Polyamory, Relationships

Riding the Relationship Escalator

I was hoping by now I’d have gotten through a review reading of Amy Gahran’s book, “Stepping Off the Relationship Escalator”, but life and a low-grade level of exhaustion are conspiring against me doing any serious reading of late. I’ve skimmed it, and as polyamoury in-print resources go, so far it looks like a reasonable companion to Veaux & Rickert’s “More than Two”. But even without the book, the metaphor is one I have been familiar with for a very long time (if I recall correctly, the term originated aeons ago with Franklin Veaux’s early poly writings), and using in my client work for as long as I’ve been working with clients exploring or living in non-monogamous relationship structures.

In essence, the relationship escalator metaphor illustrates our traditional-western-culture image of monogamy as a single linear progression of events:

meet => date => sexual bonding => fall in love => engagement => marriage => careers => kids => [umpteen years of monogamous togetherness] => retirement => death do us part

Obviously there are a multitude of variations on this theme, but the gist of it is the idea of that singular straight line from meeting through marriage to the ends of our lives. Just as obviously, this isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of relationship styles that we used to believe it was. We’ve been moving steadily into serial monogamy (sequential relationships) with the generally-increased acceptance of divorce and remarriage through the later decades of the 20th century. The rise of the left-and-right-swiping hookup culture made it very clear that commitment on the heels of sexual bonding isn’t even remotely required, and largely not even desired by many any more.

Some still find the current instantiation of the Sexual Revolution disconcerting; morally, many are still jealous of, or outraged by, the idea of their current partners having had lovers before they come along. While this might seem a little ridiculous for relationships forming as second or third marriages, for example, I can confirm that in couples counselling, partners will still struggle with “The Number”, especially if there is any kind of sexual disconnect in the current relationship. Sexual dysfunction and boredom are factors for which the Relationship Escalator fails to account, clearly, but these are factors that definitely impact a relationship very highly–especially if sexual bonding is a key validation point for desirability and connection.

When previously-monogamous couples begin exploring opening up their relationship to others, there are a LOT of potential challenges facing them. The fact that the Relationship Escalator has left us with a deeply indoctrinated set of linear expectations for how relationships work, it’s unsurprising that when we see our partners connecting with other lovers they way they initially connected with us, it triggers a deep fear that we will be replaced in sequence, rather than supplemented in our present place by additional relational factors. Jealousy becomes the #1 issue couples transitioning from closed to open models face; “if you treat $NEWLOVER the way you treated me, how can I trust you’re not just going to replace me with them??”

The short answer is, we don’t. Getting ourselves off the narrow path of that escalator is, if nothing else, a tremendous leap of faith in which we HAVE to trust that things will be okay, that our partner(s) are not choosing replacement but enhancement. Of the many rocks on which our ships will likely flounder, is the sense that love and desire are as finite resources as time and physical energy are. It’s true that adding other partners of any degree of investment requires time, and that no matter how much we wish otherwise, there are still only 24 hours in a day and 7 days in a week. Therefore if we prioritize more time to a new lover (as is the commonest complaint once New Relationship Energy [NRE] is in the picture), we aren’t spending that time with our existing relationships and commitments. The sudden behavioural shift that reflects prioritization is often interpreted as decreasing interest in the existing relationship. This isn’t always true on core levels, but it is true that NRE tends to eclipse the best intentions of the unwary or unprepared.

Creating relationships beyond the narrow linearity of cultural expectations allows different relationship structures to meet different needs. From a family/relational systems perspective, most observers agree that a two-legged stool (the common monogamous model) is a very unstable structure; a three-legged stool offers a much stronger sense of balance. In Bowenian terms, this is “triangulation”, a process by which introducing a third element to a two-party system allows one or both of the original partners to reduce exclusive focus or dependence on each other, spreading expectations and need-meeting requirements now across a more diverse support system. This is in large part what happens in monogamous infidelity; a dyadic partnership fails to meet the needs of one or more of its constituents, so that need-meeting is sought elsewhere in secret contravention of standing agreements between the original dyad. But at the same time, getting the needs met elsewhere will, at least in the short term, decrease the pressure on the partnership… at least until other issues arise to take the place of whatever was missing initially.

Recognizing that it’s perhaps unrealistic to assume that one person can successfully meet ALL of our needs for ALL of our lives is a common reason why people explore non-monogamy. An additional challenge that can arise from opening up monogamy to other relational formats is dealing with the consequence of that realization. It can hurt, admitting that we’re not the be-all-and-end-all of need-meeting machines for our partners. I blame Disney and a lifetime’s worth of horribly unrealistic romance novels for instilling in us a belief that finding Mr or Ms Right meant that all our troubles were over and we’d live “happily ever after”, for ever and ever, amen.

