The Relationship Escalator: What It Means & How To Tell If It's Not For You

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There's a famous saying: "If you're not moving forward, you're falling behind." But when it comes to romantic relationships, should it be a race? When couples are together for a while, people love to ask, "So, where do you see the relationship going?" or "When are you two getting married?" The focus seems to be on an end goal, like marriage and starting a family. This traditional model of monogamous relationships is what journalist and writer Amy Gahran calls "the Relationship Escalator." She discusses this concept in her book "Stepping Off the Relationship Escalator: Uncommon Love and Life" which highlights some of the other ways people can experience healthy relationships.

Gahran defines the Relationship Escalator as "the default set of societal expectations for intimate relationships," by which "partners follow a progressive set of steps, each with visible markers, toward a clear goal," via the Off Escalator website. The "goal" is typically to reach a permanent, monogamous relationship, most likely a marriage. When you think of an escalator, each step carries you further upwards towards a specific destination. Gahran points out that this metaphorical Escalator has become the standard for most people to determine what it means to be in a healthy, committed relationship.

Going up the Relationship Escalator

According to Gahran, traditional relationships progress through specific stages. There's dating, sexual and emotional connection, labeling or defining the relationship, establishing patterns, commitment and long-term future planning, and moving in together. The last steps, which she calls "conclusion" and "legacy," refer to the act of getting married, buying a home, and raising children. These are at the top of the Escalator, or the end goal for many people. Gahran points out that oftentimes couples are not yet perceived to be "fully valid" until they reach these milestones.

Couples on the Relationship Escalator typically have a few criteria in common when "going up." For one, the two people in the relationship are sexually and romantically exclusive. They usually share a living space, finances, and the relationship has become a part of their identities. There is also a sense of hierarchy, in which their romantic relationship with each other is prioritized higher than other relationships. Each of these stages happens one after the other, from the talking stage all the way to walking down the aisle. 

To ride or not to ride?

The Relationship Escalator isn't inherently bad, and many people are happy following this path. But it shouldn't be the only model people have when pursuing relationships and connections with others. After all, every relationship is different, and not all of them follow conventional norms. Getting married isn't everyone's number one priority, and there are even alternatives to marriage for those who wish to take another route. 

If the Relationship Escalator makes you feel pressured with expectations, it may not be for you. You can create your own rules in your relationships, despite what society tells you. "People can step off the Escalator by choosing to diverge from any of these criteria (or several at once)," Gahran says on her website. Some couples, for instance, choose not to be fully monogamous and  consensually open up their relationship. Or, becoming increasingly popular, there are married couples who live apart or sleep in separate rooms. Nothing wrong with a little personal space, right? Not every couple wants to have children either. Maybe plants or pets are more your thing, and that's totally okay. Have open and honest conversations about what you and your partner want. And remember, it's nobody else's business except yours.