Navigating the relationship escalator with Amy Gahran

Minka: Hi everybody, and welcome back to Minka Guides. This month we’ll be talking about the relationship escalator with Amy Gahran.

Hi Amy! How are you doing today?

Amy (any pronouns): I’m doing great. How are you?

Minka: I am doing all right.

Relationship escalator CREDIT Amy Gahran

So, Amy is a 56-year-old cis straight solo polyamorous woman who is based in Boulder, Colorado. She is a journalist, editor, publisher and writer and is most well known for writing the 2017 book Stepping Off the Relationship Escalator: Uncommon Love and Life

This is the main reason I wanted to chat with you today, Amy is because I keep hearing a lot about the relationship escalator and keep also getting asked a lot about it on podcasts or on panels. Asked to describe it, and it’s made me so interested in how you came around to identifying this.

So, I thought before we jump into talking about the relationship escalator, it’d be really nice to talk about the process that led you to this.

How did that research start for you about ten years ago?

Amy: Well, it started with life. I’ve been polyamorous for ages. You know, twenty-something years or all my life, however, you want to count it. I rode the relationship escalator all the way to the top. I was married, cohabiting, and trying to be monogamous. 

Then eventually, we decided the monogamy thing didn’t work for either of us, merged finances and all that and yeah, it just didn’t do it for either of us. So we jumped off that escalator, and my former spouse is still one of my dearest friends. He actually lives across the street for me. So yeah, hi Tom.

Minka: How incredible.

Amy: So after I got unmarried, I had been living in Colorado for a long time, and I decided I needed to do something different. So, I went to the Bay Area and spent three great years in Oakland (California).

In Oakland, I would hear this phrase ‘the relationship escalator’ get kicked around. People were just kind of using it colloquially. I thought it was apt, especially from the perspective of somebody who does relationships differently – not just polyamorous, but I also don’t want to like merge my life and identity. I’m solo polyamorous, so I’m not doing the relationship escalator. So that’s how the phrase kind of entered my head.

Then when I moved back to Colorado in 2012, I was motivated for a bunch of reasons to talk about solo polyamory per se just because everything about polyamory that you read about it back then was like ‘couple+’. 

Minka: Yeah, very focused on that.

Amy: There’s a whole lot more than couple+. 

So, I started writing a blog called, and from there, a number of the posts were kind of definitional because whenever you’re doing relationships differently, you’ve got to use different words because there’s so much overhead that comes with the words that most people use about relationships. 

The words that we grow up comfortable using about relationships, like serious and commitment and all that, is jargon. We don’t realise it’s jargon because we’re all kind of steeped in that one culture, but it is indeed jargon. When you start doing relationships differently, old words don’t fit.

So, I was doing definitional terms, explaining things, especially from a solo polyamorous perspective. You know, what is a metamour (your partner’s other partner)? What can that mean if you’re in a network of relationships as a solo polyamorous person? That sort of stuff. 

One of the terms I used a bunch that I finally decided to write a definitional post about it was what is this relationship escalator. I did a post in November 2012. Wow, it’s ten years ago this month that I wrote this blog post!

Minka: Oh my goodness!

Amy:  Riding the relationship escalator or not, and wham! It was one of those things where I started getting traffic from all over the place. It was getting linked to from mainstream news organisations and all sorts of things. 

I’ve been a self-employed journalist and editor and writer, and all that for a long time. So, I look at that, and it’s like this seems like a business opportunity. So, I decided this term relationship escalator really has people interested. I’ll do a book about it, and I thought I’d do it the easy way. I said I’ll put up a survey, and I’ll use the survey to get maybe a hundred responses. I’ll find a couple of dozen people to interview, and bang zoom, get the whole thing out in six months.

I put the survey up, and I had 300 responses in the first week. It was a lot of open-ended questions, and people were writing the equivalent of like 2,000/2,500-word essays.

Minka: Oh my god.

As a writer and editor myself, I can imagine how much you were just like, “Oh wait. This is a much bigger project than I was anticipating.”

