“Where is this relationship going?”
If you have ever been asked that question, you have been on the relationship escalator.
It consists of a sequence of steps — dating, living together, marriage, children — that supposedly define a “healthy” relationship.
Read on to learn about the number of steps involved, differences for men and women, and how to step off the escalator, if that is what you desire.
- Definition: What Is the Relationship Escalator?
- The 13 Steps of the Relationship Escalator
- The Urge for Procreation
- The Relationship Escalator as a Social Script
- Men vs. Women
- What Happens After the Relationship Escalator?
- What About Gay Couples?
- The Origins of the Relationship Escalator
- Is the Relationship Escalator Good or Bad?
- How To Step Off the Relationship Escalator
Definition: What Is the Relationship Escalator?
The term “relationship escalator” refers to the idea that a “proper” relationship has to move through a sequence of steps.
It’s the 1950s pattern. You start dating, you become exclusive, you move in together, and — the great climax — you get married and have kids.
This pattern is visualized as a series of steps on an escalator. The steps have to happen in a certain order, and they have to carry you upwards, towards a pre-defined goal.
The term “relationship escalator” was originally coined by blogger Amy Gahran. In 2012, she wrote a post about stepping off the relationship escalator, which is available on her great site, “Solo Poly.”
In 2017, she also published a book, “Stepping Off the Relationship Escalator: Uncommon Love and Life.”
The metaphor has since become a staple of the polyamory world, and has even been cited in scientific research. I will build on Amy’s ideas in this article.
The 13 Steps of the Relationship Escalator
The relationship escalator, as I define it, consists of 13 steps. Each of them represents a further level of escalation. The ultimate goal is to formalize the relationship via marriage and have children.
1. Initial Contact
The two parties meet for the first time.
This could be the first date after matching each other on Tinder. It could be one person walking up to another at a bar. Or maybe they are being introduced to each other by a mutual friend.
Depending on the context, it could be clear from the start that this is about a potential sexual relationship. Or the intent could be more fuzzy if one or both parties are not viewing each other as potential mates yet.
2. Pre-Sex Courtship
Pre-sex courtship is about letting the other person know that you are sexually interested in them. Often, this interest is not expressed explicitly, but implicitly (flirting).
But there are also cases where one party finds it necessary to explicitly state their intent (“I have a crush on you”). Typically, this is done when the other party has not reciprocated yet or has acted ambivalently.
By doing so, a decision for or against a sexual relationship is forced.
3. First Sexual Encounter
Some type of sexual activity is starting to take place. This might include kissing, kissing and touching, oral sex, or penetration.
This third stage marks a milestone. Where before, intent might have been unclear, it is now obvious that this relationship is of a sexual nature.
Not every sexual encounter leads to a monogamous relationship.
One-night stands end when the sex is over. Friends-with-benefits arrangements continue on, but are usually free of post-sex courtship rituals.
So to keep moving up the relationship escalator, one or both parties must express a desire to intensify the connection. This is usually done by spending more time together (“Do you want to see a movie on Saturday?”).
5. Bunny Sex
With time spent together, sex will become very frequent. For a while, the two partners will hardly be able to keep their hands off each other.
This “bunny sex” is addictive. We experience a massive rise in dopamine levels. The result is a euphoria similar to drugs like cocaine or heroine.
As the source of our pleasure, the partner is inflated to almost magical proportions. We feel a strong urge to secure that happiness.
6. Defining and Claiming
The relationship is now being defined, both to each other and towards the public.
Typically, mutual declarations of love are given. One party will refer to the other party as their boyfriend or girlfriend.
By doing so, both parties are letting each other know that they are sexually exclusive. If there were any outside sexual involvements up to this point, these now must be ended.
Monogamy is the Western custom of one wife and hardly any mistresses.Hector Hugh Munro
At the same time, the couple is letting the outside world know — family, friends, potential rivals — that exclusiveness has been reached.
During this stage, the element of possession is introduced. By claiming the other person, you mark your territory.
Violating these boundaries will come with consequences, like fights or freeze-outs, and, worst case scenario, the end of the relationship.
7. Relationship Rhythm
Both parties start adapting the rhythms of their lives to accommodate each other.
This includes blocking time for each other (date nights), sexual patterns and practices (e.g., morning sex or role play), and communication patterns (daily phone calls / texting).
Whatever is on your agenda — a birthday party, a weekend trip, a vacation — you are expected to first check with your partner.
