Signs of a fraying relationship can appear in subtle ways. Betsie Van der Meer via Getty Images
Evidence of an impending breakup may exist in everyday conversation months before either partner realizes their relationship is tanking
Sarah Seraj, James W. Pennebaker, Kate G. Blackburn, The University of Texas at Austin College of Liberal Arts Published: February 9, 2021 8.33am EST . ×
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When doubts about a relationship start to creep in, people dont just blurt them out. They might not want to worry their partner and figure theyll ride out what could just be a rough patch. They probably think they can hide their feelings pretty easily.
But it turns out, hidden signs of their turmoil appear in the way they communicate.
In our recently published study, we were able to show that peoples language subtly changes in the months and weeks leading up to a breakup well before theyve made a conscious decision to end things.
Mining Reddit for cracks
Breakups are difficult to research. They unfold over weeks, months even years. To truly understand the dynamics of a breakup, researchers should, ideally, be able to track peoples lives before, during and after the breakup takes place.
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Historically, this hasnt been feasible. But the study of long-term relationships is beginning to change with the advent of social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Reddit. An increasing number of people are now chronicling their daily lives on these platforms, which allows researchers to look at how people cope with upheavals such as breakups both before and after the event. The analysis of peoples daily language can reveal information about their shifting emotions, thinking styles and connections with others.
One popular social media platform, Reddit, has designed an online infrastructure that mirrors the way we socialize in real life.
There are hundreds of thousands of communities, known as subreddits, geared to different interests, from tennis and politics, to gaming and knitting. This allows like-minded people to hang out, chat about their interests and ask for advice.
We studied a community called r/BreakUps/, where people discuss the dissolution of their relationships. We identified a group of 6,803 people who had posted about their breakups and tracked their posts up to a year before and after they ended things. But we didnt just look at their posts on the r/Breakups subreddit. We tracked their words across all the subreddits they posted in during this time frame. We wanted to see if there were signs of their impending breakup even when they werent directly talking about it.
After analyzing over 1 million posts, we identified language markers that could detect an impending breakup up to three months before it actually took place. And we detected changes in peoples language that lasted up to six months after the event.
These changes were detectable even when people werent talking about their relationship. It could appear when the poster was discussing sports, cooking or travel. Even though these people didnt necessarily know the end of the relationship was coming, it was already subtly influencing the way they communicated with others.
Worlds and words turned upside down
So how, exactly, does language change?
One big takeaway is that people tend to focus more on themselves, with increased use of I-words, as the breakup nears. This is common during a stressful life event, and other studies have shown an increase of self-referential language in people who are depressed or anxious.
At the same time, peoples language shows drops in analytic thinking processes, which are often associated with formal and logical thinking. Their language becomes more informal and personal. They make fewer references to concepts, which causes drops in the use of articles such as the and a. Theyre more likely to talk about other people than ideas.
Around the time of the breakup, people also tend to reference their partner quite a bit, perhaps because they have yet to separate their identity from their partner. Afterwards as people process their heartbreak they begin to shift their focus to people who are supporting them during a difficult time.
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Peoples thought processes also experience drastic changes during the breakup. They begin to probe their understanding of the relationship as they try to figure out why it fell apart. This is typical of people trying to make sense of challenging life events, whether its trauma or bereavement.
As time moves on, people begin to craft a coherent narrative about their breakup, which causes other more logical processes the ones that deteriorate around the time of the breakup to reactivate. When this happens, theyre ready to move on with the next chapter of their lives.
For most people in our study, it took about six months for their language to return to normal. Of course, grief is a lengthy process and its natural to feel pangs and mourn for the loss of the relationship occasionally, even after that.
The fact that language analysis can detect subtle signs of a relationship being on the rocks means that clinicians whether theyre mental health professionals, therapists or psychologists could have a powerful tool at their disposal. For example, some people use phone apps to journal regularly. An app could automatically alert a user when their language is showing signs of extreme emotional distress and suggest resources or professional help.
This type of analysis is already being developed to detect and map other shifts in peoples lives, whether its their participation in a protest movement or the early stages of a health condition, and will only keep getting better as technology advances.
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Sarah Seraj Ph.D. Student, The University of Texas at Austin College of Liberal Arts
James W. Pennebaker Professor of Psychology, The University of Texas at Austin College of Liberal Arts
Kate G. Blackburn Post Doctoral Researcher, The University of Texas at Austin College of Liberal Arts
Sarah Seraj receives funding from the National Science Foundation, Templeton Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health.
Kate G. Blackburn receives funding the National Science Foundation, Templeton Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health.
James W. Pennebaker does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
The University of Texas at Austin College of Liberal Arts provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.