Diverging From The Relationship Escalator – Part 2

SOLO 70 | Relationship Escalator


Peter McGraw continues the series on conventional and unconventional relationships with Part 2 of a compelling conversation with Amy Gahran, the creator of the “Relationship Escalator.” Amy and Peter pick up their discussion on the hallmarks of the relationship escalator with sexual and romantic connections, and explore ways that people deviate from that and other criteria. If you stick to the end, Amy presents some tips if you are interested in exploring how to step off the relationship escalator.

Listen to Episode #70 here


Diverging From The Relationship Escalator – Part 2

Our series on conventional and unconventional relationships continues with part two of a compelling conversation with Amy Gahran. We pick up our discussion of the hallmarks of the relationship escalator, continuing with sexual and romantic connections. We explore ways that people deviate from that and other criteria. If you stick around to the end, Amy presents some tips if you’re interested in exploring how to step off the said relationship escalator. The last thing, please consider rating and reviewing the show, telling friends and family members signing up for the SOLO newsletter, and joining our private SOLO Slack channel. I hope you enjoy the episode. Let’s get started.

The next one is asexual and aromantic connection, at least at first. If you’re on the relationship escalator, because of monogamy, the exclusivity around asexual and romantic connection, feelings, contact is supposed to be part of this relationship escalator bundle. It’s supposed to be what makes that relationship so special, which gives a hierarchy. For some people, sex and/or romantic feelings or expressions just aren’t their thing. It’s not part of how they experience intimacy. It may even be repulsive to them in some ways. Asexual and aromantic people exist along that spectrum and it is a spectrum of all the hearts and flowers or lust and fantasies that tend to be at least the initial part of many monogamous relationships. It isn’t significant or it doesn’t play a big role or maybe no role in how they prefer to experience relationships.

Here’s the thing. I say it’s a presumed connection at first because there are plenty of people in a monogamous relationship who have agreed not to share sex and romance with each other, but they never really did that much with themselves or maybe not at all. There are lots of relationships like that. Also, sex and romance that intensity tends to fade over time. Often, not always. When that happens, does that mean the relationship doesn’t exist anymore? You notice when people end up in what’s called a sexless marriage, loveless marriage, that’s something that’s seen as a problem unless there’s a hell of a lot of explaining that goes along with that. A lot of people have a companion in relationships that are very important to them that may not be sexual or romantic in any way. For people who fall in the same spectrum of asexuality or aromanticism, they have a legitimate beef with the relationship escalator because it says that all of their most important intimate, most vulnerable connections don’t care. I think that sucks.

I had an episode with an asexuality advocate and we dove into some of these kinds of topics. By the way, I have to say this, talk about something that no one talks about is this idea of asexuality and aromanticism and yet it’s incredibly common. There’s not great data on this, but at least 1 out of every 100 people are identified as asexual. That’s a lot of people and that’s a pretty wide group of people. Some people who have never felt this and then other people who are in a stage in life, perhaps developmentally where they’re not, and so on. You are excluding a lot of people who are not allowed to ride the escalator because they don’t desire a sexual connection or need one.

What’s been interesting to me is to realize how many people who prefer celibacy in the sense of they might have sexual or romantic inclinations choose not to act upon them, in part because they don’t like the other parts of the escalator. This is especially common among older women who may be open to having to dating somebody or having an ongoing relationship but they may refrain from sex. For them, sex equals a commitment to a certain relationship. A lot of times women, especially older women in heterosexual relationships don’t want to go down the path of having sex with somebody because they don’t want to end up being a caretaker.

I have a friend and I heard about this friend’s parents where one of the partners has just decided, “We’re not going to have sex anymore.” My response was, “Can the partner have sex with other people?” Can you guess what the answer was?

Probably not if they never negotiated their monogamy in the first place.

That’s right.

Where monogamy is negotiated rationally, it often can be renegotiated.

I can imagine that to be the case. That strikes me as unfair that one of the people gets to decide. It’s fine for that person to decide, “We’re not going to have sex anymore.” That’s the case. For them to also determine that person is not allowed to have sex with anyone else except his or herself, that strikes me as a serious flaw in the system.

