There are hidden signs of an impending break-up up to three months before it occurs, a new study has found – you just need to pay attention to the language people are using.
And not just when partners are talking about their relationship, either. New research analysed more than 1 million posts on Reddit and showed that words people used in conversations across all kinds of different subjects shifted significantly – sometimes months before the fate of their relationship was ultimately decided.
This is the first study to look into whether or not natural language data might be able to predict a break-up, and how long the changes in people’s language patterns last.
According to the results, the changes peak in the week of the break-up, and generally return to normal by six months after the split.
But although these shifts are significant when you’re looking for them, the changes mostly involved pronouns we use daily – which means for most people, they’d be almost invisible.
“It seems that even before people are aware that a break-up is going to happen, it starts to affect their lives,” says lead researcher Sarah Seraj, a PhD candidate in psychology at the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin).
“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.”
Interestingly, it didn’t matter who was doing the dumping, or whether it was divorce or a different kind of break-up.
So how do you know if a break-up is in your future? Specifically, the study showed that people start using pronouns “I” and “we” more in the lead-up to the break-up, as well as words related to cognitive processing – basically indicating the fact that they’re working through stuff.
They also found there was a clear drop in analytic thinking in the months leading up to the upheaval.
“These are signs that someone is carrying a heavy cognitive load. They’re thinking or working through something and are becoming more self-focused,” says Seraj.
“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.”
To figure this out, the team found 6,803 people who admitted going through a breakup on the subreddit r/BreakUps. They then tracked their other Reddit posts a year before and after the breakup to see if there were any hidden signs of what was about to happen – looking at posts where they talked about all types of subject matter, not just the posts about their relationships.
They then used text analysis to track language markers for I-words (self focus), we-words (collective focus), and also patterns of words that indicated cognitive processing and analytical thinking.
Regardless of what they were posting, there was a clear shift seen in the language being used in the period leading up to the break-up.
Above: Day 0 marks the time of the break-up and shows how language changes before and after. The red line shows users’ posts across all subreddits and topics, and the blue line shows only posts outside of the r/BreakUps subreddit.
Interestingly, while most people’s language returned to normal within six months, some users still showed traces of the break-up in their word usage one year on.
The researchers found that people who struggled to bounce back were also more likely to stay longer in the r/BreakUps subreddit, often posting the story of their separation multiple times, which the team suggests could make it harder for them to move on.
“What makes this project so fascinating is that for the first time, through technology, we can see the way people experience a break-up in real time,” says the study’s co-author, Kate Blackburn, a research fellow in psychology at UT Austin.
Of course, we’ve known for a long time that it’s possible to predict outcomes of a relationship based on the language people use to describe it. A 2000 study tracked couples for 14 years and showed that a 15-minute interview about the relationship was sufficient to predict whether or not the couple would break up with 93 percent accuracy.
Researchers have also increasingly been using language-mapping in recent years, to identify subtle differences in the words used by personality types, such as extraverts, as well as people with depression.
The researchers also compared their findings with users who were going through other types of change in their lives outside of a break-up. Before any of these big shifts, whether they were romantic or not, similar language differences could be detected – although they were more subtle for those going through a non-break-up upheaval.
“The research points to the pervasive impact personal upheavals have across people’s social worlds,” the researchers write in their paper.
“The analysis of subtle shifts in pronouns, articles, and other almost invisible words can reveal the psychological effects of life experiences.”
The team says the study serves as a proof of concept that Reddit posts, and the internet more broadly, are an ideal “laboratory” for analysing how different coping strategies can work for people going through a hard time.
This is important, because research has shown that having your heart broken is no joke – it’s associated with all kinds of physical changes.
Hopefully, by collectively sharing and understanding the experiences of other people, we may get some insight into how to better process a break-up or other distressing life event, and find a way to move on.
The research has been published in PNAS.