Poly Pocket: Queer, Poly, Living On A Boat

When there aren’t any models for how you want to move through the world, it’s harder to move through the world. There’s no one right way to do ethical non-monogamy, just as there’s no one right way to do ethical monogamy, and no way is better or worse than any other, just better or worse for those involved. Poly Pocket looks at all the ways queer people do polyamory: what it looks like, how we think about it, how it functions (or doesn’t), how it feels, because when you don’t have models you have to create your own. To apply to share your story in Poly Pocket, fill out this form.

Tristan Feldman is a 26-year-old white genderqueer queer non-monogamous person living wherever they happen to be at the moment. They are single and work as a tall ship sailor and educator.

This interview has been lightly edited.


Carolyn: When did you start to explore polyamory?

Tristan: My first relationship was in college and I ended up being the secondary partner of a friend. It was actually an awful relationship and not at all healthy or a good example of polyamory. He was emotionally abusive to both me and his primary partner. He and his primary partner were also not in a stable relationship so adding a secondary just made their relationship worse. There were a lot of rules imposed on our relationship and I didn’t have much of a say in what the rules were. I also had no experience so I didn’t know what to ask for/what to look for/how to express what I needed and wanted in a relationship.

Carolyn: With that first experience, how did you come to recognize non-monogamy was for you?

Tristan: While in that relationship I did a lot of research and reading on non-monogamy and I realized that the model that I was in was not the only option. The ideas that love shouldn’t be restricted or seen as a limited resource and that monogamy shouldn’t be an assumed part of a relationship and that communication and honesty are huge parts of a successful relationship really resonated with me.

I also, for the rest of college after that first relationship ended, used non-monogamy almost as a defense mechanism to stop myself from entering into another relationship without really realizing what I was doing. If there was the potential that I was starting to develop any kind of relationship with someone I would throw out early on that I was poly and wasn’t looking for anything monogamous, but not in an open or communicative way but in a way that shut down whatever was happening. So I was processing and learning some great messages from non-monogamy and while I thought I was being open and communicative I was probably not.

Carolyn: What is your relationship situation like now?

Tristan: I’m single and have been for years. But I have a number of very important and intimate friendships as well as the bonds I form with my shipmates both on and off the boats we are on.

One of my friends gave me the word “solo poly.” I sometimes use it to describe myself. I know that a lot of people define it differently but for me it has meant that I don’t have any partners and that my priorities have been my relationships with my friends and myself.

Carolyn: Okay tell me about living on boats! What is that like? How do you build and maintain relationships on and off them?

Tristan: It’s basically a super intense and close intentional community and how it works/appears is really different boat to boat and crew to crew. All the boats I work on provide housing, either on the boat or in a crew house, so you are living and working and socializing with the same people all the time. Sometimes I’m doing day programs and have evenings/weekends free, but other times I’m doing long ocean passages where not only are we all physically limited to the same space, but we also have students with us 24/7 which changes the dynamic.

Out of necessity, you become very close with the people you are with, especially in really odd ways that don’t tend to happen on shore. Someone might not know much about your past or your family or your friends but they know exactly how to tell if you are actually awake or responding to a wakeup when still asleep, what you sound like when you puke, and how frequently you use the bathroom. Plus being away and moving around a lot means that everyone onboard is in some kind of long distance relationship, be it partnership, friendship, family, etc, which I think tends to bring people closer and create closer relationships onboard because you are cut off from your typical support systems.

When I’m in port I can usually send letters and often times find wifi. On the boat we have a satellite email service, but that’s primarily used for business with our home office. So usually I’ll write a bunch of letters but not be able to send them out for a while.

As far as relationships off the boat I write my friends a lot of letters and try and go visit them when I have off time. Fortunately most of my close friends live on the East Coast so I am usually able to do a “friend tour” and crash on a bunch of people’s couches when I’m off.

Carolyn: How do you get your needs met?

