This article originally appeared on Polysingleish, April 28th, 2015. It has been edited and updated from it’s original version.
The most common script that we follow in relationships is that of the Relationship Escalator. Originating in Patriarchal Monogamy, it’s a model that offers a structure for secure relational attachment between two individuals, an experience of safety due to it’s predictability and linear trajectory, and a promise of ongoing stability — because the consequences of leaving that escalator can be quite dire. The Relationship Escalator works for a lot of people, and can still be practiced by people in consensual non-monogamous relationship. However, over the past decade more people have come to question whether they want to be on an escalator in their relationships at all, and if not, well — what then?
And, let’s be honest- most relationships you will experience in your life (including platonic ones) are not on an Escalator.
Non-escalator relationships can be short term and casual, and they can also be long term, emotionally invested relationships. They are build-your-own-lunch-box relationships, relationships a la carte. But, how do people in non escalator relationships measure the investment? How do they read emotional commitment, security, and the ongoing life of the relationship, when they aren’t defaulting to the regular milestones of dating, moving in, getting married, and so forth?
Through both personal experiences and witnessing the journeys of others in this non-escalator paradigm, I’ve found that relationships can be all too often sabotaged by the expectation of telepathy that accompanies the Relationship Escalator. We carry implicit assumptions about our desires being the same as our partners’, and the patterning of the Relationship Escalator can be so deeply ingrained in our subconscious that we might not even realise that we are projecting expectations based on our own desires until we find ourselves in moments of conflict, disappointment, and grief.
The primary skill for navigating your life away from the assumed defaults of dominant culture is to learn how to have explicit conversations about your desires, your needs, and what these mean for you. When we don’t talk about this — and instead fill in the blanks based on a default set of assumptions we carry about the other person — then we end up either trying to control the relationships we are in, or being controlled by it. And neither of those options is either fun, or healthy.
Instead of feeling restricted by this escalator, how can you create Relationships as spaces of freedom?
When you make the decision to let go of the Relationship Escalator, you are no longer following a script, you are now co-creating relationship. All relationships have the possibility of being an ongoing conversation- and Non-Escalator relationships more so, because there’s no script to default to when there’s uncertainty (though, we might try to). This is a game of improv, and like any good improvised creation, there are some guidelines that can help you navigate conscious choices.
Radical relationships are about making conscious choices about relating. And this path of conscious choice means recognising that relationships don’t exist in a binary of either “long term committed escalator relationships” or “casual, meaningless, short term recreational relationships.” Radical relating invites us to explore the vast possibilities both in between, and beyond, these extremes.
Solo polyamorous individuals (SoPo for short) — who look for non escalator relationships only — can be reticent to date those in primary, escalator like relationships, concerned that are only dating them for a short term, recreational purpose. SoPo individuals can sometimes feel like their presence is being used — consciously perhaps but unconsciously more likely — to spice up their date-friend’s sex life, as an outlet for relational frustrations, or to exercise some otherwise unrealised disfunction or fantasy. During my own experience as someone practicing Solo Polyamory for a decade, I found myself confronted with the fear of becoming part of a ‘Disneyland Relationship’: where the married family person goes to a fun-loving singleton to escape the reality of their responsibilities.
Feeling used is depleting to one’s self-relationship — and for those whose non-monogamy journey includes a tight focus on developing a healthier relationship with themselves, becoming a recreational partner when you’re seeking more emotional investment, can be exhausting.
So, non-escalator seeking folks look for certain things as marks of commitment and emotional investment: actions, behaviours, or words that communicate recognition, respect, rapport, and receptivity.
The Relationship Escalator has implicit marks of commitment and investment — each floor reached symbolises deeper intertwining: moving in together, sharing finances, getting married, having children. When people are on an escalator in their relationship, and are invested in the concept that their relationship has a set destination, they will go to great lengths to troubleshoot and address the conflicts and areas where intimacy has been lost. They’ll go to therapists and counsellors and do the work to figure out what went wrong and how to course correct. Indeed, many couples — married, common law, primary, nesting, however you want to define it — go to relationship Counselling. But how often do people think of going to Counselling with their partner when it’s a non escalator relationships that’s on the rocks?
