AUSTIN, Texas — Psychologists say that evidence of a relationship nearing its end may exist in the small words used in everyday conversations months before either partner even realizes where their relationship is heading. According to new research, couples who frequently use pronouns such as “I” or “we” may be about to split.
The study is the first to examine breakups and how long they last using natural language data.
Researchers from The University of Texas at Austin analyzed more than one million posts by 6,800 users of the website Reddit one year before and one year after they shared news about their breakups. The team found that three months before the split, partners’ language began to change and did not return to normal until about six months after.
“It seems that even before people are aware that a breakup is going to happen, it starts to affect their lives. We don’t really notice how many times we are using prepositions, articles or pronouns, but these function words get altered in a way when you’re going through a personal upheaval that can tell us a lot about our emotional and psychological state,” says lead study author Sarah Seraj, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the university, in a statement.
Seraj says that whether someone was getting dumped or was dumping someone else, language markers of the imminent breakup were notable up to three months before the event. Their language became more personal and informal, indicating a drop in analytic thinking. They used the words “I” and “we” more and showed signs of increased cognitive processing.
“These are signs that someone is carrying a heavy cognitive load. They’re thinking or working through something and are becoming more self-focused. Sometimes the use of the word ‘I’ is correlated with depression and sadness. When people are depressed, they tend to focus on themselves and are not able to relate to others as much,” notes Seraj.
The study shows that pronounced patterns peaked on the day of the breakup and remained up to six months later, even when people were discussing other topics in different Reddit communities. However, research found that some users’ language did not return to normal a year after the breakup. According to the researchers, those users had a tendency to linger in the ‘breakups’ section of Reddit for months, rehashing their breakup story, making it harder for them to heal.
Researchers also found similar language patterns when they compared their findings with users going through divorce and other emotional upheavals. Findings were more muted for non-relationship upheavals.
“What makes this project so fascinating is that for the first time, through technology, we can see the way people experience a breakup in real time. Implications for this research are far reaching. At the most basic level, it gives you, me, and everyday people insight into how loved ones may respond over time to the end of a romantic relationship,” says study co-author Dr. Kate Blackburn, a research fellow in psychology at UT Austin.
This study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
SWNS writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.