Rising divorce/remarriage rates and skyrocketing demands for couples/relational counselling suggest quite the opposite, in fact.

And yet, the fantasy persists, often beyond the scope of all rational thought.

That fantasy is what, in my opinion, lies at the base of the Relationship Escalator’s pervasive endurance. We want to believe in the myth of “happily ever after”. Many of my relational clients are struggling with their own sense of failure, or disappointment in their partner’s inability, to meet needs in adequate fashion. They believe that monogamous happiness SHOULD be accessible if I/you/we just work HARDER, or if $PARTNER would just CHANGE into something they’ve clearly never been before, or if we ourselves could just magically meet all of their needs. Non-monogamy, for those who brave those challenging waters, reduces the tension on dyadic pairings by opening up the option of loving partners for who they are in their flawed limitations (and being loved for ours) but NOT requiring them to be everything we need them to be, if they can seek that need elsewhere without destabilizing whatever relationship we choose to maintain.

I won’t lie. Dismounting the escalator’s not an easy path to navigate. Monogamy exists largely to protect the partnership at its core, and in the non-monogamous communities there are deeply-divided camps around how ethical non-monogamy SHOULD work. Transitioning out of monogamy often looks a lot like setting up a rigid system of rules that protect “couple privilege”; at the outset this has the advantage of letting everyone involved believe they can trust in the rules to shape expectations. In truth, NRE and opaque shifts in priority-indicating behaviours mean that all the rules in the world will RARELY actually protect anything in the long run, especially once the deeper feelings that come tied to sexual bonding get involved. So, rules get broken, boundaries get tested or pushed… feelings get hurt. The escalator starts to break down because what we had presumed to be “natural progression” is being challenged or thwarted, and we don’t know what to do.

Again, I come back to something Franklin Veaux wrote years ago, describing jealousy as a “broken refrigerator”:

“Let’s assume your relationship is a refrigerator. One day, a problem arises in your relationship—the refrigerator quits working. You walk into your kitchen, there’s a puddle on the floor, and all your frozen pizzas and ice cream are a gooey mass in the bottom of the freezer. There are a few things you can do at this point, once you’ve mopped up the mess and scraped the remains of last night’s lunch out of the fridge. One solution is to fix the refrigerator; another is to replace it. A third solution is to leave the refrigerator exactly where it is and change your life around the problem—“From this day forward, I will bring no frozen or refrigerated foods into this house.” In the poly community, the last option is the one most people choose. […]

Fixing the refrigerator means doing exactly that. It means saying, “I know that I am feeling jealous. I know that the jealousy is brought about by some other emotion—some emotion that is triggered by the action that makes me jealous. I need to figure out what that other emotion is, and I need to figure out why that action triggers that emotion.”

Until you do that, you are helpless in the face of the jealousy. If you don’t understand it, there is nothing you can do to address it. Trying to understand it isn’t easy; when you’re ass-deep in alligators, it’s easy to forget that the initial goal was to drain the swamp, and when you’re entirely overwhelmed by gut-wrenching emotions that are tearing you to pieces, it’s easy to forget that these emotions are grounded in some other emotions. In the middle of jealousy, all you want is for the jealousy to stop, and you don’t care how.

So, you confuse the trigger with the cause. You believe, erroneously, that the source of the jealousy is the action that triggers it. You see your partner kiss someone, you feel jealous, you want the jealousy to stop, you pass a rule: “No more kissing.”

Partners stuck in this loop try to force the new additions to the relationship structure to conform to a set of expectations as narrow and linear as the escalator we ourselves are trying to exit, but because we only know one model for building relationships, we’re stuck with that model until we find a way to jettison it. So we enforce excluding aspects of the known escalator: “you can’t do that thing that looks like building a relationship with someone else, because that’s what WE DO TO signify WE are in relationship.” Regardless of which partner role you find yourself in with this kind of situation, that’s a hugely craptastic place to be.

It *can* be done. And the more resources we have available to help navigate these kinds of explorations, and the more commonplace (ethical) non-monogamy becomes, the easier it slowly gets to divest ourselves of the historical fantasy of “till death do us part”. We’ve grown to accept multiple sequential marriages as a fact of life, so the myth is slowly coming apart at the seams. We’re still hung up on sexual experience and discomfort around knowing our partners have even HAD sex with others before us, let alone with others WHILE ALSO with us, and that’s going to remain a moral stumbling block for a long time to come, I suspect, just based solely on the numbers of couples who try to explore non-monogamy within a policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. But so long as we can be both clear and gentle about why we might want to open up these discussions within a monogamous relationship, and as long as both partners in the originating dyad are equally willing to explore these kinds of options (one is not coercing the other), then we have tools and platforms for steering these explorations as far off the rocks as we can, and supporting transitional stages for those looking for options that don’t fit the constrained limitations of that Relationship Escalator.

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