What Makes A Relationship (Un)Conventional?

SOLO 68 | Unconventional Relationships


This episode starts a series on conventional and unconventional relationships. Peter McGraw’s return guests, a sociologist and a stand-up comedian, revisit the topic of a popular episode on the Relationship Escalator to discuss the hallmarks of this common, conventional relationship that receives so much attention and special treatment in society. The discussion identifies why these criteria (e.g. monogamy, merging of life and finances) serve society and may not serve individuals. In short, this episode sets up what the status quo is in relationships, so that the Solo podcast can explore unconventional relationships further.

Listen to Episode #68 here:

What Makes A Relationship (Un)Conventional?

This episode kicks off a series on conventional and unconventional relationships. My guests, a sociologist and stand-up comedian, revisit the topic of a popular episode on the Relationship Escalator to discuss the hallmarks of this common conventional relationship that receives so much attention and special treatment in society. The purpose of the discussion is to identify why these criteria, such as monogamy and merging of life and finances exist. What purpose do they serve society and may not serve the individual? Think of this episode as setting up what the status quo is in relationships so that we can look at alternatives. It’s something I do with Amy Gahran, the creator of the term Relationship Escalator, next episode. I hope you enjoy the episode. Let’s get started.

Our first guest is Kris Marsh. Kris is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland. A Fulbright scholar whose research focuses on the Black middle-class demography, racial residential segregation, and education. She’s a contributor to CNN in America, the Associated Press, NBC Washington, Al Jazeera America, and is frequently asked to contribute to The Washington Post. Kris is writing a book that examines the mental and physical health, wealth, residential choices, and dating practices of an emerging Black middle-class that is single and living alone, solace. This is her third appearance on SOLO. Welcome back, Kris.

Thanks for having me, Peter. I’m excited to be back with you again.

Our second guest is Shane Mauss. Shane is a stand-up comedian, adventurer, and science enthusiast. He’s appeared on Comedy Central, Conan, Kimmel, and Showtime. He visits universities around the world and interviews researchers for his science podcast, Here We Are. He does a whole lot of other super interesting things. He’s a close friend of mine, most importantly, and a special contributor to my book, Shtick to Business. He too is a frequent contributor to SOLO, clocking in with more appearances than Kris. Welcome back, Shane.

All you, readers, you have to write in and say who was better. It’s like American Idol, but for guests. This is how we determine who gets to come back.

I do have a private Slack channel for SOLO community members. You can sign up for it on the SOLO page at PeterMcGraw.org. I’m sure they will weigh in. They have opinions. They tell me what they like and don’t like about episodes.

A lot of times, shows like this, the inclination is to think of it as a cooperative effort to lead to the best conversation, but I’m looking at it as a competitive opportunity to stand out and excel above all.

It should be obvious to the readers why I invited these two back. As you’ll find out, it’s not because of their knowledge, it’s because of their attitude. This is part of a series. Right now, it’ll be the first part of a series examining relationships, conventional and unconventional. What we’re going to do is establish the how and why of the Relationship Escalator, which was covered in a previous episode with Amy Gahran, called Getting Off the Relationship Escalator. She’ll be coming back as part of this mini-series. To quote her, “The relationship escalator is the default set of societal expectations for intimate relationships. Partners follow a progressive set of steps, each with visible markers toward a clear goal. The goal at the top of the escalator is to achieve a permanently monogamous cohabitating marriage, legally sanctioned if possible. In many cases, buying a house and having kids may also be part of the goal. Partners are expected to remain together at the top of the escalator until…” What do you think?

Until one partner dies.

Until death, that’s exactly right.

Some people want to die together. That’s also a goal.

The escalator is the standard by which people gauge whether a developing intimate relationship is significant “serious.” What I often see on the apps “real, good, healthy, committed are worth pursuing or continuing.” That’s a big definition, as you might imagine. Does that gel with your experience looking at the world and thinking about the way most people think about their romantic and sexual partnerships?

Yes. My interpretation of all of these things is often, heavily influenced by evolutionary thinking and what were the selection pressures through thousands of generations. It led us for better or worse to have this proclivity toward an experience, with the caveat that our modern world is probably vastly different than the world that we evolved in and for.

Can I translate that sounds something like this thing that we call marriage, the relationship escalator, serious relationships may or may not be closely connected to serving us evolutionarily?

Yes, it would theoretically have a utility in terms of helping out individuals, forming pair bonds, leading a better, more resilient offspring, spreading genes, and whatnot. Many times, that is a false assumption in our modern world.

We’re going to dive into that. Kris, what’s your reaction to that?

If we think about this from the demographic literature perspective, there’s this whole notion called the Life Course. The Life Course talks about from birth to death and what are some of the stations along the Life Course. One of the stations along the Life Course is you become of age, you get married, you buy a house, you have children, your children grow up, you become grandparents, you die and so on. Keeping aligned with the demographic literature on the Life Course, this makes sense.

The evolutionary take on that would be Life History Theory, which is the pressures that drive your behavior in one stage of life, say, a pre-pubescent activity where you’re attached to your parents and still exploring. Puberty makes all of these new drives come online and all of a sudden, “Mom and dad, get the hell away from me. I’m trying to get laid over here. You’re screwing up my game.” This is probably going to be my approach to looking at these relationship escalator steps.

