This is the first of two episodes with Amy Gahran, the author of Stepping Off the Relationship Escalator: Uncommon Love and Life. Amy joins Peter McGraw to talk about what it means to ride the relationship escalator – the difficult obligations it entails yet privileges it also creates. Peter and Amy discuss what it means to step off the escalator into an unconventional relationship, which can be stigmatized yet opens opportunities for a remarkable life. They also discuss how relationships success should be defined, the difference between consensual non-monogamy and polyamory, and why “sexual friendships” is a better term than “friends with benefits.” Amy will return in a subsequent episode to talk more deeply about solo living as an alternative to the relationship escalator.
Listen to Episode #32 here
Getting Off The Relationship Escalator
This is part one of two episodes with Amy Gahran, the author of Stepping Off The Relationship Escalator: Uncommon Love And Life. We have a great conversation where she defines what it means to ride the relationship escalator, the difficult obligations it entails and the privileges it also creates. We talk about what it means to step off the escalator into an unconventional relationship, which can be stigmatized. It opens opportunities for remarkable living. We also discuss how relationships success should be defined, the difference between consensual non-monogamy and polyamory, and why “sexual friendships” is a better term than “friends with benefits.” Amy will return in part two, where we talk more deeply about solo living as an alternative to the relationship escalator and she helps me better define what it means to be solo. I hope you enjoy the episode. It’s a good one. Let’s get started.
Our guest is Amy Gahran. She is a journalist and host of the blog, SoloPoly.net. Coincidentally, we both live in Boulder and hail originally from South Jersey. Welcome, Amy.
How are you guys doing now?
I’m not in Boulder, I’m on sabbatical. I thought it was such a coincidence that we met each other. You sent me an email telling me about your work. I have no idea how you learned about Solo though. How did you learn about Solo?
Somebody mentioned it on Bella DePaulo’s Community of Single People Facebook group. I’m not 100% sure. I’m a podcast junkie. I pick them up all over the place.
That person could have been me shamelessly promoting. The reason I asked is I’ve done very little promotion of this show and people keep finding it. I was curious about that. Amy you live a fascinating life. You’re a journalist and you have this wonderful book. We should start by defining what is the relationship escalator.
The relationship escalator is something that everybody knows about but nobody thinks about. Writing this book was a whole process of, “Fish, there’s this thing called water. You might want to think about it.” What it is are a bundle of social norms that define how sexually and/or romantically intimate relationships are “supposed to work” in the society. It’s a clear progression. It starts with you meeting someone. You think they’re hot, you start dating, you start having sex, and you fall in love. You stop dating other people, move in together, marriage, kids, and death do you part. It’s a progressive escalating set of steps. The reason why it’s the relationship escalator and not the relationship staircase is because these are such powerful social norms that this is what a relationship is and how it’s supposed to work. It has a sense of its own momentum that it carries you along because there are many things in our society that support relationships working that way. It can feel like you’re getting carried along that escalator when in fact you’re making choices every step of the way. All of those choices have other options. That’s why the book is Stepping Off The Escalator. What are the norms that traditionally in what most Western cultures define an intimate relationship and how it’s supposed to work and what are people doing other than that?
I love the metaphor because I like that idea of momentum. I don’t know if you intended this, but it’s not easy to get off an escalator. You get on it and then there’s this feeling of commitment like we’re going to take this to some end. You write in the book, “While the escalator comes with steep obligations, it also offers many perks that can be difficult to achieve otherwise.” Can you say a little bit more about that?
To talk about perks, let’s talk about privilege. Privilege is an important issue in society and it can come associated with many things like sex and gender. You could have male privilege or cisgender privilege if you appear to be presenting with the gender that appears to conform with your biology. You can have race privilege. White privilege is a thing. Another privilege that people don’t often talk about is couple privilege. That is the idea that people who are coupled-up in an exclusive, or at least exclusive looking, intimate relationship that is intended to eventually involve a fair amount of life and identity entanglement being a couple rather than two people who happen to be dating each other. Those people and those kinds of relationships are intrinsically worth more. They get more attention, generation support, and benefits. Legal marriage is an effectively institutionalized couple privilege. People who are legally married get a lot of legal financial tax benefits. They get favorable consideration on mortgages if they’re buying property together.
The Social Security benefits help in terms of things like sharing health insurance and even decision making when it comes to healthcare and so on.
I am not a married person and if I were to die, my Social Security benefits go back into the pot. If I was married to somebody, my spouse would automatically get my Social Security benefits. Those are pretty stark privileges and some of which are institutionalized. Housing codes all over the country get to define how many unrelated adults are allowed to live in a single dwelling. Who gets to define who’s related and not? A lot of that comes down to ties related to legal marriage.
