A study looking at the language people use when they are going through breakups has found that markers of an impending breakup can be seen three months before the breakups occur.
Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin looked at 1,027,541 posts from 6,803 Reddit users. The users were specifically chosen because they had posted on the subreddit r/BreakUps. No, before you think it, the indication that a breakup was coming was not them posting in this particular forum – but the fact that they had posted there as well as on many other areas of Reddit gave researchers the opportunity to see how their breakups affected their use of language.
The team, who published their results in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, looked at posts before, during, and after the breakups across two years of posts. They found that language markers indicating a breakup began 3 months beforehand, and users didn't return to their baseline until (on average) around 6 months after the event.
"Signs included an increase in I-words, we-words, and cognitive processing words (characteristic of depression, collective focus, and the meaning-making process, respectively)," the team wrote in the study, "and drops in analytic thinking (indicating more personal and informal language)."
For instance, in the example below from the study, the words in bold show signs of cognitive processing, as well as an abundance of "I-words".
"I'm undecided whether or not to share my story. I need some help because I feel lost but my story is long and not sure whether it's worth sharing."
These subtle changes in the use of pronouns and other changes in language were seen not just when the users were talking about their relationships, but when they were talking about other topics entirely.
"It seems that even before people are aware that a breakup is going to happen, it starts to affect their lives," doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and lead author Sarah Seraj told Science Daily. "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."
The observed changes in language peaked during the week of the breakup, and generally returned to normal 6 months after the relationship ended. However, those that posted about their breakups for longer time periods, returning to r/BreakUps to talk about their breakup story, were found to be "less well-adjusted a year after their breakup compared to short-term posters", continuing to use language differently to their usual baseline.