Are you on the relationship escalator?


A few years ago, I was in the early staging of dating someone. At one point, she wrote to me, in detail, the precise ages at which she wanted to move in, get married, and have kids.

And while I applaud her for knowing what she wanted, (and I do wonder if she ever made all of those goals), it did feel a little bit like being with her would be a series of achievements to be unlocked in a specific way. It felt like being on an escalator.

A relationship escalator.

What is the relationship escalator?

The relationship escalator is the culturally-accepted order of milestones that occurs in a relationship, often at a specific speed. In my experience, this is:

  • Step 1: Meet someone
  • Step 2: Move in
  • Step 3: Get married
  • Step 4: Have kids

(Here is another similar definition.)

There are optional steps here too, as well as things that can often happen in different orders. A pet (or “starter child”) often happens between steps 2 and 3. Buying property together also happens, sometimes before step 3 and sometimes after. Occasionally step 4 happens before step 3 (as that’s not much of a taboo anymore), but rarely does step 3 happen before step 2 (at least not anymore).

The theory and assumptions behind the relationship escalator, as I understand it, are as follows:

  • Step 1: Everyone wants to meet someone and be in love.
  • Step 2: If you’re in love with someone, it follows that you’d want to live with them.
  • Step 3: If you’re in love and living with some, it follows that you’d want to make a lifetime commitment to them.
  • Step 4: If you’ve made a lifetime commitment to someone, then it means that you want to have kids with them.

What’s the problem?

Believe it or not, I have no objection to the steps on the relationship escalator. I hope you meet someone, move in, get married, have kids, and are happy. Truly.

But while I have no objections to the steps on the relationship escalator, what I object to is the escalator itself. In short, I object to the passive acceptance of such a path regarding what is, potentially, one of the most important sets of decisions in your life.

If there’s one word that sums up what I’m on about on this site, beyond any hyperbole on “sticking it to The Man” or anything, it’s intentionality. It’s the act of being present enough to know why you are doing something. To push back against the passivity of the everyday, and the blind acceptance of other people’s dreams as your own.

Push the Q button for me, please

Take a moment, a real solid moment, to ask yourself a few questions about the primary steps on the relationship escalator.

  • Do you really want to meet someone and fall in love? What if you are perfectly happy being single? Do you feel pressure to find someone, even if you don’t particularly feel the desire yourself? And what about if you’ve already met someone and then you meet someone else? Do you find that you want to choose between them, or that you’re being pressured to choose? Who is doing the pressuring?
  • Do you really want to live day in and day out with this person? Do you feel like you have to want to live together, because that’s what love is? Who told you that? Can you envision something different that could be equally as appealing?
  • What are your reasons for getting married? If it’s for commitment reasons, can you envision a commitment that doesn’t involve a state-sanctioned event? Are you thinking more about the ceremony than the life that will follow it? Do you want this, or does someone else in your life want it?
  • Do you really want kids? Having kids will change your life completely and utterly. This might mean that the life you have after kids might be more fulfilling, but this is not a choice with an Undo button. Do you really want to do it? If so, can you articulate why? Do you have a solid sense of the other goals in your life too, and how they will all play out?

These questions aren’t easy, and I confess I was lying when I said they’d only take a moment. But the above are perhaps the most important questions you can ask yourself about your desire for intimacy and companionship.

Usually, no one asks you to think about these questions. They just ask you when you’re getting married.

Stop the ride, I want to get off

It’s refreshing to see that many people are starting to challenge individual rungs of the relationship escalator. Not getting married seems to be the most common challenge I see these days, though not having kids is right up there. Many people I know are investing in multiple simultaneous relationships, and a few folks I know live with a whole tribe of people, some of whom they are intimate with and some they are not.

I’m quite taken with Robert Smith (of The Cure) not marrying his long time girlfriend until he had known her for longer than half of his life (they met at age 14 and married at age 29). Your first thought might be that you could never wait that long, but why not?

Woody Allen, in Annie Hall, said that a relationship is like a shark, in that it has to constantly move forward or it dies. This is the tagline for the relationship escalator. And I disagree. Why does a relationship have to move forward? What does move forward even mean? And what happens when you’re at the top and there’s nowhere else to “go”?

I think there’s nothing wrong with wanting to grow closer in your relationships. But don’t make the mistake of looking to relationship landmarks as a substitute for a known and healthy relationship. Look at what you have today. Are you happy with what you have? If not, why not?

From Kimchi Cuddles. Click the above comic for more.
From Kimchi Cuddles. Click the above comic for more.

But enough about me. Are you on the relationship escalator? Do you want to be?


  1. Amicia Nametka

    This is a great breakdown of living according to expectation vs authenticity. It is not a “game or death” choice as some might fear. Authenticity is a big leap of faith and a lot of work but it is soooooo worth it.

    • Mike @ Unlikely Radical

      Thanks Amicia! I like the “game or death” phrase. There are other pathways that just need to be carved out, and we need to have the strength and bravery to do it.

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