Tristan: I think about that one a lot. One of the things I miss most on the boat is a strong queer community. Some people I’ve sailed with have been queer, but many haven’t. So when I’m off I try to spend as much time as possible with my friends and some of those relationships are intimate. But then again when I’m on land I miss the boat and the people I sail with and the different kinds of relationships we form there.

Plus different dating/hookup apps work all around the world and while my success varies sometime the “sailor in port after being at sea for a while” thing works out.

Carolyn: What about all this is a struggle? What about it is most exciting?

Tristan: I think the biggest struggle, both for me and for my relationships and relationship goals is not having a home base. I’m trying to work on that this winter. Ideally I want to have a place that I come back to and people there that I can build longer term relationships with.

The most exciting is being able to see the world and meet new people. Boats have also been incredibly healing for me and have really helped me create better relationships in all parts of my life. They make me work harder to maintain my friendships, be better at communication, and generally just better at existing around all different kinds of people.

The other struggle is while I’m not closeted, I’m not specifically out at work, especially about being genderqueer and to some extent about being poly. Its more like I’m bad at broaching the subject and if it doesn’t come up I often times won’t bring it up. In some ways it feels a bit disingenuous to myself but in others its a way I manage being so close with everyone else.

Carolyn: What do you want your future to look like? What vision are you working towards or hoping for?

Tristan: I want a home base, a place to come home to. And ideally at least one partner who I build my life around and who considers me when building their life. And a good balance between that home and still sailing and adventuring.

I’ve actually ended up talking with some of my shipmates about non-monogamy and I think that a lot of the basic ideas resonate with them even if they are in monogamous relationships (the ideas of communication and that each relationship is distinct and that partners need to talk to each other and decide what they want out of a relationship). I usually end up bringing up a quote from Dean Spade from For Lovers and For Fighters. (“One of my goals in thinking about redefining the way we view relationships is to try to treat the people I date more like I treat my friends, try to be respectful and thoughtful and have boundaries and reasonable expectations, and try to treat my friends more like my dates, to give them special attention, honor my commitments to them, be consistent, and invest deeply in our futures together.”) which is kinda how I try and create healthy positive relationships and it is usually very well-received. No matter what kind of relationship(s) I end up in, I think that the basic principles of non-monogamy that I have internalized/accepted for myself will be helpful in creating healthy and positive relationships.

Carolyn Yates is the NSFW Consultant, and was formerly the NSFW Editor (2013–2018) and Literary Editor, for Autostraddle.com. Her writing has appeared in Nylon, Refinery29, The Toast, Bitch, Xtra!, Jezebel, and elsewhere. She recently moved to Los Angeles from Montreal. Find her on twitter.

Carolyn has written 889 articles for us.

65 Comments

  1. Neat! Hoping a pic of one of the tall ships will appear in the comments. :^D

    This column is really growing on me, even though relationships of any sort are not a big priority for me rn, there’s so much value and wisdom coming through in these interviews that doesn’t show up in other conversations.

    Great column!

  2. “the basic ideas… the ideas of communication and that each relationship is distinct and that partners need to talk to each other and decide what they want out of a relationship”

    Thank god polyamory came along and invented communication, negotiation and honesty, I have no idea how anyone dealt with anything before.

    • Eh, as a monogamous person it can sometimes *feel* like poly people are saying they are the ones who really know how to communicate honestly, but I don’t think that’s what they’re really saying. For one, it is true that in a monogamous relationship it’s easier to let little things be taken for granted and you aren’t forced to talk about what you really want with your partner. I don’t think talking about those things are any less important in a monogamous relationship, it’s just that the structure of it may not force you to talk about those things as early in the relationship, or as directly.

      But I don’t even think that’s what Tristan was saying here. I think the context of the statement you quoted is that honest communication is something monogamous relationships and polyamorous relationships *have in common*. So for Tristan’s friends who aren’t interested in polyamory, they still find those pieces of a poly relationship relatable.

