When I met Husband, I fell in love with him rather quickly. He was so patient, kind, caring, thoughtful and brilliant! He was unlike many of the other people I had dated, and I really didn’t have any desire to date other people during the beginning of that relationship. I think we were both consumed with NRE to the point where our friends wanted to all barf whenever we showed up together. I can’t really remember a lot about that year, other than we went everywhere, did everything together, and it wasn’t suffocating – it was wonderful. We spent all that time together because we chose to and we enjoyed it. We positioned ourselves as being up for anything, and open to anything. Nothing was forbidden between us. But, like many in the beginnings of an intense young relationship, we found ourselves on the Relationship Escalator.
For those unfamiliar with this term: The relationship escalator refers to the socially acceptable, expected escalation of a relationship, through ordered stages such as: meet-cute, casual dating, have sex, “going steady” and monogamous commitment (usually the point where you “claim” and label each other and start using terms like “boyfriend” and doing annoying stuff like assuming you should bring them with you wherever you go), moving in together and marriage, being a lifelong commitment. Some people consider buying a home and having children the end “goal” of the relationship, the end of the escalator, at which point you devote your lives to your kids, brainwash and indoctrinate them into whatever values you were raised with, and forget what fun sex was like.
If you do these steps out of order, you are officially “off the escalator” and there are usually real social consequences. If there aren’t, you will still be questioned about your choices. This social conditioning is deep. It covers everything from whether it’s ok to have sex on the first date (or whether it’s ok to wait a year before having sex!) to when you “should” move in with a partner, to whether you should freak out because you’ve been dating someone for a couple years and he/she hasn’t proposed yet.
I am sad to say that I found myself caught on the relationship escalator. I got really existential about what it “meant” if we moved in together before we got engaged. I got bent out of shape because we hadn’t decided whether to get married within a certain number of years together. I wondered if I had done something wrong, if I had somehow been the wrong kind of woman and broken too many rules and therefore would never get married and never have a family and and and
I want to cry when I think about how much pain and confusion I could have saved myself if I had been more familiar with the concept of the escalator – and had accepted that it is completely voluntary and needn’t apply to me. My marriage isn’t doomed because it took us several years to decide to do it, just as it isn’t doomed because we had sex on the first date!
All these rules are there because we’re afraid, I guess. And the escalator I’ve outlined above works really really well, for lots of people. Many happy marriages, happy homes and happy kids are produced. But I could never stand the idea that all these things, in this order, must be destiny, and I would be a failure of a human being if I didn’t hit all the steps at the right time.
I could also never stand the idea that any relationship that doesn’t end in marriage, kids and mortgage is a failure. Say I spent 6 months dating an awesome, interesting person, and it turned out we didn’t want the same things, so we hugged and said goodbye, but they taught me a lot about human nature and I had tons of fun with them – this is a failure? I don’t buy it. I’m just too logical. It all depends on what your goals are in any given interaction.
Back to Husband. We were on that escalator, without really questioning it. We married and lived together and were mostly happy. Somewhere, though, I felt like I had given up a lot of things about myself and my life that I missed. I missed dating a lot. I missed meeting new people and the excitement of that. I missed the romance that brings with it. And at some point I realized, I was kind of letting myself go. I wasn’t trying so hard. I wasn’t dressing as nice, I wasn’t going out of my way to be romantic myself, even as I grumped that he wasn’t as thoughtful or romantic for me anymore. Typical complaints of a marriage, or any LTR, maybe, but they felt huge to me. I had been pondering if I wanted children, but something inside me rebelled, said, you aren’t done here yet, you haven’t really explored everything yet.
I was reading a little about polyamory back then. This was several years ago. As I read I recognized a lot about these other relationship styles that reminded me of my own philosophies to dating in the past. I realized there was another way to be married and be happy. And I realized that there was this relationship escalator thing, and I had a choice. I was on it, but I could get back off. I could step back and think about what direction to take. I wouldn’t be the first or last to do it. And to my relief, I realized it didn’t mean I had to break up a wonderful marriage or destroy anything I loved – I could build new things right beside what I already had.
Studying the concept of the escalator and really thinking about it, examining my own steps along the way – this really saved me. It saved my marriage, saved me from making big choices for the wrong reasons.
There is more written now, more blogs, more books, that there was a few years ago when I was seeking answers, and I am so truly happy about that. And very much enjoying our loving, meandering path away from the escalator.
A big part of curbing the tyranny of the escalator is simply to acknowledge that it exists, that it is a matter of choice, and that there are other valid choices. Ultimately substance, not structure, should be what determines the success or value of any intimate relationship.
— solopoly, “Riding the relationship escalator (or not)”