I have this apartment in Los Angeles where all the amenities are shut down because of COVID and they’re not allowing guests. The only guests that are allowed are family and caregivers. If you have that special status as a married person, then you can come as guest, otherwise you’re not supposed to be having a guest. You’re familiar with Bella DePaulo. She’s done all this work on singlism. She was one of our previous guests. She’s wonderful in many ways. In terms of identifying the ways that singles are stereotyped or people who are not on the relationship escalator are stereotypes or discriminated against. One of the striking ones that come up in the book, and that I’ve seen for myself and I’ve experienced it firsthand, and anyone who’s solo reading this has experienced this, is even outside of the written rules is the special status granted couples in conversation, in invitations, in perspective and so on. This is something that you identified a lot with regard to this topic.
For instance, if you get invited to a wedding or an office holiday party and there’s a plus-one. If you want to bring somebody other than a spouse or somebody that you’ve been in a fairly well established sexually and/or romantically intimate relationship, you’re going to have to explain that. “Who is this person?” “It’s my best friend.” They weren’t necessarily important enough to be included in that plus-one.
The assumption is, this is where you should be headed. These are pulled from your book. The hallmarks of an escalator relationship are monogamy, one partner at a time. Merging, this idea that you might merge your possessions, finances, and living space.
Also, your identity. People start to think and act as a couple, as a unit.
The benefit for phenomenon. This notion of hierarchy of importance. This couple gets special status over that of two friends or something like that.
If you visit family at the holidays and you’re not married, guess who’s going to be sleeping on the cot in the laundry room?
This sexual romantic connection which is considered to be monogamous. I have a forthcoming episode on asexuality. I talked to an asexual activist and the special considerations that those people have and the challenges that they have as a result of living unconventional. Even though it’s a sizeable group of people, it’s not something that people talk about or can quite understand because it sits outside that norm. This idea of continuity/consistency is that you are together and you continue to be together until death do you part.
Always and forever. The only way you’ll know if you’re riding that escalator is when somebody dies.
That’s the successful end to the relationship. My feeling, and I use this word a lot, which is over-prescribed. I don’t have anything against a relationship escalator. I don’t think it’s a particularly good approach for me personally. It works for lots of people but the issue is it’s not the ideal system, as your book documents. Even though there are perks, they are less happy and it doesn’t suit them. There are many alternatives to the relationship escalator which I want to talk to you about. One of the things that has always bothered me is the idea that the success of a relationship is defined by its length. I said that because I haven’t had that ten-year relationship under my belt or something like that. When I go out on a date, I get these interview style questions from my date which is, “How long is your longest relationship?” I find myself chafing at that logic, which is that somehow my shorter relationships are diminished in importance because they didn’t cross some threshold that counts as long-term enough.
It’s not duration in a vacuum though. The longevity is one benchmark by which people often evaluate relationships as to whether they’re good, healthy, important, committed or whatever, but not in isolation. The longest lasting relationship I’ve had that has been particularly meaningful, deep, and committed in many different ways has lasted 32 years. It’s with somebody who I was married to for twelve of those years. For a lot of people, they wouldn’t even consider me to be in a relationship with that person anymore.
It’s not even because of consistency but because of the actual institution of marriage.
We got to the top of the escalator and then we jumped off. For a lot of people, any departure from the escalator means a relationship is over or at least seriously broken. Our relationship got much better after we got unmarried.
I understand the logic in that question in part because that question indicates that this person is interested in an escalator-like relationship. What they’re trying to suss out with that question is, can this man commit to me in the long-term?
They want the escalator but they’re thinking about it as has been influenced rather than informed by absorbing social norms and saying, “It should look like this. Can we ask these quick sideways questions that will get there?” Without saying, “I want a relationship that does this,” or that checkmarks on your list. That leads to a lot of confusion and misunderstanding.
What is your advice for me and for other audience who get that line of questioning? I agree with you that it’s an indirect question because it’s happening on a first date, a second date, on a phone call. Perhaps you’re getting to know someone that you’ve met on an app or something like that. I’m asking you now to move from description to prescription if you’re comfortable with that. How do you encourage someone who’s interested in the escalator, at least in some way? What I find often happens for some people is there are three groups of people. There are the people who are like, “I definitely want this.” Maybe they have considered alternatives or maybe not, but they’re very clear about they want to get on that escalator as soon as possible and then ride it to the top.
There’s a group of people who are like, “I’m not interested at all,” for whatever reason that might be. Perhaps they’ve already done it and seen the mythology. They’ve already had a divorce or something like that. There are some people who are like, “With the right person, I’m on the escalator. With a different type of person, I might have a friends with benefits situation or something else that might be even more unconventional.” I would assume that what you would have to say depends a little bit on who those people are. Assuming you’re in either the group of, “I’m not interested in the escalator,” or “I’m open to it or not, depending,” how do you respond with those interview-style questions?