Here’s the thing for a lot of people who value the escalator and want the escalator, the idea that of sacrifice is often closely entwined with their idea of commitment. This can be a sacrifice that some people are willing to make in order to prove their commitment to a monogamous relationship. It’s a sacrifice you’re willing to make because they know if they were to ask for, or even suggest, let alone do things that would fall outside of the traditional agreement of monogamy. It would cause pain and distress to somebody that they love very much then again, there’s the aspect of sacrifice. I’m not saying sacrifice is invalid. I’m not saying it doesn’t matter. Some people, even though that trade-off might be difficult for them, even though it might seem unfair to other people, it might be okay with them or it might not. The escalator concept is helpful because it helps people negotiate their relationships upfront. It makes it easier to have conversations that might be very awkward or uncomfortable later. It gives you room to renegotiate.

This bears mentioning before we get to the fifth and final, which is the relationship escalator is privileged and it may whisk you along but it doesn’t mean it’s easy.

It doesn’t mean it’s easy and like any big choice or set of choices in your life that involve other real people, it has trade-offs and it’s subject to change or disruption.

Number five, continuity and consistency, correct?

Yes, at least as a goal. If you don’t mind, I’d like to read a little something from my book here because this explains it better than anything I could do off the cuff. The norm of continuity and consistency, or at least have a goal of that is because the escalator is supposed to be a one-way trip. They’re not supposed to pause or step back to a less merged or less continuous state. Also, escalators are supposed to have defined permanent roles. For instance, intimate partners aren’t supposed to shift between being lovers and platonic friends.” This does often happen in long-term traditional relationships but usually, it’s not acknowledged. The relationship is supposed to last forever until death do you part. Death is the only way to end and escalate a relationship that isn’t automatically branded a failure. Despite that, the reality is that most relationships including relationships on the escalator are fluid. They change because people change over time.

The thing is adhering to escalator norms and not talking about how you don’t adhere to them or are not overtly acknowledging the changes that do occur over time like, “Maybe you don’t have sex with your spouse anymore.” Those are things that people don’t necessarily talk about. The thing is important relationships do shift and change over time, whether they’re on the escalator or not. They aren’t always continuous. In fact, that can be a feature, not a bug. There are some relationships that are like comets. They periodically swing through your life and then they’re out.

This is something that is very common in friendships. You probably have those friends who you don’t talk to for a couple of years and then you’re on the phone for six hours. You visit them maybe once a year or so, and then you’re out of contact for a while. That can happen in relationships that also include the kind of emotional intensity that is considered romance. It can happen with relationships that includes sex. It can come and go. Another way that relationships might not necessarily be continuous is that they might be agreeably finite.

For instance, that person that you always hook up with at the Burning Man, a relationship that you know you’re both eventually going to leave college and move on, or that only lasts as long as you are both involved in a particular community. It might be a community of interest or something like that. There’s some constraint that says, “This relationship works in this context and we are not going to attempt to extend it beyond that.” That doesn’t mean it’s a failure. Sometimes people wrote in their survey for my book about some of these relationships that changed their life. They’re some of the most important, valuable, and valid relationships that they ever have but by escalator metrics, they either didn’t count, were failures, or were broken somehow.

When people tell me they got divorced, I say, “Congratulations.” I say that in part because I know what goes into what has to be happening for someone to get divorced, how hard it is. Also, I don’t want ever to diminish the fact that their relationship ended, and that I agree with you. You can have a relationship that might be brief relatively, and it’d be incredibly important to you, life-changing. Compared to someone else who has a 40-year relationship, and it doesn’t make you a better person in any way. If anything, it makes you a worse person. To judge the quality of a relationship by its length of time can be perverse.

I’m not saying longevity doesn’t count. You can learn a lot and develop a lot of strength and depth in relationships over time, but it is not the be-all and end-all. This brings us back to the point we were talking about at the beginning about how learning about these concepts can be helpful to anybody regardless of if they want to ride the relationship escalator or not. You say congratulations when somebody tells you they got divorced. To somebody wanted to be married, that might hurt to hear that reaction.

