There is a truly magnificent moment that comes a few weeks, months or years after a breakup: you start really believing you’re going to be OK again. The fog of heartbreak lifts, the world becomes a little brighter, you clean up your room and discard the memories of love lost; you get dressed up and make plans and optimism returns. You’re ‘you’ again (the best you, single you…). I get over breakups relatively quickly by chasing this feeling. After my last relationship broke down, I started training for a half-marathon, launched a podcast, hosted dance classes, and did some of my best work as a journalist. I became an unrelenting doer, hyper-focused on myself and it was the pain and disappointment of the breakup that fueled me (“I’ll show him, I’ll show everyone…”). For me, life after a breakup means self-improving every day until I’m buffed, shiny and new again. I glow up.
In my twenties, this intoxicating feeling of drive, confidence and motivation was something I only really felt when single and “fuck boy free” — and I enjoyed many years single and thriving as a result. Much like iconic albums created after heartbreak (Adele’s 30, Beyonce’s Lemonade, anything by Taylor Swift…) I conditioned myself to believe that my best work, and my glow up, came only after a big love, not during one. Now in my 30s, this way of thinking proves a problem considering I am in a relationship I hope will last the distance. Why am I still so scared that I am going to lose my “edge” in love?
If you’ve ever lost yourself in a relationship, you will understand just how much it takes to pull yourself back together. Bad relationships don’t just severely impact your mental health but studies have shown that they can also lead to the prevalence of the stress hormone cortisol, causing hormone imbalance, digestive and autoimmune issues. It’s why post-breakup glow ups are celebrated. On Tiktok, the “after-relationship glow up” is a persistent trend with videos pulling in more than 22.9M views. In before and after style videos, users share the impact of being in relationships with “energy vampires” from losing confidence and experiencing stress-related acne to enduring depression. After the breakup, they reemerge visibly more confident after devoting time to self-improvement, and comments read “I think you were allergic to him.”
Being single is praised as the period where you “do you” and invest unapologetically in yourself. Relationships don’t have the same reputation. In your coupledom, you’re expected to compromise and be considerate of someone else in a way you don’t have to be when you’re alone. In a healthy relationship, specifically a long-term monogamous one, what does it take to glow up and evolve alongside a person you’ve chosen to do life with?
“I knew I’d found the right person when he encouraged me to be just as ambitious (if not more so) than before. I also encouraged him to do what he wanted. I did, however, have previous boyfriends who put me down [and] didn’t like someone being outspoken and ambitious,” said a friend over Instagram. “I can understand how easy it can be to be sidetracked and demotivated in a relationship,” empathised another friend. “Personally I speak about how important my work is with my partner, he’s always supportive and will encourage me to lift myself up when I feel demotivated at times.”
Like my friends, I am also in a relationship where my dreams and goals are enthusiastically supported. We talk openly about our “big plans” and aren’t afraid of having an accountability conversation if either of us is drifting off course. I bagged myself a good one! I know, I know… I should be rejoicing, smug and sipping champers in my love bubble. Yet, it’s my own self-motivation — a personality trait I’ve long prided myself on — that I am worried will start to waver, the happier and more content I become. Why do I find the loveliness and safety of relationships so… demotivating?
As of now, I have chosen to be happy and content in love, rather than uncomfortable in my never-ending pursuit to be “better”
Speaking over a video call, relationship expert Moraya Seeger DeGeare, MA, LMFT — a certified emotionally-focused couples therapist for couples app, Paired — identified that I may be a “high achiever” who tends to equate vulnerability in relationships as a risk to my independence. “[You ask yourself] can I trust that if I open up, you're going to continue to choose me, and you're going to continue to honour the fact that I'm worth getting to know, as I evolve?”
Truthfully, I am fearful of taking my foot off the pedal of my fast-moving career and busy life. As of now, I have chosen to be happy and content in love, rather than uncomfortable in my never-ending pursuit to be “better”. I am not sure what the long-term impact of this will be.
Moraya explains that while I may enjoy “aggressively evolving” through negative and shame-based reinforcement, in my healthy relationship dynamic I am given space to be kinder and set more realistic expectations of myself. “You may think you are losing your edge in a relationship because you're not getting shamed into being more proactive or doing better. And so, a lot of people think they are losing their edge because nobody's rewarding them. [You are neither] being scolded or told off or punished, and at the same time, there's no achievement or reward chart. So it has to be an internal [motivation] for you to want to show up new and different.”
In love, I am a considerably softer person. The pursuit of a “soft life” is something we’ve discussed at length at Unbothered, from seeking “radical rest”, to divesting from Black excellence in favour of mediocrity and learning to be soft in relationships. All of the mentioned can take some getting used to when as Black women we’ve relied on an image of strength to survive a system that is not designed for us to thrive. Spending an extended time in my softness is allowing me to heal, and breathe, in many ways. Moraya says I should continue to embrace my soft, slow season.
“Think of rising bread or something else that needs time to develop. This is you in your slowness. I think this is a beautiful time to add in more meditation and more mindfulness practices, you could even do that with your partner,” she recommends. “Even though in your high-striving season you may feel like you’re being selfish and taking better care of yourself, you being slow and restful right now sounds so beautiful. And so, think about how you can reward yourself for the slowness.”
In this period of my life, I have a partner who warns me when it looks like I’ll burn out. “You’re not serious,” he’ll say when I go for a run at 6 am when I have just complained about doing too much. I can see his mouth struggle to hold back an “I told you so” when once again I’ve girl-bossed my way into another migraine.
For those, like me, who have had a series of bad relationships in the past, it’s common to use those disappointments as fuel to achieve something better for yourself. I’m learning that my success wasn’t just born out of the bad experiences I pulled myself out of, and I don’t necessarily need a triumphant rebirth story to make my achievements any more valid. There’s so much to be gained in a season of happiness, whether single or in a relationship.
Being “my best” only when I’m single is a lie I’ve told myself for years, and I am learning to lean into the benefits of being happy and in love at the same time. And I am confident in the fact that, if a romantic love no longer serves me, I will know exactly what to do.