Can A Person's Language Patterns Signal A Breakup Months Ahead Of Time?

mbg Editorial Assistant By Abby Moore
mbg Editorial Assistant
Abby Moore is an Editorial Assistant at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine.
You Can Tell Someone Is Considering A Breakup From How They Talk, Study Finds

While it may be true that actions speak louder than words, words still hold weight. In fact, a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, discovered specific language patterns that might predict a breakup months in advance.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin, reviewed more than 1 million Reddit posts by 6,800 users. Specifically, they looked at users who had announced a breakup in the subreddit channel r/BreakUps and analyzed their posts from the year before and the year after the split.

By analyzing the language used in the posts, researchers found breakups begin to affect people—and the way they talk—up to three months before the split occurs, and the aftermath tends to last for about six months. And no, the main linguistic indicator was not the sharing of sad song lyrics or sappy quotes—it was actually a much more subtle use of pronouns. 

How pronouns might predict an impending breakup. 

The researchers found people dealing with impending breakups began using the pronouns "I" and "we" more frequently up to three months before their breakup. 

Overall, the language of people who were breaking up with a partner, as well as those who were being broken up with, also became less formal and more personal. According to the researchers, these changes can express a drop in analytic thinking and an increase in cognitive processing.

"These are signs that someone is carrying a heavy cognitive load," said Sarah Seraj, M.S., lead author and psychology doctoral candidate. "They're thinking or working through something and are becoming more self-focused." 

In general, people who are depressed or sad might start using the word "I" more often, Seraj explained. "When people are depressed, they tend to focus on themselves and are not able to relate to others as much."

People showed these shifts in language even when they were discussing topics totally unrelated to relationships, the researchers found, showing how pervasively a breakup can affect someone's life on a subconscious level.

While these patterns began to ease after six months for most people, some users' language didn't return to normal for up to a year post-breakup. Those who took longer to get over the breakup were more likely to be retelling their breakup story for months after it happened, which the researchers believe made it harder for them to heal. 

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The takeaway.

While opening up to others can help process trauma or heartbreak, rehashing the hurt for months online without finding proper support from loved ones, getting quality sleep, or taking care of yourself in other ways, may make it harder to get over a tough breakup

"It seems that even before people are aware that a breakup is going to happen, it starts to affect their lives," Seraj said. "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." 

Being on the lookout for these subtle language changes may help people provide support for loved ones before, during, and after they go through a breakup. And just in case: Here's some advice on what not to say to someone who's heartbroken

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