With the sexual relationship taking precedence, other relationships get downgraded (family, friends). More time spent together means less time for other people.
8. Merging of Identity
With this synchronization of time also comes a synchronization of identities.
The individual as an “I” is pushed into the background. Instead, the “We” emerges.
Where before you had to rely on yourself, life now becomes a team event. Challenges are faced together, successes are being shared.
This merging also manifests itself in language. The two parties start referring to themselves as “Us” and “We,” even though just one person is speaking.
8. Future Plans
The partners start planning for a future together.
Subjects include career goals, sources of income, place of residence, number of children, parenting roles, etc.
This is the make or break point.
Up to this point, there was no explicit agreement this will go on forever. A future together was just an unexpressed possibility.
This ends now.
If you refuse to plan for the future, the relationship will either be shut down immediately or very soon, as there is no chance for “completion.”
9. Shared Home and Finances
The two parties move in together.
All space becomes shared. The bedroom, the living room, even the bathroom in some cases, are open to each partner at any time.
This intensifies the move from “I” to “We,” as you cannot withdraw physically anymore.
This is also the stage where finances start to get shared, to pay for rent, furniture, food, cleaning supplies, etc.
If married couples did not live together, happy marriages would be more frequent.Friedrich Nietzsche
Via marriage, the relationship becomes a legal entity in the eyes of the government. By doing so, you gain financial advantages, like tax and insurance benefits. Also, it becomes easier to apply for a loan.
More importantly, it becomes relatively difficult to untie the relationship. If you do so, there will be administrative, financial, and legal consequences.
In a sense, you now own each other. Your partner is less likely to slip away. This increases emotional security.
But the greatest effect of marriage is the feeling of accomplishment. Especially for many heterosexual women, it’s a major item on their bucket list. The ensuing festivities celebrate this “triumph.”
Marriage is the chief cause of divorce.Groucho Marx
Next, a house has to be bought, to prepare a nest. This is an important prerequisite for having children.
For most people, this means taking out a loan for a down payment, and monthly mortgage payments for years and decades to come. This will change the financial situation of both partners fundamentally.
Also, owning property will make you more sedentary compared to renting an apartment as a single person. You are more likely to stay put as long as you own the house.
Children are the culmination of the relationship escalator.
Every step has been leading up to this. Having children is the grand finale.
With the nuclear family complete, the relationship escalator has fulfilled its function.
The ride is over.
Love as a relation between men and women was ruined by the desire to make sure of the legitimacy of children.Bertrand Russell
The Urge for Procreation
At the heart of the relationship escalator is the urge for procreation. It’s the engine that drives the ascent. If that urge ceases, the climb will stop as well.
Just consider some of the stages:
- Sexual exclusivity → neither one of the couple is distracted by other people, so they can completely focus on the relationship at hand
- Living together → two people instead of one are around to take care of the kids
- Financial merging → children, a massive financial burden, can be paid for more easily
- Marriage → legal consequences if you want to exit, so you are more likely to stay together for the child
- Shared property → a safe environment for your offspring to grow up in
It doesn’t matter if the partners are aware of it or not — the ultimate function of the escalator is to create an ideal environment for raising children. That is its sole purpose.
The Relationship Escalator as a Social Script
Biology might be at the heart of the relationship escalator, but it’s carried out through a social script.
In essence, society tells you what to do with your love life, and we, unaware of different options, follow along.
It’s your parents giving you baby dolls, encouraging you to play house.
It’s that Disney movie you watched as a child where the prince came to rescue the poor maid, and they lived happily ever after.
It’s your pastor talking about “healthy” relationships (implicitly labeling all other relationships as unhealthy).
It’s your girlfriend asking, “Well, but is it going anywhere?”
It’s any sitcom / romcom telling the story of how they finally got together (“Friends,” “How I Met Your Mother,” “Notting Hill,” “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” etc.).
It’s your married friend exclaiming, “You guys are next!”
It’s your mother pressuring, “When are you going to have a baby?”
It’s women being slut-shamed if they openly express their need for sexual variety.
It’s Fox News rambling on about how the nuclear family is the basis of American culture.
Men vs. Women
The relationship escalator is not the same for men and women.
Women tend to push harder for the relationship escalator than men.
That is due to biology and socialization.
As we saw, the ultimate function of the relationship escalator is to have kids.
