• Angie Gunn LCSW CST

A Counter to The Relationship Escalator

Erin is a sexual being, a vibrant powerhouse seeking to connect and thrive, and she loves her partner. She has been feeling pressure from her partner, her family and her own internal sense of guilt, to settle down and make life plans. While she knows the usual order of things, she yearns to date other people, to travel, and to have her partner in her life as a fellow traveler on the journey. She wants to get off the relationship escalator.

In 2012 this great piece was written, finally naming the thing we as diverse humans have perpetually struggled with: The Relationship Escalator...

"The default set of societal customs 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."

This idea was made into a great book that includes some really fantastic stories of people who got off the escalator. I've been off the escalator for about 9 years, and work with many clients who are trying to find their path, or perhaps mode of transit, through relationships and life. During a session recently I thought of this music video as a metaphor for an alternative mode of transit.

A grouping of relationship treadmills:

Besides OK Go being rad, it's a great metaphor for an alternate approach to relating. The treadmills are particularly well suited for LGBTQIPA+ partnering, non-monogamy, consensual power exchange dynamics, and alternative relationships. Or really anyone who seeks to break the traditional mold. Instead of the fixed destination and format of an escalator, the treadmills provide empowerment, flexibility, and creativity in creating the relationship that best suits you.


One of the big criticisms of the relationship escalator is the fixed nature of it. You have to get on, but once you're on you're stuck escalating the relationship to the next pre-determined level without the ability to make individual choices about who you and your partners are or what you want or need. That model is inherently oppressive and disempowers ethical, self determined decision making about life and love. Coercion and control dynamics enter into what should be supportive, meaningful partnering.

It's important to note that some people find the escalator, and their relationships based therein, as perfectly fulfilling. There is nothing wrong with that approach when it's entered into willingly and enthusiastically on both sides. But many times it's an assumption, versus a chosen model for living.

How many people do you know who say they moved in with someone, or got married because it was the next expected step, or out of fear of losing a partner? Or avoided intimacy for fear of expectations around hopping on the escalator to commitment, marriage and children?

When clients talk with me about being "afraid of commitment" or avoidance related behaviors, they are often fighting the paradigm of a set of socially constructed expectations. Why can't you stay dating partners forever? What if you never want to live together?

The answer is you can! When you're on the relationship treadmills you can make choices, seek to understand who you are and what you want. You can communicate openly and clearly with partners about wants and needs, and format your treadmill's position, speed, and duration in any way you see fit. You can make agreements, create dynamic structures, or set boundaries if your wants don't align.


The Escalator restricts movement and individuality, you either get on and move up, or get caught in the gears at the start. Relationship problems are one of the biggest therapeutic concerns I see. But many of these problems relate to the tremendous pressure we put on relationships, as a result of the escalator model. When a partner has to fit the mold, walk your exact path at the exact speed and style as you, disappointment and failure is highly likely.

Alternately, the treadmills provide infinite possibilities, allowing you to pace and plan on your own terms. The ability to start and stop, speed up or slow down is such a key part of forming relationships. While we wish we could find someone who is perfectly aligned with us from day one, this is unreasonable and can be harmful to partners. Instead letting partnerships take on forms that best suit them (like a living and breathing entity growing at its own pace), the treadmill model allows for beauty, connection and change organically.

You can also make it wider or narrower, add people or add more treadmills to suit the growing entity. While the escalator limits you to two people side by side, a treadmill configuration can include any number of people, with differing levels of connection. While you have one person who walks with you daily, you may have another you visit once a month or once a year. You may have one treadmill that is more suited for sex, and another for romance or board games. This diversity and flexibility lets you decide, instead of the social expectations of traditional relationships.

Motion without a pre determined destination

In addition to flexibility and empowerment, the treadmill model eliminates the set destination inherent in the escalator. Instead of expectations regarding commitment and conclusions, often including marriage, children and combined finances and lives, you can negotiate your own level of movement with each person. There are so many iterations of partnering, and destinations that look different than the template we've been given.

Unlike an escalator, you can decide how to structure it, change it, and add others without the need to go back to the beginning. Adding a new lover you visit once a week doesn't have to derail the consistency and connection you have with another. Shifting a partnership to being platonic life partners when sex isn't working any longer is possible. Connecting a set of partners in your life with one another doesn't necessarily impede the connection you have with both independently. Without the constrictions of societal expectations, you can dig in and do the real work of optimizing your own well-being, solving problems, and building meaningful and dynamic partnerships.

As Erin is learning, relationships can sometimes be difficult and complicated. But like your work out routine, the more choices and power you have to create your own template, the more successful it will be. Erin found that she could negotiate a structure which would be fulfilling to her partner, while still creating opportunities for her to have other connections of different forms. How will you create the relationship treadmill configuration that best suits you?

While you're pondering this, watch some of OK Go's other videos, because they are amazing. Don't worry, there will be no articles on how to make your relationship more like a Rube Goldberg machine.

29 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All