Amy: Yeah, and the diversity of what people were saying was far more than what I realised. So after I uncurled from the fetal position, I started sorting through the survey responses. I kind of accidentally learned how to be a social scientist, in a way. I learned how to build a database and deal with qualitative data and parse out qualitative data. That was a learning curve. You think polyamory is a learning curve? Qualitative data is a learning curve. Let me tell you. But it’s important. 

You think polyamory is a learning curve? Qualitative data is a learning curve. Let me tell you.

So, the goal of what I was trying to do is not to say out of all people how many people want this? Or how well does this work? Because I wasn’t getting a representative sample of anything. You know it’s an opt-in online survey people that were passing around the link to. 

Ultimately, I had to shut it down after I got 1,500 responses because it’s just so much work to parse out qualitative data. That’s all I could really deal with. I didn’t want to take more surveys of responses if I wasn’t going to be able to use them. I didn’t think that was fair. 

Minka: Of course, but there was an appetite there. So many people wanting to talk about their lives that exist outside of the very strict monogamous paradigm.

Amy: Yeah, it was really interesting how eager people were to talk about this and how supportive people were. They’re like, “I don’t know if I’m the only one like this,” and it’s like, “Ok, you’re like the fifteenth person I’ve read this week who’s basically said that. So no, you’re not the only person like that.” 

But my goal was to explain the breadth of how people do relationships differently from the traditional relationship escalator. That process of going through the qualitative data really helped me clarify that the relationship escalator is the bundle of social norms that most of us grow up marinating in that tell you how relationships that involve especially sex and romance are supposed to work. 

How they’re supposed to begin, what their then trajectory is, what their goals are, and how they are supposed to interact with other people based on where they are on that relationship escalator. You know, who you’re supposed to buy Christmas gifts for, all sorts of stuff. It’s an entrenched bundle of norms. It’s so entrenched, and they kind of formed on each other over time like barnacles. You know that it was a real challenge to kind of separate out what are the core things that the relationship escalator has. About how it’s supposed to work and the process of asking people basically, do you think you do relationships differently from the social norm? And if so, how? Asking that basic stuff really clarified what are those norms really.

Minka: Right.

Amy: So, I ended up backing into the five (what I call in my book) hallmarks of the relationship escalator. 

Those are, first of all, sexual and romantic exclusivity between two and only two people, i.e. monogamy. Then merging, which is not just living together. It is all that stuff about merging the infrastructure of your life and your identity, becoming a couple unit and having that be a large part of your identity.

Then there was hierarchy which we talk a lot about in the polyamorous community. Who’s your primary partner and your secondary partner? Spoiler alert: nobody needs to be either – we’ll get to that. 

Minka: If you don’t want to, yes.

Amy: It’s an option. It involves a lot of disclosure and consent, but we’ll get to that. 

So, hierarchy is also a big part of the relationship escalator. That your escalator partner is supposed to be, by default, more important than almost any other relationship you have that is not rooted in basically caregiving responsibilities. If you have minor children or if you’re caring for elderly parents or relatives. Your escalator partner is supposed to take priority by default over any other relationship. 

Maybe even over a friend that you’ve been friends with your entire life, and you’re very close, and you’ve known your escalator partner a couple of years. So hierarchy is actually part of the traditional relationship escalator. Think about it: monogamy, there can be only one = one hell of a hierarchy. 

Then a couple of things that kind of snuck in there around the edges that I only learned by going through the survey is the assumption that intimacy equals sex and/or romance. That a relationship that does not involve sex and romance (ideally both or at least sex), that it’s not really intimate if nobody’s fucking. So you know, where does that leave asexual people? Where does that leave aromantic people? 

Then the last one is the idea of continuity and consistency. Once you were on that escalator and you’ve gotten up to a certain level in that escalator, the relationship is basically supposed to continue on the escalator. If you reach the pinnacle of it at the pinnacle and do not change. This is the final and fixed form of the relationship. 

Ain’t necessarily so. Like I said in my own case, my former spouse is one of my dearest friends, and yeah, we got unmarried thirteen/fourteen years ago, and I’d take a bullet for the guy. He’s awesome. You know, getting unmarried was probably the best thing that happened for our relationship in a lot of ways. 

