“Why are you still single?”: Talking about the relationship escalator over the holidays
Last week I recorded a really interesting podcast episode with someone who shared they really clung to the relationship escalator model. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, it basically means to follow a certain trajectory of relationships: dating, defining the relationship/exclusivity, moving in together, marriage, and kiddos.
While for some folks, this model doesn’t resonate at all, for others, it really does! Or parts of it do! And any of that is great! There is no better or worse. There is no more evolved or less evolved. You can be queer as hell and want to ride that escalator to the tippy top. But the key here are two small words:
Too many people step on the escalator without evaluating whether they want to be riding it in the first place. Without examining who told them to take that first step or the reasons behind why they did. If you know you want that to be your path, have at it! But it has to come from you. Detangling what society/family/culture has taught us to want, or how we should live and love, requires us to look critically at the messages we’ve received over the years, and truly evaluate whether those ideals are our ideals.
The great, late bell hooks said, “Queer as not about who you’re having sex with, that can be a dimension of it, but queer as being about the self that is at odds with everything around it and has to invent and create and find a place to speak and to thrive and to live.”
It’s that critical “at odds” we’re aiming for here. Once you examine what you’ve been taught and figure out what’s true for you, it’s totally cool for your desire to resemble an escalator, or a trampoline, or a walk in the park, or a picnic on the beach, or no structured relationship path at all! Or maybe you decide to Queer the escalator itself: put some glitter on the moving black belt you hold, or decide to ride the thing backward. Anything goes if it is true and from you.
Sometimes, holiday times can put us in contact with folks who ask questions like, “Why are you still single?” or “When are you going to get married?” or “I want grandchildren, already!” Unsurprisingly, (and uncreatively!) a lot of these questions encourage us to get on that escalator ride that these folks have probably been encouraged to get on at some point as well.
When faced with questions like these, yes we can set a quick boundary, “I don’t want to talk about that,” “I hope you trust me to do what’s best for me,” etc., but I find an alternative route to be an interesting option: invite these folks to be part of your escalator examination process*.
*While I’ve found this to lead to way more enjoyable conversation than exclusively fielding opinions about my life, this approach might not work for everyone. Depending on your culture, how you grew up, and other factors, it might be inappropriate to engage with your elders/these folks in this way.
If you have the space and curiosity for it, instead of ending a conversation before it begins, you can try these genuine alternatives:
“I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, why is marriage so important to you?”
“What is the purpose of marriage in your opinion?”
“Why do you think we’re so encouraged to be in relationships?”
“Were you encouraged to get married young? How do you feel about that looking back?”
“Did your family encourage you to have kids at a young age? Why do you think that is?”
Or if you’re someone who has examined this escalator and are sold on getting on, you can invite them to explore that journey:
“Have you ever wanted something that wasn’t materializing on the timeline you wanted for yourself? How did you manage that?”
If they try to shift the focus back onto you, you can try to redirect: “I’m really interested to hear about this played out in your life, not what you think about my life.”
While these folks might still respond with unwarranted advice and sticky opinions, it also might lead to some genuine sharing. Some beautiful reflecting. Some more mutual understanding. At the very least, it will contribute to your data collection about what you want your relationship movement to look like (or your data collection about this individual human, heyooo!).
Instead of someone talking at you about what they want for you, we can turn it into a conversation about understanding their views, their experiences, or understanding more of the relationship escalator together.
Happy holidays…and good luck!