The relationship ladder

Polyamory Möbius TriangleI’m a “NT” type and our move into polyamory has me thinking about relationships, systems, and assumptions. Hear me out as I explore an idea…

The happily-ever-after-story sets out a “normal” progression in an emotional relationship. For lack of a better term, I’m calling it the “relationship ladder”. It starts with introduction, moves into romance, NRE, and sex, continues to commitment and identity as a couple, and finishes with some kind of socially recognized union and/or semi-permanent responsibility. The social norm for a couple is drummed into our heads by childhood (look at the K-I-S-S-I-N-G rhyme to taunt kids showing romantic affection). I’ve illustrated it as four stages, proceeding bottom to top, with a word cloud for context.


One can argue about the exact location and number or arrangement of the stages and the set and positions of the descriptive words, but that is beside the point. The fact is that this progress model is an obviously bad fit for a relationship as it sets up a game-like situation. Loosely applying terms from game theory, there are players with preferences for outcomes. Individual games have both explicit rules and implicit assumptions of play (and, since we’re indirectly discussing feelings, we might set aside the assumption of rationality). In the relationship ladder “game” the goal is to make it to the top thereby “winning” with an implicit zero sum winner-take-all outcome. We understand the rules even if we don’t usually discuss them as shown by the use of a term like “cheat” when someone goes outside the norm. Now take into account what happens after this game is “won”, there are no more rounds, no advancement, no remaining goal which might lead to a sense of disappointment in the “player” where they ask, “Is this it?” I wonder if the objectification itself is harmful– the “prize” isn’t a thing at all, people aren’t chattel, the end game is a shifting set of emotional interactions with another thinking, feeling person and needs frequent attention. This could lead to a recognition that the prize isn’t as wonderful as it looked at the start of the game. The mindset necessary for “beating” a game (and one’s opponents) is adverse to the mindset needed to sustain a relationship.

Consider the effect of this game even in its normal context: In a monogamous relationship otherwise thoughtful people find themselves at one stage and wonder why the relationship is not progressing to the next stage and assume that “something is wrong”. Worse they’ll throw themselves into the next stage rather than accept that the status quo is okay. Most of us can look at our friends (or ourselves) and find examples where dating was fun, or a sexual relationship was good, or cohabitation was great but they went headlong into another stage where they crashed and burned. If they were lucky, they stayed friends as they pick up and move on, starting another game. If the participants are unaware of the assumptions and just go along with it, they’re riding (again for lack of a better word) a “relationship escalator” that carries them somewhere they don’t plan to be and, continuing the metaphor, will tumble over when it stops.

If it isn’t already obvious, see how this model is a particularly bad fit for the polyamorous. Start with the idea that there is a single ladder involving two people, it can not be adapted when there is more than one relationship and therefore more than one ladder. Each relationship may be at different stages, possibly serving different needs and those needs do not necessarily feed into the progression. Even if the needs and relationships could fit, the fact is that the participants may have one or more other significant relationships or socially recognized unions that will not or can not be set aside. This breaks down the end-game, if there no single finished state or the goal is weakly defined or not defined at all one can’t “win”. It is absurd to say that to “win” a player would have capture or co-opt all the ladders, re-norming the game, and thereby be the “best” at all things and provide everything. Finally, and most important, there is no ladder. I know I just spent a few hundred words describing it but it’s not real, it’s a set of assumptions not a destiny. An unconventional relationship means that the rules and boundaries need to be discussed, negotiated and renegotiated, and the goals and values are not fixed. We can keep ourselves aware of the assumptions and redefine the game or step outside of it entirely.


4 thoughts on “The relationship ladder

  1. I love this nerdy approach to this. It is both my favorite and most vexing part of polyamory. “Huh.. look at that.. I’ve exposed a belief or underlying it mine? Does it work? Is it true? Where did I get it? Does it still work? Should I keep it?”. Aghh. I do not always like this particular kind of mental puzzle, but I do like the realizations it brings.

  2. Pingback: Grieving the happily-ever-after | Jack of All Triads

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