The Relationship Escalator

I have a lot of single friends. I also have a lot of people in my network who struggle with relationships. They post often about how there are no good ones out there, or how they struggle with serial dating and disappointment. Sometimes they take months off, but then dust themselves off and get back to it. I also read often about strangers struggling with how dating apps suck, how there are no options out there, and so on.

I believe that the reason many people struggle with dating is because of the Relationship Escalator. Once Nicole and I became polyamorous and started educating ourselves and reading more, this concept jumped out as a core component of why monogamy often fails, and why people who date in monogamous dating pools often struggle.

The relationship escalator is what we are taught, from early childhood, about how romantic relationships are supposed to work. Even children’s books and cartoons and shows made for infants and toddlers often have some form of social programming about relationships; generally, a “mom” and “dad” figure have a house and some kids (though more progressive media may have same-sex couples as parental figures). This teaches children from the very beginning that eventually they are supposed to find one partner whom they should cohabitate with and reproduce with, and that this is the foundation for stability, success, and happiness. This idea is reinforced heavily through constant exposure as we get older. All forms of media push this ideal, and it becomes so fundamental to us that when our hearts are first broken—maybe your 8th grade crush asked another girl to the dance, maybe your high school sweetheart cheated on you, maybe you couldn’t find a prom date—it becomes the most tragic and painful experience of our young lives. Most of us have a dreadful memory of being so crushed and hurt by a failed relationship or by rejection that we couldn’t imagine how life could go on without our beloved.

I believe, though, that the reason those things crushed us so dramatically is because we were taught that this is how it is supposed to work. We are taught that there is a step-by-step process when it comes to love:

You fall for someone. You announce your feelings. They accept. They reciprocate. You do cute stuff. You claim your fidelity to your peers (“we’re dating now!”). You grow closer. You fall in love. You struggle a bit and drift apart but then you fight! fight! fight! for it, and it works out! Your love is redeemed and becomes stronger than ever! You fall deeply in love with each other. You move in together. You get engaged! You announce your wedding, and all your friends are so happy for you. Your parents love them, and everything is perfect. You get married in a fairytale dream wedding. You honeymoon and then live a wonderful life as a young and vibrant couple for a few years until the big announcement! You’re having a baby!

You get the idea. I don’t need to tell you because you already know this tale. It’s what we are taught to believe. It is thoroughly and completely built into us. We are programmed with this information almost from birth. “Happily ever after”!

“Where does it go?” “It goes up.”

I have a secret, though: you don’t need to be on this relationship escalator to have a completely fulfilling life filled with love, laughter, and unmatched joy. You can get off that ride if it’s not right for you. And I firmly believe that it’s not right for a lot of us.

Dating sucks? Or does it?

I think the reason so many people struggle with dating is because, for some reason or another, each date represents the first step on a long escalator, and that is incredibly daunting. With each first date, the looming escalator arcs away into the sky, with no known end. We put an unrealistic and immense amount of pressure on every potential relationship because the idea is simple: when we get into a relationship, we are taught to believe that it must eventually be escalated to the next step, and that each person we meet with is hopefully the “right” one. No wonder dating sucks. If you’re looking for your future spouse or co-parent with each date, how can that be any fun?

What if you went on a date with someone knowing that you would never marry them, never have to worry about whether or not they were the right one, whether or not they would make a good parent or if your parents would like them or if your friends would like them or if they would like your house or your pets or any of the millions of other inane things that, under normal circumstances, would have to fall perfectly into place for this person to become the one? What if you went into a first date with a completely open mind and vastly more realistic expectations? It could look like:

  • “I met this person online and it seems like we enjoy the same music. Maybe we’ll go to shows together!”
  • “This person and I have been interacting on Facebook for years, and we both have the same sense of humor, I bet it would be a lot of laughs for us to hang out and get a drink together!”
  • “This person and I have so much physical chemistry! It’s too bad they live far away but when they are in town, watch out!”
  • “Wow, it’s amazing this person likes the same outdoor activities that I do! We could do stuff together on weekends!”
  • “This person is fun to make out with, but I can’t see having a long-term thing with them.”

And that’s it. Imagine the relief if all you had to worry about with a dating partner was connecting on something and fostering that one connection. Or finding a couple of things you can vibe with. Maybe there’s sexual chemistry—but nothing else—but they really turn you on. Maybe you don’t find them physically attractive, but you love hanging out with them and you laugh uproariously every time you’re together. Maybe you just want to cuddle with them but nothing more.