Thinking about the Life Course, I would argue that somewhere along the Life Course, we need to have a single whole station on the Life Course. We don’t talk about that enough, either before you partner, or if you decide not to partner, or if your partner passes, you’re going to return to singlehood at some point, but it gets overlooked in the demographic literature. I’m trying to bring that part of the station of Life Course to bear because it’s important. We overlook it and take it for granted.

This is why Kris is becoming a frequent contributor to Solo: The Single Person’s Guide To A Remarkable Life.

In terms of evolutionary mismatches, there might be drives. Hummingbirds may have evolved to pair bonds and not for what was best for their individual well-being. They might drive each other crazy, but it was best for the offspring. They never foresaw a world where, all of a sudden, some random dude named Phil, a Walmart greeter, just happened to set up a bird feeder. You have this unlimited supply of resources, and no longer need this same pair bonding of sharing and delegating responsibilities. That might be a similar situation to what humans have found themselves in.

This is the first time I’ve talked about this topic and hummingbirds have come up.

That’s why the two of you are here because of the overlap, but also the space outside the Venn overlap. To deviate or digress for a moment, what is the bird feeder of human life right now?

We have incredible societal safety nets that our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have never had in our lives. From healthcare to welfare, to having given on-ramps into, we will find some niche for you where you can succeed. Whereas there were many environments in our past where it was like, “Are you good at hunting or not?”

Even the fact of being able to get a job as a greeter at Walmart is almost the equivalent of a bird feeder. For the folks reading, you’re getting a little bit of perspective in terms of this evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology approach that Shane tends to default to, and then the sociologist in Kris. Both of you are going to have perspectives and what I want to cover now, which is what are the criteria that underlie this relationship escalator? Before I go into it again, I want to cover the process. This is not a matter of teaching the process because anybody reading this knows the process. They’ve either gone through it before, or they’ve seen it in books, television, film, song, their own parents, their friends, their family, and so on.

It goes something like this. You make contact, flirt, date. You might have sex. These are two people. Initiation, there’s some courtship, some emotional investment, “falling in love.” Certainly, at some point along here, there is some sex happening typically. I’m quoting Amy, “Claiming and defining, we call it the DTR, the Defining The Relationship.” Maybe it’s asking someone to marry you, in that sense. Moving on now to having unprotected sex, doing away with condoms. Next step, establishment. Adapting rhythms and patterns in your life, regular date nights, regular sexual encounters, talking regularly, texting daily. Commitment, discussing long-term plans, discussing a future together, planning a future together, meeting each other’s family.

Five, commitment. That’s the point that I was talking about earlier. That might be getting married, establishing some long-term future. Six, merging, moving in together, sharing a home, finances, getting engaged, getting married. This could happen before or after the commitment. Lastly, perhaps having children, not mandatory, but strongly encouraged. The finalization of this relationship, and then the last thing, some legacy, which is, you buy a home together, you accumulate wealth, you raise children. That’s less required nowadays, but these are typically the major benchmarks along this arc known as the relationship escalator. I’ve never gone through all of them.

From a personal perspective, my history, it’s usually the meet-a-lady. Do you have sex or not have sex? If you have sex, then you hold on to that thing for about three years, move in, invest, get a bunch of furniture and stuff that’s ours, and then leave all that as ours behind three years later.

You get to merging. You get to the moving in together and sharing a home.

I sprint to merging.

You don’t get to conclusion and legacy.

This show is my legacy.

Maybe I’m jumping the gun a bit, but what about people that are choosing to get off the escalator?

This is what the series is going to do in general. What I would like to do with this session is talk about the criteria that go into this and why does this exist. Why does the relationship escalator exist? Before we can get into the alternatives, which all of us and the readers are interested in, we need to talk a little bit about, why does the relationship escalator look like it does? Why is it that these things happen? Before we get to this, if you’re willing to share, Kris. You’ve had some experience with relationships. Do you find yourself in the relationship all the way partially in your life?

If I’m in it, I’m totally in it and see where it goes on that escalator. If I’m not interested, I have nothing to do with any part of it.

Amy’s work has been so profound for me. I find myself quoting and discussing it all the time and using this term. The metaphor or analogy of this idea is like you step on the escalator and it whisks you along. It doesn’t mean that it’s easy, but it’s natural. We don’t question the steps. You know how common they are and how commonly accepted they are. If you do seek an alternative, at best people will be curious, or at worst, shun you for it. Let’s talk a little bit about that. Please, Kris.

While I like the escalator example or analogy, whichever one’s right, the part that’s missing is the societal pressure, and how societal pressure helps push you along on the escalator. As a sociologist, I think the escalator leaves out the pressure part because there is a lot of societal pressure that makes you want to move from one stage to the next. The analogy or the visualization of the escalator, you missed something like that.

There’s a standard societal life escalator or career escalator, which is like pay attention in school, get good grades, get into the best college that you can, get the internship and work your way up, all the way to that gold watch at retirement, and the best nursing home you saved up for. That certainly wasn’t our evolutionary past, although it was built by similar evolutionary pressures, mixing with novel and environmental demands. After you’ve established that, which may or may not have had real utility in a specific snapshot of a place in time in modern human history, it’s probably the case that isn’t well-suited for every single person, as much as your parents are going to sell it, or your guidance counselor is going to sell that narrative.

