Stepping Off the Relationship Escalator

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Dear Elizabeth,

We are a straight couple in our early thirties. We met through friends, hit it off, and we’ve been exclusively dating for a little over two years. Our families and friends all support our relationship, which is great, but they support it a little too much. Our problem is they keep bringing up marriage and living together, but we’re really quite happy with the way things are. Our apartments are only about 20 minutes apart, and we take turns at each other’s place with nights solo whenever we want them. It’s working for us just fine, so how do we tell our loved ones to back off? Are we wrong for wanting to live the way we are?

S. Quo


Dear S. Quo,

Throughout most of early human history, our ancestors hung out in small bands of related people who gave each other support, company, and safety. This worked for humanity for an extremely long time. Somewhere along the line, during the 17th century, this unstructured group arrangement gave way to what we as modern humans see as the norm: the nuclear family. Picture a happy husband and wife and their 2.6 children smiling in front of their shiny new home. Like anything else, the nuclear family has benefits and drawbacks. Also like anything else, it’s not right for everyone.

The challenge of having a status quo is that the norm becomes so rigidly enforced during our childhoods that we believe it’s the only way to live our lives. But for many people, fitting ourselves into these neat little boxes isn’t ideal for our happiness. You’re not alone, and you’re not wrong for living your lives the way that makes you happy. You’re the ones in the relationship together, not your parents or your friends.

Despite what society wants us to think, unconventional love arrangements are very common. Currently, half of US adults are unmarried. Roughly a third of American adults are not in any sort of romantic relationship, and more than half of those singles don’t want a partner. So why do we have this pressing need to partner up in such a specific way?

Cultural norms tell us to model our relationships in one particular pattern: meet someone cute with a nice butt, go out on a few dates, enter a romantic relationship, have sex, move in together, get engaged, get married, buy a house, have kids, grow old together, and magically die at age 100 while holding hands in the sunset. In this model, there’s only one way to go with your relationship and that is upwards. Author Amy Gahran coined the term relationship escalator to refer to this idea, which is also the topic of her book. Escalators are useful things, but they have limitations: you can’t stop, turn around, get off halfway, or tie your shoelaces without risk of losing a finger. Escalators are functional, but not ideal for everything or everyone, including wheelchair users.

Thankfully in real life relationships, we don’t have to be stuck on an escalator. You can choose to speed up, slow down, or take a left turn into some other adventure. You can stay in a place that is making you happy, such as the place you’re in right now. Spend time with each other when you want, without feeling guilty or ashamed about your evenings alone. I recommend everyone (single or otherwise) get used to taking yourself out for solo dinner dates. In my own experience, I chuckle when I ask the hostess for a table for one and they look at me with pity. I know that I chose to eat alone and I’m a great date! The book Solo by Peter McGraw is a good resource for learning to enjoy your own company and enjoy a rich life on your own, without always relying on the structures of the nuclear family.

When opting out of the escalator, it’s important to emphasize how much this allows you to be in the moment. You can enjoy where you are right now with the person you love, without the anxiety of long-term planning. You may still be together ten years from now or you may not, but married couples have no guarantee of long-term stability either. It’s also worth noting that a relationship can be perfectly successful whether it’s five years or fifty. If it brought you joy, it was a success. As a society, we need to break free from the idea that dying together is the only way to happiness. It is one valid way to happiness, but there are certainly many others.

In modern times, unlike the 17th century, families of all types face challenges that undermine the primacy of the nuclear family. The middle class has been crushed over the last 40 years, which means that both partners need to work. Many people are caregiving for children because they can’t afford daycare or have elderly parents at home because nursing homes are unaffordable. Many unconventional arrangements have arisen out of our differing needs for support.

When dealing with your friends and family, you merely need to ask yourself one key question: do you want external validation, or do you want joy?

E.R.B.

Elizabeth R. Busbee earned a doctorate at Yale and specializes in issues of gender, sexuality, and communication. She has been helping people explore and enjoy intimacy for over 20 years. Her private relationship and intimacy coaching practice can be reached at alternativeintimacy.com

Have a question you’d like answered? Write to Elizabeth at UnconventionalLoveCoach@gmail.com