We are taught that none of those things are “good enough” to base a relationship on. Or perhaps they provide a fun beginning but there doesn’t seem to be much hope for what we assume are the next steps. And so, it fizzles, and we get discouraged and we say these things: “Dating sucks” “all the good ones are taken” and so on.

I love my spouse and monogamy works just fine for us!

I occasionally post about polyamory on my personal social media channels. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. There seems to be something particularly special about Facebook, though: whenever I post about polyamory, I get a weird defensive comment either on the post itself or in my DMs from a monogamous person who says, in some form or another: ‘I’m happy it works for you, but I love my spouse and monogamy works just fine for us!” (and I’ve noted multiple times that it’s always one person in the couple who takes it upon themselves to speak for their spouse in this regard). This is an important distinction: I’m never attacking monogamy. I actually think monogamy is exactly right for a lot of people. I’m simply stating in my normal voice (which is generally effusive and passionate) that polyamory is fantastic and works for me and my partners, and that it has made my life better in many ways. And yet, the inevitable oddly defensive unsolicited comment appears. My goal is to help normalize polyamory, for myself and for others who can’t be as “out” as I am. This is how we change course, by having champions. I am a champion for it. It doesn’t mean I hate monogamy.

Monogamy is valid. I’ll always say it. But toxic monogamy is built into our culture, and I will also shine a light on that. If you get defensive when someone calls out toxic monogamy, that’s on you, not them. I believe the relationship escalator is fundamentally toxic because it forces us into a single relationship model, one that is often doomed to bring some kind of unhappiness or strife in the future. When I critique the relationship escalator and the unrealistic expectations that come with it, it doesn’t mean I’m attacking your beautiful marriage. What I am attacking is mononormativity: the idea that monogamy is the default and “normal” and that any other form of relationship is secondary or not as serious or not as important. That is what I speak out against.

Improved dating

If you’re struggling with dating and relationships in general, I would gently suggest that perhaps non-monogamy could work for you. Before you start with the “oh sure, Brian, I’ll just date and have sex with everyone!” nonsense (which I’ve had barked at me more than once), let’s clarify a few things: Polyamory is more than a relationship structure. It is a way of thinking and a way of framing the way you interact with romantic and sexual partners. The first thing about polyamory is that it represents you stepping off that relationship escalator—and if you ever want to get back on it, it’s on your terms, not what you’re supposed to be doing. Polyamory means approaching dating with a different filter and perspective:

  • I don’t need this one person to fill every single need that I have, now or in the future
  • I will open myself to enjoying the unique experience that being with this person represents
  • I will be open to the energy exchange I have with this new human, no matter what form it takes
  • I will not have any expectations about what should be next
  • I will not be disappointed if I find something that is unappealing about this person but otherwise not a “dealbreaker”

But also, keep in mind that you should apply these things to yourself as well:

  • I don’t need to be everything to this person now, or in the future
  • I represent a unique experience to this new person
  • I will not mold myself or change something about myself to fit this new person’s ideals

You may find that if you are honest, clear, and transparent (and these are all qualities that are fundamental to polyamory) about these things even before the first date, it represents an unbelievable shift and transformation in the dynamic between you and your date.

Now, this can’t be a one-sided thing. The people you’re dating need to have some sort of awareness about polyamory (and if you decide to date as a polyam person, you absolutely have to be transparent about that before you even go on a first date). The upside, however, is that the polyamorous community tends to have a baseline and fundamental understanding of these things, so first dates are a much more relaxed and casual affair.

Off this ride, please

Relationships require a constant alignment and renegotiation of boundaries and needs as we grow and as life happens around us and to us. Monogamy requires that you connect with one person who can meet all of your needs and respect all of your boundaries not only in the beginning, but at every age and stage of your life and through all the circumstances that you are immersed in. Polyamory, on the other hand, gives us options: you can find partners that meet your needs as they change. Your relationship can be dynamic and living and breathing, more in sync with the universal chaos and unpredictability we’re surrounded with. As your life and circumstances change, so too can your ability to form connections with people that fulfill new needs. They don’t need to be sexual or romantic needs, either.

You can step off the relationship escalator. Give it a shot, and you might find that dating improves dramatically.

I don’t want that

I was talking to a friend a couple of months ago and they gave me the rundown and litany of all the reasons people suck and people lie and dating sucks. I laughed and said, “you should try being poly, the community is much more supportive and honest”, and they looked at me like I suggested moving to Venus. “Oh, that’s not what I want at all”.

All I could do was shrug.

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