Think about the last film, tv show or book you engaged with that featured a romantic/sexual relationship (most mainstream media is very poor at distinguishing between romance and sex in relationships and assumes they are analogous). Certain signifiers will be used to indicate a “happy” or “unhappy” relationship – dates, shopping in Tesco, sex, weddings, getting a dog, having children. This shorthand can be used, at least under white supremacy, to indicate to the media consumer what they should think about a relationship. (I mention white supremacy because, of course, our media replicates certain cis het mono norms which all serve the protection of whiteness as the power construct under which we all exist).
Amy Gahran described the shared understanding of these norms, and of the shoulds which underlie them as The Relationship Escalator. The escalator not only tells us where we should be (in the view of wider society) in a romantic/sexual relationship but positions each step as superior to the other, with an end goal which we should be moving towards. How many times have you heard “where is this relationship going” as if the endpoint is a part of the relationship, and more important than the joy, or pain a relationship brings. Then at the other end if a relationship ends, the escalator model sees this as a return to a lower level, emphasising the cultural norm of ending being a failure – the only way to succeed in relationships is for them to be permanent, setting us all to some degree up for failure.
Leading trainings for therapists on working with gender, sex and relationship diversity I have realised that whilst the model is very useful, and does describe the experience of judgement, shame and external validation of success and failure, there is also great value to exploring the different escalators that exist. One activity I often do is ask groups to draw different relationship escalators that might be the norms in various demographics. As well as the cis het white escalator there might be a London 2023, gay, trans, lesbian, escalators that exist for different cultural, racial and ethnic communities. All of these carry the idea of a hierarchy, the risk of doing it wrong, and the external judgement of the original model. What many also explore is the further alienation from the majority, that sense of being other. If (for example) your cultural escalator begins on apps,or with an arranged meeting decided by parents, you will feel the tug of war between competing shoulds and prohibitions.
We can even take the model onto a more micro level. Often people will experience relationship difficulties because the escalator they carry in their head differs from their partners – what does it exactly mean to have a toothbrush in their bathroom, to sleep (and I mean sleep) together, to introduce someone to your friendship group over brunch?
I invite you to take a few minutes now to try and draw your own personal relationship escalator, from first contact to established relationship. What are the steps that make you feel you are “doing it right”?
In therapy it can be incredibly useful to explore the learned beliefs around doing it right, to step off the escalator and work out what we want from relationships and what works for us. However, a very practical step we can all do outside of the therapy room is to discuss the symbolic meaning behind the steps on our own escalator, and explore with partners how it might match up with theirs – give it a go, you never know what you might learn!