“You don’t measure love in time. You measure love in transformation. Sometimes the longest connections yield very little growth, while the briefest of encounters change everything. The heart doesn’t wear a watch- it’s timeless. It doesn’t care how long you know someone. It doesn’t care if you had a 40 year anniversary if there is no juice in the connection. What the heart cares about is resonance. Resonance that opens it, resonance that enlivens it, resonance that calls it home. And when it finds it, the transformation begins…”
Relationships that are decidedly not on the escalator don’t have to lack direction or purpose. Being off the escalator and without a predetermined trajectory doesn’t mean it’s not going to require conflict resolution or course correction. For those of us traversing the terrain of the non-escalator paradigm, we need to know that we aren’t going to be disposable in relationships. We need to know that we aren’t going to be dropped at the first sign of conflict (or the third or fourth). And, while we don’t need to see a ring on our fingers as a symbol of contractual obligation, we do value assurances. We value knowing the landscape, and knowing that the relationships we share can still have direction, intention, and milestone moments, like any other relationship. We aren’t necessarily in it for the promise of a 40-year anniversary; we’re in it for the juice, the connection — and, the potential for personal growth and transformation.
Small things that might seem inconsequential in escalator relationships can take on greater significance in Non-Escalator relationships. It’s not that these wouldn’t or couldn’t be significant in escalators; rather, in a non escalator relationship you might appreciate them more. Removing the options to live together or get married or share finances as strategies for long-term relationship stability, present moment affirmations that the relationship has presence, continuity and value take precedence. So an extra toothbrush appearing in your bathroom might be a milestone moment because it implies they plan to come back. Defining and redefining your relationship labels marks a turning point and affirmation of the level of commitment and engagement you have with one another.
In the original version of this article in 2014, I shared a conversation guide for Solo Polyamorous individuals, and the people who date them. Whilst I feel like I’ve developed many more tools for exploring this in depth since then, this tool still resonates with many.
We may avoid conversation because we’re afraid it might challenge us; there is always the possibility that we may not get what we want out of the relationship if we end up having to define it. But, if we don’t communicate, if we don’t get clear on our own boundaries and relationship sandboxes, things will get messy, and we’ll get hurt. Knowing the terrain you’re crossing together is key. It’s okay to stop and ask for directions, and make course corrections when you need to. This is not an escalator: it’s a treasure map, with multiple types of treasure chests to find.
Ask yourself: what do you want to explore? Ask your partners what they want to explore. And then, enjoy the dance of figuring out where you meet one another’s desires. Conversations like this can be scary, so use this conversation guide to help you. Some of these are questions you might bring up early on in your connection, others might be better saved for that moment when you realise you have a desire for the relationship to become more established. Open, transparent conversations about your desires, your needs, your capacity, and your long term hopes and visions for your relationships, are the foundation for developing healthy and enriching non-escalator relationships.
There are many other wonderful resources out there that can help you in your journey of exploring relationships “off-the-escalator”. I highly recommend the “Relationship Anarchy Smorgasboard”, originated by Heather Orr and Lyrica Lawrence.
Thank you Mel for such an enlightening and helpful workshop! I thoroughly enjoyed all of it and look forward to continued learning from you. So grateful for all these extra resources.
The work you are doing is changing the world in such positive ways, and helping people change their own worlds, both inner and outer.
I've been able to articulate and communicate much better within my relationships and to create safe spaces.
Mel is an incredible listener and her attention to detail was crucial. I walked away with much more than I had anticipated: I came away with a lot of tools to work with, and also a comfortable understanding of who I am and how I present myself to others. Mel is nothing short of awesome at what she does, and I will continue to use her as a resource and recommend her.
"It was so good for me to open up and a relief to see that things don't have to be so black and white but within this there is still the possibility of clarity and a more personal, creative and radical approach to relationships... Love what you are offering Mel. You are awesome at what you are doing! It was great for me to be out of my comfort zone and to hear from folks who appeared to be very much in theirs. Thank you!"
"I desperately knew in my bones there was another script out there for me but when I struggled to find a healthy version of one, I haphazardly began writing it myself. And now?! To come into an entire community of people actively peeling back the veil to reveal their own trauma and vulnerability?? I am over the moon and feel so enthusiastic all the time. It's the first time in the last several years where I have had such sustained joy and direction."
~ Anon Course Student
"Your work has reminded me that perhaps there isn’t anything wrong with me at all. I am amazed at the deep levels of shame we carry as human beings because we don’t fit into the construct that is given to us as a model for our life. It feels exciting because I can now explore what I want for my life rather than be gifted something that just doesn’t feel right for me."
"After the workshop I felt like I could breathe again. I felt like my version of non-monogamy wasn't "wrong" and, even more helpful, my former partners wasn't either. I connected with people thinking of the same things as I was, struggling with the same things, and asking questions like me. I cried. I breathed. And for the first time in my life I didn't feel like a love alien dropped onto this planet."