I’ve encountered those situations. Let’s back up and have a little bit of context on this. Remember, privilege is a very important issue here. Being on the relationship escalator or wanting that or at least being open to that is an extremely privileged social position because that makes you normal by conforming to social norms. When something is normal, it’s assumed that that’s what everybody wants. Simply by mentioning or asking about anything other than what’s normal, runs the risk of stigmatizing you. It signals that you are or might well be somebody who is not “normal.”
My case in point was how reluctant I was to launch this show. I remember thinking like if I was launching a show about how outstanding marriage was, I wouldn’t have thought twice about it. There was something in me, there was a bit of trepidation. I knew that this was non-normative. I knew that this was unusual. When I was doing my “competitive analysis” on this, most of the single-focused show assumed that being single was this temporary sad state that needed to be overcome rather than celebrated.
Also, a consolation price that you had to learn to adapt to because you didn’t win.
“It didn’t break your way. That’s unfortunate, son.” Even though the approach is positive, there’s not much complaining that goes on this show. There might be some teasing and some satire, but there’s not much complaining that goes on. In part because for a group of people, I see solo living as an opportunity or something to be celebrated, to be remarked upon, something that you’re better off doing it in some cases. Yet, I still felt a bit of the trepidation for the reasons that you have identified, which is it’s different. It’s non-normative to do. As soon as you stop, step outside of the norm, you get some curiosity from the people in the mainstream, and then sometimes you get this very puzzling bewilderment.
That trepidation is what I’ve heard described as a disturbance in the force. That’s a very apt description because privilege is an active force in society. It exerts pressure and when you push against it, you feel it. It’s like starting to swim against the current, you will feel the push back from it. The flip side of privilege is always stigma. Things that are not privileged are at best invisible and at worst seen as inferior, dangerous or threatening. When you are stepping out of the privilege land out of the assumption that you are coming at things from a privileged position, which in this case would be seeking the relationship escalator, the nervousness you feel is an internalized stigma.
I have no regrets of doing this. This has been a fabulous experience.
You’re doing a great job at it. I’ve tuned-in to several episodes. I like it.
The fact that I find myself so compelled to do it, and then I keep getting such good feedback. When you think about it, and you know this even better than me as someone who’s thought deeply, is that the solo perspective gets so crowded out by fairytales, books, movies, TV, and the conversation around the dinner table. The people who it resonates with don’t have a place to talk about it, learn about it, and celebrate it.
They are dying for it, so when you create it, they all come in.
That feels like the case for me. I’ve been surprised that people seem to find the show.
How would you answer the dating people? This is how I’ll handle that situation. The main way to do it is whatever makes you unique that you feel is a strength and especially does not conform to social norms, be out and proud about it, be upfront. It never should be a question that you need to answer in hindsight. Ideally, it should be that the people you are interacting with, at least to the point of talking about going out on a date with somebody, you would have supplied some information or clues as for instance, you never want to live with somebody or you never want to get married or blend finances. That gets a little tricky on the dating apps, at least the ones that don’t allow you to write more than 30 words in a profile. They are a lot less useful because everybody tries to conform to one of two profiles. “I am serious. I am looking to get on that escalator. I am ready, available, and open for this casually. We’ll get together, screw a couple of times, and then see you. Move on.”
Depending on who the potential partners are, some people are happy to screw or happy to get on the escalator. It doesn’t do a good job of saying, “Let’s get to know each other and find out what type of relationship might work well for us.” I do agree with you. As we know, no one wants to go out with someone who’s mealy-mouthed, doesn’t know what they want, scared and lacks confidence.
Some people do and you want to watch out for them.
That’s fair. You don’t want to go out with people who want to go out with the person who lacks confidence, but I do think it is important. I say this all the time to friends, our audience, and to anyone. A wonderful skill is to be able to ask for what you want. The problem is to ask for what you want is an act of vulnerability. It’s an act of courage, but everyone’s better off when you’re good at asking for what you want, because then that person has full information to grant it or not grant it. When it comes to these negotiations or fact finding that happened early on when you’re getting to know someone, it’s fair for them to know what they’re getting. I can answer this question about how I deal with that particular question.
I straight up say to them, “If you’re looking for some big numbers, you’re going to be disappointed with me, but I don’t judge the quality of a relationship by the length of time.” I’ve had many shorter relationships that are incredibly meaningful, affectionate, and fond. We may still be friends and so on. If you’re asking me about my interest in having a long-term relationship, I can answer that question rather easily. That is, I’m open to it with the right person, but I’m not exclusively looking for that. I’m looking to avoid two states of the world. One is I want to avoid a life where there were zero women in my life, whether that be meeting for coffee or something more serious, and I want to avoid a life where I’m married with children.
There’s lots of room for that.