      • Idk, it’s absolutely a sentiment that I’ve encountered repeatedly in relation to poly, and I have to say I think even the first, let alone the second, part of what you say is a very charitable reading; and moreover that if they were aware of the way it reads they would have done a hell of a lot more to avoid its reading like that. Like I get that there are things that will make nonmonogamous relationships fall apart even quicker than monogamous ones, but I keep hearing things that site nonmonogamous relationship styles as inherently more enlightened, often in these specific ways and similarly often with incredibly little self-awareness.

        • Yeah, I’ve definitely encountered that before and get really frustrated when people try to argue that polyamory is more “enlightened”, “rational”, or “natural”. I don’t see any of that in this article though. I’m really enjoying the Poly Pocket series because the articles take the approach of “this is what’s working (or not working) for me and here’s why”.

          • Sorry, cross-commenting. I’m glad that some stuff is interesting or enjoyable for you; but I definitely do see some of that in this article (maybe not as strongly as in some places – I can recount some proper horrors), and I’d say that given its being a tendency when writing about polyamory one should specifically pay attention to not reproducing it.

          • Thanks Anna! That approach is exactly what I’m going for. The point is not that any relationship type is better than any other; the point is that for individual people certain ways of doing relationships might be the right or wrong ones, and to show what those relationships look like for people who identify or operate somewhere under the umbrella of consensual non-monogamy.

          • I have experienced people arguing that polyamory is always best or ignoring someone else’s boundaries and trying to convince them to try it when they’re not okay with it. I’m inclined to put those experiences in the category of “some people are jerks” rather than the category of “this is an issue with polyamory”. I don’t think the burden of proving they’re not jerks should fall on all people who practice polyamory just because some polyamorous people are jerks.

          • I don’t think it’s an issue with polyamory, but I do think it’s an issue with a lot of the dominant discourse around polyamory within queer and poly circles. And from that, I absolutely do think it’s the responsibility of people writing about polyamory to be aware of significant recurrent issues within that dominant discourse.

          • Fine, Angelica. Are you aware of every problem surrounding monogamous people? You should really get on top of that and put in disclaimers every fucking time you talk about it!

          • If I went “the basic ideas of monogamous relationships, like communication” as though that’s some novel idea, where the idea that good communication was distinct to monogamous relationships frequently held currency, I sure as hell would be giving every disclaimer. Or, well, just not word it anything like that in the first place.

          • In other words, you’re offended and you’re taking it out on not only the person interviewed, but the way they love and live. All because they expressed themselves in a way that you perceived as haughty.

            That’s not how you engage, Angelica. Do you know why I came out guns blazing? Because you did. You showed you came here to be hostile. You didn’t come here and nicely express your concerns. You went to wound people right off the bat.

      • Tbh, I’m inclined to say that if it often “feels” like that’s what polyamorous people are saying, the issue might not just be solely in a failure to interpret the unstated intentions behind what they’re quite literally saying.

  3. Aaaaaand most of the comments are monogamous people who think polyamory is saying its superior. I’d love to imagine a world where even on AS, I can head to the comments without insecure people derailing everything because they feel threatened by something different. Because, historically, there’s been so much space set aside for polyamory right… ?

    It’s particularly frustrating when that insecurity comes from other queers. I mean really? Haven’t queers had ENOUGH of having their lives and loves criticized by cishet people? No? Apparently it’s okay to do it to others. Gotcha.

    I’m sorry monogamy is so threatened. It’s not like it’s been a mandatory institution for the past 2,000 years in Christendom.

    • Also, is this hostile? Yes. If you’re reading this and you don’t like it, I don’t care. I’m queer, I’m not responsible for the stupid shit every queer person has said. I’m a Jew, I’m not fucking responsible for the actions of the Israeli government. I’m a LOT of things and I’m not responsible for everyone ELSE who is those things. Judging me by THEM is WRONG.

      I’m not responsible for your bad experiences unless I did something to you. So don’t derail a conversation on those grounds. Especially if you’re monogamous and failing to check your privilege.

      Things we shouldn’t HAVE to say: “Polyamory isn’t for everyone.” “These things are important in ANY relationship, that’s the whole point, we’re saying we’re not different.” “No, I don’t expect people to love or live the same way I do.”

