Navigating Non Escalator Relationships

aka “So, you’re in a non-escalator relationship- what now?”
(dedicated to ‘Alexander’)

no-escalatorThe most common script that we follow in relationships is that of the Relationship Escalator. And that’s a model that works for a lot of people. But, increasingly, people- especially in the non-monogamous community- are challenging that default script and exploring what it means to have relationships that are not on the Escalator.

And, let’s be honest- most relationships you will experience in your life (including platonic ones) are not on an Escalator.

Non-escalator relationships can be short term and casual, and they can also be long term, emotionally invested relationships. They are build-your-own-lunch-box relationships, relationships a la carte. But, how do people in non escalator relationships measure the investment? How do they read emotional commitment, security, and the ongoing life of the relationship, when they aren’t defaulting to the regular milestones of dating, moving in, getting married, and so forth?

58ddb1c5ae37f0734abdebfdc58a08b0Something I’ve both experienced and witnessed in my explorations of this non-escalator paradigm, is that when we don’t talk about this stuff, and instead fill in the blanks based on a default set of assumptions we carry about the other person, then we end up either trying to control the relationships we are in, or being controlled by it. And neither of those options is much fun. Personally, I would rather see Relationships be spaces of freedom.

I think it is important to remember that we aren’t following a script, we are co-creating a relationship. All relationships have the possibility of being an ongoing conversation- and Non-Escalator relationships more so, because there’s no script to default to when there’s uncertainty (though, we might try to). Radical relationships, in general, are about making conscious choices about relating.

Awesome-quote-Running-awayWhen you’re Solo, and looking for non escalator relationships only, there can be a fear that the “RE” established people you meet are only dating you to get a temporary fix. You wonder if they are using you- consciously perhaps but unconsciously more likely- to spice up their sex life or let out their frustrations, or exercise some otherwise unrealised disfunction or fantasy. I’ve personally had a recurring fear of becoming part of the ‘Disneyland Relationship’ where the married family person goes to a fun-loving singleton to escape the reality of their responsibilities. It’s depleting to your self-relationship to feel used. So, us non-escalator folks look for certain things as marks of commitment and emotional investment- things that say “Yup, this person’s going to come back for another date!” and “This person recognizes and respects who I am.”

The Relationship Escalator has implicit marks of commitment and investment- each floor reached symbolises deeper intertwining, like moving in together, sharing finances, getting married, having children. And, when people are on an escalator in their relationship, when they are invested in the concept that their relationship has a set destination, they will go to great lengths to troubleshoot and address the conflicts and areas where intimacy has been lost. They’ll go to therapists and counsellors and do the work to figure out what went wrong and how to course correct.

I hear of so many couples- married, common law, primary, nesting, however you want to define it- going to relationship Counselling. But how often do people think of going to Counselling with their partner when it’s a non escalator relationships that’s on the rocks?

“You don’t measure love in time. You measure love in transformation. Sometimes the longest connections yield very little growth, while the briefest of encounters change everything. The heart doesn’t wear a watch- it’s timeless. It doesn’t care how long you know someone. It doesn’t care if you had a 40 year anniversary if there is no juice in the connection. What the heart cares about is resonance. Resonance that opens it, resonance that enlivens it, resonance that calls it home. And when it finds it, the transformation begins…”

~ Jeff Brown

Relationships that are decidedly not on the escalator, don’t have to lack direction or purpose. Being off the escalator and without a predetermined trajectory doesn’t mean it’s not going to require conflict resolution or course correction. For those of us traversing the terrain of the non-escalator paradigm, we need to know that we aren’t going to be disposable in relationships. We need to know that we aren’t going to be dropped at the first upset, the first sign of conflict, or the third or fourth. And, while we don’t want to see a ring on our fingers as a symbol of contractual obligation, we do value assurances. We value knowing the landscape, and knowing that the relationships we share can still have direction, intention, and milestone moments, like any other relationship. The likelyhood is, we aren’t in it for the promise of a 40-year anniversary; we’re in it for the juice, the connection- and, the potential for personal growth and transformation.

non escalator landmarks

Things small, things that might seem inconsequential in escalator relationships, can take on greater significance in Non-Escalator relationships. It’s not that these wouldn’t or couldn’t be significant in escalators, it’s just that, in a non escalator relationship, you begin to appreciate them more. Removing the options to live together or get married or share finances as things that might grant a feeling of security down the line, you have to seek the present moment affirmations that the relationship has presence and continuity and value. So an extra toothbrush appearing in your bathroom is a milestone moment because it implies they plan to come back. Defining and redefining your relationship labels marks a turning point and affirmation of the level of commitment and engagement you have with one another.

