What is the Relationship Escalator?

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“Is this relationship going anywhere?” If you’ve ever heard (or said) that catchphrase, you already know something about the Relationship Escalator.

The Relationship Escalator is one of many social scripts — customs for how people are “supposed” to behave, and how we “should” think or feel, in certain contexts, situations or interactions. These customs benefit many people, but not always, and not everyone.

When most people say “a relationship,” they usually mean something like this:

Relationship Escalator. The default set of societal expectations for intimate relationships. Partners follow a progressive set of steps, each with visible markers, toward a clear goal.

The goal at the top of the Escalator is to achieve a permanently monogamous (sexually and romantically exclusive between two people), cohabitating marriage — legally sanctioned if possible. In many cases, buying a house and having kids is also part of the goal. Partners are expected to remain together at the top of the Escalator until death.

The Escalator is the standard by which most people gauge whether a developing intimate relationship is significant, “serious,” good, healthy, committed or worth pursuing or continuing.

…In other words, the Relationship Escalator is what most people grow up believing (or more accurately, assuming) that intimate relationships “should” look like, how they are “supposed” to work — and indeed, what any emotionally healthy adult “should” want.

Lots of people — probably people you know! — Handle their relationships differently, and are loving it.

Love isn’t one-size-fits-all, so it’s good to know what your options are.


Steps on the Relationship Escalator

Traditional relationships progress through eight stages — that’s the “escalation.” These may vary somewhat by culture and subculture. But generally, it works something like this:

  1. Making contact. Flirting, casual/occasional dates, and sex (possibly).
  2. Initiation. Romantic courtship gestures or rituals, emotional investment (“falling in love”), and almost certainly sexual contact (except for religiously or socially conservative people).
  3. Claiming and defining. Mutual declarations of love, presenting in public as a couple (becoming an “us”), adopting and using common relationship role labels (“my boyfriend,” etc.). Having expectations, or making explicit agreements, for sexual and romantic exclusivity — and also ending other intimate relationships, if any. Transitioning to unbarriered vaginal/anal intercourse, if applicable (except if that would present unwanted pregnancy risk). Once this step is reached, any further step (including simply remaining in the relationship) can be considered an implied commitment toward intentions of a shared future.
  4. Establishment. Adapting the rhythms of your life to accommodate each other on an ongoing basis. Settling into patterns for spending time together (regular date nights and sexual encounters, spending time in each others’ homes, etc.) and communicating (speaking, phoning, or texting when not together, etc.).
  5. Commitment. Discussing, or planning for, a long-term shared future as a monogamous couple. Expectations of mutual accountability for whereabouts and behavior. Meeting each others’ family of
  6. Merging. Moving in together, sharing a home and finances, getting engaged to be married or equivalent. (May happen before, during or after commitment.)
  7. Conclusion. Getting married (legally if possible) and having children (not mandatory, but strongly socially venerated). The relationship is now “finalized” and its structure is expected to remain static until one partner dies.
  8. Legacy. Buying a home, having and raising children. No longer as required as it once was, but often couples may not feel (or be perceived as) fully “valid” until they hit these additional benchmarks post-marriage.

The Relationship Escalator is so popular for a good reason: Escalator relationships can be terrific! Sure, unconventional relationships also can be wonderful — but there is absolutely nothing wrong with the Escalator approach to relationships. It does work well for many, many people.

Just, contrary to Disney, the Escalator is not the only game in town.

The Relationship Escalator is not about same-sex marriage. In fact, thanks to a June 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision, same-sex couples in the U.S. now have a constitutionally guaranteed right to ride the traditional relationship escalator all the way to the top.

The Escalator isn’t about gender, either. Transgender, genderqueer, lesbian, gay, bisexual and asexual people can all ride the Relationship Escalator, too.


5 Hallmarks of Escalator Relationships

Relationships which are riding the traditional Escalator meet (or have a goal of meeting) all of these criteria — some more stringently than others. People can step off the Escalator by choosing to diverge from any of these criteria (or several at once).

  1. Sexual and romantic exclusivity between two — and only two — partners. (Commonly called monogamy.)
  2. Merging life infrastructure and identity. Sharing a home and other resources, such as finances. Also identifying strongly as a couple or family — perhaps to the extent that the individual identities of partners start to be eclipsed.
  3. Hierarchy. Some relationships are considered more important than others, and thus “win” by default in many situations. On the Escalator, since you’re allowed only one sexual/romantic partner, that relationship is considered more important than almost every other relationship (such as friendships), with the possible exception of parenting. (Off the Escalator, especially in ethically nonmonogamous relationships, hierarchy can get more complicated.)
  4. Sexual connection, at least at the beginning of the relationship. (Sex often fades or disappears, especially in long-term monogamy.)
  5. Continuity and consistency. Escalator relationships aren’t supposed to pause or step back to a less-merged state. Also, Escalator partners have defined roles as partners — they aren’t supposed to shift between being lovers and platonic friends, for instance. (Well, this often does happen, but it’s not widely acknowledged.)