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.