Ever wonder why we’re supposed to move and act in certain ways? Why do we have so many traditions and rituals that determine rite of passage in life? Like… why does your mom always ask about grandkids? Or why does your aunt really need to know when you and your long-term partner are getting married? And why are couples “supposed” to live together?
After all, why isn’t it normal to pull a Frida and Diego and live separately, connected by a bridge? Sounds like less folks would be breaking up over dirty dishes.
Things are the way they are because society and culture dictate that they are so. As rising generations begin to unravel the harmful social norms thrust upon us, and subsequently be more accepting of “alternative” lifestyles, it’s time to look at what we expect out of our most intimate relationships.
Ever since I began my journey into ethical non-monogamy, the harm of these societal norms have become so obvious to me. Folks always ask me how I’d expect to raise children, or tell me that I’ll finally break and leave my married boyfriend because I cannot become his wife. It’s frustrating… because I’ve truly never been happier. I am surrounded by love and more security than I’ve ever known.
Yet, my lifestyle threatens the status quo, and thus, it’s subject to scrutiny. That’s because the relationship escalator is such a strong force in so many cultures.
Maybe more of us should rethink what we’re being told we should do with our lives, and whether it’s actually what we want. Are we passively letting society tell us how our closest relationships should unfold? Or should we design our relationships of our own accord?
The relationship escalator is a term coined by Amy Gahran. It refers to the collection of expected behaviors and choices and that must be followed in order for a relationship to be seen as legitimate. Most of us don’t realize this is a script set out for us— we just feel shame or failure when we cannot meet these goals as expected.
The relationship escalator expects “valid” relationships to follow this order:
- becoming sexually and emotionally monogamous
- defining the relationship
- moving in together
- getting married
- combining income/purchasing property
- having children
- dying together holding hands in rocking chairs on the porch
Okay. Maybe that last one isn’t ACTUALLY on the list but you get the idea!
The relationship escalator isn’t inherently bad
There’s no problem with pursuing monogamy, moving in together, marriage, or children. However, there is a problem with the constant pressure society puts on couples and singles to fit into the confines of this structure, in the order that it’s presented. Relationships — from how they progress to stabilize — don’t, and shouldn’t, look the same for everyone.
The relationship escalator is designed for cisgender heterosexual relationships and preferably those within a two-income, middle-class household. So many people fall outside of that demographic, and those that fall within still suffer from its pressure. Society makes you think it’s simple to get married, have children, or combine finances. But the reality for many is that it’s not possible or wise.
The relationship escalator also facilitates oppressive gender norms. Up until recently, women have faced insurmountable pressure to settle down and get married, despite what we actually may want. These changes likely stem from women advocating for themselves in the workplace and the media. Women also tend to extend more emotional labor in relationships with men. Despite the assumption that we live in an egalitarian society, women carry much of the burden in relationships.
On the other hand, men face pressure to financially provide for their families, whether or not that is economically viable. And, men still feel like they must be “in charge,” whether or not that’s the role that’s natural to them. These norms can lead to untold expectations between couples and frustration when they’re not fulfilled.
All of this is while marriage equality isn’t a real thing yet
Yes, same-sex marriage was legalized in the United States in 2015. Yet those who qualify for SSI benefits in the United States can risk losing their benefits if they get married. When faced with terminal or long-term illnesses, some couples choose to divorce in order to be eligible for Medicaid. Is this right? No. Is this a reality? Absolutely. Considering 26 percent of adults who report having some sort of disability in the U.S., we’re not talking about a small demographic.
When it comes to folks who practice some form of ethical non-monogamy or polyamory, marriage isn’t an option. While I’m sure my boyfriend would love to have two wives, the United States government doesn’t think that’s very cute. And since we’re not interested in moving to the African continent or the Middle East, where polygamy is legal, this leaves unmarried individuals without the same protections within these structures.
There’s also a precarity in having children in these situations. Few states allow children to have more than two parents. Many folks must jump through loopholes to have parental rights recognized. If you cannot afford a lawyer to aid you through the courts, where does that leave you?
Criticism is faced by those who deescalate or reorient their relationships, like those who decide to divorce, but still co-habitate and co-parent. After all, there’s still debate in wider circles if it’s okay to stay friends with your ex, as opposed to operating on a case by case basis with all of your relationships. Within relationships, couples may have trouble going back from combining income or becoming monogamous, all factors that cause conflict.
And honestly, some people just don’t want to follow the relationship escalator. You don’t need a valid reason to live your life the way you want to.
The unwanted scrutiny faced by those who do not follow “legitimate” relationship paths results in a lot of shame, second-guessing, and strife. Maybe you want to live with a platonic friend forever, and that suits you. Or maybe a history of mixing finances hasn’t worked well for you, and you promised yourself you wouldn’t do it again. This is all valid!
A lot of us are already doing it! Millennials are less likely to buy property, partner up, or have children than the generations before them. This comes with scrutiny, aka all the articles about millennials eating avocado toast instead of saving for retirement.
I’ve always lived my life openly, but not everyone is so lucky. My parents have accepted that they’re probably not going to get grandchildren from me. They have accepted that I’m queer and polyamorous. I never gave them the option otherwise. So how did I get here?
Accept who you are, and what your life path is. Once you do this, you begin living in your truth. You can be shameless, and loud about it. Or, if you want, you can be quiet about it. And if you don’t know what your life path is, that’s okay too! Just know that you designate it, and you alone.
Assert boundaries. Be calm, yet assertive with those who tell you how you must live your life. For example, if your mom keeps asking about grandchildren and it makes you uncomfortable, tell her to stop. If they continue to press and it becomes a problem, it may be time to reconsider how much you want to allow these folks into your life.
Surround yourself with like-minded folks. Community can be a balm. Create your own found family, so there are people who can validate your lifestyle choices. So long as you’re not hurting anyone or yourself, your options are always valid!
Once you release yourself from the idea of what your relationship should be like, the entire world opens up. So go out there and get the relationship that looks perfect for you!
Gabrielle Smith is a Brooklyn-based poet and writer. She writes about love/sex, mental illness, and intersectionality. You can keep up with her on Twitter and Instagram.