When an ex-boyfriend recently announced his 10th anniversary with his girlfriend on Facebook, I silently congratulated him for spending the past decade in a serious relationship while I remained single.
I’ve had my share of romantic relationships in that time, but none has lasted longer than a few months. A couple of exes have accused me of not being able to handle a long-term relationship, with one going so far as to call me an “attachment-phobe.”
Yet I’ve maintained lifelong relationships with friends and family, and continue to forge connections within my community. Contrary to the criticism I’ve received, research shows that most singles have the same number of close relationships in our lives as people who are coupled.
It’s possible that single women like my are just different from serial monogamists — not dysfunctional. By preferring to be single over settling for a relationship that’s not a good fit, many of us are what author and life coach Sasha Cagen calls “quirkyalones.” In her 2004 book “Quirkyalone: A Manifesto for Uncompromising Romantics,” Cagen writes about people like me — those who enjoy companionship and dating, but who have too much going on to drop everything for a subpar relationship.
In an interview, Cagen told me that the term quirkyalone describes romantics who “have developed lives that they aren’t so eager to totally jettison when they find a partner.”
Quirkyalones set boundaries differently from others. “They might realize they have some pretty awesome things going on in their lives,” Cagen said. “And they don’t want to give them up entirely for a relationship.”
This resonates with me. My friends and family have called me “quirky” before but as a pejorative. They think of me as being rash rather than bold, selfish rather than self-loving. They shake their heads as I bow out of short-lived romances and occasionally ask whether I’m being too picky. “I just want you to be secure,” a close family member told me once, without seeming to realize that in the wrong relationship, a loss of autonomy could lead to intense insecurity.
As a self-sufficient writer, single mother and founder and managing editor of a feminist nonprofit group, I felt not romance but frustration when a recent boyfriend gushed: “I need you, and I feel complete with you.”
“I don’t need a partner to complete me,” I retorted, “and while I’d like to be in a relationship, I certainly don’t need one.”
Staring at his downcast face, it became clear that after 10 years of wading through various short-term romances, I needed to set boundaries to safeguard my autonomy and provide space for the kind of long-term relationship I wanted. My boyfriend knew that I enjoyed being independent and that I needed plenty of alone time to write or take walks — but we never discussed the logistics of making those things happen. It was clear we had different ideas of how to move forward. He wanted to touch base nearly every day either through texting marathons or on the phone, while I was happy talking every few days or so. Way too quickly, he wanted to move in together, saying it made financial sense. But I needed it to also make emotional sense, and there was no way I was ready for such a big commitment.
Friends told me that my boyfriend was sweet for falling for me so fully, but I was starting to feel suffocated.
So I set more boundaries. No, we would not be moving in together, and no, I didn’t always feel like being physical. I wouldn’t accept expensive gifts or feel okay if he bought my daughter gifts. He was accustomed to saving damsels in distress and doting on the women in his life, but I wanted none of that. I wanted a partner, I told him, not a prince. I wanted to move slowly to give any love we might have between us space to grow.
It seemed as if we understood each other and might be able to make a go of things. Over time, however, he again pushed to move in together and berated me for being “cold” and “unfeeling” when I declined being physical on demand. He sometimes made impulsive or unwise decisions that affected us both. While in theory my boyfriend loved independent feminist women, he didn’t have much experience dating them.
“Relationships are about compromise,” he lamented once it became clear we weren’t going to work out. It was useless trying to explain that I was willing to make compromises, but not about the things I had set boundaries around — and certainly not so early in a relationship.
He accused me of not being patient and said he was a budding feminist who was still learning about how to be in a relationship like the one I wanted. He accused me of all sorts of things — of being unfair and mean, of being unforgiving and unwilling to let “the little things” go.
Again, I got accused of being scared of commitment despite having been very committed to trying to make things work. We both put a lot of time and energy into our relationship. The problem was that he had a more traditional idea of how to be in a partnership, while I’m an independent quirkyalone.
Interestingly enough, 85 percent of people who come out of failed marriages cite “lack of commitment” as the reason for their divorce. Perhaps those who’ve been through a divorce could take a lesson or two from quirkyalones and learn how to better balance the independent self with the togetherness of being in a couple. In my view, real commitment is about stating and respecting each other’s needs.
The next time I get into a relationship, I’ll need a partner who embraces my strength. “Some men might feel threatened by quirkyalone women because they are not as interested in orienting their lives entirely around a man,” Cagen said. “And other men are turned on by it because they want to be with a strong woman who brings her full self to the relationship.”
While I haven’t yet found “The One,” at least I’m not trapped with Mr. Wrong. I’d prefer to meet another independent soul, so that we can explore what it means to be quirkytogether.