We know that it’s not good for every single person. As Shane and I talked about in a previous episode about innovation, innovations that make it easier to live on your own and to not partner up, especially for women, lead to fewer people partnering up. We know that anytime you loosen this societal pressure, people deviate from it. You make it easier for people to divorce, and guess what happens? People get divorced. You make it easier for people to escape, having to enter a partnership because you give them birth control, people don’t go into partnerships. If you give women an opportunity to get an education and earn their own money, then they are less likely to partner up with a man who would normally have paid the bills. We know that this is not a good fit for everyone.

Much like my near-perfect hummingbird example, there are a lot of these ideas of even evolutionary theorists inadvertently project and anthropomorphize modern life on the past. We say things like,
“COVID is going to drive people crazy because we’re social creatures and we need to do this and that.” Whereas I can pretty much guarantee you, if there was a virus where you had to stay in groups and be at a dance club all night, every night, you would be like, “I need my alone time.” It’s probably more an indicator that people don’t like being told what to do than it is some deviation from something that is necessary for mental health. In that way, it’s much like the pair-bonding helped out a hummingbird when it needed the male to go and get worms, and then then the female to trade back and forth and protect the nest and take turns with this. There’s probably the same thing where I bet that many of our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have never put up with half the people in their tribe. I’m sure many relationships were the same.

This point of, yes, we’re social creatures, but there’s heterogeneity. Some people like sweet things, and some people like salty things. Some people like more solitude, and some people like less solitude. The idea that we are one of these things is a mistake.

Here are the interesting ideas, what is the tipping point where people are going to start to accept the fact that people don’t want to be on this escalator? Instead of looking at them suspiciously or with caution, what’s the tipping point where people could say, “You can choose this option. We’re not valuing one over the other. We’re bringing both options to the table and whichever option works best for you.”

It’s after the second marriage.

I think it is also just numbers. As singles grow and as people are choosing alternatives to the escalator, there has to be a tipping point where it becomes societal acceptance.

I don’t have an answer to that question. It’s going to be slower than we would like. The reason I give you this example is I read this book called The Challenge of Being Single. It was written by two academics from USC. It covers many of the same topics that I cover in SOLO. The difference is the perspective. If I were to write that book, I would’ve called it The Opportunity of Being Single, not The Challenge of Being Single. That book was published in 1974. In some ways, it shows you that although things have changed quite a lot demographically in those years, in some ways, the perspectives haven’t. The flip to this, Kris, your question is a fascinating one. We know that cultural norms can shift quickly. In twenty years, we’ve seen a flip in the acceptance of gay marriage, for example. By cultural timelines, that’s pretty fast. Maybe it’ll be because of SOLO that we create a movement that pushes people to recognize that this is equal footing, just different terrain.

What you’re maybe going for in this episode that is a good qualifier for the readers and to ourselves to keep in mind is that what we’re trying to do is describe step-by-step the way things are within the standard model of society. Also, perhaps why they got there, without necessarily saying, “Because it is this way, that means that it’s good for you.” We’re describing without judgment and prescription.

This is what I liked about Kris’s perspective so much is that it’s a menu. The idea is that for some people, the escalator is ideal. They are at their best. They are happy. It works for them, yet there are other people who try to ride the escalator and it doesn’t work.

There are a lot of down-and-out swingers right now that are like, “You should maybe try this escalator thing.”

I would argue most swingers have ridden the escalator. They’ve gotten to a certain point where they were like, “Get me the hell off this thing.” They don’t want to be completely off, so they jump off for a weekend, and then they jump back on. Two quick lessons and then we’re going to get into the meat of this, which is the hallmarks or the criteria. First of all, I’ll do a little quick history of marriage because marriage is a relatively new invention, and it has undergone some changes. Marriage, originally, was about alliances. It was about bringing families together to form alliances. It was about land and agriculture and being able to have ownership of this land and to keep it within families. Since then, for the last 100 years or so, marriage has been co-opted by romantic love. While marriage was designed first to serve the family, now it’s supposed to be designed to serve the couple and to perpetuate the love that’s there.

Some of the things that we get into are going to connect to these ideas. The last thing I want to point out, and this is something I covered in a previous episode on one of the SOLO thoughts, number five, about a new narrative for singles, is this idea of what I call fictions. I’m sure, Kris, you have a different term for it. Maybe it’s social constructs. I don’t know what it is. It’s this idea that many things in the world feel very real to us as humans like money, ideas, beliefs that are made up and are agreed upon. They help us get along, cooperate, communicate. They especially help us deal with strangers.

One thing to remind people is there are two classes. There are these fictions, and then there are biological facts. The way I differentiate them is if there’s a zombie apocalypse, the biological facts remain. Orgasms still feel good. People still get pregnant. Sugar still tastes good. You still need water to live and air to breathe. Bullets still hurt you. The other things go away. No one cares that you were a Fulbright scholar during the zombie apocalypse. No one cares that you were on Kimmel during the zombie apocalypse. Money can no longer buy your way into a nursing home during a zombie apocalypse because we lose those things. Kris, I use the term fictions. What term would you use?

A sociologist would say a social construct.

Our ability to believe and agree on these things is what differentiates us from other animals. That’s the key thing.