Minka: Yeah, and people talk about relationships ending like it’s a sad thing. Like, “Oh, I’m really sorry,” but actually, a lot of the time, when it’s something that you’ve reached a point of going, “Ah this is okay, we’ve kind of got to the point now that it’s better for us not to be investing in this way. We can de-escalate or change the kind of situation of us.” But that doesn’t have to be an overwhelmingly sad thing. 

Amy: Yeah, people are moving targets at all points in life. If you expect that you are in a relationship with another full, living complete human being, expect that they will change. Expect that you will change and that means your relationship will change. It’s just a matter of whether you acknowledge and negotiate that or not.

People are moving targets at all points in life. If you expect that you are in a relationship with another full, living complete human being, expect that they will change. Expect that you will change and that means your relationship will change. It’s just a matter of whether you acknowledge and negotiate that or not.

Minka: Yeah, exactly because I think a lot of the time we’re given the idea in society that when you find someone, it’s like finding a product on the shelf, and you take it down off the shelf going, “I am purchasing this product as I see it now. I expect it to stay exactly as it is forever because that’s how I have decided upon it and purchased it.” 

Then, of course, we’re all humans everyone grows and evolves and changes and through being together and not. So yeah, I think that’s kind of something that we need to be a bit more aware of. Particularly if people trying to jump into relationships that last multiple decades. It’s just like that person isn’t going to be the same person they were ten/fifteen/twenty years ago.

Amy: Here’s the thing: the relationship escalator is not a problem. Okay, as a form of chosen relationship, it can be a wonderful thing. A lot of people have really benefited from it. Enjoyed it. It’s given them a lot of love and fulfilment. It’s helped them live the life that they want to have. Totally fine, and it’s not the only game in town. But the difference is that the traditional relationship escalator is extremely visible, venerated, and privileged, at least in Western culture.

Minka: Yes

Amy: Many other cultures too, but in Western culture especially. This is why we have the marriage industrial complex. You know? 

Minka: Exactly.

Amy: Yeah, so the thing is that you really can’t talk about the relationship escalator without recognising the privilege that is involved with it. The flip side of privilege is stigma and invisibility. It means that people who aren’t riding that escalator, however they choose to do relationships, it won’t get the kind of recognition and veneration. 

It might be stigmatized, and you know the world is not set up for people doing relationships differently. They’re going to face difficulty and prejudice for it Also, it just means that there’s going to be a learning curve because you don’t see many other kinds of relationships represented. So if you want to do something differently, it’s kind of hard to say, “How do I do it? Who’s doing this?” 

So, then I took all that experience from the survey, put it in the book and say, wham! Here are a whole lot of ways that people are doing it. 

I quote over 300 people from their survey responses. I had 1,500 co-authors, and they’re saying, ok, here’s what the traditional relationship works. Here are the things that make it up, and here’s how people are not doing those things and here’s what they say about that experience in their own words. 

Minka: Yeah, incredible. This is one of the things when I’m talking to someone for the first time about the relationship escalator, I’m usually like, “Oh, you know what this is. We’ve just never used a word to describe it before.” We’ve never identified it because it’s so prevalently built into our society. 

That a ‘normal’ relationship looks like being: romantically and sexually exclusive, moving in together, buying a house together, having babies, getting married, all these steps. We just get swept along on it because the assumption is that’s what a real relationship looks like. People are starting to realise that it doesn’t have to include any or all of those elements to still be a completely valid, wonderful, loving, supportive, fun, and exciting relationship.

Amy: Yes, or not but the same thing is true of the relationship escalator. So yeah. 

Minka: Exactly, and I think that’s why I’m finding it so interesting at the moment because I’ve even been hearing monogamous people starting to talk about the relationship escalator, which I think is wonderful because it’s they’re starting to be so so self-aware and conscious of their relationships that even if they’re like, “Yeah that’s what I want. I know that that’s where I want to be going with this relationship, but I’m checking in at every point and knowing that this is something that I really want.” 

Rather than just doing it because we assume that that’s what a real relationship looks like, and that’s what they have to do to be seen by everybody around them as having like some kind of committed relationship.

