One thing you hear about in the polyamory community is the Relationship Escalator. I’m not sure who coined the term, but the idea is essentially this: the beginning of each romantic relationship is the start of a clearly defined trajectory that starts with two people meeting and ends with them making a permanent commitment to each other and staying together until death. Of course, most of our relationships don’t turn out this way, but in the mainstream Western culture there’s often the assumption that living a normal life means that you will find that one person with whom you can ride the escalator all the way to the top. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with escalator relationships—I myself made a lifelong, legal commitment to someone and have zero regrets about that. However, I do think many people waste a lot of time and hurt themselves and others trying to force every one of their relationships on to the escalator.
I’m talking about this because recently I noticed that I was about to do the same. For context, I live with my husband and my partner lives with his ex-girlfriend. For various reasons, I can’t even visit my partner at his place, so to spend any private time, we have to be at my place. But because I only have one bed, my partner and I can never spend the night together. I think we have spent the night together 6 times in the past 6 months. And to do that, we have to get creative (or expensive)—house sitting, camping, or outright splurging on an airbnb.
I’ve long been feeling that we need to work toward the goal of living together. We are both actively working toward the goal of getting married (even though we have no idea what that would look like), but living together is another story. The other day I finally asked my partner point blank why he doesn’t seem all that interested in moving in with me and my husband. He said he was really conflicted about it because he wants to be able to live with me full time, but also listed about a half-dozen really good reasons why living together would put a strain on our relationship, my currently existing marriage, and his relationship to my husband (with whom he is friends.) It’s not that he’s ruled it out entirely, but he wants to be cautious.
As he was talking, I realized that I had been holding on to a lot of unexamined assumptions. I had assumed that full-time cohabitation + marriage + joint ownership of property would be the best thing for our relationship. But it actually might not be, at least right now. And when I truly look at all the reasons why I want us to live together, only some of them actually have to do with our relationship. Many of the reasons have to do with removing inconvenience from my life, rather than strengthening our relationship itself.
So I asked Vessel about why I really want to live with my partner and got some interesting answers:
Choice, Freedom, Trust, Self-Care, Make, and Light.
I was somewhat surprised to see that the Love, Romance, or Connect cards didn’t show up here. Instead, these are cards about my relationship with myself.
Vessel is pointing out that I’m looking for more autonomy and flexibility in my life. What I really want is to feel like I have more control over my circumstances and a better ability to plan how I spend my time and energy. And note: it’s not that these things aren’t an important part of being in relationship to other people, but they’re also things that we have to prioritize and decide for ourselves.
I realized I have been riding the relationship escalator and was carrying a lot of beliefs that aren’t really true, such as: my partner isn’t really committed to me if he’s not committed to living with me; our relationship will be easier and better once we’re living together; our relationship will be “real” or legitimate if we are living together; and, if I am living to my partner, that will make me happy. All of these are assumptions that are half-truths at best.
I’m grateful to my partner for his skill and care with this question. It’s clear that he has thought about this a lot. He’s also applying lessons he’s learned from bad experiences with roommates and live-in partners, that I, fortunately, have not had. Once we began talking about this, things really opened up for me. Yes, we want to be close to each other. Yes, we want to have a lot of flexibility in when and how often we see each other. We also acknowledge that our lifestyles are different in a lot of ways—he wants to have guests over for dinner often; I want to spend quiet evenings at home alone. He wants a dog, but I have cats. (I love dogs, but my cats to not!) Once we began talking, we began to build a new vision of the future for ourselves. What if we buy a piece of property and have two small houses on it? That actually seems like the ideal solution.
Like I said, relationships that follow the escalator trajectory aren’t bad in and of themselves. But if we enter into a relationship with another human being and assume that the escalator is the only way to be in relationship, we can set ourselves up for some pretty big disappointments and ultimately neglect the needs of the person in front of us for a mere idea.