      Just let us have this little space where we can learn and chat and feel NORMAL. This is Autostraddle, not the Spanish Inquisition! If YOU have issues to unpack, it is not the personal responsibility of this site and its staff OR the readers to help you unpack them!

      • My first post was criticising a specific thing said in the article, and how it echoes a very common under-examined sentiment within dominant poly discourse. If you can’t tell the difference between that and attacking polyamory itself, perhaps I’m not exactly the one who’s so terribly insecure?

        • No you weren’t critical. You were nasty. Your sarcasm wasn’t aimed at being constructive. That’s not how sarcasm works in this context. You started out hostile, so did I. That’s how you set up this conversation. I’ll respond calm to calm and hostile to hostile. That’s how I work, even when I wish I didn’t.

          • Criticism and hostility are not mutually exclusive. I’m sure enough you know what tone policing is, so try to think of what it is that you think sets what you’re doing here apart from that.

          • You mean like how you came in derisive and hostile and now you’re shocked I’m behaving the same way you are… ? Funny that (I know you like sarcasm, so I’m probably going to stay in this range for you).

          • Oh so you don’t like it when you start out nasty and get it back… ? I’m not going to be all sugar and spice while you’re venom. You don’t want to take it, then don’t dish it out.

            I didn’t say tone determined argument. You’re not here to make an argument. You’re here to be nasty. You’ve made that abundantly clear. You’re welcome to keep trying to spin this though! In fact, I’ll even back off and let you post the last nasty retort. All I’m doing is feeding into your desire to derail this article and make it about you!

  4. I have thoughts.

    Okay, so: some people come to polyamory in their twenties, and some of the people who have been interviewed for this series are in their twenties, and speaking only for me, my twenties were a period of learning about how to be in relationships – what worked, what didn’t, what power imbalances looked like, how I could effectively communicate, what it was like when I didn’t, and what communication did and didn’t accomplish.

    A lot of that education was very unintentional or unguided, because communication and honest interrogation of wants and needs aren’t really taught about or encouraged in any real ways in our culture, in my experience.

    I am monogamous, but what I am getting from this series (and from some of my poly friends) is that because poly relationships already buck social norms, and that doesn’t happen by accident; and because one is negotiating and navigating relationships with multiple people, sometimes at once – because of all of that, the intentional focus on communication and on working hard to be honest about wants and needs is a little more built in/supported by the culture of polyamory than it is by the culture of monogamy.

    I don’t think that makes poly people better (and I don’t think anyone who has been interviewed in this series thinks they’re better), I just think it means that there are useful things I can learn from my poly friends.

    • I agree queer girl, however despite Angelica’s initial sarcasm, I understand where she’s coming from too. In my experience there’ve been an awful lot of poly people actively stating both that they/their relationships are ”superior” and that monogamous people are ”just jealous/possessive” blah blah. I don’t think that was the tone of the article at all but I don’t blame people for reading it as such. It’s not ”polyshaming” or whatever to take issue with poly people being smug and condescending. Before anyone goes off on one, I didn’t say ( nor do I believe) that this is how poly people are..but there’s a vocal cadre that are, and I rarely see other poly people challenge that.

      • Hi Donna! I didn’t see any poly people being smug and condescending in this article, so I don’t see the relevance in bringing up the “vocal cadre who are” in your experience, particularly in response to my comment. I don’t have any interest in perpetuating negative stereotypes. What I do have an interest in is learning from people whose lives or relationships look a little different than mine.

      • I rarely see other poly people challenge that.

        And why should they? It is not the responsibility of all poly people to apologize or compensate for the poly people who also happen to be assholes. The fault lies with those doing the stereotyping and generalizing, not those adversely affected by the stereotype.

    • Hmm, you are right, everyone has been young. Request for some interviews with older poly folks! Ideally someone who has made poly work for them for decades, not someone who recently discovered it post-divorce or something. thanks!