The way I tend to approach those situations is I let people tell me whatever they want to tell me about their identity, their relationships. I do not try to press them for additional information about it, but if they say something and then leave a pause like it’s a big deal. I say, “Do you want to tell me anything more about that?” I look for clues in what they’ve choose to volunteer, whether verbally or through other cues, body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, what that information means to them, how they feel about it. If I’m not sure I might ask about that. This comes down to the point of being inclusive, about making it safe for people to have their own experiences and approaches to life and love. It is not for you to judge their lives and their loves by your benchmarks.

I still am inclined to say congratulations. I take your point. That’s a useful note.

Do that. It’s better than automatically saying, “I’m sorry,” or something that I’ve encountered. As I said, one of my dearest friends is my former spouse. By relationship escalator norms, when you end a significant relationship and especially when you get married, when you get a legal divorce, it’s assumed the social norms is that you don’t like each other. You don’t want to spend any time around each other or communicate unless you have to like if you’re co-parenting, running a business together, something like that, and that’s supposed to be normal. Why is it normal that you were supposed to hate somebody that you shared so much of your life with? The reason is because it makes it less threatening for somebody else to jump on the escalator with you. You have cleared the decks. You have moved on. You’re not hanging on to an old flame. Screw that.

What bugs me is that when people see that I have a very close relationship with my former spouse and some other people who were intimate partners of mine, “Isn’t it nice that you have a good relationship with your ex?” Why should this be special? Why should that be remarkable? I know they mean well by it. I know the intent is a compliment, but it bugs me because it belies the norm that says if you end a sexual or romantic relationship, and especially if you break up from an escalator relationship or get a divorce that you are not supposed to have anything to do with each other. Maybe you even hate each other. That’s a social norm that I think officially frigging sucks.

I agree too. As someone who, as I’ve gotten older, I was much better at maintaining friendships with my exes, I see how valuable those relationships are. There was something that drew me to these people and vice versa. Just because some elements of this has gone away doesn’t mean that it all has to go away. It’s unfortunate that the pressure is to separate totally, entirely, and disengage.

Stepping Off the Relationship Escalator: Uncommon Love and Life

I don’t think breakups are necessarily a bad thing. There are a lot of people in relationship anarchy, which is a whole field of having consent-based relationships of all kinds or consensual non-monogamy very explicitly and say, “You shouldn’t have a breakup. You should deescalate or transform a relationship.” Sometimes there was a place for that and that works in some situations for some people, but sometimes having the clarity of saying, “This relationship has changed.” Something about it has ended, and it may continue in a different form. Breakups are not necessarily bad, but if the only way you can bring yourself to make a big change is to work up a lot of negative, emotional energy, a lot of resentment, hatred, argument, that’s a sign that the social norms are not working.

I have a forthcoming episode about relationship anarchy. It’ll be fun to dive into that and it’ll follow this one, I suspect. Amy, I want to bring this to a close, but before we do this, if you’re willing and able to give the readers some advice and tips if they are going to pursue an unconventional relationship. If they are going to rebel and reinvent their relationships to diverge from some or all of these hallmarks, these criteria, how should they go about thinking about it and behaving in a world that never often does where you can consider this? As you said, it acts like it doesn’t even know the water that it’s swimming in.

The first step there is the same for people who want to diverge from the escalator and for people who may not want to diverge from the escalator, but want not to make the world a more difficult place for people who do diverge from it who want to be more inclusive. That is to broaden your social circles deliberately. Seek out people who are doing relationships differently and make friends.

How might you do that or where might you do that?

For almost all the kinds of relationships that we’ve just talked about, whether it’s more egalitarian relationships where relationship anarchy might be a consensual non-monogamy, swingers, or polyamory, there are online discussion groups. Pandemic does not matter here. I’m not talking about online forums where people post stuff and other people post stuff. I’m talking about meetup groups that might be happening over Zoom. If you go on to Meetup.com, you will find things for what they call consensual, ethical non-monogamy, polyamory, swinging, or relationship anarchy, you will find tons of groups for asexuality, aromanticism. You will find more discussion of the egalitarian approach to relationships in groups that are either more focused on relationship anarchy or solo polyamory. A lot of solo polyamory people like me aren’t so cool hierarchy because we almost never benefit from it.

Any poly community that’s not couple-centric that has a lot of solo poly practitioners in it that would probably be more egalitarian. As far as the continuity and consistency part of it, again, a great place to discover places along the spectrum of the universe that exists off the relationship escalator is get to know more queer people if you don’t know a lot already, and a diversity of queer people. Not just lesbians who also are riding the relationship escalator, nonbinary people, or gay men who are coupled up in that very escalated way.