There is a lot in between. Depending on who the person is, then it might be more casual. It might be more serious. It might be monogamous and it may be non-monogamous. For me, I’m open and I can be happy having a nice coffee date or going on a hike with someone and having a nice conversation and then thinking, “She’s a nice person, but not a good fit.” I don’t see that as a failure. That’s a nice afternoon. I’m happy to have that because I liked the presence of meeting new people and so on. A lot of what happens is there’s this mainstream, whether it be on the apps or meeting the old-fashioned way. What your book does is you survey 1,500 people who are living with unconventional relationships.
I have 1,500 co-authors and I quote over 330 of them in the book.
I love the quotes because there are people who you quote that speak eloquently and provocatively about their experiences. Let’s talk a little bit about those alternatives. These are largely people living off the relationship escalator. Maybe they were on it and got off. Maybe it was never right for them. These are people who are foregoing that privilege or those perks who are willing to face some stigma.
If they are out about it. A lot of them are in the closet about it.
When I had my conversation about asexuality, I was struck that asexuals may have a coming out experience. They come out asexual. Let’s talk about some alternatives to the escalator.
Let’s talk about solo versus single.
Can we hold back? Because I want to do a whole separate episode on that.
That’s fine, but it’s an important distinction that I’d like to at least foreshadow. Solo is you may or may not want to have intimate relationships. You may be open to having very long lasting, very deeply committed, intimate relationships, maybe more than one at a time, maybe one at a time but you don’t want to entangle your life and identity in a way that resembles the escalator. You don’t want to get merged that way. Whereas single, the simplest definition of it is being in a state of not having any current specifically significant intimate relationship. That will cut out people who are doing and living apart together thing where they might appear or people like me. I’m solo and I’m polyamorous so I might have more than one partner at a time. I have two sweethearts. I’ve been in relationships with them both for years. I personally wouldn’t call myself single because I’m not unpartnered but nobody’s moving in with me. Making that distinction of solo versus single in and of itself is a way of stepping off the escalator.
Let’s table the rest of this because I want to go more deeply into that as a whole separate thing but it’s good that we bring it up now. You use the term sexual friendships. I would have used the term friends with benefits. That does not meet the criteria for a relationship escalator.
Are we talking about health insurance?
That’s a code word. Benefits means sex. When I use language in the book that I use to try to explain things, I try to be literal about it.
Your term is more accurate. I’m not saying friends with benefits is in any ways a good term, but my experience with this type of relationship, and I’ve had a number of them now, is they are friendships. This is not booty calls. This is not someone who comes over for sex. This is someone who we do things together with, we go out, we go to museums, we go on hikes. We are in many ways doing the kinds of things that people who date, couple, people on the relationship escalator do for fun. Also, we’re intimate. We have asexual relationship on top of that. It’s not clearly a friend and it’s not a booty call. It’s this blending of the two. In those cases, some of which they went on for quite a long time, we both know that this is not going to some next level. We are not going to get married someday. We are not going to move in together. We know that this is for now, not forever and we’re okay with. In many ways, it’s indistinguishable from a lot of other dating relationships in that thing.
A lot of times people don’t talk about it. They wing it or they infer what’s going on because a lot of times, people only have the “define the relationship talk” when they’re talking about whether we’re getting on the escalator or not. It is unfortunate because there’s a lot of wealth, value, love, and support that can be found in all kinds of relationships including various kinds of friendships. Some of the deepest and most committed relationships that people have don’t involve sex or romance, but they’ve given the diminutive “just friends.”
My previous guest, David Jay, talked about asexuality. He has this “define the relationship conversations” with his friends and with people in his life who are important to him. That’s not something I’ve ever thought to do. I may express appreciation for my friendships. The “defining the relationship conversations” in my experience have been largely for the navigating a relationship that involves some sex affection.
With the relationship escalator, if you’re riding that up, or you think you might be riding up on it, or if you don’t want to get on it, conversations about relationships that focus on, are we doing this escalator thing or not? It often comes down to expectations of a mutual support. If I get sick, would you be the person who would help me out with that? If I end up broke and homeless, would you give me a place to stay? Those are conversations that are important to have. As we know right now, we’re not just in the middle of a pandemic, but also an economic depression. There are over 20% unemployment in the US. A lot of people are trying to figure out, where is my support? It’s not only what’s coming or not from government and employers, but also from the people in your life. Who can you count on? Who is going to be there? If you only narrow that field to people that you have a certain sexual or romantic relationship with, you’re cutting off a lot of options for support.
I don’t want to have sex with someone in order to stay in their guest room.
That is something where people are often very shocked to feel that somebody they had a very close connection with or a close friendship with, when they start opening up to them about something that’s hard, that person backs away from them. It’s nice to have a conversation about, what can I turn to you with when you’re not in the middle of a crisis?
I can imagine people reading this and thinking how intimidating it would be to broach that conversation with a friend. They may be very comfortable having a DTR.
That’s disturbance in the force again. There’s that trepidation and that’s where you realize that you have internalized the hierarchy that is part of the relationship escalator. The only relationships that are important enough to discuss it all are the ones that are going to be riding up that escalator.
