The Relationship Escalator

I came across the phrase relationship escalator a while back and it really helped me reflect on how I think about relationships and how relationships factor into my life.

The relationship escalator is the belief that a relationship is not legitimate unless it is following the standard upward trajectory: dating >sex>exclusivity>moving in together>marriage>kids>’til death do us part. There is a deeply ingrained expectation that if a relationship is truly “serious”, it will automatically lead to these things.

-Dedeker Winston

I have found it such a helpful concept for self reflection and I hoping this blog post will also help me to solidify my own feelings and ideas and approaches to relationships.

I’ve never felt an urge to be engaged or married.  I am, despite what this blog might suggest, a fairly private person.  If I am in love with someone then to a certain extent that’s pretty much just about the two of us.  I have never yearned to stand up in front of people and declare my love.  So this instantly takes out two stages of the relationship escalator; engagement and marriage.

And I’m not going to have children so that’s a third stage removed.  And if we stick with the escalator metaphor, society starts to ask what the destination is.  If I’m not going to get married and I’m not going to have children then where is this fictional relationship going?  What is the point of it?

Add into this my decision that I will not share a bedroom with someone in the future (I need to be able to turn my audio book or kindle on any time of night and I toss and turn and go to the toilet about a million times, I make a terrible sleep time partner) and society starts to freak out.  What is the point?!  Where would any relationship go?!

My lack of interest in marriage, my inability to have children, my sexuality (bi) and my disability all make it considerably easier to get off the escalator.  I’ve removed three steps, I’m self aware about sex and relationships through years of coming to understand my sexuality and my disability means that a lot of people don’t see me as sexual.  For some people, I’m not even going to be able to get on the escalator (which is probably for the best, wheelchairs and escalators get messy…).

This is a bit scary in some sense but incredibly liberating at the same time.  I have a clean slate, free from some of society’s expectations, to create my own road map for my relationships.

For years I’ve been pondering monogamy and my personal feelings about how it fits with me.  There was a moment I remember very clearly. I was walking along a particular pavement and I was thinking about polyamory.  At that time, my thinking was that I can see that it would be good for some people but wasn’t for me.  At the time, jealousy, attachment issues and lack of self esteem all meant that I could not healthily enter into a relationship with more than one person.  At that time, I had assumed I would always feel that way.  This was a long time ago, pre disability, pre latest mental health breakdown, and things change.

At that point in my life, I was following the script which said that you had to find someone you wanted to be with all the time and they would meet all your needs and you’d live together happily ever after.  I knew I wasn’t looking for my other half – I was already whole and I was quite stubbornly vocal about the use of language which suggested otherwise.  And I wasn’t expecting a disney prince or princess to whisk me off my feet.  But I had still bought into the idea that the mystical person I would be in love with would be everything to me.  And that folks, is utter crap.

No one can be everything for someone else.  You have different friends for different reasons.  The friend you go wild with.  The friend who loves nothing better than a cup of tea and to watch a film on the sofa with you.  The friend who you pour your heart out to even though you haven’t seen each other in ages.  So why do we expect our romantic relationships to be different?

Whilst my imagination has drifted towards open relationships, it wasn’t until a year or two ago that I realised that this was actually an option.  So I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and pondering and learning.  Whilst I feel like polyamory might well be the path for me, I want to know that even if I decide that monogamy is best for me that it is a conscious choice, not default behaviour.  Which is very much in line with my entire ethos.

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Dating with a disability

So first off, I don’t feel very qualified to talk in too much detail about this.  Since considering myself disabled, I have been on one date.  However, a quick picture of that date will be a good way to kick start this.

I went on a date with a person I met online who seemed interested and intellectual and open minded.  She seemed to be of similar political views and attitudes as me.  All great.

At that time, whilst I was starting to consider myself disabled, it was a lot less obvious to people.  I wore wrist and ring splints and unless you knew me, you wouldn’t have known I was in pain and tired.  My wrist splints were covered in arm warmers (excellent for hiding medical beige splints and stopping the velcro from sticking to everything).