We may avoid conversation because we’re afraid it might challenge us; there is always the possibility that we may not get what we want out of the relationship if we end up having to define it. But, if we don’t communicate, if we don’t get clear on our own boundaries and relationship sandboxes, things will get messy, and we’ll get hurt. Knowing the terrain you’re crossing together is key. And it’s okay to stop and ask for directions, and make course corrections when you need to. This is not an escalator, it’s a treasure map, with multiple types of treasure chests to find.

What’s important is asking yourself what you want to explore, and asking your partners what they want to explore, and figuring out what are you each willing to explore. In all of this, you’re looking for the things you both want. And, because I know how scary it can be to have these conversations, here’s some things that you might find useful to talk about with your partners in non-escalator relationships. Some might be things worth bringing up on a date zero, others might be better saved for that toothbrush moment, when you realise that yeah, this person’s going to be sleeping over more regularly. So, go forth, and converse with your partners!

Non escalator guide


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25 thoughts on “Navigating Non Escalator Relationships

  1. I love your posts and they are always very enlightening. I was wondering if you could offer me some advice. I’m a monogamous woman who got into a FWB relationship with a solo poly male expecting it to stay casual, but he proposed to me after 6 months and ended other relationships in order to be committed with me. The problem is that he is still poly and still wants to be with other women. I want him to be himself but I didn’t sign on for a commitment that involved polyamory – we just happened to fall in love. The milestones that you talk about in this most recent article (on the chart) are all milestones that I would be incredibly uncomfortable with him having with another girl. The ideal for me and what he has agreed to is that his extra-relationship encounters would be friendships with benefits only, and not romantic relationships. However he says he loves his friends. He also says he loves me, but what’s the difference? If he is having sex with other people that he loves then what about our relationship is special or primary? How do I get him to make it clear to the girls that he fucks that they won’t be passing any of those milestones together? I need that to be so clear but he feels like he can’t communicate that to them without them feeling like they’re just being used for sex. How do I find a way for him to have what he wants without other girls (or me) getting hurt in the process? He doesn’t like to have those types of conversations and it makes things so unclear for all of us. Any advice you have would be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks, Joslyn Thomas

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    • Joslyn,

      Good luck with your situation. It sounds like in order for you to feel special, you need the interactions/relationships he has with other women to exist only about sex. It sounds like you’re asking him to essentially use them for sex. Without allowing for a deeper connection, isn’t that what it boils down to? There are never any guarantees, and even if he intends to have these relationships be sex-only/love-free, he can’t stop himself from feeling a connection if one does form, and is halting that connection really something you want to ask of him? It’s not fair to either of you live in a way that is not authentic. If you can’t find a way to feel joy about his connections with others, you will likely never feel comfortable, safe, or fully appreciated in your relationship with him. He will have love for his friends, just as you have love for yours. His sexual relationships with friends may be more fulfilling for him that with people he has no connection with, and it may be safer physically and emotionally for all those involved. If you can’t come to terms with who he is and how he loves, you may need to accept that this relationship is here now and will likely end at some other point, when you or he are ready to move on to something that resonates a little more honestly with your true desires.

    • I think being poly (being in ANY relationship at all, but especially being poly) REQUIRES those conversations. If he’s not comfortable with them, that would be a bit of a warning for me.

    • I don’t wish to knock what you have in this relationship at all, Joslyn, but I do hope that it’s not all down to you to “find a way”…?

      Those two things jumped out at me as warning signs.

      Best wishes
      Jet

    • That sounds like a really tough situation. I’m a little confused as to how the relationship got to the point where your partner felt like it was a good idea to propose, without having already had the conversation about the fact that he’s poly but this relationship is quickly becoming serious. Like another commenter implied, that sounds like a red flag to me. But let’s assume that your partner is willing to communicate and navigate this difficult territory, doing the acrobatic negotiation that comes with all relationships but especially polyamorous ones and even more especially situations like yours.

      As you already are a little out of the norm about being (apparently) ok with him having sex with other girls as long as he’s not in a committed relationship with them, I think one step is to make sure you get as concrete a list as possible about your boundaries with your partner and his other relationships, including the amount of his “relationship resources” (time, energy, sex, love) that you need in relation to what he gives his other partners. Reducing your boundaries to “don’t fall in love” does carry a serious risk of making his other partners feel objectified, used, not like real whole people etc. As you discovered in your relationship with him, loving someone is not exactly something you choose, and trying to put a limit on someone who loves freely usually does more harm than good.
      So, which progressions exactly would make you uncomfortable? Where do you draw the line between “romance” and “friendship?” What could you maintain as something that only you share with your partner that would make sure your relationship still feels special? A few examples of things that might work here:
      -Primary partner must be able to generally spend more “quality time” with partner than any other partner does
      -No sleepovers with other partners
      – No “partner-like” physical affection with other partners in front of Primary partner.
      -Primary partner must “approve” of other partners before certain progressions such as sex
      Obviously these boundaries should be discussed and negotiated with your partner to find something that works for both of you. Maybe your partner already has some thoughts about what makes the relationship you have special and more important than other friendships and relationships. Ultimately, you can’t block certain emotional milestones such as talking about vulnerable emotions, or other things that blend the lines between friendship and romance. But you can establish what you need to make your relationship feel special and important.