I’m cut from a different cloth because whenever I feel like a friend is slipping away because of a relationship, I always go, “They’ll be back.”
Part of the hierarchy of the relationship escalator is that it’s supposed to be acceptable that you can have close friends and they will disappear when they have a romance, and you’re supposed to defer to that. We’re supposed to accept that. I’m not saying it’s necessarily worth starting a war over, but I advise people to have conversations about that when you see that happen. It’s like, “Excuse me, are you taking our friendship for granted here? If you’re planning to unilaterally withdraw whenever you have a romantic interest, that is not something that I personally want to feel very invested in.”
My thing is I want to support my friend’s happiness. I also understand enough about the early stages. The one thing about the relationship escalator that is worth mentioning is the role that love plays in it. The falling in love with someone creates this momentum and bonding that is not only fun, enjoyable and exciting. It is biological, emotional, it’s something that’s easy to get swept up in.
The impact of that is not universal. For instance, if you were to fall madly in love with somebody next week, would you stop doing your job? If you had a kid, would you stop feeding them and homeschooling them? In that situation, the hyper-focus that people fall into, which a lot of people in the poly community and elsewhere call new relationship energy. Often, it has very little to do with love. It is a phenomenon. It can be associated with love, but often it is not. It’s its own psychological and physiological phenomenon that tends to create tunnel vision and emotional intensity. That is strongly and socially venerated and supported. For reference, see every love song ever written. There is a lot of social context that says when you feel that emotional intensity and hyper-focus, that means love and that means that relationship should take precedence over certain kinds of other relationships especially friendships.
I’ve termed this the genital heart connection. You start smashing genitals together and then it’s easy for you to get wrapped up in all the other elements of this connection.
It doesn’t even have to do with a mutual connection because people lose their shit as much over an unrequited crush. The difference is when you have the social veneration of that this relationship that is mutual. You’re both feeling that intensity and that at least have the potential to ride up that escalator. It suddenly becomes okay to forget about everybody else, except your boss and your kids.
This is well said and this is why I wanted to talk to you, Amy. When I was reading the book, there were many cool ideas and these are ideas that don’t get talked about at Thanksgiving dinner. They’re not even something that happens at dinner parties. There are not a lot of resources out there until you start digging deeper for them. They don’t show up in mainstream movies, in pop music and so on. What are some more of these besides sexual friendships?
When I did the research for this book, I did a survey that asked people several questions but it boiled down to, “Do you consider your intimate relationships to be somehow unconventional and if so, how?”
It’s an open-ended question.
It was all like big text fields and try to analyze that data but I did it. I had some ideas about the norms that I thought identified the hallmark of the relationship escalator exclusivity between only two people. Monogamy is traditionally defined as the 800-pound gorilla. Also, then things that are more subtle came out. We’ve mentioned asexuality here. The single biggest surprise that I hadn’t in the data was all the people I heard who are somewhere on this spectrum of asexual or aromantic where they have deep, loving, committed relationships, but they don’t have that mad rush of passion where you’re obsessing over somebody and wanting to sing them love songs all day.
When I started hearing from more of them in the depths of their relationships, the frustration and disappointment they experienced with many parts of society by having their most valuable relationships intrinsically dismissed, because they don’t involve hearts and flowers and they don’t involve fucking. When you want to think hard about relationships, take some of the assumed characteristics out of it. Sex and/or romance is one of the most foundational characteristics of what often fits into that little code phrase “in a relationship.” If you don’t have sex or romance, it’s not a relationship. People who fall on the spectrum of asexuality or aromanticism have a justifiable beef with the relationship escalator because their most pressured relationships don’t fit. Even when they get established, they get actively undermined.
What are some of the ways that that happened? This is a very good one because essentially what you have is this checklist. Monogamy, merging, sexual romantic connection, consistency, and hierarchy are all checked. What ends up happening is if you start deviating from one or all of those things, people start looking at you sideways. If you were at dinner or you’re at a potluck and you say, “My partner and I haven’t ever had sex.” People would want to know more because that seems so peculiar to them.
They will say, “You’re just friends, right?”
“No, this is my partner.” “I don’t understand how can you be a partner but not be romantically involved?” That kind of thing. Let’s look at these alternatives through each of these criteria. For example, you’ve alluded to one already. A deviation from merging. For example, you have people who are partnered but they live in different residents. The first step is they sleep in different rooms. The next one is they live in different residents, states, countries. They have separate bank accounts and so on.
The opposite of merging is not separation but autonomy. Autonomy and into that individuality. People retaining their individual identity, not merging their identity, subsuming it within couplehood. It’s still being me, the default is me not we. That would be the solo perspective. The coupled perspective, the default identity would be we. Autonomy in organizing your life and making your own major life decisions. Living in separate residences might still involve a fair amount of merging because what if you had a married couple who lived in different cities, which happens quite often right now. One of them decides they want to completely change their career, while they might still be very financially entangled and a big career change could impact both their finances.