I would say that something like marriage is a social construct that is emergent from biological drives. It’s much in the way that you hijack something like reciprocal altruism in a family unit, where my brother has 50% of my genes, so his life is half as valuable as mine. The military can hijack some of those same rewards in different ways of perceiving things to say, “We’re a band of brothers. You sacrifice. You will leave no person behind.” In that same way, from a biological perspective, love has been argued that it is an emotional contract. I’m dating someone and each of us, from a strict behavioral economist point of view, might do well to keep an eye out for a more favorable mate. Because of that, this love thing takes away that control. There might be smarter guys than me or prettier ladies than her. This love thing makes me feel this bond that I have no control over. I can’t think about anybody else.

Marriage was an interesting way of articulating that biological drive and turning it into an actual written contract. Probably, it was maybe a good idea in some circumstances and had unintended consequences, which eliminated the original bond of love because now you’ve put it on paper. In the same way like, “I want to go back to the handshake days before everyone was chasing ambulances,” because of what contracts did to trust. Marriage may have very well done the same thing to love just as that hummingbird feeder may very well have eventually cause obesity or not flying around as much. Its joints might not be as well-suited, and they might not be as healthy as that natural environment. Marriage might also be a thing that causes obesity and heart disease.

My comment is more of a question than a comment. Isn’t it romantic love and marriage a newer concept? Wasn’t marriage thought of more as an economic exercise than based on any kind of romance or intimacy or emotions? It was like an economic utility.

By the way, that’s still the case in some places in the world now. Marriages are about arrangements where, essentially, parents are exerting their influence. I have an episode about Indian Matchmaking, where one of my friends Roopali and I talk about a Netflix show. You can see that on display that this is about, “Can I tolerate this person? Can I stand looking at them in order to end up getting married?” The point about this is in either case, this contractual nature of marriage is designed to keep you in it when times get tough. That may be you fall out of love. That might be because of pestilence. Whatever it is, you are in this together until death do you part. It’s seen as a great tragedy, not when someone dies, but when someone gets divorced. I respond to that with a hearty congratulations. When people get divorced and they tell me they got divorced, I say, “Congratulations.”

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Let’s get into the criteria here. If you’re the reader and you think this has been spirited, this is about to get spirited. There are five hallmarks of the relationship escalator. I’m going to read through each of the five. In turn, let’s talk about each one and why it may exist, and how it certainly may serve the couple or how it may serve society. I think many of these things serve society a lot more than the couple per se. The first one is sexual and romantic exclusivity between two and only two partners, also known as monogamy. Number two, merging life, infrastructure, and identity. We talked about this already. Sharing a home, resources, finances, and identifying strongly as a couple. Suddenly, people are like, “My wife, my husband,” Bennifer, that idea.

Three, hierarchy, that is some relationships are more important than other relationships. A marriage is more important than a dating relationship. Oftentimes, marriages become more important than sibling relationships, chosen friendships. Four, sexual connection. That usually kicks things off. The last one is this idea of continuity and consistency. These are not supposed to be paused. You don’t take a break in your marriage typically or your relationship escalator. Any deviation from these things is seen as curious at best, and perhaps shunned, punished at worst. Why sexual romantic exclusivity? Why is that such a hallmark of this particular style of relationship?

Is that the first one? Okay, exclusivity.

Let’s say monogamy. Why do these relationships need to be monogamous? Even more so, are you banging someone else? Are you hooking up with someone else? It’s not just sex. It could be emotional. It’s about infidelity. People talk about emotional cheating. It could be sexual cheating. This idea of monogamy that sexual and emotional needs are being met exclusively with this other person.

There’s also some speculation that there’s a bit of gender difference there as well because of the high cost of pregnancy that females and most species face. In surveys, when asked if your partner is cheating on you, both males and females don’t like any kind of cheating. When asked which is worse, females tend to be more concerned of like, “Are you in love with her?” Men tend to be more concerned like, “Did you bang him?” These are the pressures of parental certainty versus the pressures of needing another source of help and stability. These are things that are vanishing quickly in our modern world and might be a historical and evolutionary leftover that we would do well to be mindful of maybe overlooking and not letting it drive our lives.

I would answer it in a slightly different way, from a sociological perspective. We think about marriage or this building of marriage as an institution. If you think about it from the institutional perspective, you think about investing social, emotional, and intimate capital into the relationship, and you want a return on your investment. You want to make sure that it’s only you and another person that are engaging in sexual or emotional intimacy.

This issue is this notion of monogamy. The way to think about this is like, imagine an alternative universe where this was a triad, where it was a group of three people. Why are these two people together? Why monogamy? You can’t escape the fact that there are children involved in this. Marriage is also are about passing down and about resources being funneled and channeled. When you have two people, you’re supposed to know who the parents are, if they’re monogamous, because now you know that kid is mine, that kid is yours, ours together. It removes a lot of uncertainty and gets people to play along in a way that provides a level of stability that’s necessary for this thing that solves a societal problem.

There’s also the raising of the it-takes-a-village type of situation. In some of those, there are hunter-gatherer tribes that either still do exist or have existed that have a lot more promiscuity. Because it blurs parental certainty so much, every guy in the tribe thinks like, “That could be my kid.”

There are cultures where certain body parts of the kid are associated with different men, depending on how much sex he’s had, like he gets an arm and another guy gets the torso.

That’s what you do. You get a commune together. Everyone donates into a blender or something, and then we’ll all be equally invested into raising these children.

