Have you ever felt that a traditional relationship style wasn’t for you? Due to societal norms, many of us have been taught to find a partner, get married, move in together, and stay together until death due us part. This relationship model does not work for everyone which is why this week we are exploring unconventional relationship styles with journalist and publisher Amy Gahran

Through the lived experience of 1500 people, Amy’s book “Stepping Off The Relationship Escalator” gives insight into unconventional relationships and what exploring options outside of traditional relationships looks like. In this episode we dive deep into the 5 main themes of the traditional relationships escalator, why it is important to get clear on what you desire in relationships, and how you can begin to explore an unconventional relationship. 

This is a must-listen for everyone, not just those desiring a different relationship style. Keep an open mind as you are gaining awareness in this informational episode and make sure to tag us on Instagram with your takeaways!

In this week’s episode, we discuss:

[01:20] About Amy Gahran

[02:15] What led Amy to write a book about relationships

[08:53] “Stepping Off The Relationship Escalator” includes the lived experience of 1500 people

[11:55] What resources are available for people looking outside of traditional relationships?

[14:03] Getting clear on what you desire in relationships

[16:52] The hierarchy in traditional relationships

[19:43] The 5 main themes of the traditional relationships escalator

[29:18] Unconventional relationship styles are not just something that younger people are drawn to

[33:40] We live in a very couple-centric society

[35:37] Bringing awareness to unconventional relationships

[37:11] “Other people’s hearts are not your crash test dummies”

[43:58] Two of Amy’s favorite dates

About Amy Gahran

Journalist and publisher Amy Gahran lives in Colorado. She is the author of “Stepping Off the Relationship Escalator,” a research-based guide to intimate relationship diversity. It showcases the lived experiences of hundreds of people who choose to diverge from powerful social norms for intimate relationships — including alternatives to monogamy, cohabitation, the primacy of couplehood, and much more. 

What led Amy to write a book about relationships

Amy has always been less than traditional. She had several relationships in her teens and early 20s and one of them ended up in marriage. She was married for 18 years and they rode the “relationship escalator” to the top. While they were at the top, they both thought “This isn’t working for us ” They started to look at all of the normal things and eventually asked themselves if marriage was what they wanted. They got happily unmarried and ended up staying great friends. 

Within this, Amy realized that monogamy was not her thing. She discovered that she prefers running her life as an individual and found that polyamory works for her. Her “flavor” of polyamory is called solo polyamory which means that she is open to having more than one sexually or romantically intimate relationship at a time but they do not live together. She has been doing this for 15 years now and she currently has two sweethearts. Within all of this self-discovery, she found that this was a lot easier and more natural for her. She realized that other people needed to know about this and that is how the book came about. 

Celeste shares that she did the whole marriage thing too and found that she is more nontraditional as well. She has been single for a very long time and is happy with it. 

Stepping Off The Relationship Escalator” includes the lived experience of 1500 people

The basis of the book is a survey that she fielded from 2013 to 2014. She ended up collecting way more data than she could use. She had people writing 500-word essays as their responses and she needed to learn how to analyze qualitative data to put the book together. She quotes more than 300 of these people in the book and it goes over a wide range of how people diverge from the social norms of intimate relationships. 

This is not just about monogamy versus non monogamy, it includes partners who do not want to merge their housing or finances, people who are asexual, people who choose not to have an ongoing sexually romantic & intimate relationship, people who are single by choice, etc. There are so many other options aside from riding the relationship escalator. 

What resources are available for people looking outside of traditional relationships?

Amy shares that there is a reason that there are not many resources available for unconventional relationships. She says that the traditional relationships that ride the relationship escalator have a very venerated and privileged status. And with this status, the flip side becomes stigmatized. This means that this is less visible and harder for people to find. Everything that people wrote about relationships was around this relationship escalator. Thankfully there are becoming a lot more resources for unconventional relationships but like with anything that is against the norm, it takes time. Two books that Amy recommends are “Single At Heart” and “Solo, Building a Remarkable Life of Your Own

Getting clear on what you desire in relationships

Amy shares that she met one of her sweethearts on a dating app because she was very clear on what she wanted. She always goes into conversations with people with an open mind and never thinks “Is this person compatible with what I am looking for?” She always likes to sit down and get to know people versus having an interview-style date with someone. 

