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Advice – Making a relationship feel meaningful without a relationship escalator.

For context, I’m establishing a new V dynamic, with me as the hinge; the points being comprised of my nesting partner and a new partner I’ve been seeing for about 3 months, and really enjoy.

I’m somewhat new to polyamory, and I’ve never started a new relationship, from scratch, in this context. In my previous monogamous life, I would have pushed for exclusivity early on to provide a security blanket of sorts to explore our feelings and get on the old relationship escalator. Obviously, that’s not the course of action I want or am able to take.

So, I’m struggling a little bit to know how to ethically go about things- what questions should I ask, or conversations should be had, to make sure my new partner is well supported, and to set up our new relationship for success? It’s important to note this person I’m seeing does not identity as polyamorous, but hasn’t had any concerns or issues thus far, and seems (on his own accord, without prompting or encouragement from me) very open minded and interested in pursuing things.

Also, without monogamy or the “relationship escalator”, what are some ways you can recognize the relationship/connection is growing? Or in the same vein, are there steps I can take to undo this innate thinking that every good connection absolutely needs to grow? Obviously I’m fighting through some monogamous programming. Thank you in advance!

Helen, Reddit.

Dear Helen,

Before we can talk about how we can deconstruct the relationship escalator, we must first talk about what relationship escalator is and why it exists.

In short, relationship escalator is defined as a set of societal expectations or norms built around intimate relationships – that intimate relationships must follow specific steps in order to be meaningful. Amy Gahran / Aggie Sez does a great job of outlining the specific steps for the relationship escalator in her book Off the Relationship Escalator and her blog. Sometimes, the relationship escalator manifests in the invalidity of a relationship until it passes a certain milestone or threshold. A good example of this type is in explicit exclusivity. As you had noted, exclusivity can provide security since it stabilizes the external aspect of your romantic relationship. Sometimes, the relationship escalator can also manifest in specific thresholds and internalized hierarchies as well. Think of this like an imagined “glass ceiling”, an invisible boundary that which your non-nesting relationship with your new partner cannot cross. Built into that acknowledgement is also an implicit admission that you buy into the substance of the relationship escalator.

There are very good reasons why relationship escalator exists. As we just talked about, the security is nice. But when we are taught from a young age to associate exclusivity to security, the escalator then becomes an internalized manifestation of our societal norms. The escalator also acknowledges explicit steps, which can be used as an inherited structure to measure the health of your relationship compared to the duration of your relationship. Many folks have a pretty good idea of how long you should date before you marry someone, and that is just one example of this structure. And the structure is comfortable, because it doesn’t ask you to ask the really important questions on what makes your relationships meaningful. The structure tells you the each step make it meaningful.

That is all to say, I don’t think the relationship escalator was created in bad faith. It clearly has virtues and values.

The structure itself falls apart when unaccounted factors are added into the equation.

In one specific way, marriage rates have been going down from the Boomers (91%), to Gen Xers (82%) , to Millennials (70%). So it is apparent that society as a whole is getting better at deviating from assigning marriage as the final step of that relationship escalator. But as you’ve discovered, this structure holds even less weight when we bring non-monogamy into the equation.

Since you have been with your partner for three months, you should each have a pretty good idea on how your relationship might look in the next month or so. So this might also be a good time to gauge what the next six months to a year might look like by having an explicit conversation about it with your new partner. Having a proactive conversation about the future of your relationship will accomplish two goals.

First is that you can better align each of your respective values on what you two collectively find meaningful in romantic relationships. Each person has different set of values and looks for different things to validate their relationships. For some, it is through social acceptance by introducing partners to new friends. For others, it could be more about making impactful life decisions such as getting an apartment together or adopting a pet together. But more importantly, having an explicit discussion about the future of your relationship will also allow you two to build toward that future in a more conscious and accountable way. Spoken words have power. And even just speaking out loud what your intentions are and where you feel like this relationship is going can be a powerful way to bring that vision into existence, just by the virtue of saying so.

I also want to touch on something very specific. Poly communities online are not always a great representation of how your poly relationships should look and function like. I often repeat in my column that different people love in different ways. And you don’t necessarily need to step completely away from the concept of relationship escalator to acknowledge that it might have some practical application for your relationship. For example, many polyfolks do cohabitate with their multiple partners. Just because that happens to be an explicit step in the relationship escalator doesn’t mean that when polyfolks also cohabitate with their multiple partners is a bad thing.

I also want to touch on “successful polyamorous relationships.”

Like the relationship escalator structure, successes in a polyamorous relationships can look wildly different from person to person, and from relationship to relationship. One person might classify a handful of comet-type relationships as a success. Others might only consider their relationships a success when they’ve been together for at least ten years. And a third person might only consider it a success when they can have series of fulfilling short-term threesome relationships with their spouse.

When we dig deeper into what defines success and attributes significance in our relationship, we might find that success is not always defined in very explicit or measurable metrics. Instead, it is more often felt than assessed. Part of this is because our logical sides do not always communicate well with our emotional sides. There is only so many different ways we can fragment and compartmentalize our romantic relationships in small segments as a measure of success, which isn’t always going to be validated through your feelings. So as you connect with your monogamous-minded new partner about the benchmarks that might be measured as success markers for your relationship, keep in mind that growth and success looks and feels different for everyone.

We often don’t always know we are in the good parts of our relationship until we are no longer in the good parts of our relationship. So keep that in mind as you progress through this relationship and find creative ways to celebrate the goodness of your relationships in their own unique ways.

Good luck!

Tea Time with Tomato is an informative relationship and sex advice column for both monogamous and polyamorous folks. By submitting your post, you agree to let me use your story in part or in full. You also agree to let me edit or elaborate for clarity.

I want to hear your thoughts and feedback! Please feel free to send me your questions and comments at teatimetomato@gmail.com. If you liked my advice for this post, please follow me on Facebook and Twitter. You can also subscribe below to get alerted when my next advice column is published!

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