But having kids is not the same experience for men and women.
Men tend to be less enamored with children than women are.
One example is the so-called Kundera hypothesis. It states that when faced with a life-or-death situation, every woman would prefer to save her child over her mate. But not every man would do the same. Research indicates that this is true.
Real life further confirms this. How many times have you seen female friends doting on other people’s babies? How many times have you noticed the same behavior in men?
The emotional reward of having kids is higher for women than it is for men. Naturally, women have a stronger incentive to climb the relationship escalator.
The social consequences of stepping off the relationship escalator are much more severe for women than for men.
If I, as a guy, step off the relationship escalator, I can get away with being “an eternal bachelor.” It’s not ideal, but acceptable.
If you, as a woman, decide to step off, depending on your age, you might either be labeled a slut or an old spinster.
Is it any wonder that even the most open-minded women out there are so careful what they let on to others? When it comes to sexual freedom, the cards are still stacked against women.
For that reason, most women decide to play it safe. They will push for the relationship escalator, which allows them to experience love and sex without being scrutinized by their environment.
What Happens After the Relationship Escalator?
Children change everything.
Where before there was a rapid advancement through various relationship stages, now, nothing much happens anymore (except for more children).
The escalator is over.
Or is it?
The Post-Escalator For Women
When the original relationship escalator stops, a new escalator starts. And that’s the mother’s relationship with her children.
A new set of escalating steps is laid out:
- The baby starting to crawl
- The baby starting to walk
- The baby starting to talk
- The child going off to kindergarten
- The child learning to ride a bicycle
- The child learning to swim
- The child going off to elementary school
- The child learning to read / write
- The child going off to middle school / high school
- The young adult falling in love for the first time
- The young adult graduating from high school
- The young adult going off to college
The emotional stimulation previously provided by the sexual relationship is transferred to the mother’s relationship with her child (and eventually her grandchild).
Subsequently, the sexual relationship with the father is depreciated.
The Post-Escalator For Men
The post-escalator phase leaves the male in a bit of a pickle.
Sure, he will start his own relationship escalator with the child. But it will not provide the same level of excitement the mother receives from it. As discussed, most men are less smitten with children than women are.
This might be why so many middle-aged men at some point start an affair with the proverbial secretary.
They too want emotional stimulation, but they are not getting it at home anymore. Ironically, they too feel cheated on. They went along with the relationship escalator, but then were left hanging in midair.
Alternatively, many men will turn to their work at this point. Here, they can chase success, overcome adversity, and be admired by like-minded peers. It’s another way to recreate the emotional stimulation lost.
What About Gay Couples?
Fewer gay men opt for the relationship escalator and instead prefer non-conventional relationship models.
The numbers differ.
A 2010 survey by San Francisco State University showed that half of all gay couples were not fully monogamous, while a 2013 study from Hunter College found that 42 percent of partnered gay men were either in open relationships or “monogamish.” A 2020 poll by the San Francisco-based Gay Therapy Center still found that 30 percent were not strictly monogamous with their partners.
Whatever the exact number, it is obvious that non-escalator relationships are much more popular with gay men.
It makes sense — the urge for procreation is probably less pronounced. Also, gay men tend to have more experience with breaking away from societal conventions.
This not to say there aren’t plenty of gay couples (and, I assume, lesbian, transgender, bisexual and asexual couples) that still want the relationship escalator.
The fight for the June 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision seems to be an expression of that. By having the right to marry, gay couples can ride the relationship escalator all the way to the top (in combination with adoption).
The Origins of the Relationship Escalator
The “relationship escalator” might be a relatively new term, but the concept has been around for as long as the nuclear family.
Nuclear vs. Extended Family
The nuclear family refers to a group consisting of parents and their children, living under the same roof. In contrast, the extended family also includes grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.
For the longest period of time, the extended family was the norm. But over the last 250 years, the nuclear family has begun to replace it. Since the 1950s, the nuclear family has been the predominant family structure in the US.
This switch occurred as a byproduct of industrialization. The smaller unit of the nuclear family was relatively more mobile than the larger, more settled extended family. It was able to move where the work was.
From the Nuclear Family to the Relationship Escalator
With the nuclear family came the relationship escalator.
In the past, extended families in rural settings would often arrange marriages to secure the rights to land owned and for expansion of that land.
But with families moving to the cities to work in the big factories, that changed. There was a new process needed to formalize courtship. The result was what we call the relationship escalator.