Amy: Yeah, it’s really interesting. 

Of course, naming a set of social norms is most immediately useful for people who are outside the social norm because they need to describe, okay, everybody’s doing that. I’m doing something else over here. But the term got kind of got pigeonholed for a while. People were talking about it mainly in the context of non-monogamy but also some other kinds of relationships, asexuality, and stuff like that. But I hear it come up in the wild every once in a while, and that’s pretty cool.

Minka: It’s out there.

Amy: Yeah, I see it on social media, and I’m like, “Oh well, where’s this being talked about? No, they’re not talking about non-monogamy. Oh my God, It’s awesome.”

So, where have you heard it out and about in the wild?

Minka: I’ve heard it at panels talking about sex and relationships and not in regards to necessarily non-monogamy. So just people being aware of their relationships and talking about the steps and all of that. I’ve heard it mentioned on relationship podcasts that aren’t related to non-monogamy.

So it’s really interesting to see it kind of like seeping into the broader kind of vernacular around relationships, which is important. I think it’s really wonderful for people just to be self-aware, as we said. Even if they’re choosing all of those steps because it’s lovely and makes them feel great and that’s what they want in their relationships. That’s great, but being conscious of that is wonderful, even better. 

I was interested to hear that this was a term that didn’t come about through your research of you identifying it. 

Do you know if the term relationship escalator came from somewhere specific?

Amy: No, I mean, I heard it kicking around in Oakland when I was there from 2009-2012. So I just kind of picked up on it. I don’t know where it came from.

Minka: Ok, yeah, as these things tend to evolve out of who knows.

So, what have you noticed in those ten years since you did that survey? How things have shifted around the way that we’re talking about relationships.

Amy: Well, I started the survey wasn’t quite 10 years. I ran it from 2013 until like late 2014. So, yeah, what has shifted since then is, at least within the culture of polyamory, a greater awareness of the complexities and difficulties, especially ethically and morally, that come along with hierarchy. With having a specifically set primary relationship. That means other relationships are secondary, and what does that mean when the rubber hits the road? 

People can be very squeamish about discussing that, and at the time that I did this survey, many people were very much like, “Well yeah, I have a primary partner, and of course, we do this and this, and you know the hierarchy works in this way.” Now when I talk to people, they’re like, “Well, hierarchy is kind of a bad word, so we don’t like to call that,” but they still do it. They just don’t like to call it that.

What I try to emphasize to people is that, especially within polyamory, hierarchical polyamory is a potentially fine and valid option with very clear upfront disclosure and consent. Not just saying, “Oh, I have a primary partner.” You know, don’t hand wave around. 

What does that mean? How would your hierarchy impact secondary partners and relationships? What kinds of impacts would they see? Would they have the ability to advocate for themselves about decisions and relationships that affect them? Would you be expecting them to basically kind of keep your relationship a secret because you’re polyamorous but not really out about it. I Love You but just kind of stay over there. 

Again, people are closeted for lots of reasons about lots of things but be very honest with yourself and each other about it because if you are looking to enter into a relationship where there’s a distribution of power, and that’s what we’re talking about. It’s not trying to make relationships identical, that everybody gets on the mortgage, and you spend the exact same night number of nights per week with a person. That’s not what it’s about. 

It’s that people who are in a relationship are on equal footing with their partner within their relationship and that they cannot be outvoted basically by other people who are not in that relationship. That’s egalitarian polyamory. 

But if you practice hierarchical polyamory, there is a large ethical responsibility to be very, very clear about what that means. A lot of people don’t like to think about it. It’s uncomfortable to say you’re not going to care if you want to advocate for yourself in certain ways, or I’m not going to honour it or do anything about it, even if I care, sorry. That’s a hard thing to say, but it’s better to be honest about it than not.

Minka: Yeah, 100%. 

That level of transparency is so incredibly important. So even if people are like, “I am going to want to prioritize this particular partner in my life for these reasons.” But then what does that look like for these other relationships/people that I’m bringing into my life, and how do we navigate that? How do you feel about that? How does that play into everything? 