That’s probably going to be a joint decision as to whether or not you’re going to do that. It’s important when you’re looking at the relationship escalator to look beyond the superficial characteristics and see the essence of what’s going on there. The opposite of merging is autonomy, being able to still call your own shots in your own life. That doesn’t mean you don’t care about anybody else and it doesn’t mean you don’t ask for their opinion or take them into consideration. It doesn’t even mean that you don’t occasionally prioritize their needs above your own. It means that you are not a default joint entity. Monogamy, the opposite would be non-monogamy. Non-monogamy is incredibly common in mainstream society in a couple of circumstances. The first is somebody has not yet committed, however they want to consider committed, to a particular partner for the relationship escalator.
They might be intimately involved to some extent with several people, but that’s just dating around. That doesn’t mean you’re not monogamous because you still have the intention of someday finding “the one,” which is something we can go on about for quite a while. There is also non-consensual non-monogamy, cheating and infidelity. Infidelity is an interesting term because non-monogamous people are often doing that because they’re being true to themselves. Is that infidelity or not? To get out of the semantics of it, cheating is common, but it’s a hack for the relationship escalator. It’s the dark underbelly of the escalator because when somebody hears that somebody has been cheating on a monogamous partner, they might be angry. They might be stunned. They might be shaming them, whatever. They won’t be confused. It will know what that is and there is a social script for cheating. The people who embark in non-consensual non-monogamy, you’ve got to keep it secret, you’ve got to hide it around. If you get caught, you either go off with the other person or you have to break off all contact with them. There’s a script.
Consensual non-monogamy, which is a broad term that encompasses a lot of different forms of non-monogamy has the context of, “We’re going to make our own agreement about our relationship, whether this is exclusive or not and what other kinds of relationships we may embark on. We might make those decisions about how we will engage in other people together.” In which case, you have a level of hierarchy where the couple decides what happens with other people or maybe as autonomous individuals. A more egalitarian approach where you might say, “I love you. Let’s keep doing what we’re doing. This is fabulous. We may even live together.” I’m falling for this person over here. I’m going to start spending time with them and I might wish to commit to them in my own sense. I may wish to maybe go shuttle back and forth between two homes and live with both of you. Maybe all of us could live together someday if we all feel like doing that, but there is no roadmap for that. People are terrified by consensual non-monogamy because of a lack of a roadmap. How would this work?
I want to add too to what you’re saying because the complexity is not trivial. It also is threatening in part because there’s not a script. What it requires is conversation and asking for what you want, which of course can be scary to do.
Also, the willingness to face no.
Yes, and the concerns about jealousy.
Jealousy never happens in monogamy.
No, but the idea that you’re inviting it in a sense. I agree with you that consensual non-monogamous relationships can be jealousy free and monogamous relationships can be ripe with jealousy.
Jealousy is a human thing and to some extent, it’s relationship independent.
I have a previous episode and we had called it Ethical Non-Monogamy, which I made fun of. That’s a funny term to me. There is no such thing as ethical monogamy.
There is but that’s where you get the disturbance in the force again, because monogamy is assumed to be intrinsically ethical. Look how many people are coerced into monogamous relationships.
This notion that you and a partner may agree on parameters for relationships with other people. I can see how, especially someone who’s grown up and been socialized with regard to the escalator, would find that threatening, difficult, and so on. Even if they also might find it liberating and exciting.
We probably have never seen any examples of it in their real life, except things that have gone wrong because, when things blow up, they are a lot more visible than when everything is smooth sailing.
You had the great advantage of being able to connect to people who were willing to talk about this, and then you’re able to translate their insights. People who read your book are going to throw their hands up and be like, “No way.” The person who read this could find these ideas exciting and liberating. I’ve had a young woman who texts me, “I’m listening to your ethical non-monogamy episode and I’m taking notes.” She had never come across this information before. She had never learned that there were alternative scripts.
That is about privilege and the disturbance in the force. The reason why I self-published my book is that I did talk to several publishers about it. If it wasn’t going to be a how to do relationships, they literally did not know what shelf to put it on. They all tried to talk me into doing it as a how-to or to talking about it in the sense of how unconventional relationships are better or worse than the relationship escalator. I was like, “No.”
It’s like you can’t say with Indian food and Italian food that one is better or worse. Some people like Italian and some people like Indian.
If I was going to do a cookbook and it would fall in some weird cross genre thing, the publisher would have figured it out, because it’s all on food thing. The relationship bookshelf in bookstores only fits into a pretty narrow subset of relationship they work. It’s again the disturbance in the force.
This term “monogamish” came up in your book. This is Dan Savage term.
