How you use small words in everyday conversations can hint to whether or not you’re about to breakup with your partner, according to a new study.
“It seems that even before people are aware that a breakup is going to happen, it starts to affect their lives,” said lead author Sarah Seraj. “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.”
Seraj and her fellow researchers at The University of Texas at Austin looked through more than a million posts from 6,800 Reddit users who shared news about a breakup on the r/BreakUps subreddit forum.
They looked at their language one year before and one year after the breakup announcement and what they found was that about three months before the breakup, the user’s language started to shift.
In particular the study notes that in the three months leading up to the breakup the users language became more personal and informal, indicating a drop in analytic thinking. Seraj also added that they used the words “I” and “we” more, which shows 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,” Seraj said. “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.”
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This work builds on other studies which have noted similar findings when it comes language changes and mental health.
For example, one study conducted back in 2010 found that those with symptoms of depression use significantly more first person singular pronouns – such as “me”, “myself” and “I” – and significantly fewer second and third person pronouns – such as “they”, “them” or “she”.
Additionally, research has also found that the prevalence of absolutist words – which convey absolute magnitudes or probabilities, such as “always”, “nothing” or “completely” – were greater in anxiety and depression forums, and suicidal ideation forums.
And these change in language patterns have been used by companies like Facebook to do things like detect suicidal posts before they’re even reported.
This latest study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the first to examine breakups and how long they last using natural language data.
In addition to signs showing up three months before the breakup, the study also found that the users language didn’t go back to normal until around six months after the breakup.
Further, these changes in language pattern weren’t just observed on the r/BreakUps subreddit but also on other unrelated forums.
However, while the majority of people went back to normal after the six month mark there were some who didn’t return to their normal language even a year after the breakup.
The researchers noted that these users had a tendency to linger in the r/BreakUps subreddit for months, rehashing their breakup story, over and over. According to the researchers, this rumination may have made it harder for them to heal.
The researchers also compared their findings with users going through divorce and other emotional upheavals. They found similar language patterns, though they weren’t as significant 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,” said the study’s co-author, Kate Blackburn.
“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.”
So enjoy re-reading all your messages with ex-partners to see when it all went wrong or feverishly overanalyzing your current partners messages to see if you’re about to be single.