The thing about people who specifically are not conforming to social norms having to do with sexual orientation, gender presentation, who may be asexual aromantic or who might be on the neurodiversity spectrum are already having to think hard about social norms, what parts of social norms work for them and what don’t and forge their own relationships, which take a lot of different forms. If you look toward those communities, you will find it. I would encourage people. A lot of times they established communities that have an online presence tend to be very white. It’s very helpful to get to know your local LGBTQ center, support them and specifically see if you can help out with events, especially helping out with events for queer people who are also people of color.

It’s still in its beta phase but there is a new social media app called Clubhouse. That is a real-time conversation. It’s not taped. There are a lot of people on Clubhouse having conversations like this. It’s a very diverse place, and it’s a place also that you can search by club. You can also search by topic and you can find exactly the types of groups and the types of people that you’re describing. You can drop into a room and listen to a conversation. You can raise your hand. You can come up with a stage and you can ask questions and participate. It’s a place that would be along the lines of the Meetups, and so on that, you’re talking about.

These things are all great. When it’s not pandemic time anymore, go to events. Go to conferences, go to meet up groups but the point is to make friends. Get to know people who do things differently when you’re not out there looking for someone to date. We absorb social norms. A lot of it is from the people we know personally. The more you make these friends, the more you will adjust your idea of what relationships can look like and how they can work. Not everybody will be doing unconventional relationships perfectly. They won’t always be healthy or mutually beneficial, but the same thing’s true for the relationship escalator. When you have made those connections, and if you want to explore unconventional, say you want to find some asexual, intimate partners, let’s not even talk about monogamy and sex.

Let’s say that asexuality is part of your identity and you want to find other people to do that. Once you have gotten to know more asexual people, have absorbed those norms, and have become a known quantity in those communities, guess what? They’re going to find you. If you are out there on dating apps and some unconventional aspects of relationships are either you know they are part of your identity and you want to pursue or you think you might want to explore them, fine. Be open about that. If it is something that you do not already have a lot of experience with, please tell people, “I am new to this. I don’t know how I’m going to react until I’m in this situation,” and then go slow. This is important in any relationship, even on the relationship escalator. I know it’s tempting to fall in love, be all excited, dive into it, and want to have all thing right now, but no.

Pace yourself because know yourself, know how you tend to want to run your life and interact with people over time. Don’t oversell yourself. Don’t spend 24 hours texting with somebody if you know that’s not how you’re going to operate over time. Keep reminding yourself that you were just getting to know yourself and the other person in this context. Give it time. I’m talking for a year or more to see how your emotions settle out and what patterns get established. How well people’s claims about what they initially want or can offer in a relationship really match up to establish patterns of behavior? If you go slow, you are going to avoid a lot of the really bad crashes that can happen in any intense relationship.

Let’s say you do all these things, you gather the information. You take it slow.

Read books.

I know one really good book. It’s called Stepping Off The Relationship Escalator: Uncommon Love and Life. That’s more or less the title.

At OffEscalator.com.

That was a good book. You gathered the information, you experiment with it. You take it slowly and you decide.

You expand your social context because that is a really powerful part of human psychology.

Now you start to live off of the escalator in some way, shape, or form but you’re still living in a world. What do you do, Amy? If we can close with this idea because this will be important for people to have. Do you hide it? Do you talk about it unabashedly? Do you wave it in people’s faces? What do you do?

People have a lot of different approaches to this all for valid reasons. The stigma sucks. It not only is unpleasant but for some people, it can be actively dangerous. Recognize that everybody has a right to make their own decisions about how out or in the closet they want to be about being non-monogamous, about being asexual, about anything. Respect other people’s choices about that. Be clear with yourself wherever you fall on that spectrum, whatever choices you’re making, why are you making it? What goal are you trying to achieve? Trying to conceal something as important as deep intimate relationships are to a lot of people’s life is a very complicated and difficult thing. It is also nearly impossible to do perfectly in the age of the internet, cell phones, GPS, and all that.

In small communities, exes, and so on.