In this sense, the relationship escalator was a progressive invention — you suddenly had some say in whom you were going to marry. It is ironic that the nuclear family is nowadays claimed by the political right.
Is the Relationship Escalator Good or Bad?
Per se, the relationship escalator is neither good nor bad.
It all depends on what you want.
There are people enjoying the relationship escalator tremendously — the journey, the emotional security, the societal approval.
If that’s you, then the relationship escalator will greatly enhance your life.
But the danger is that many people step onto the relationship without knowing what they are getting into.
They just follow their momentary infatuation with somebody, but never consider the long-term consequences:
- 45 percent of all marriages end in divorce.
- Of those marriages not ending in divorce, many partners still come to resent each other.
- Cheating is very common in relationship escalators, especially during the post-escalator phase.
- 47 percent of married couples have sex less than once a week.
- The average monthly mortgage in the US is about $1500.
- The cost of raising a child is estimated around $270,000.
- Alimony is about 40 percent of the paying party’s income (depending on the state).
- Focus is a rare commodity in escalator relationships. Once you live together, there is always someone around to distract you. Children intensify this situation. As a result, self-isolation (“monk mode“) becomes impossible.
- Once you have children, your life is effectively on hold for the next 20 years. It will feel like you always have too much to do. Pastime activities like reading fall by the wayside. Any dreams you had will have to be postponed. This is especially true for the mother, as the primary attachment figure.
- Escaping your 9-to-5 job becomes much more difficult when you have a family to take care of. Even when you are single, it’s hard enough to make ends meet, as well as carve out the time to build a side hustle. But with your family relying on you, your wriggle room is even smaller. All the money gets spent right away. The little time you have to yourself, you need to recuperate, so you can do it all over again.
- Long-term travel becomes very difficult with owning property and having children. It can be done, but it’s rare. You cannot move to a new city on short notice anymore, without selling your house and your belongings first (one of the reasons why I prefer an extreme minimalist lifestyle). There is also the matter of taking your children out of their social environment, as well as educational requirements.
If you understand these risks and still want to take a ride on the relationship escalator, then more power to you.
But if you have doubts or flat out refuse these conditions, it’s time to look at alternative relationship models.
How To Step Off the Relationship Escalator
In a society obsessed with the relationship escalator, it is not easy to step off it. Here are ten tips on how you can still succeed with a non-escalator relationship.
1. Know Your Why
When you know why you are stepping off the relationship escalator, it is easier to withstand the societal pressure to stay on it.
Maybe you are not interested in marriage and having kids?
Maybe you don’t see why you should only be allowed to have sex and/or feelings for only one person?
Maybe you dislike the hierarchical logic that comes with traditional relationships?
Whatever it is, take half an hour to explain it to yourself in writing. This will strengthen your resolve like few other things.
2. Understand Biology
In the polyamory world, it is very common to explain everything away as a social construct. The traditional relationship escalator is supposedly all due to societal conditioning.
That is too simple.
Certain aspects of the relationship escalator, like the merging of identities and resources, are clearly based on biology. They are there to make sure the offspring survives.
Denying this is risky. For example, you might decide to not have kids because of your ideological presuppositions. But your body might strongly disagree with you.
Likewise with jealousy. This is not just conditioning. It’s making sure your genes get passed on, not your rival’s. You can observe that in the animal kingdom any day.
Don’t get me wrong — I am all for challenging the status quo, even going against biology. But understand the price you are going to pay so you don’t come to regret it.
My argument has always been that nature has a master plan pushing every species toward procreation and that it is our right and even obligation as rational human beings to defy nature’s fascism.Camille Paglia
3. Don’t Try to Convince Others
Don’t try to convert other people to your own beliefs. You can’t change people.
Rather, try to find people that are already open to the idea of having a non-escalator relationship.
Even better, find people who have already done it.
Thanks to the internet, that is easier than ever. Reddit is a good place to start. So are Facebook groups about polyamory and open relationships.
If you prefer meeting people in real life (I do), let them know early on what you are about. You will be surprised how many other people also harbor doubts about the relationship escalator and want to try something new.
4. Consider Different Models
Once you step off the relationship escalator, there is a plethora of alternative relationship models to consider:
- Don’t-ask-don’t-tell: two partners agreeing that sexual contacts outside the primary relationship can happen, as long as they are kept on the down-low.