  5. I agree that polyamorous people shouldn’t have to say those things whenever they’re just talking about their lives or relationships, and I don’t really think what Tristan was saying sounded like it was coming from a place of superiority. The quote Angelica gave sounded more like Tristan was explaining some common misconceptions about polyamory – that most people have networks of individual relationships instead of one big harem, and that the individuals involved decide on the rules and structure rather than there being a default set of polyamory rules for everybody.

    However, I do think that “polyamory is okay but not for everyone” needs to be said more. Poly Pocket isn’t the place for it, and I don’t think polyamorous people just talking about their lives have the obligation to make it clear that they don’t think everyone else needs to be polyamorous, but there’s a desperate need for more balanced resources for people who are genuinely conflicted about whether polyamory is for them, especially if they’re under pressure.

    • Ah, sorry, this was supposed to be a response to Joanna’s comment in the chain started by angelica, not to the article itself. Tristan, you did a good job, and thank you for explaining your life and relationship style. I found it very interesting, and I wish you good luck in continuing to live your life in the way that’s best for you.

    • I agree that it is not the responsibility of polyamorous people talking about their own lives to make a disclaimer about it “not being for everyone”. But I don’t see when this would ever be necessary…? Polyamory is not nor have I ever felt it’s been broadcast as “for everyone”. In fact, I believe it has always, in my experience, been talked about in opposite terms by the majority of the population. Most people aren’t even exposed to the mere idea of polyamory until adulthood, and in that sense, we are pushing monogamy until it is all but engrained in our brains. If anything, I think we should be saying, “monogamy isn’t for everyone” as a disclaimer, until there is more balanced representation.

      • Yeah! Ok so I feel like in queer communities there is more of an openness to be countercultural (that is, countering straight/mainstream culture), and that manifests in higher levels (or more openness about) kink, poly relationships, etc. But then some people seem to feel that increased openness to those things as pressure to BE or DO those things, even though those things are all about personal choice.

        It’s like sex positivity – it’s not about thinking everyone should be having sex, it’s about thinking that all consenting adults should be doing exactly what they want in regards to sex.

        I don’t know where that backlash comes from – are people interpreting openness as pressure, or are there truly communities in which that pressure exists? If the latter is true, then the people in those communities are really doing it wrong, since both kinkiness and poly relationships are really about focusing on what feels right to each person. And the rest of the community shouldn’t have to answer for the people who are fucking it up, if they indeed exist. There will always be assholes. But those assholes are not here on AS, so why are we spending so much time talking about them?

      • But I don’t see when this would ever be necessary…?

        It’s necessary when someone experiences pressure in their personal life to consent to being in a polyamorous relationship, whether or not they’re actually okay with it. Culturally, people are pressured to be monogamous, but personal situations come up where people are pressured to be polyamorous all the time.

        One situation that happens VERY OFTEN is: Partner A and Partner B are already in a long-term monogamous relationship, but Partner A realizes while already in that relationship that they’re polyamorous and need the freedom to pursue multiple relationships to be happy, and they also want to stay in a relationship with Partner B. Therefore, they try to convince Partner B to consent to opening up the relationship. Partner B really isn’t okay with being polyamorous, but isn’t any more okay with breaking up – especially if there are kids or shared assets involved or if Partner B needs help supporting themself – so they don’t know what to do.

        There really isn’t much advice out there that affirms polyamory as a valid way to live, but also encourages individuals to set their own boundaries about it apart from what their partners want, so if Partner B seeks advice, they’ll see: 1) poly advice books, which generally just focus on the positives (great for the target audience of people who want to be poly, not great for pushing at people who are genuinely torn), 2) arguments for why polyamory is always bad (not helpful), 3) people telling you to talk to your partner about it and work out a compromise (generally good advice, but doesn’t apply to people who have difficulty setting boundaries or for situations where compromise isn’t possible).

        I don’t think that Partner As are doing anything wrong in this situation, and I think they’re likely only in this situation because they live in a culture that discouraged them from realizing they were polyamorous from the beginning. But Partner Bs are still in a situation where their ability to consent is compromised, and what they need is support for forming their own preferences, not support in doing what another person wants them to do. While there are some cases of Partner Bs trying polyamory and coming to like it, what usually happens in this situation is that the Partner B tries it because they feel obligated to, then hates it and resents the Partner A for forcing it on them, and the relationship ends much more messily and with much more hurt for both parties than it otherwise would’ve. It’s good for polyamorous people too if people who can’t be polyamorous are encouraged to honor their limitations and set boundaries non-judgmentally.