If you have any aspect of your identity, and this is not even necessarily about relationships with other people. I have a number of friends who are transgender and non-binary. A lot of them do, or have for some part of their life, try to conceal that part of their identity because the stigma against non-gender conforming people is fierce, brutal, and dangerous. What they tend to do is have a plan. Think it through. If you are outed for any reason, how are you going to handle it? Don’t just think, “I won’t tell anybody, so nobody will ever know.” How will you handle it? Also, think about the real risks that you face. A lot of people who are married and parents choose to be in the closet about polyamory because they’re like, “What if my in-laws call child protective services on us because we’re poly or whatever?” Maybe they’re afraid that their employer might discriminate against them or they might not be able to get housing. Those sorts of things are things that can happen.

Think about what risks do you actually face, and don’t just assume it. If you’re not sure your employer might discriminate against you, take a really good hard look at the employee manual and maybe talk to the HR department. Figure out what risks you face, and then what can you do in your life to minimize those risks? For instance, if you feel that your parents might disown you if they knew that you were a swinger, what effect would that have on your life? Are you financially dependent on your parents in some way? Are you figuring that you’re going to have to be caregivers for them and then you might worry that they might end up rejecting support that they might need from you at some point? Think through those situations and figure out. Once you know what you’re trying to preserve, that’s a goal. You can find multiple ways to achieve a goal. It makes it less necessary, or at least less crucial that you conceal information because then if they find out anyway, you have other ways to approach it.

In terms of social stigma, if you can feel safe and confident enough to be out about whatever part of your identity, relationships, or life are unconventional, it’s a benefit to be out about it. You don’t have to wave a flag about it, but you cannot conceal it. As I say in casual conversations on my sweethearts, “Do this.” For instance, just so happens that both of my sweethearts have the same birthday and people start talking about birthdays and I bring that up even if the people I’m talking to are not poly. All those little things help to normalize it. They actively reduce the stigma because when people start getting peppered with those little things from all over the places, little mentions include, and not everybody does relationships in the same way.

Diversity becomes more obvious. It becomes part of that water that the fish is swimming in, and people can adapt to that. That makes the world a safer place for everybody. It’s up to you to assess your own risk. Some people who might be marginalized in other ways, people of color, disabled people, elderly people who are in assisted living, which is a surprisingly very socially restrictive environment who do relationships differently. They might have a lot more at stake from stigma. Don’t judge them if they decide they want to handle their outness differently. If you feel like you are safe and empowered enough that whatever risks you face are things you can handle, you are helping other people by being as out as you can be.

By launching a podcast, perhaps?

By writing a book.

That’s useful.

Even more than that, like I said, just casual conversation, casual mentions. For instance, in the workplace, if somebody mentions their spouse, are you going to assume they’re having sex? Mentioning my two sweethearts is not inappropriate if I’m not telling you what I’m doing in the bedroom with each of them.

That’s great what you’re highlighting. I appreciate your thoughtful response to this very big question is you can see the tension between living the life that you want to live and living the life that society wants you to live. How do you go about navigating and negotiating that?

It’s paying attention to those disturbances in the force. Any time you feel like mentioning something about doing relationships differently would be inappropriate, then you can poke that disturbance in the force a little bit. You don’t have to be a jerk about it, but you don’t necessarily have to censor yourself either. You can feel as empowered and free to mention the salient aspects of your life as people whose identities or relationships are recognized and privileged by society. That’s how change happens. That’s how we got from stone wall to legal same-sex marriage. It wasn’t because necessarily of big protests, although they help. It wasn’t necessarily because of legislative action, although that help. It’s because people knew people who are gay.

With that, Amy, I want to say, thank you very much for your time. That’s a great way to end this. Thank you for writing such a wonderful, useful book and for providing me not only vocabulary but a perspective by which to think about solo living and to share it with our readers. I appreciate you for that.

I’m very glad to be helpful. Thank you for doing this show. I’m enjoying it. I’m learning a lot from it. Thanks very much for all your efforts on this.



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About Amy Gahran

SOLO 70 | Relationship EscalatorIn 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 on previous episodes. Amy and Peter discuss the hallmarks of the relationship escalator and explore the many ways that people diverge from them – including consensual non-monogamy, big friendship – and of course, a solo lifestyle. Check back next week for Part 2.


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