No one gets into a long-term relationship or marriage thinking it will end someday. And whether it’s a lack of communication, an increase in arguments, or simply not seeing eye-to-eye on important issues, it can still sometimes be hard to know when a breakup is coming. But according to a new study, one of the ways you can tell you’re headed for divorce isn’t just what you say to one another but also the specific words you use talking about your relationship. Read on to see if there are any linguistic red flags in your love life.
The latest research comes from a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in February. Using the r/BreakUps subreddit, a team of researchers analyzed language in 1,027,541 posts from 6,803 Reddit users one year before and one year after they announced their breakup.
Results showed that three months leading up to their breakup or divorce, users began to speak differently—specifically, they became more personal and informal and were more likely to use different words and pronouns such as “I” and “we.” The team also noted that the changes were observed in both the person being dumped and the one initiating the breakup.
“These are signs that someone is carrying a heavy cognitive load. They’re thinking or working through something and are becoming more self-focused,” Sarah Seraj, the study’s lead author and a PhD candidate in psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, said in a statement. “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.”
The study also found that such changes were still noticeable in users’ other discussions across the website, with changes peaking on the day of the breakup divorce and slowly diminishing over six months. According to researchers, the shift towards more informal language signifies a drop in analytic thinking while their discussions also showed increases in cognitive processing—an indicator that someone is working through a difficult time.
“It seems that even before people are aware that a breakup is going to happen, it starts to affect their lives,” Seraj said, who added that the anonymity of many Reddit users made it more likely for them to be authentic and personal online. “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.”
While other issues may be afoot, experts say the results show how many people spend a reasonable amount of time toiling over the idea of a breakup or divorce that can manifest itself in the way we speak. In some cases, “there are signs you’ve already started to disengage from your partner weeks ahead of the time when you actually end the relationship,” Gary Lewandowski Jr., PhD, a professor of psychology at Monmouth University in New Jersey who was not involved in the study, told CNN.
Other major linguistic red flags can be more obvious, such as speaking badly or complaining about your significant other in person or on social media. But even more minor changes such as using more self-focused words like “I,” “me,” and “mine” while speaking about relationship decisions be a sign you’ve already decided to end things, Lewandowski says.
Conversely, those in a good relationship tend to see themselves as indistinguishable or intertwined with their significant other. “If you were to speak badly about your partner, you’re essentially speaking badly about yourself,” Lewandowski told CNN.
The researchers also note that they could tell when users were going through other major emotional upheavals in their lives based on changes in the words they used in posts, even though they were more subtle than those going through breakups or divorces.
“The research points to the pervasive impact personal upheavals have across people’s social worlds,” the authors wrote. “The analysis of subtle shifts in pronouns, articles, and other almost invisible words can reveal the psychological effects of life experiences.”
The researchers also highlight the importance of their findings, saying the information can help better understand coping strategies people use while going through a tough split. “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,” Kate Blackburn, PhD, one of the study’s co-authors and a research fellow in psychology at UT Austin. “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.”