One of the roughest aspects of the traditional Escalator model for intimate relationships is that it doesn’t offer any good ways to step down. When a couple who had been riding the Escalator together decide to end or shift their intimacy, it’s framed in violent terms of separation: a breakup or a divorce.
But off the Escalator, there are plenty of options to transition (rather than totally end) a significant intimate relationship.
Here’s one example, from a reader named Colin:
“I saw your request for thoughts about non-Escalator relationships (and your book, exciting!), and thought I might have something to share.
“Some background: Jamie and I were together for 13 years, poly for the last five or so. We considered each other life partners and we got married, but about a year ago we decided to end the romantic part of our relationship. I now live next door, still part of the same small intentional community. We still share finances and support each other.
“Our experience was highly influenced by the Relationship Escalator — but in reverse. Specifically, the “end” of a relationship usually involves the severing of ties and throwing the whole Escalator away. Well, we wanted to keep the good parts.
“The hardest part of this is figuring out which things we do well, and how to best remain in each others’ lives. In fact, we started going to couples counseling about six months after I moved out and the romantic side of our relationship was declared over. The counselor seemed a little confused when our goal wasn’t to get back together, but to stay together. Just not ‘that way.’
“We are going to remain legally married and financially intertwined. We will remain emotionally supportive, and there for each other when we are sick. Our houses have the same keys, and we borrow things from each other all the time. It is pretty good.
“Here is the lesson I learned:
“We had very, very few role models in how to do this kind of relationship realignment. The reason is that even when a couple that is ‘breaking up’ wishes to remain friends, their social group often encourages the opposite.
“The problem becomes much worse when one member of the former couple starts seeing someone new. All of the sudden, hanging out with your ‘ex’ all the time is threatening.
“The reason that Jamie and I were able to stay close and in each others’ lives isn’t just because we want to. It is because our community, friends, and lovers want us to, as well.”
— Colin, 33
“P.S. I am sure you have seen this article, which is a favorite of mine, but I could not help but include it: Failure or Transition? Redefining the end of polyamorous relationships“
…Colin’s experience, to some extent, mirrors my own. After 18 years of being in a Escalator partnership (which included legal marriage), eventually my spouse Tom and I decided that marriage and sharing sexual/romantic intimacy no longer suited our connection, or the lives we each wish to live. In our case, we decided to get unmarried and moved to different cities.
Making such big changes was disruptive and not comfortable — but ultimately it was what allowed our deeper and more enduring relationship to fully emerge. Tom remains one of my closest friends. And he’s not my “ex;” that’s a term I apply only to people who I wish to be gone from my life entirely. (And yes, I do have a few of those.)
Tom and I are still affectionate and mutually supportive, though not at all financially or legally entwined. We’re both living in the same town again, and we hang out a lot. In fact, right now he’s crashing at my house for a couple months — which is very comfortable and beneficial to us both as we each navigate some career transitions.
There was no way that Tom and I were not going to remain close — but it definitely helped that everyone in our circle of family, friends and community supported our positive transition. Colin’s right; support (or at least lack of divisiveness) from others can make a big difference.
I’m not saying this is easy. There are often complex, difficult feelings when transitioning a significant relationship and these can take a lot of time, effort, and care to work out. This was definitely true for Tom and I even though our choice to unmarry was mutual.
It’s even harder when one partner wishes to keep the shared intimacy mostly intact (even if allowing the form of the relationship to adapt substantially), but the other partner doesn’t. Earlier this year that happened to me; my lover of nearly a year wanted to transition to platonic friendship, fairly suddenly and unexpectedly. This shift was very easy for him, not so for me. Right now I’m taking some time to myself, apart from communicating with him, so I can resolve my own feelings better. But my intention, and his, is to resume a more active friendship when we both feel ready for that. And I’m pretty sure it will work out that way. I’ve done it before.
But other people can help or hurt this process. I’ve often seen people’s transitions off the Escalator be undermined or sabotaged by the response of others, with assumptions of enmity, blame and choosing sides. That’s pretty toxic, and sad.
Fortunately, it seems to be becoming more common for significant relationships to de-escalate with lots of love, kindness and goodwill. That’s a very important option — one that you can support for other people, as well as in your own relationships.
Got a story or observation to share about your experience with unconventional intimate relationships? Please send me a note!