Break-ups are something that many people dread – especially when you don’t see them coming.
Now, a new study has revealed a key way to tell if your partner is thinking of breaking up with you, based on their language.
The study found that people contemplating the end of a relationship change their language and start saying ‘I’ and ‘we’ more.
According to the experts, the use of the word ‘I’ is correlated with depression and sadness, and is a key sign that someone is carrying a heavy cognitive load.
The researchers hope the findings will provide people with a key insight into how loved ones may respond over time to the end of a romantic relationship.
The study, by researchers from the University of Texas, suggests that the use of pronouns may indicate an impending breakup.
Psychologists say that evidence of a relationship about to end may exist in the small words used in everyday conversations months before either partner even realises where their relationship is heading.
Researchers analysed more than one million posts by 6,800 users of the website Reddit one year before and one year after they shared news about their breakups.
The team found that three months before the split, their language began to change and did not return to normal until about six months after.
The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the first to examine breakups and how long they last using natural language data.
Study lead author Sarah Seraj, a doctoral candidate in psychology at UT Austin, 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.’
She said that whether someone was getting dumped or was doing the dumping, language markers of the imminent breakup were notable up to three months before the event.
Their language became more personal and informal, indicating a drop in analytic thinking. They used the words ‘I’ and ‘we’ more and showed signs of increased cognitive processing.
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.’
She said the pronounced patterns peaked on the day of the breakup and remained up to six months later, even when people were discussing other topics in different Reddit communities.
However, the researchers found that some users’ language did not return to normal a year after the breakup.
Those users had a tendency to linger in the ‘breakups’ section of Reddit for months, rehashing their breakup story, over and over, making it harder for them to heal, according to the researchers.
The UT Austin team also compared their findings with users going through a divorce and other emotional upheavals, finding similar language patterns though they were more muted for non-relationship upheavals.
Study co-author Dr Kate Blackburn, a research fellow in psychology at UT Austin, 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.’
She added: ‘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.’