Guest Written by Michelle Hy. Michelle has been actively polyamorous since 2012 and runs the Instagram @PolyamorousWhileAsian, which seeks to normalize non-monogamy and amplify voices of other POC, who are significantly underrepresented in non-monogamous communities. Learn more on Instagram or on her website polyamorouswhileasian.com.


  1. Non-Monogamy vs The Relationship Escalator
  2. What is the Relationship Escalator?
  3. Defining Non-Monogamy
  4. Is Polyamory Worth It?
  5. 8 Questions for Aspiring Polyamorists 

Non-Monogamy vs. The Relationship Escalator

How much do social pressures and expectations affect the structure and direction of your relationships? What are your criteria for a "successful" relationship? Do your relationships serve your needs or do you serve the idea of these relationships?

Perhaps you've been riding the relationship escalator without even knowing it.

What is the Relationship Escalator?

The prevailing narratives around romantic and sexual relationships can be encompassed in what author Amy Gahran has called the Relationship Escalator, "The default set of societal expectations for intimate relationships. Partners follow a progressive set of steps, each with visible markers, toward a clear goal."

The progression of this escalator, in the most general of terms, more or less looks something like this:

Meet. Date. Move in. Merge finances. Get engaged. Get married. Buy a house. Have kids. 'Til death do us part.

And with this implicitly accepted escalation comes assumptions of what appropriate progress looks like in relationships: the higher you are on the escalator, the more mature and successful you are. Skip too many of the steps or perform them out of order and you may be seen as less mature than your peers- as a failure in sex and love.

These assumptions reinforce amatanormativity, a term coined by professor Elizabeth Blake to describe societal assumptions around romance. Romantic love- specifically heterosexual monogamous love that also involves sexual exclusivity- is more often than not prioritized above most other types of relationships. Platonic dynamics, asexual or aromantic connections, queer relationships, and non-exclusive structures are not held in as high regard.

Enter: Polyamory

Non-Monogamy: The practice of having or being capable of having multiple sexual and/or romantic relationships simultaneously. Encompasses a wide range of relationship styles.

Polyamory: Sometimes used interchangeably with "non-monogamy." More often used to refer to a subset of non-monogamy that involves romantic/emotional intimacy. The presence of the relationship escalator can still be found in the way many people practice polyamory. The prioritization of a core, primary couple and the reinforcement of hierarchy often still exist. However, due to the lack of widespread acceptance of non-monogamous structures, some people who practice non-monogamy find themselves engaging in relationships with a greater degree of intention and coordination than monogamous folks.

Changing the Script

Without a clear societal script to follow, polyamorous practitioners can find themselves less attached to conventional ideas of what progress and success look like in relationships. When it comes to managing multiple intimate dynamics at the same time, coasting on an escalator is less of a viable option. Through introspection and collaboration with partners, they have to build the relationships they want step by intentional and thoroughly communicated step.

How is Polyamory Worth it?

So why go through all this work when you could be satisfied with just one partner?

All relationships require work, monogamous or non-monogamous, romantic or platonic. How much richer and more fulfilling could many monogamous relationships be if people practiced more introspection and extrospection? Far too often, even monogamous people find themselves coasting in relationships they don't actually want to be in, whether out of convenience or resignation or mere ignorance of what's possible. You don't have to try non-monogamy to start examining and determining for yourself what it is you really want out of relationships.

One of the most incredible aspects of polyamory is realizing that you have so many options when it comes to customizing your relationships. The sky's the limit. There's no one right way to be polyamorous. However, this can also be highly overwhelming to think about. We get the opportunity to make all sorts of choices -- and we also have to take responsibility for all those choices.

A few guiding questions to help you get started in customizing your relationships:

  • What are my values?
  • What do I value in myself?
  • What do I value in others?
  • Where do my expectations come from?
  • How much do these align with my own needs versus the expectations of those around me?
  • How do I want to arrange logistics around living and finances?
  • What kind of external support do I want and/or need? (Emotional, physical, financial, etc.)
  • How much time do I want to spend with my partner(s)? And how much alone time do I need?

These questions contain the potential for a vast variety of answers. And it's important to point out that at the end of the day, your structure may very well mirror or run parallel to the shape of the conventional relationship escalator and there's nothing wrong with choosing that. That progression works for many. However, it does not work for everyone. And that is also important to acknowledge.

The question is not merely "Am I riding the escalator?" The follow-up question should be "Did I make the conscious choice to ride the escalator?" If not, why exactly are you on this ride? What could your journey look like if you chose to step off the escalator?

Monogamy is valid. Non-monogamy is also valid. There is no one-size-fits-all structure for everyone when it comes to relationships. However, taking a step back and examining why we move through relationships the way we do is beneficial for everyone, regardless of your preferred structure.

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Further Readings: 
The Relationship Escalator & Solo Polyamory: Multiamory Podcast
What is Consensual Non-Monogomy: Lovers
A Beginners Guide to Polyamory: Medium