I saw this cartoon about the relationship escalator on Facebook, where a friend had posted it “friends-only”… which meant the rest of you couldn’t see the attachment.1
[Edit: This comic is from Kimchi Cuddles.]
So let me share this with you here:
If you didn’t get it from the context, the relationship escalator is the idea that once you start on a relationship, it escalates automatically through various stages, signified by rituals like “the kiss”, “sleeping with”, “moving in”, “engagement”, and so on.2
But this isn’t a poly thing; it’s a relationship thing.
One of the things I really like about the advice that poly folks give (and the way most poly folks think) is the actual examination of the “automatic” things our society tells us to do or feel.
I think that’s a wonderful attitude to have with a relationship.
And this cartoon is also important to me in another way – again, regardless of what configuration of relationship you have.
Look at it again. Not as an examination of the concept of the relationship escalator, but as problem solving among people who care about each other.
The blue-haired person says: “…do things just stay casual forever? I don’t want that.” They’re expressing their boundaries and fears.
In a really hard-line way of looking at boundaries, that might be the end of the conversation. Blue-hair doesn’t want casual, so BOOM, there goes the relationship, since black-hair doesn’t want exactly the same thing.
In that hard-line way of looking at boundaries, black-hair would only have two choices: get on the escalator or detonate the relationship.
It would be a showdown of ultimatums, a drama-filled, anxiety-ridden turmoil.
But that’s not what happens here. The black-haired person hears the
underlying concern: that blue-hair wants to hear and see and feel that
they’re loved. And they suggest a new way: “Tell me all the other ways you can hear [that I love you] besides for [sic] living together & hanging out every day.”
Black-hair isn’t meeting blue-hair’s false dichotomy… but black-hair is definitely trying to address blue-hair’s needs and desires while respecting their own.
When one partner offers that kind of a dichotomy presented as a boundary (“Do X or else I have to do Y”) there really may not be any other way to get around it.
But I think that’s the rare, rare, rare exception. We think it’s common because we’re afraid of what our partners might do. We’re afraid of what they might not do. We want guarantees and certainty… even if that might not get us what we really want.
Which brings us back to the relationship escalator. It’s a false promise – a promise of certainty, of guarantees.
But they’re illusions, too. Divorce, breakups, broken engagements, and moving out are very, very common. I think that relying on that illusion of security, those symbols and rituals, make us more complacent and more vulnerable than actively looking and examining what’s going on.
I’d rather have a partner where our relationship was based on what we actually felt rather than where we thought we were expected to be.
I’d rather have a partner who knew and worked on their failings than one who pretended to be perfect.
Because when everything is uncertain, when everything is risky, those who know how things really are with themselves and their relationship are a far, far lower risk than those who just want to pretend that everything’s okay.
1Unfortunately, I didn’t get the source for the artist – and TinEye couldn’t dig it up – so if you know, please let me know so I can credit them.
2Obviously, in our society, not all rituals are necessary for all folks… but there is a common thread.