Back to the date.  I hadn’t told her I had a disability because at that stage it didn’t seem especially relevant.  It wasn’t going to interfere with my date after all.  And we had a nice time.  We wandered around an art gallery making general conversation and every few minutes she would sneak a glance at my hands.  Not once, not twice, but repeatedly throughout the hour or two we were together.  And I get it.  You don’t see many people with ring splints, or even wrist splints for that matter.  But you have two options on a first date with someone you found online; you ask them about it or you ignore it.  And on a first date with someone you found online I think either are ok options providing you ask sensitively of course.  I don’t find it ok to have someone clearly desperately trying to figure things out, not being very discreet about it and not just politely asking.  This is going to be one of those things where different people feel differently though.

As I’ve discussed a lot, disabled people aren’t generally seen as part of the dating pool and as my wheelchair is in your face disabled, most people I meet face to face will not consider me to be a sexual being.  In addition to this, disabled people are more likely to be isolated and we can’t always access the places where you meet prospective partners (bars, pubs, workplace…).  One night stands are not straightforward if you have a condition which affects sex.  Most people, when looking for a one off thing, do not want to be sat down and told about the possible hip dislocations and vaginismus and so on before getting on with things.

So online dating to the rescue?  Well.  Online dating opens up a lot of issues.  Firstly, and slightly off topic, being bi and trying to date online isn’t straightforward.  On a lot of the big websites, you cannot be searching for both male and female people.  When I approached match.com about this years ago, they told me to set up two accounts.  There are also a whole lot of trans issues around this male or female approach.  Anyway.

Another, more on topic, issue with finding a website is the “disabled online dating” sites.  Websites entirely for people who are disabled to find love.  Which presumes that because you are disabled you only want to date disabled people, or only other disabled people would want to date you.  And I’m not saying I don’t want to date a disabled person but I don’t want to have to choose it at the expense of all non disabled people.

Let’s say I have found a website and am setting up a profile, do I “declare” myself disabled in my profile? If not, when do I tell someone?  Obviously this is a bit easier if you’re on a disabled dating site.  But given that a vast number of people appear to be scared of disability, would I actually get any response if I told people in my profile?  Or would I get the wrong kind of attention?  In some ways, my disability is really good at ruling out people I don’t want to know but it can be quite disheartening.

At this stage in the imaginary process, I haven’t even activated my account.  If I wasn’t disabled, then that would have been done by now.  Once activated, there is then the tiring emotional labour of connecting with strangers and sending messages and that is draining for most people, let alone those of us with mental health issues and low energy levels.  You also run the risk of having horrible messages sent your way and having to deal with the emotional impact of that as well.

Ok, I’ve found someone I want to meet up with and I’ve told them about the disability, what then?  Well, we have to figure out what we want to do or where we want to go and how feasible that will be for me.  We have to figure out when but weekends everywhere is stressfully busy and evenings I am asleep.  On top of which my pain and energy levels fluctuate.  And my evening care means I have to be put into my pjs at 5pm or with a lot of prior arrangement a bit later but I still have to be home by a certain time.  I am a 30 year old with a curfew.

If I was going on a date today, I would be wearing wrist splints, ring splints, knee splints, ankle splints and using an electric wheelchair.  If we were going for a drink I would need a straw.  If we were going for food I would need it cutting up and I’d need to use my fingers or my special spoon.  I would almost certainly need either my date or someone else to help move furniture and stuff and depending on the system, I could have to send my date to the counter to order and pay.  If we decided to go to the cinema, we would have to check in advance that the disabled seats were available and that the lift was working.  I’d have to prebook a wheelchair taxi for each end of the date and they are known for not turning up and are only available at certain times of the day (eg you can’t get one in york during school drop off or pick up time…).

And all of this presumes that I have managed to find someone who seems compatible, is ok with going on a date with a bisexual, disabled woman and lives close enough that we can meet in the town I live in or the person is willing and able to travel.  This is a whole lot of supposing.  And this is one reason why I have only been on one date since becoming disabled.  To be honest just writing this has been exhausting, let alone trying to live it…

None of this is me saying it’s impossible to date if you have a disability but I wanted to make non disabled people aware of just some of the challenges involved.  There are other complications when you’ve been dating someone for a while and these are similar to those faced in friendships.