Where does monogamy matter more? It matters more when you have children. It’s what goes into the traditional escalator. Remember, pre-birth control if you coupled up. We could jump ahead to sexual connection. At least at the beginning of the relationship, you’re having sex, so these are not platonic partnership. These are sexual partnerships, at least for part of the relationship. I don’t want to step on your toes, but it seems obvious to me that in a world where if you have enough sex without birth control, you will have children for most couples most of the time. Especially back in the day where people were partnering up pretty young, especially the women were often very young.

Even despite your best effort, I’m sure there were plenty of people all through history that absolutely feared, dreaded, and despised the idea of having kids, but still were tempted enough for that great feeling sex stuff to have kids. Conversely, I’m sure that there are people who think of your every top quality of athleticism, intelligence, kindness, or whatever else of people that decided to never have sex or whatever that they didn’t leave anything behind.

The third explanation is also that they needed workers in the field. From an economic perspective, we need more bodies in the house and we need more workers. We got to lay up and have these kids.

That was the conscious pyramid scheme narrative that we came up with to tell ourselves a story of something that was already happening anyway. We tend to gravitate toward romantic fables rather than like, “I just spooged in this lady last night.” You romanticize all of your decision-making of what drove what behavior.

To Kris’s point, I’m curious. Do you know the answer to this, how birth rates have changed over time? We know that birth rates are down now, but going from a hunter-gatherer to agrarian, I assume that there were more kids that people were having. Those kids did serve a utilitarian purpose, which is you needed bodies. You needed help, because as much as we want to romanticize farmers, it is brutal work. It is a terrible way to live as a human, especially as a small group of people tilling the land and trying to rely on crops to feed a family and a village. You need work. You need to domesticate animals. You need bodies to carry water, till the land, and take care of the house. There are many reasons why women were so subjugated. This reversal in terms of equality that is evident in a lot of hunter-gatherer societies went away because these gender roles were necessary to make a farm work.

If you look at recent historical data since the advent of birth control, that’s not a black swan event birth control. That’s beyond a black swan evolution. I never saw birth control coming. In the developed nations, you typically have more liberated females. They tend to have lower birth rates as well as societies, and more solid economic structures are in place.

We agree on these two about exclusivity, monogamy, and the idea of sexual connection that largely has to do with children. Knowing that these are your children, creating these children, ideally lots of them. We know the governments like children. We know this because when the birth rate drops too low, we know governments will incentivize having children. This has happened in Europe somewhere. You get tax breaks. You might even get payment for getting pregnant. We certainly know that governments, to varying degrees, provide benefits to parents. They require organizations to pay people maternity, paternity. That doesn’t have to be the case, but it is because, in general, kids create growth.

Peter, are you saying that ideally, there’s a push for a lot of children or there was a push for a lot of children?

There’s probably some sweet spot there. There are two elements to this. It’s a matter of too few versus too many. If you go too far in either direction, that’s a problem for the government. There’s the issue of who’s having the children. That can be a problem for the government. This would be taboo for a politician to say but essentially, the idea is that desire to have more educated, wealthier people having more children, and less educated, less wealthy people having fewer children. Your point is a good one. We know that countries generally, with the exception of places like China and India at this point, are starting to get concerned. Some industrialized nations are getting concerned that we don’t have enough of a replacement rate.

They are wrong. They are not going to run out of babies.

It’s because this particular style of relationship is so prominent.

This also relates to the 2nd or the 3rd hallmark of merging resources. This is the reason why I was asking the question about, is it a traditional understanding about having more children, or is this more of a contemporary kind of ideas? If you’re talking about pooling resources and then also investing in the children, you’d rather have a limited number of children that they can be boutique children. They can be true contributors to society, as opposed to having a plethora of children, but you don’t have enough resources to make them a middle class or upper middle class or so on and so forth. Dovetailing with pooling the resources, I would argue that there’s probably less of a push for more children and more of a push for less children but have high-quality children.

In contemporary times, that certainly has to be the case.

Over time, there was a point where there was some utility in having a lot of children, but now you’d rather have a select number of children, but high-quality children.

We’re not on the farm anymore. That’s part of it. You just don’t need as many.

Shane is shaking his head. I do not think he agrees.

There was a lot of infant mortality in our ancestral past. There were also a lot of weird things that happen too, where a hunter-gatherer female would be having a child every three years where the advent of agriculture allowed for weaning and the resources to be having a child every year. My parents, each of them are 1 of 8 children. I don’t think that was the “natural state of affairs” for the average hunter-gatherer family. I’m not sure that we did something with a utility in mind so much as constructed. There are a lot of reasons why I tell myself, like I drank a bunch or did all sorts of things. We tend to justify things after the fact. I am skeptical of this idea that kids whether or not that’s necessary for more mouths to feed or that’s necessary for feeding more mouths. It was a pyramid scheme the whole way up.

We’re going to backtrack here for a step, and I’m okay with doing that. The idea is if we remove one of these hallmarks or criteria, it does change the relationship escalator in a way that might be substantial. If we remove sex from this, not the frequency of sex, but the fact that these people have sex frequently or infrequently as a necessary but not a sufficient component of the relationship escalator, that fundamentally changes the function of the relationship escalator within society.

