Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

The 'Relationship Escalator' is not for everyone

After a couple breaks up, there’s a tendency to view the relationship as having “failed.”

After a couple breaks up, there's a tendency to view the relationship as having "failed."

This implies that the only "successful" relationships are those that last until somebody dies. Through this lens, love is comparable to an arm-wrestling contest, ultra-marathon, or a kamikaze mission.

The honor is in the endurance, the discipline, the commitment to outlast every natural instinct to quit. This model doesn't take into account anything else about the relationship.

Were they happy? Did they find each other interesting? Were they able to grow together, towards a shared life goal?

Or do we just add up the number of years survived and kids created and crown a winner with the highest score?

Clearly, there is something worthwhile and inspirational about loves that last. Seeing a couple of white-haired, hunched-over bodies holding hands in the park evokes an almost universal reaction of hopefulness.

That could be us.

We might find someone whom we love so deeply and who adores us so thoroughly that we refuse to let go, no matter what. It gives us faith that, if we play our cards right, we'll never have to be alone again. But the irony is that, in this concept of "successful" relationships, somebody almost certainly does end up alone: the one who doesn't die.

Some go on to date again, have paramours, even remarry. But others may go decades without romance or sensual intimacy because they feel like their love life WAS their partner and that ardor died along with them.

I've met older widows who even expressed that they got married and had sex because that was their obligation as women, and now they were free from that expectation.

What they're expressing is an extreme form of the "Relationship Escalator" – an idea that we've all been sold to varying degrees.

The Relationship Escalator says that romance happens at a certain pace, with specific mile markers that indicate you're on the correct route. There is only one direction to go: heading toward an officially committed, monogamous bond.

You don't have to believe in fate, "true love," or the idea of "The One" in order to adhere to the Relationship Escalator, but those are ways in which it appears in our culture.

If you've ever had a conversation with a friend about how "by this point in our relationship, X should happen" (referring to saying "I love you," getting engaged, etc), then you're familiar with this idea that all dating should proceed in the same direction, at the same speed … no matter who is involved.

The Relationship Escalator is clear, simple and doesn't require us to do the scary work of looking at our fears and wishes. We never have to contemplate if we really want to parent ("you'll love it because I did!"), we don't have to consider why we've cheated so many times (they just weren't "the one!"), we don't have to evaluate whether we're living a life that authentically satisfies us ("my job is great because it's stable!"). We just do the things that everybody's always done, assuming it'll all make sense in retrospect.

And to be fair, the Relationship Escalator works great for a lot of people. Things become traditions because enough folks benefit from participating. But the steady, effortlessly uni-directional path doesn't work for everyone. Some want to sit on a step and stay there. Others find there's not enough space for all the people they want to involve. Sometimes it makes sense to go backwards for a while.

For people who are polyamorous, swingers, uninterested in marriage, asexual, focused intently on a career/calling, or otherwise outside the mainstream: the Relationship Escalator is probably not for you. But even for those who aspire to marry and have kids, the narrative that there's a single right way to proceed is dangerous. We don't make decisions based on who we are, our values and where we are in our personal developments, but because we're seeing the Gold Medal at the top.

And if we mistakenly look at the Escalator as being mandatory, or the result of some kind of rigorously tested method of assessing relationship health, we miss out on opportunities to treat our connections with the individualized attention they deserve.

The feelings you have for that special someone are unique. The situation isn't the same as the previous ones you've had because you're different humans. Not only is she not the same as your ex, but you're not the same as you were back then. Respect that reality. Experience the bond you have, not the one you expect to find.

Dr. Timaree Schmit earned her Ph.D. in Human Sexuality from Widener University, where she now trains future sexologists and clinicians. Her passion is bringing rational, empirically-based, sex-positive information to the world, empowering others to celebrate their bodies, build intimacy and experience pleasure. 

She has an award-winning podcast, "Sex with Timaree", and hosts a BYOB sex ed, comedy/game show "DTF: Darryl and Timaree Fun Hour" which can be seen every second Friday at the Philly Improv Theater (2030 Sansom St.)