    • I’m a monogamous woman who got into a FWB relationship with a solo poly male expecting it to stay casual, but he proposed to me after 6 months and ended other relationships in order to be committed with me.

      I didn’t sign on for a commitment that involved polyamory – we just happened to fall in love.

      Being with people because you just happened to fall in love is a really bad idea. In a way you did sign on for being involved with polyamory when you agreed to be in a relationship with a poly person.

      The ideal for me and what he has agreed to is that his extra-relationship encounters would be friendships with benefits only

      Except remember what happened between you and him when you started as FWB? You fell in love. Basically either he is using the other girls for sex, and potentially hurting them, or there is a high probability that he and the other girl will fall in love.

      If he is having sex with other people that he loves then what about our relationship is special or primary?

      If you can’t live with the idea of all of his relationships being special in their own way, it’s a really bad idea to take it any further with this fellow.

      How do I get him to make it clear to the girls that he fucks that they won’t be passing any of those milestones together?

      You can’t. They will. If he is worth it to you, go get some therapy and see where you can grow. If he isn’t, then thank him for all you have learned and move on.

      I need that to be so clear but he feels like he can’t communicate that to them without them feeling like they’re just being used for sex.

      It wouldn’t just be a feeling. It would be reality. Could you really love someone who is into that?

      How do I find a way for him to have what he wants without other girls (or me) getting hurt in the process?

      There isn’t any way. It’s possible that you will come around to the idea that getting hurt for love is a great path towards personal growth.

      • Wow I wish I had seen these responses sooner. We broke up about a year ago. He has since gotten into another relationship with a monogamous woman who did not want to be polyamorous. I learned that he was lying to me the entire time we were dating, and even though he had my permission to have sex with a lot of different women, he was also sleeping with people that I wasn’t ok with him having sex with. He was also lying to me and to all of them about how serious their relationships were, and many of them didn’t even know I existed. I’m now happily single and he’s in the same exact situation with a different girl. It’s sad. Sometimes people just use polyamory as an excuse to do whatever they feel like doing, and then lie if it’s easier than being “ethical.” I might be scared off of polyamory, but I still love this blog, and one never knows what life has in store for them next.

  2. […] “Non-escalator relationships can be short term and casual, and they can also be long term, emotionally invested relationships. They are build-your-own-lunch-box relationships, relationships a la carte. But, how do people in non escalator relationships measure the investment? How do they read emotional commitment, security, and the ongoing life of the relationship, when they aren’t defaulting to the regular milestones of dating, moving in, getting married, and so forth?” – Polysingleish  […]

    • For me, the graphic with all the circles with different types of intimacy are my way of reading the level of emotional commitment. The more “of course!” and the less “hell no!, “the more intimate the relationship feels. But they are not linear – you don’t graduate from one thing to the next, so keeping stuff at their place isn’t a pre-curser to moving in.
      Also, beware of having to “measure” the state of the relationship on some kind of yardstick from acquaintance to life partner – that’s the escalator talking. We don’t measure friends that way – some friends would lend you their toothbrush, others always buy you thoughtful gifts – which is “more” of a friend?

  3. I love this, and especially your conversations starters. What a great resource for someone who has never had to broach these issues in conversation before!

    I find it so interesting how people can have such different types of (default? favorite?) relationships. In my experience, everyone tends to take certain elements of a relationship as a “given”, because those elements have always been a part of their default sort of relationship. Maybe they assume that touch is always on the table, or that exclusivity is a default unless otherwise agreed-upon (or the opposite!), or that daily communication is an obvious must. Your conversation starters are a great way to find those hidden assumptions and make them explicit.

  4. Thie is VERY good to read and SO helpful. Tahank you 🙂 I especially like the section where you voiced the fears/concerns of being used for a ‘Disneyland Relationship’ when dating a person who is part of a couple. I also have anxiety when dating other solo polys when the relationship does not have a clearly defined structure. The deep love and emotional investment is there, yet I feel sometimes that everything else is left to ‘chance’ as the other person doesn’t want structure, just wants to see how things flow. Maybe I can only take a certain amount of free-flowingness 🙂 The conversation guide is a perfect solution for this, as I’ve wanted to raise these matters with my fellow solo-poly free-flowing friends without feeling like i’m being desperate/needy. I will give some of them a try…

  5. Hey Mel, How are you?
    Well,I think you’re article is awesome and I discussed it with a friend, and I’d like her to read it.. So, I’m translating this to Portuguese… I’d like to know if the “RE” in the sentence – ” ..there can be a fear that the “RE” established people you meet..” – means something else beyond the ‘re’ prefix…

    (don’t worry, all credits will be given)
    Have a great time,
    Henrique

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