There is some research that shows that men tend to say I love you first in the relationship. There are arguments that have been made that it’s not disingenuous, but it is a bit of evolved self-deception where it’s a way of selling yourself. Love, being this indicator of commitment. Females, valuing commitment. Guys, wanting to get the female offering what they think the female wants, which is this love thing. It’s not disingenuous. It’s just a drive to do that first. With all of these stages, it’s like you might want to be a doctor, but you can’t imagine what a doctor is. You’re at the bottom of the mountain, looking at the top, “I want to be the doctor. I want to be in marriage.” You get there and then you go, “Is this what this is?” You go back down to the bottom of the mountain. Each of these stages has different drives to go to this different goal that will then get you to the next stage after that. Each bit of tunnel vision is ultimately heading down toward this end goal that you aren’t aware of.

This is Paradise by the Dashboard Light by Meat Loaf that you just described, “Tell me that you to love me forever,” and the guy says, “I couldn’t take it anymore, and I told her that.” I do think you are right in the sense of a lot of this stuff is people got married because they wanted to have sex. It’s the only way you were going to have sex. You can’t take the sex part out is my argument.

Can you change the hallmarks around? Do they have to go in this order?

These hallmarks are not in this order. These are arbitrary the orders here. These are the necessary conditions for a traditional relationship escalator. Let’s get back into the merging one, which is what you just talked about. Why must you live in the same house as a couple? Why must you merge your finances? Why is that so important to this particular style of commonly accepted relationship?

If we answer the question from a sociological perspective, we know that homeownership is one of the easiest ways to build wealth, or in some cases, in a lot of ways, it’s a proxy for wealth. You want to buy a big house in a good neighborhood. You got a lot of equities. They can transfer that wealth onto your children. That’s why you would both want to be in that same house because you’ve pooled your resources, you’ve bought the house, and now you plan to transfer it on. You’ve got this intergenerational transference of wealth, so that’s what you’re supposed to do. If you want to answer that from a sociological perspective, that’s what I would say.

We know that divorce is a wealth destroyer. Right now, you have the same income you had before, and now you have two separate residences. Two separate residences are more expensive than one residence. Some of this has to be about stability, security, and survival, knowing that the average person on the relationship escalator is not living luxuriously. They don’t have teams to do this and to pull those resources. One, not only that it helps with the potential for success, but the other one is it makes it hard to get out of. It makes it hard to get out of when you merge your whole lives. It makes that consistency more likely to happen.

It strengthens the utility of marriage or the economic contract.

Let’s get into one that’s fascinating. This series is coming on the heels of another series about Making Remarkable Friends. It’s one of my favorite sets of episodes. I’ve talked about how solos need a team, and that friends are an essential part of that team. Friends serve us in many ways, whether it be a solo or a partnered, but especially as solos. One of the things that is striking and it came up a couple of times. There was one episode in particular with Rhaina Cohen, about making friendship the center of life rather than marriage, is the idea that this relationship escalator has a special status. It stands above all of our other relationships. We know this in part because the government makes policies that support that. If I end up in intensive care, Shane’s not able to decide to pull the plug or not without me going through special hoops in order to get him to be able to do that. If Shane and I were married, he would be able to do that. It’s part of the reason why gay marriage was such a push. It wasn’t always about marriage. It was about benefits and acceptance.

I find it a little bit perverse, to be honest, as someone who puts friendships foremost. The idea that you might, once you forgo condoms with some person, that person who you might have only known for a few months or a year, suddenly becomes a more important person in your life than your sister, brother, childhood friend, and whatnot. If people had to choose, they would choose that person more over society. I use this example a lot. Suppose Shane was coupled up and someone invites him to a wedding. Instead of him bringing his partner, he invites me because I’m more fun at weddings than his partner is because I’ll get on the dance floor and have fun. Everybody’s like, “Shane, why did you bring this tall, doofy dude and not your partner?” That decision is reserved for the special relationship. Why is this relationship so special? I ask my two guests.

In two of my four relationships, I could see a parallel universe where I’m still with them, maybe living out the rest of my life with this person. This person might eventually have to make this decision. I’ll take Pete’s judgment on pulling my plug over my wives in a lot of cases. In the same way, people might advocate for the benefits of an arranged marriage. It’s something that I want no part in, but there is something to be said of an objective, I being like, “You might pair well with this person,” more than me being like, “Whoa, look at those boobs.” A good friend of mine might be able to make a better, slightly more objective and detached enough, but still in a place of caring choice than someone closer to me. My wife might be too attached to pull the plug, or she might be a little too sick of me to leave that plug there.

Kris, what is your reaction to this special status, this hierarchical nurture of relationships that some are more important than others?

If we look at this from cultural norms and tradition, the argument will be made that we live in a heteronormative society. A husband and wife is the highest supreme relationship and that should be valued, and then all other relationships are in an inferior position. I don’t agree with that premise, but that’s the way in which a lot of people operate. That’s the way they think, and so they value husbands and wives. They don’t value husbands and husbands, wives and wives. They don’t value friends.

The friends thing is striking to me because friends provide such value. They’re similarly chosen in the same way that a relationship escalator is chosen. They’re often much more consistent or continuous, yet they’re not held in the same esteem.

One part we underestimate is how much work goes into a friendship as well. People often talk about how marriage is work. Friendships are just as much work.