The hierarchy in traditional relationships

A lot of people do not talk about the hierarchy in traditional relationships – meaning that if you are in a relationship, this person is supposed to be the most important person in your life. Amy does not feel that this works for her or her relationships. She values all of the people in her life equally and does not feel as if she needs another relationship to “complete” her. 

The 5 main themes of the traditional relationships escalator

Through analyzing this survey, Amy found five clear themes that are the hallmarks of the relationship escalator:

The most obvious one is monogamy. This is sexual and romantic exclusivity between two and only two people. How this works depends on the people involved. There is a high and wide spectrum of what monogamy can mean. 

The second one is merging. This is not just moving in together, it is about acting as a unit. For example, knowing where each other is all of the time, feeling like another person’s behavior reflects on you, etc.

The next one is that your escalator partner is supposed to take the cake over everything else, which we talked about earlier. This is why if you go to an event and bring your best friend while having an escalator partner, people are going to start talking and asking questions.

The fourth one is the presumption of a sexual and romantic connection. This means that you and your escalator partner are presumed to have sex and feel romantic feelings for one another. This does not leave space for people on the asexuality spectrum. 

The last one is the presumption of continuity and consistency. This is the “always and forever” trajectory and you are supposed to stay there until someone dies. Amy shares that this is a “messed up” benchmark for success. This does not leave room for relationships that might change over time. 

Amy shares that there is often a presumption that there is a contract in relationships. People say “This is what you signed up for” without actually having anything laid out. She reminds us that people are constantly changing and evolving. People can become more compatible, or less compatible, or their sexuality may change – we have to have space for these changes. 

Unconventional relationship styles are not just something that younger people are drawn to

Amy shares that unconventional relationships are more common with people who are 40+. This is because they have ridden that relationship escalator to the top and either jumped off or got knocked off. This is mostly true with older women because traditional relationships, especially legal marriage, have primarily served the interests of straight cisgender white men. Many women who are coming out of those relationships realize that they do not want to have the gender responsibilities that are placed on them in those relationships again.

She also shares that people who live apart can have a deep and valuable relationship and this is not some weird compromise. Next time you are thinking about a relationship that did not work for you, instead of asking what either of you did wrong, ask if there is a better way that your relationship could be done.

We live in a very couple-centric society

Amy shares that we live in a very couple-centric society and people who are on the relationship escalator are extremely privileged. Legal marriage is essentially institutionalized couple privilege. She does not think marriage is wrong and it does provide important protections for people who need them but this privilege comes with a flip side of stigma. She states that couple privilege and martial privilege does hurt people. There is research that found if you have cancer and a partner at home, you will have more options for more aggressive cancer treatment – even if your partner is a deadbeat and would not take care of you. The medical profession has a long way to go with this and they need to be asking more about the support people have in their lives, not just a checked box of married or not. 

Bringing awareness to unconventional relationships

Through writing her book, Amy became an amateur social scientist. She found that even within the realm of nonmonogamy, there is a lot of diversity. She found that a lot of swingers consider themselves to be very socially and politically conservative and religious. She shares that we should not assume just because people check on a box somewhere in their lives that the other parts work that way too. 

“Other people’s hearts are not your crash test dummies”

Amy shares that we should not be using dating as our learning curve. People’s hearts are not your crash test dummies. She recommends finding friends and communities if you are interested in something new. If you think you might want to explore some new aspect of your sexuality, then find your local LGBTQ center and volunteer for something. Get to know people, make friends, and if there is a group discussion go to that. 

There are very low-stakes ways to explore these options and she says to not rush into things. Also, do not expect to “date your teacher”, learn these things at a center and ask who you can talk to about these different relationship styles. Once you start to expand your social network a few different things will happen, for one, you will learn from other people’s experiences and see how this aspect of their identity fits into their complete life. You also learn from other people’s mistakes and if you decide to venture into these realms, you will have support. Find support and a community first, then explore safely!

Two of Amy’s favorite dates

Two of Amy’s favorite dates were with her former spouse. The first one was their first date where they were covering a story about rats in the Philadelphia subways, which does not sound romantic but it ended up being very fun. After they got married they went on a camping trip to see a solar eclipse in Wyoming. This was an amazing experience. 

Connect with Amy:

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Stepping Off The Relationship Escalator with Amy Gahran

April 4, 2024