When people do not practice hierarchy, which is default prioritization of one or a certain type of relationships, what they end up doing is a more egalitarian approach to relationships. There’s a lot of confusion about what egalitarian relationship needs. A lot of people assume incorrectly that it means attempting to equally dole out your attention, affection, resources or whatever, among a certain number of people. If you’re polyamorous and you have three partners, you try to spend exactly 33.33% of your time with each of them. It doesn’t work like that.
Numerical analogies breakdown when it comes to real relationships with real people. It’s not necessarily an attempt to make relationships identical or to have that goal that they should all eventually become identical. Just because somebody is polyamorous, it doesn’t mean they’re necessarily looking to co-habit with all their partners. Some polyamorous people do prefer that, do have situations like that, or have that as a goal or a fantasy. A lot of us don’t. I don’t want to live with any of my partners.
You live with other people and not your partners.
I have two housemates who give me a check every month but neither of them are sexual or romantic partners. I do have two sexual romantic partners. They are my sweethearts. They are not necessarily more important than the other people that I consider to be my close people. It’s not to say that you have to treat everybody the same. Somebody off the street, I’m not going to treat them the same as one of my dearest friends of many years. Egalitarianism is important to me in my close personal relationships.
In those relationships that I choose to invest that level of myself in, I am not going to necessarily say that one is more important than the other. For instance, I have two sweethearts. They’re wonderful. They both live not terribly far from me, but it’s pandemic times. They both live alone. One of my dearest friends who also happens to be my former spouse lives right across the street from me. I see my friend who’s my former spouse almost every day. My two sweethearts, I see each of them usually once a week.
This divergence, this rebellion, also happens and this was part of a previous episode with Rhaina Cohen about Making Friends the Center of Life. I’m curious Amy, if you know a better term for this. Rhaina calls them platonic partners which is an awful term. This term like big friendship or something like that where she kicks off this Atlantic article with a story of a woman who meets a man and says to him, “You’re never going to be number one. You need to know that because this other woman, my friend is number one. She was here before you, she’ll be here with you, and she’ll be around after you.” That’s turning that hierarchy on its head. Do you have a good term or language for someone who might prioritize friendship or this non-relationship escalator relationship in a way that gives it higher status?
I think of it as an egalitarian approach to important relationships. Those relationships can be of almost any kind. It could be with an academic mentor, co–workers, business partner, with a neighbor, some community that you’re involved with, or yourself. The idea that a relationship should automatically be ranked ahead and default prioritized above others just because it involves sex and/or romance, that doesn’t work for me. Sex and romance have such a capacity to hijack human psychology and lead to bad decision-making if you aren’t consciously reminding yourself that other things matter in your life, too. You have other priorities. Personal resilience is very important to me and being egalitarian, being very conscious about the commitments I make and walking my talk on them, regardless of what’s happening in other relationships. If I can’t, for some reason, I’m being very transparent and renegotiating those relationships, that’s very important to me.
I feel the same way. It’s good for people to know this. I have gotten far in life because of my friendships and sometimes in spite of my romantic relationships. I’m not going to cast aside my friends just because I have a new partner. There’s a story I heard. I wish I could remember who it was who told me this. It might’ve even been secondhand. It was a story of a couple who was on the Relationship Escalator. One of the members of the couple was behaving very badly. This person said, “I love you but I love myself more. If you keep doing this, I’m going to break off this relationship. I’m not going to put you ahead of me.” That stands out to me as something that seems extraordinary because of the rules, the norms that exist in the world, which is like, “I would die for you. I would lay down my life in order to see you survive,” and to have someone articulated and articulated in that way, which I thought was still compassionate. I don’t remember if it was his or her, it doesn’t matter. Their own identity and their own wellbeing.
There is a flip side of the hierarchy which is when people are in relationships that are by default deprioritized, given a lower priority, whether that be a non–sexual, non-romantic friendship, because friendships can include sex and/or romance too. It’s a whole other thing. A neighbor, mentor, or somebody you are mentoring, those sorts of things. If those relationships get deprioritized because somebody has a new romantic partner or because they have a jealous spouse, or whatever. In monogamy, it’s very common for people to say you shouldn’t be too close to your friends. It’s referred to as a greedy institution. Esther Perel has called it that. I love that way of looking at it because it is. It demands all the attention. If you are default deprioritize, you are supposed to accept that. You’re supposed to know your place.
You’re supposed to know your place and defer to that default higher priority relationship willingly, gladly, and accept whatever substitute or treads of what you used to have in that relationship are available to you. That’s not to say relationships can’t change but when you are deprioritizing yourself in your own relationship in deference to a relationship that you were not in, that sucks. Doesn’t it? I don’t know about you but I’ve never been a fan of anything that says I’m supposed to know my place. I make my place.
There’s a phrase in The Departed that says, “I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me.”
These things are very individualistic and we’re talking a lot about individualistic approaches to a relationship. Individualism has its trade-offs too which is why relationships are important. That’s not to say, “How dare you deprioritize me?” People who choose to deprioritize their network of support in order to put all their eggs in one basket, that tells you a lot about how much you can rely on them.
To me, individuality and community are not mutually exclusive. I think they can operate together.
Interdependence is a thing.
- Previous episode – What Makes A Relatioship (Un)Conventional
- Getting Off the Relationship Escalator – Previous episode
- Defining Solo – Previous episode
- Making Friends the Center of Life – Previous episode
- Stepping Off the Relationship Escalator
- Designer Relationship
- Apartners – Article
- Amy Gahran – LinkedIn
- Solo Thoughts 5 – Previous episode
- Making Friends the Center of Life – Previous episode
- Atlantic article – What If Friendship, Not Marriage, Was at the Center of Life?
About Amy Gahran
Amy Gahran is a writer and journalist based near Boulder, Colorado. When she’s not writing about energy, technology and business, she’s researching and writing about unconventional relationships and the power of social norms. She’s currently working on a second edition of her 2017 book, “Stepping Off the Relationship Escalator” — a research-based guide to intimate relationship diversity.
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