Friendships are undervalued in modern adult lives. If you look at the new friendships that are then forced on you in your standard nuclear family, 9:00 to 5:00 job model, which is forget all of the awesome people you’ve met along the way. You’re now friends with this other dude in the mailroom who is a dipshit. By necessity of having to work with this person each day, or needing to be a team player or whatever other idiotic pressures that are well intended, but misguided middle manager has put on you, now you’re in this weird, crowbarred, contrived friendship that’s so inferior to the many available friendships that you had before this constraint. I do wonder in what way does marriage might have some similar limitations.

Can we come back and talk about whether or not men and women can truly be friends without having some kind of sexual energy or anything?

The answer to that is, of course, they can.

I feel like at some point when you’re in a relationship, friendship or otherwise, with the opposite sex, or even the same sex, there’s going to be some sexual tension that you have to get through.

To Shane’s point, and I’m sure all of us who were in a dating relationship, or anybody who’s been in a marriage can appreciate this. I’m seeing someone, you’re seeing someone, we are friends. We want our partners to become friends because you want to create this little quad. My married friends talk about how difficult this is to do. They were like, “The women get along great, but the guys, all they can talk about is football and that’s it. The guys get along great, but the women, they just tolerate each other.” Now, you’re being forced because it’s Friday night, you got to go out to dinner with your partner. It’s not okay for you to go to separate dinners on Friday night because this is a special relationship. In the same way, you get stuck with Johnny in the mailroom, you might get stuck with Johnny at the cocktail party.

Even within friend groups, I have several different groups of friend groups that I don’t think should mix with one another necessarily. I’m not like, “You guys should stay away from one another.” I wouldn’t invite the same people to the party because I know they wouldn’t pair well with one another. In the same way, when I’m in a relationship, it’s like, “She’s not going to understand all my friend Dave’s queef jokes that he makes.” We’ve been friends for twenty years. They started juvenile and now, we recognize that they’re juvenile, and they weren’t funny for a while. You turn 40 and it’s funny again, where it’s funny because it shouldn’t be funny. She’s not going to get the nuances of that. It’s just some dirtbag friend of mine who talks about queefs that reflect poorly on me.

We can see the downside of this and yet it persists. Here’s my hypothesis is that the status makes it easy. It makes it easy to focus on this relationship. Because it’s so important and held in such high esteem, it keeps that relationship important to you. It keeps that bond there. If you fail at this super important relationship, there’s even more disgrace than if you fail at some other relationship.

You just gave me the best idea. Are you nervous after my last joke?

No. I know you well enough.

Best friend ceremonies instead of marriage ceremonies or in addition to ceremonies, you have friends’ ceremonies. You have a party. You have a get-together. You go like, “Me and Peter are celebrating ten years of friendship, and we’re committed. We’re going to continue being friends. We’re going to keep on working on projects. This is my vows in front of my friends and family, that this person is a significant piece of my life.”

Let’s get into the last one. That is continuity and consistency. They’re not supposed to pause or step back. You’re not supposed to unmerge your relationship. Why is this about the long haul? Why is this about death do you part? Why is it that when someone breaks up, we go, “I’m sorry to hear that,” versus Peter McGraw saying, “Congratulations?” Why does the world see a lack of continuity or consistency as bad?

One of the things I tell my students, especially my undergraduate students, I’m like, “You want to go on from undergraduate directly to graduate school. If you stop and go out into the real world and make real money, you’re not going to want to come back to abject poverty being a graduate student.” Thinking about what you’re saying and partnered adults or people who are married, it’s like, I wonder if they were to take a break for a while. I get a sabbatical every six years at the university. I get to step away, refresh myself, and come back. If we had a sabbatical with marriages, how many people would come back?

Kris, it’s so interesting you said this because I’m on leave right now. You get a break from it all, and you start to realize, “Why did we do the things that we do? Why is this job the way it is?” Are you saying if you had a sabbatical from your marriage, you just go?

That’s a wrap.

If I hear you correctly, you’re saying, part of the reason that consistency exists is because if you don’t give someone a chance to see what the other side is like, what the grass on the other side is like, it might be greener to them, at least temporarily, and then cause the disillusion of that relationship.

You have to keep progressing forward with the blinders on because if you get that sabbatical and you get that break, there’s a good chance that the institution will fall apart.

Remember, if you do split now, you have to split resources. You have to split the land. You have to split the alliance. I’m going to think about the initial elements of marriage in this way. That’s bad for business.

It’s harder to build something and keep it than it is to destroy something. The nature of the universe, to a fault, favors stability. There are plenty of fantastic elements at the Big Bang that were unstable and never survived that process. All of our physical laws were built on the stable elements that did survive, led to evolution, and led to genes. It’s so hard for things to go right that there’s a lot of pressure. There are many more ways things can go wrong. There is a lot of pressure to hold on to things, to hold on to stability, to hold on to structures, to a fault. Many couples probably would benefit from a break to re-appreciate one another but putting something more.

Is it the Quakers or they’re not the Quakers, the Amish. There’s a term for this where you’re able to go off and drink into corrals and to see this non-Amish world. You can decide to come back and join the culture again, or if you decide not to, you are removed. You have this trying out period. What you were making me think about is the Anna Karenina principle, that all happy families are happy for the same reason because everything has to go right. A happy family is unhappy for a different reason. What you’re suggesting, Shane, is that while this relationship escalator may have this ease in terms of the path, it’s not necessarily easy and that it can be fragile. If you introduced sexual sabbaticals into what’s supposed to be this monogamous partnership, suddenly the person goes, “I don’t want to go back to having sex with that person. I realized how boring it is.”

