Love, Not One-SizeFits-All

Posted on in Healthy Living by Amy Gahran

Off the Relationship Escalator

Love and relationships are not one-sizefits-all. Yet many of us assume that relationships should mostly look and work a certain way. Namely, that any good, serious, real, or healthy relationship “should” look roughly like this:

…You meet someone, and you find each other attractive. You start dating and eventually having sex. You both feel emotional attachment, a sense of romance, and you fall in love. At that point, you both stop flirting with, dating, and having sex with others. You start considering yourselves “a couple.” Then you move in together, blend finances, and get married. Your relationship stays that way until one of you dies.

Welcome to the Relationship Escalator, a powerful bundle of social norms that we all grow up marinating in. You might be riding the Escalator now. Or maybe you’ve longed for it, feeling incomplete without your “other half.” Maybe the traditional Relationship Escalator has always felt best and natural to you. Great!

But perhaps you’ve simply assumed that the Escalator is your only avenue to love, commitment, and support. Maybe you haven’t witnessed any other paths, or you’ve heard that they’re bad or too risky.

Or maybe the Escalator carries you away from authenticity and fulfillment. After all, it’s common for Escalator rides to end in bitterness, stagnation, or regret.

If your attempts to ride the Escalator don’t work out well, it’s easy to assume that you simply chose the wrong partner, or the wrong time. Or, you might take this as a personal failing, and think that there must be something wrong with you. That if only you were good, attractive, or skilled enough, the Escalator would surely bring you lifelong happiness and security.

Consider this: If the Escalator fails to make you happy, or if you never got to ride it, then maybe you, and the people you’ve loved, were not failures. Maybe the Relationship Escalator itself just doesn’t work so well for you.

Fortunately, you have options.

There are many ways to enjoy and share love, intimacy, sex, commitment, support, family, and fulfillment. But you’ll need to look beyond the Relationship Escalator to see most of them.

In my research into unconventional relationships, I’ve heard from thousands of people who have stepped off the Relationship Escalator in various ways. Quite often this departure leads to a better life. Of course, venturing off the Escalator also can end in heartbreak—but this risk exists both on and off the Escalator.

How do people step off the Relationship Escalator?

man and woman

Some decide to stop requiring sex, romance, and/or deep emotional intimacy to be shared exclusively between two partners. There are several flavors of consensual nonmonogamy: polyamory, swinging, being “monogamish,” open relationships, and more. Spoiler: The part of consensual nonmonogamy that really tends to freak people out is not openness, but the consent (refusing to obscure the reality that a relationship is not exclusive).

Some people go solo and forego the merging that happens in Escalator relationships. They prioritize their autonomy and function as individuals regardless of their relationship status. Usually solos prefer not to live with or marry any intimate partner. They might prefer monogamy, or not. Solos often have deep and enduring committed relationships that go well beyond “casual.”

Some people don’t find sex and/or romance appealing or necessary. That’s fine; these things are not required to achieve emotional or physical intimacy. Ask anyone who is asexual or aromantic: Their love and relationships are quite real. On a related note, it’s also common for Escalator partners to peaceably maintain their relationship after the sex or romance wanes. Intimacy and commitment are never all about sex.

Intimate relationships need not be “always and forever” to be wonderful. A fling might change someone’s life. Or lovers might periodically circle back, like comets.

Your platonic friends might be your most important relationships. Just because you have sex with someone doesn’t necessarily make that connection more important.

Or maybe you don’t wish to have any intimate relationships at all—and that’s fine!

Embracing relationship diversity is important even if you decide that you do, after all, prefer the Relationship Escalator for yourself. This is about more than considering your own options. In the big picture, embracing relationship diversity is about making the world a friendlier, safer place for all kinds of love.

Safety matters. People who step off the Relationship Escalator face considerable stigma and extra risk. When you love differently, it can feel daunting to face the message (from others, and ingrained in your own psyche) that you’re doing love wrong. Plus, you might lose friends, community, family, housing, jobs, or worse.

So, if you think you don’t know people in unconventional relationships, consider that perhaps they fear your judgment. Are you telegraphing that there’s only one right way to love?

Consider how your everyday words and actions might convey that you accept and value relationship diversity — not as something special, but because diversity is normal. When you foster this safety, you may start to notice more relationship diversity among the people you encounter. That’s no coincidence.

Amy Gahran is a journalist and author based in Boulder, Colorado. She’s the author of the research-based book Stepping Off the Relationship Escalator: Uncommon Love and Life, available on Amazon, or

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