- Long-distance relationships: if geographically apart (e.g., military deployment), the partners might grant each other permission to have sex outside the primary relationship.
- Monogamish: two people acting as a monogamous couple most of the time, but allowing for occasional “lapses.” The nature of these lapses is defined in advance (flirting, sexting, webcam sex, one-night stands etc.).
- The swinger lifestyle: having recreational sex with other people, oftentimes with your partner present. Swinger meetups can take place both at swinger clubs and at private locations.
- Polyamory: having more than one intimate relationship at a time with everybody knowing about it. This can include living together and having kids together from different in-house partners.
- Solo Polyamory: having more than one intimate relationship at a time with everybody knowing about it. But here, cohabitation, merging finances and having children are not an option.
- BDSM/kink community: playing with power dynamics, that may or may not involve sex and/or outsiders.
- Asexuality: being emotionally close with somebody without sexual requirements or the obligation to have kids.
This is just a small sampling.
Research the different options, then form a hypothesis what would suit you the best.
Try the new model to gain real-life data. Then course correct as you go.
I shall not hold you to any medieval code of faithfulness to me nor shall I consider myself bound to you similarly.Amelia Earhart
5. Beware of Pseudo Escalators
Just because you are exploring non-monogamous relationship models doesn’t mean you have stepped off the relationship escalator.
For example, you might be in a polyamorous relationship with two partners.
But with each of these partners, you are moving through a series of steps, very similar to the relationship escalator. There is the dating phase, the moving in stage, the shared finances, the having kids part, etc.
Now you have two escalators going instead of one.
If that is what everybody wants, fantastic.
But if you are trying to escape the escalator dynamic, be aware it still happens in non-traditional relationships.
6. Focus on Experiences
The sign of a happy relationship is not some pre-defined milestone reached.
It’s a fantastic conversation, where two (or more) people develop an idea together.
It’s fulfilling each other’s sexual fantasies.
It’s enjoying food together.
It’s a long walk in a forest.
It’s making each other laugh.
It’s exploring the planet together.
It’s challenging each other and making each other grow.
Those are experiences, not milestones.
Experiences don’t require a certain order. They don’t have an endpoint. And they most certainly don’t require outside approval.
Every day anew, focus on the quality of your experiences together. That is how you overcome the relationship escalator.
7. Communicate Expectations
State clearly what you want. And encourage your partner(s) to do likewise.
One of the main reasons why people go for the traditional relationship escalator is that expectations are never talked about.
So people just go along with what is happening and / or what society expects of them.
This rarely ends well.
If you want to avoid that fate, communicate, communicate, communicate.
Then communicate some more.
Understand — when you think you made yourself perfectly clear, the other party is probably just starting to understand what you are talking about.
8. Anticipate Shaming
Sometimes, people will try to shame you.
Your parents will think of you as abnormal. They will also be angry with you for not giving them grandchildren.
If you’re a woman, your girlfriends will remind you — ever so tactfully — that you are a slut, and how you don’t have what they have.
And I can only imagine how much harder things get if you are also gay, bi, or trans.
It is easy to get angry in these moments, even hateful. But that is never the answer.
Just remind yourself that it is your life. And if you give in to social expectations now, you will regret it later.
Then dust yourself off, and keep walking.
9. Be Playful
Relationships can be hard.
Values clash. Expectations are disappointed. Jealousy roars its ugly head.
Therefore, it’s important to not take yourself too seriously.
Kick back. Have silly interactions with each other. Enjoy wild, mind-bending sex. Surprise each other.
Whatever seems unbearable will lose its sting with time.
In the meantime, don’t lose your playfulness.
An optimal sexual encounter is the paradigm of productive play. The participants potentiate each other’s pleasure, nobody keeps score, and everybody wins.Bob Black
10. Learn How To Break-up
Many people stay too long on the relationship escalator simply because they have never learned how to break-up with somebody.
But even if you are already engaging in alternative relationships, it’s an important skill to have. It allows you to move on gracefully if you have reached an impasse.
The most important detail — never blame the other person.
You are not a victim. You entered into this relationship with open eyes. If you didn’t get what you want, that was your misjudgment. Make a better call next time.
Vilifying this person post-breakup is not only a type of lying to yourself; it also prevents any learning.
But if you don’t blame, the breakup will come much easier. You will be able to remain close. And you will discover how beautiful it can be to have a non-sexual relationship with an ex.