Pete, you’ve used, “The governments have these things in place. Therefore, they must be picking up on something.” The advent of agriculture, which led to the advent of being able to accumulate resources rather than carry your assets on your back, which led to trading. Managers between metropolis areas, which led to governors, which led to kings. It led to these unnatural super hierarchies that would have never happened in the same kind of egalitarian structure that would have been like, “That guy is a little bit better at hunting. That lady is slightly more attractive.” Now, all of the sudden, it’s like, “That person has so many more, so much more land, so many more resources.”

It’s nothing like the hunter-gatherers were the difference between a Ford and a Mercedes, not having a car to having a private jet, which was many of our modern structures. That allowed for kings to have harems, which led to uprisings because some dude has 300 ladies, which led to decrees of monogamy and institutionalized marriage. There are lots of factors that gave rise to things like marriage independently in many different cultures, but that’s one of the ways that marriage happened. It’s not necessarily for any of our interests, but it served that one dude or that one kingdom.

In a moment, I want to get your parting thoughts, Kris, as reflecting on these elements. As you can tell, I’m going to be covering the alternatives to these in future episodes, including one with Amy Gahran. We’ll talk about things like ethical non-monogamy, living apart together, big friendship, this idea about friend marriages of sorts. Listening to you talk has me thinking about the rise of digital nomadship. In some ways, we’re almost going back to a hunter-gatherer way, where there are people who have one bag, one laptop, one phone. They’re able to travel the world and work. Wealth is not connected to land anymore. Now, it’s connected to your stock portfolio or your Bitcoin account. You now can become a hunter-gatherer again of sorts. You can do this very lean and light. Being a digital nomad benefits you being solo or maybe partnered, but certainly having kids as a digital nomad can be done, but it’s harder to do. Now, because of the rise of technology, we’re seeing the loosening of some of these criteria by which people might live.

Now, you’re hunting for these beneficial networks to be a part of. You’re able to hunt for exactly the particular kind of mate that you want, not just the one that has the less wonky eye. I’m sure there were the many compromises that happened in our hunter-gatherer tribal past limited by number of possibilities. The pressures of the resources now being the psych and less about how big is your dwelling. Instead, it’s how great your Instagram pictures are.

This is a preview. As part of this series, I’m going to do my first live podcast taping on Clubhouse about relationship anarchy, which is the opposite of the relationship escalator. That’s going to be very exciting. I have Clubhouse guests. People who don’t know what Clubhouse is will know in a few episodes. I don’t want to put too much pressure on you, Kris. I want you to use your Sociology lens to put this in a perspective that is useful as we move forward and start talking about the alternatives in future episodes.

I am mildly critical of starting out with the escalator. What we did was we laid the foundation and the framework, and now we’re deviating from the framework, which if people aren’t careful, they could see it as a deficit model. We’re doing this thing our way, I would have much rather talked about the alternatives, and then maybe at the end of the series, brought in the escalator. We started with the escalator. Now, we’re moving away from it. That becomes the gold standard. We’re at a point where it should no longer be the gold standard, but in some ways, we’re sitting here reinforcing it as the gold standard. That’s my critical assessment. That’s if the readers have made it this far. You do a lot of great work about singles, but then talk about marriage. They have to get all the way to the end to understand. We’re just giving a framework. We’re building a straw man, so we can tear it apart. There’s a different perspective or approach we could have taken to get to this series.

I like setting up like the 101 Historical like Plato said this, Socrates said this, and they were all horribly wrong before Darwin, but you still say like, “Here was the foundation of the ideas that built to where we are now.” Examining the relationship escalator is about reframing it as a highlighting of our many modern blind spots.

There are so many cases where we always start out with this kind of narrative. We always start out with the historical context. We always start out with this being like the reference group, and then we now have to talk about how we deviate from this reference group. We should have flipped it. We could have flipped it. That’s all the traditional way of doing it.

I don’t think our conversation gives someone a sense that we are in any way endorsing this as the right path. By the way, I do endorse it for some people. My Canadian friend, Steve, they do the relationship escalator incredibly well. That’s fantastic for them. As the series unfolds, we are going to see or hear more and more of these deviations, these alternatives, that are not normative yet. They’re starting to become more so in that way. This was all I hoped it would be, especially a lot of laughs. It’s so wonderful to have Kris and Shane returned because you’re now frequent contributors for a good reason. With that, I want to say thank you so much.

Thank you.

Thank you, Peter. Shane, it was a pleasure meeting you. I look forward to being on a podcast with you again soon.


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About Kris Marsh

Kris Marsh is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland. A Fullbright Scholar, her research focuses on the Black middle class, demography, racial residential segregation, and education. She is a contributor to CNN in America, the Associated Press, NBC Washington, and Al Jazeera America and is frequently asked to contribute to the Washington Post. Kris writing a book that examines the mental and physical health, wealth, residential choices and dating practices of an emerging Black middle class that is single and living alone. This is her third appearance on Solo.

About Shane Mauss

SOLO 53 | Innovations For SinglesShane Mauss is a stand-up comedian, adventurer, and science enthusiast. He has appeared on Comedy Central, Conan, Kimmel, and Showtime. He visits universities around the world and interviews researchers for his science podcast, Here We Are. A close friend of Peter McGraw’s, he was a special contributor to Peter’s book Shtick to Business.



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