He came up with that a while ago and Dan’s a smart, great guy. He knows a lot of things. He’s not necessarily the best resource on all forms of consensual non-monogamy, but he does know a fair amount.
That struck me because I have a friend who when he talks to potential partners, he says like, “I’m 90% monogamous. I want to spend most of my time with you but on occasion, I’d like the opportunity to have a special guest star.”
That’s a totally valid way to go about it.
It’s something that he knows about himself and he’s like, “That ratio works for me,” and he’s good. He’s unapologetic about it. He’s good at communicating that.
There’s also a lot of fine print that goes along with monogamous. That term is usually meant to refer to a couple that usually already lives together, but certainly has a well-established monogamous relationship that occasionally has threesomes.
I didn’t know that.
That’s usually how that term is used. If your friend says he’s 90% monogamous, but occasionally wants to go out on dates or away for a weekend or something with someone else, you need to talk about the fine print here. You can’t just throw a broad label at it and somebody say, “I’m okay with it.” They might have their idea of threesomes and that’s not what you had in mind.
There’s something that came up in the book that I thought was interesting. Let’s say a couple doesn’t have to be a couple and has a consensual non-monogamous relationship. The idea is you were talking about autonomy or it might be that the agreement happens between the two people and that someone might have a veto power. It’s like, “You can have sex with that person. I approve,” or “No, you can’t have sex with that person. I disapprove.”
You’ve been involved with that person for three years, but you’re feeling insecure now so you’ve got to dump them.
Versus someone says, “As long as you practice safe sex and are discreet, do whatever you want to do.”
It gets down to the fine print. What does safe sex mean? What does discreet mean? Does the opinion of the other person involve count?
My sense of this is that’s something that these people need to figure out, negotiate, and decide whether it works for them or not. Veto power is neither good nor bad. It’s good or bad, depending on if it works or doesn’t work for both people.
As long as there’s informed consent for the third party going in. You don’t want to be surprised by veto power years into a relationship. That happened to me.
That’s a good point in terms of communicating what your other relationship is.
We get back to the same issue. To circle back to what you originally saying about, how do you bring this up or raise questions about this when you’re first starting to date somebody or figuring out whether you even want to try to date somebody? Simply raising these questions and this might be even further amplified in the context of a well-established relationship that you might want something different than what you’ve been doing. You might want to change the terms of the agreement of your relationship. If those terms of the agreement of your relationship were all based on assumptions in the first place and you thought you were both on the same page and maybe not quite, and you want to change that. You suddenly want to start talking about things that are very much not socially sanctioned. That gets scary and people are scared to raise the question. This is why I advocate that people clearly negotiate their relationships and keep negotiating because people are moving targets even after decades together. If you want an option to be open or if you want to take an option off the table, do it with discussion. Don’t just act like, “We haven’t done that, so we’re not going to do that.”
That’s good advice. What it’s built on is the assumptions. Because there’s a script for the escalator, you might never have these conversations to begin with. At some later point, you start wanting to have conversations and help threatening me maybe, versus you have a practice of having conversations with a partner about what you want, what you need, and what your preferences are. Asking them what they want, what they need, and what their preferences are.
The more you practice that skill and do it on the low stakes stuff. Don’t bottle it all up and wait for the high stakes stuff. It’s easier to have those conversations and the easier it is to realize that change is not an intrinsically bad thing. In fact, if there was no change in a relationship, it is probably going to be unhealthy especially the longer it goes on.
Do the nature of development in and of itself. The last thing I want to chat with you about is I’m often surprised at the lack of knowledge that people have about non-monogamous relationships. For example, people will interchangeably use the term polyamorous and non-monogamous, not recognizing that there are substantial differences there. Could you give a primer on those differences? One of the things that I thought was fascinating about your book and especially because you have all these vivid quotes are the variance in terms of people’s relationships. Someone’s like, “I’m the hinge in a polyamorous relationship. On the side, I’m a sex slave to this thing. On occasion, we’ll do X, Y or Z in this way,” versus someone who has a partner and occasionally might go to a sex club or swing and so on. It’s a big menu to choose from, Amy.
It breaks down this way. First of all, in order for it to be consensual non-monogamy, everybody involved has to be aware of and agreed to that it is that relationship. If you are in a relationship that began as assumed ostensibly monogamous, and then start seeing other people and then figure, “I wasn’t keeping it a secret and you should be okay with that.” That’s not consensual non-monogamy. That’s been a shithead, but people do that and they do that a lot. Assuming that that relationships can be non-monogamous, non-exclusive either for sex and/or romance by consent. The first thing to realize is that this is not about couple-plus. Non-monogamy isn’t something that couples do. It’s something that people do. That’s the first issue. For instance, I am solo. I am also polyamorous and I engage in relationships to various levels of intimacy with people, with whom they want to engage that way with me. I make those decisions about myself and I don’t consider myself to be a couple. I have people that I love and I’m close to and committed with.
