If you’re going to think about, or discuss, the traditional Escalator approach to intimate relationships (and its alternatives), it helps to really get back to basics.
What’s an intimate relationship? Those two little words have more baggage than JFK airport. People layer lots of meaning and assumptions upon intimacy and relationships — both in concept, and in practice.
Also, people often fundamentally disagree what these terms mean — even people who are in an intimate relationship with each other!
To clarify things, here’s how I’m using these important terms:
Intimacy is the experience of emotional closeness, of knowing and/or being known at a deep level by another person. Intimacy requires vulnerability: revealing sensitive aspects of yourself (emotionally or physically) level with another person, especially by feeling free to share deeply personal emotions, thoughts and experiences with them. Any type of relationships — from friendships to playmates to life partners — might involve some level of intimacy, at least from time to time.
Relationship. Any type of connection that two or more people share, expressed through how they interact with each other. That is, relationships require at least some kind of relating, even passively through shared context. So, people standing in a store checkout line exist in a kind of relationship — just usually not a very important, intimate, or lasting one (although that might depend on the store).
Relationships which people may consider more significant on a personal, emotional, or life-influencing level might include friends, lovers, family, life partners, mentors, and much more.
On the Escalator, the scope of “relationship” tends to be highly constrained. People usually say “in a relationship” to refer specifically to two people who share an ongoing sexual and romantic connection — or at least they did at one time, and have continued to ride the Escalator together ever since. (The longer or farther they’ve ridden, the more “serious” their relationship is.) But the Off the Escalator project takes a much broader view of the universe of human relationships.
Intimate relationship. Partners in an intimate relationship express deeper levels of intimacy on an ongoing (or at least recurring) basis — often through sex or touch, power exchange or other kinds of kink, romantic feelings and gestures, or conversations that are deeply emotional or personally revealing. Living together or otherwise blending the infrastructure of personal life, or sharing substantial commitments such as finances or parenting, also tends to offer an ambient sense of intimacy — whether or not those partners are also sexually, romantically, or explicitly emotionally intimate with each other.
On the Escalator, long-term partners are presumed to be in an intimate relationship — even if the practice of intimacy has faded from their relationship.
QUESTION FOR YOU: Think of all the people you relate to in some way. Which of these do you tend to count as “relationships” — or “intimate relationships”— and why? Please comment below.