The Relationship M.C. Escher Staircase

If you haven’t heard of the relationship escalator by now, you should maybe start with this article over on solopoly.

If you’re really lazy and hate clicking things, here’s the general gist:

Relationship Escalator: The default set of societal expectations for the proper conduct of intimate relationships. Progressive steps with clearly visible markers and a presumed structural goal of permanently monogamous (sexually and romantically exclusive), cohabitating marriage — legally sanctioned if possible. The social standard by which most people gauge whether a developing intimate relationship is significant, “serious,” good, healthy, committed or worth pursuing or continuing.


So, when I talk about the relationship escalator, I’m talking about what society, my mother, my friends growing up, and mainstream movies, tv shows, and so on have taught me is the metric by which my relationship’s success is measured.

And, unsurprisingly, it’s bullshit. For some people, me included.

Some people are perfectly happy to follow the relationship escalator and have a partner that’s on the same page and has the same goals. They have happy and functional and healthy relationships. That’s awesome! Power to them and to their partners!

I know that’s not me. Wait, correction: I now know that’s not me.

My first few relationships were very much of the escalator variety. First date? Check. Physical intimacy? Done. Emotional connection? You bet. Talking about our mutual feelings? Yep. Boyfriend/girlfriend labels? Finally. Long-term planning? Definitely. Various stages of life entwining? Only seems natural. And so on, and so on. In that order.

It seemed like the right formula, because it was the only formula presented to me for so long. We’ve been dating x amount of time, which means we’re at this step and this step is next. Clearly. And my monogamous heterosexual partners have been all too happy to ride this escalator with me, until one of us recognizes that the relationship in some way is not working. Then I start it back up again with the next guy.

Except I’m not heterosexual, and, as of the past couple years, I’ve realized strict monogamy isn’t really something that I’m interested in either. So I started making small rebellions against the predetermined path. At first the only way I could see is to change the pace of the escalator, walking up or down on the preset path to breeze past some points with little consideration, and go back to others when I felt unsure. I sprinted through entire steps in favor of getting to the part I thought would be good for me and my partner, only to get there and figure out that it wasn’t as good as I’d banked on it being. I tried to fit people into a predetermined mold and put on them the responsibility of sharing every step with me completely, in socially dictated and acceptable ways, and that didn’t work either.

At some point, and I’m not sure when, I jumped off the escalator entirely. The problem now became that I was standing away from the escalator in the middle of confusing and disordered ideas. The comfort of the escalator is that it provides you with a map that you can pull out at any time and go “here we are”, and now I was on my own just quietly saying “here I am” without knowing where here is.

The title of this calls on an M.C. Escher staircase, because when I first started leaving behind the escalator that’s what it felt like I had traded it in for. I didn’t know where the steps were and sometimes it felt like no matter how much I thought me and my partner were climbing, we’d always end up in the same spot. It made the escalator seem so much more appealing, because at least it traveled forward or completely stopped. Here, instead, I traveled, but it wasn’t forward. Here I got complacent and comfortable and scared of jumping off again into the unknown, because this still had structure, even if it didn’t quite make sense. Maybe this time around, I would climb higher and actually get somewhere? It took a long time to come to terms that this staircase was no better than the escalator, that this was still putting expectations on people and on relationships that were unnecessary. So I jumped off again, this time into a vast expanse of unfamiliar uncertainty.

And then I would meet someone, and the escalator would appear again. And I would say “actually, I can ride this for a little bit, but eventually I’m going to have to ask you to jump off with me. Do you think you can do that?” Sometimes the answer was “I think so.” Sometimes it was “How about you jump off, and I stay on?” and sometimes it was “I tried jumping off once, and it wasn’t what I thought it would be, so I don’t know.” And usually, my response was a meek and understanding “oh, ok, we can ride it until you’re comfortable then, I guess.” And I find myself on the escalator again. I compromise and wait patiently as the steps get ridden out until I don’t remember why I wanted to jump off in the first place, because this is Good Enough. And then something happens, and the relationship ends, either because of or in spite of the escalator (or staircase), and I end up standing in the unknown again with a quiet “here I am”, drawing potential maps on scraps of paper so next time I can say “let’s jump off, here, I have a Plan and a Map!”

I’m getting better at saying no to the escalator, and the staircase for that matter. I’m also getting better at recognizing that a Plan and a Map are not relevant things. (Especially when trapped in an M.C. Escher painting.) The whole point of not being on the escalator is that there is no Plan, or Map, or structure to fit you and your partner and this thing you’re trying to build into. The idea is that you start with a vast expanse of nothing that you and your partner can build on. You let go of preconceived plans of “this is what relationships look like” in favor of “this is what us being together looks like”, and you leave it open and malleable and full of potential. You recognize that this person is different from the last, and that trying to fit them into the predetermined role of what you expect this to be isn’t fair to either of you, and that adhering to the escalator or to your own hand drawn map that you devised by yourself still severely limits what this can become.

As I said, some people are perfectly happy on the escalator. Some are even perfectly happy with an escalator and then a set of M.C. Escher stairs. And I’m not ready to completely discount all parts of the escalator quite yet. However, I am one hundred percent ready to discount the idea that I “should” want any part of it.

But maybe if what we build is vaguely escalator like in some parts, that wouldn’t be the worst thing, either. It’s really up to both me and the person I’m building this with.


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