There is partnered non-monogamy, which comes in a variety of ways. This is couple-plus. It’s an intrinsic hierarchy where there is an established couple or maybe three people in a triad or whatever that agree that they will in some way engage with other people but those are literally outside partners. They are relationships that are either lesser than or apart from the established core relationship. That’s where the issue of hierarchy gets emotionally and ethically dicey because people develop feelings and people develop senses of commitment. Relationships don’t always go the way you had said, “This relationship is going to stay in this box.” How well does that work out? The way some people deal with relationships that might have that level of uncertainty is they put very clear constraints around it. For instance, monogamous couples. We will occasionally have a special guest star in our bedroom for threesome. This is a sex thing. They may be a friend. We might socialize with them or whatever, but this is occasionally a thing we do for fun.
Swingers are more organized around that and that is a very couple-centric approach to consensual non-monogamy. It’s often heterocentric and cisgendered. We’re mainly talking about opposite sex couple, cisgendered and usually the women are open to having sex with people of a variety of genders, but the men are not into touching anybody’s dick. They are very careful and very good about negotiating rules and boundaries of how they will engage either in a specific situation or if they have people that they swing with on a regular basis, how that will work. If I ever ended up in a major contract dispute, I would want a highly experienced swinger as my lawyer because they know how to negotiate and say, “This is what the agreement is,” and they would get a solution. It wouldn’t be just war in the courtroom. Swingers are very good negotiators.
There’s polyamory, which is you are open to having more than one intimate relationship at a time, where more than one of those relationships at a time can develop some level of emotional depth and commitment and potentially life entanglement. For instance, I’m polyamorous and I have two people that I’m involved with in a sexual, intimate, and a long-term committed way. That doesn’t mean that I can’t also have other types of relationships. That can’t mean that I don’t necessarily have a fuck buddy over there or that I might not do a one night stand or something like this. All of those kinds of interactions can happen under polyamory, but the difference with polyamory is that you are open to the potential of depth, commitment, and perhaps entanglement if that’s your thing with more than one partner.
One of the things that struck me about some of the stories in the book was when you step off the escalator and you have a better chance to meet your needs, but it also can introduce complexity. Not the complexity is bad.
Monogamy is not complex at all. This is important because people assume that non-monogamy is more complex. That is not necessarily so.
I always like to say that monogamy or the escalator is simple but difficult. Just because it’s this one path doesn’t mean it’s an easy path to walk or stand to make the metaphor work.
If I agreed to be in a monogamous relationship and realize that as I started to get close to other people that I had to cut those relationships off, that’s a lot of complexity for me.
Amy, I appreciate talking to you because I like to think of myself as fairly progressive when it comes to these kinds of ideas. This conversation is revealing even how I have somewhat assumptions and the water around me at times that I don’t even notice. I appreciate that.
Maintaining the boundaries of monogamy requires a fair amount of effort.
That I agree. I’m not saying it’s easy. It’s actually hard. This is an important episode. We’re going to come back with part two where we dive a little bit more into the solo stuff. For some people, this is the first time they’re ever getting this view. For some people it’s scary and for some people it’s exciting. It is liberating to realize that you are a fish in water. Most of us are seeking truth and seeking insight. If you don’t feel like the escalator is the right thing for you to know that there are alternatives and a surprising number of people who are pursuing those alternatives, you just don’t know about it because they’re not able to have a conventional conversation about it because of the stigma. You then can start to learn some of the skills that are necessary to be able to navigate this brave new world. This conversation is a good start in this direction.
I’m glad to hear that. The escalator is a wonderful option for a lot of people and it works well for some people I love. It’s useful to know about options, not only because the escalator may not work for you, but try as you might, you might end up falling off it. If you fall off the escalator and feel absolutely breath and desperate to jump back on as soon as you can to feel normal and respected and adult again, you are going to make bad mistake most likely.
If you’re not well-tuned for it, then to keep going back to it is a real problem.
Even if you are well-tuned to it, be able to exist without it if it’s the right person, but somebody who is a compatible partner for all the aspects of the relationship escalator that matter to you. Rather than dive in with somebody where you are going to have big trade-offs for the rest of your life, be willing to hold your ground for yourself. That’s something that anybody can learn from having substantial adult experience of solohood. Even if you don’t want that to be the choice for the rest of your life.
Amy, I’m going to end with that. That is well said and it’s a perfect segue into part two. I hope people will come back to Solo for part two with Amy Gahran. Amy, thank you so much for your time.
Thanks very much, Peter. I appreciate your work.
- Stepping Off The Relationship Escalator: Uncommon Love And Life
- Bella DePaulo – past episode
- David Jay – past episode
- Ethical Non-Monogamy – past episode
About Amy Gahran
Amy Gahran is a journalist, host of the blog SoloPoly.Net, and author of Stepping off the Relationship Escalator.
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