Amy: Yeah, so I’m seeing people realising that there are ethical issues with hierarchy, but the way they respond to that often is just being cagey about how they discuss it. So I think there’s still a way to go there.

I’m also seeing people being more open to the ideas of relationships that don’t involve a lot of merging and also being open to relationships that will change over time. Accepting and embracing that and talking about negotiating and renegotiating their relationships. I’m even seeing that among my monogamous friends, and I think that’s a very good thing. 

I have not done a new survey. I don’t know if I will because it’s it was so much work I mean, it took years of my life. I don’t know if I’m up for that again.

But I do see differences in how I see people talking about relationships now versus when I was doing the survey a decade or more ago.

I’m also seeing people being more open to the ideas of relationships that don’t involve a lot of merging and also being open to relationships that will change over time. Accepting and embracing that and talking about negotiating and renegotiating their relationships. I’m even seeing that among my monogamous friends and I think that’s a very good thing. 

Minka: You mentioned earlier that you’re solo polyamorous and that you originally started with all of this by writing a blog. I’m also solo polyamorous, so it’s really nice to always have these kinds of chats about stuff.

So for people who haven’t heard of solo polyamory before, what is your definition of that?

Amy: (laughs) Oh, it’s just casual dating around. You know, nothing serious.

Minka: (laughs) Exactly, so scared of commitment, absolutely terrified.

Amy: For some people, that may be how they approach all or some of their relationships. Totally valid option, but by and large, what most people mean when they talk about solo polyamory is that their relationships don’t include intimate exclusivity. They don’t include a lot of merging in terms of living with a partner, getting financially merged with them, things like that. But that they do include love, depth, and commitment. Showing up for the hard stuff and with the understanding that love and commitment are not predicated upon exclusivity or merging.

So that’s general, broadest strokes, I think. The most common way that most people who consider themselves solo polyamorous practice solo polyamory. 

That’s how I do it. I have two long-term sweethearts. They are wonderful. Bill and Ted, the excellent adventurers. Now get this, they even have the same birthday.

Minka: Perfect.

Amy: It cracked me up when I figured that out. I was at a bar, and I was looking at my calendar, and it’s like, “Oh shit,” and the bartender says, “What? What’s up?” and I explain, “Well, I have two sweethearts, and they both have the same birthday.” He’s like, “Ahhhh…” And I’m like, “Oh, I know them. That won’t be a problem.”

Minka: He’s like, “Big problem,” and you’re like more an amusing coincidence.

Amy: Yeah, they’re both totally easygoing about it. We’ll celebrate sometime around then. 

Minka: Yeah, exactly. Well, it does make it sound like you have a type – someone born around that time of the year, it seems.

Amy: Yeah, but so I have two sweethearts, and they’ve both been in my life, one for five years, the other for six years. I have a wonderful metamour who is a good friend of mine.

I met him through the local poly community, and I thought that one of my sweethearts would enjoy this guy, and they hit it off. People want to know, in polyamory, how do you find great metamours? You pick them! 

People want to know, in polyamory, how do you find great metamours? You pick them! 

Minka: Like, I want that person in my life.

Amy: I mean, not in a unicorn-hunting way. But if you see a good introduction to be made, make the introductions and see what happens.

Minka: Yeah, you just bring people into your sphere, and you never know where they’ll end up clicking. So that’s wonderful.

Amy: Yeah, in addition to that, I have several other close people who are very meaningful to me. A few of them are from my family of origin, others are family of choice and yeah, I exist in a rich web of connection and relationships. So, the solo part is I manage the logistics of my life independently. I make my own life decisions. I am not looking to ask for permission or, you know, logistical support to do what I need to do.

This points to an issue with solo polyamory, and I think it’s a fair criticism. That prioritising these things in relationships can be seen as ableist. That there are people who, for a lot of reasons, whether it’s for health concerns, mental health, or other issues, a lack of financial resources, really cannot live on their own and or they can, but it doesn’t let them have their best life.