        Another very common situation is when Person X is marginalized in a way that makes dating more difficult for them (generally race, disability, poverty, or gender alignment), and while they’re not really okay with being polyamorous, people being interested in them as a non-primary partner is the only sort of interest they get. (To be clear, I’m not saying that poly people who would date them are wrong, or that there are no people in those situations that would prefer to be polyamorous. Polyamorous people are not wrong for wanting to be polyamorous, and all types of people want to be polyamorous, and that’s okay.) Again, everyone’s better off if those people are encouraged to respect their own limitations, because polyamorous people are going to be less happy when dating people who obviously don’t want to be polyamorous, and the more people stick to their own boundaries, the more people are available with compatible boundaries for dating.

        I don’t think it’s the responsibility of people who just want to talk about their lives to do that. But I do wish that advice sources acknowledged that different people find different relationship types necessary or fine or unlivable, and everyone’s better off if people are encouraged to draw their own lines rather than to go along to get along.

        • I definitely agree with all that you’ve said. I meant that I didn’t think it was necessary to ever say “polyamory isn’t for everyone” in a setting like Poly Pocket where it’s just people talking about their experience. I think the two scenarios you’ve given definitely warrant open communication, honesty, and most importantly consent. I think anytime a relationship is changing structure in any sense, be in monogamous or non-monogamous, these are necessary components in making sure it’s healthy. I guess in my experience, resources have been balanced to show that polyamory isn’t for everyone, and it’s not okay to pressure partners to become polyamorous. But I recognize that perhaps that is not always the case.

  6. Speaking as someone who has only ever been in monogamous relationships, I’d ask anybody who feels compelled to jump in here with their defensive concerns to consider the following:

    -Messages upholding monogamy as the superior relationship orientation are so deeply embedded in almost every aspect of our culture that most people would never even think to question them. If you’re here demanding that all poly people should speak out against poly-superiority messages at every opportunity, do you demand the same of all monogamous people? Do you do so yourself?

    -When people are continually fed societal messages that what they do is wrong and bad (as poly people are), sometimes they respond to that by trying to swing the pendulum all the way to the other side and insisting that actually, not only is it not wrong and bad, it is better than everything else. While this may not be the best or most accurate response, it is certainly understandable in context.

    -If you, as a member of the enormous and socially-sanctioned monogamous majority, feel somehow threatened by the very small pockets of poly-promoting discourse that exist, that probably has a lot more to do with your own hidden fears and insecurities than anything else.

    • Yeah, NOT this. I do speak up when monogamous people say idiotic things about poly people. And it IS ”the job”of poly people to speak up when poly people say idiotic things about monogamous people too. Now I’m just gonna sit here and wait to be torn to pieces by people who think you’re not supposed to challenge shitty behaviour.

        • Ok, I get it. I’ve been watching the comments on this site get more nasty and cliquey for some while. People who aren’t in the clique get ignored or attacked, irrespective of what they say. Have fun all, I’m sure it’ll be much ‘nicer’ when everyone else who might disagree with you all has left.

          • Uh… you’ve come into a comments section where, given the subject matter of the article, the majority of commenters are likely to disagree with you, and when we quite civilly and reasonably express that disagreement, you call us a nasty clique and flounce off. Ok.

      • Saying idiotic things to people isn’t at all what I’m talking about. I’m holding the detractors in this comment thread to the same standards they’re demanding from others – if poly people should add disclaimers to every single discussion of polyamory in order to clarify that it isn’t for everyone and isn’t superior to monogamy, then monogamous people should do the same – in every article, book, magazine, blog, TV show, movie, poem, song, Valentine’s card, etc. etc. that holds monogamy up as the undisputed relationship ideal.

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