Language use changes three months before a relationship break up.
Signs that a couple are going to break up are evident in their use of language months before the event happens, research finds.
The types of words both people use changes three months before breaking up.
Their language shifts more towards a self-focus with greater use of the pronoun ‘”I”.
There is also a higher use of words that indicate cognitive processing.
This suggests that they are thinking about something intensely.
Examples of cognitive processing words include ‘want’, ‘think’, ‘need’, ‘realise’, ‘decide’, ‘reason’, ‘depend’ and ‘wonder’.
This is true whether they are the person about to end the relationship or the one on the receiving end.
Ms Sarah Seraj, the study’s first author, said:
“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.”
The study analysed over 1 million posts by 6,800 people on Reddit, an online forum for discussing a wide range of subjects.
One of these forums, called r/BreakUps, is dedicated to relationship issues.
The results of the analysis revealed that language use became more personal and informal around three months before the couples broke up.
This pattern continued for a further six months afterwards.
Similar shifts in language use were seen in forums discussing divorce and other upheavals.
Ms Seraj said:
“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.”
A minority of people’s language did not revert and they returned to the r/BreakUps forum to retell the story of the end of their relationship again and again.
This suggests that some people find it particularly hard to adjust to their new circumstances.
Dr Kate Blackburn, study co-author, said:
“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.”
The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Seraj et al., 2021).
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