Are you saying that because that’s how they are, they can’t be solo polyamorous? You know, I used to think that. Now, I’m really of the opinion of, ok, if people want to self-apply that label cool for them, I’m not going to dictate to them. I’m not going to take their solo polyamorous card away. 

But if there are people that I’m involved with at all my life, I’m gonna watch how they behave, and you know it’s like, all right, is there a fair amount of autonomy here? Because a lot of times, people who are coupled up polyamory will say that they are solo polyamorous just to indicate that they don’t necessarily date as a unit.

Minka: Yeah, it’s funny how there are different spins on the way people use it. There’s always the classic of people describing themselves as solo polyamorous when they’re single but fully intend to end up in a merged situation. So there are all of those kinds of different interpretations, which I would say is like that you’re single and polyamorous. You’re not solo polyamorous. But then you know it’s up to people to work out for themselves. What/how that works for them? It’s an interpretation of identity. 

Amy: I get really tired of linguistic whack-a-mole. It’s okay, fine, whatever. I pay attention to more than any words that people say, is how do they act?

Minka: Exactly, yeah. What is their approach to life and relationships?

To quickly backtrack, is this a term (solo polyamory) that you also came across in Oakland as well around that time?

Amy: No, interestingly, I started using it because that made sense to me. Because I was seeing terms like single secondaries, and neither of those terms really applied to me.

Then I read Tristan Terramino’s book Opening Up, which is a very couple-centric book when you think about the title. Opening up from what? And she actually had a chapter in the book about “solo polyamory,” which she discussed as being basically polyamorous people who don’t want anything serious. Yeah, so there’s that background to it.

When I started using it for my blog, it was mainly because I had just come out of a situation where after three years in a relationship where we actually hadn’t really discussed hierarchy. I was with a married poly guy, and all of a sudden, I found myself effectively vetoed after three years. 

Minka: I’m sorry.

Amy: It’s like, oh, there was a big power differential in here that we never even talked about. 

So I was thinking about it a lot, and then I started writing about it. Because what it came down to was assumptions of how we talked about how the relationship escalator is privileged. Well generally, at least in Western society. Visible couplehood that appears to be on the relationship escalator is an extremely privileged status in our society.

And when you’re privileged, it’s hard to see what that privilege does to other people because you’re in the middle of it. It’s hard to adapt their perspective. So I was trying to write at the time from like, “Yeah, look, here’s how that looks from the people who aren’t part of the couple.” 

It’s really telling in polyamory when somebody says “we” do this or “we” want this. Who exactly is included in that we?

Minka: Yeah, exactly. It’s like have you thought about that and who is actually involved in this all the broader kind of dynamic of it all? 

Amy: Yeah, I’ve talked about this for years, but I really need to put together a hierarchy Bingo card about polyamory. All the little things that people can say and do that you know they may say they don’t do hierarchy. But then, if you add these things up, it’s like bingo!

Minka: Yes, or as people say now the red flags. Oh, I was seeing all those red flags and stuff.

Amy: Yeah, it’s not really red flags. Again, it’s a totally valid option, but it’s really important to be honest with yourself and others about it. It’s also really important because you deal with a lot of therapists and health practitioners that recognize that couplehood is a privilege and that people who aren’t part of the couple actually matter. 

A lot of times, unfortunately, poly-friendly therapists really only want to treat a couple that they see as primary and that other relationships should accommodate and exist or cease to exist based on what’s good for that primary couple. Big problem.

Minka: I Know that because I’ve been burned by that. Having someone else go to a therapist with their partner and the therapist saying, “Oh yeah, so Bronwyn should… just shut her out for a while and focus on this relationship.” That was a fun experience.

But anyway, we will leave that there. 

Thank you so much, Amy. This has been a really wonderful conversation.

Amy: It has.

Minka: If anyone wants to look into more about your book or anything around that, they should go to to check out everything about the relationship escalator, the book, and everything that Amy does. 

Amy: Yeah, and it’s not just about non-monogamy. It is about lots of ways that people do important relationships that just don’t ride that escalator. So, it’s kind of a primer on relationship diversity.

Minka: Exactly. Wonderful. Well, thank you so much.

Amy: Thank you I appreciate it.

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