Most of us have felt blindsided by a breakup at least once in our lives, but a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science suggests that warning signs of an impending split could surface as early as three months before calling it quits.
Researchers at The University of Texas at Austin looked at more than 1 million posts by 6,800 Reddit users one year before and after they took to the web to reveal the news of their breakup. The studies found that people's language style began changing three months before the split, and their words didn't return to normal until six months later.
"It seems that even before people are aware that a breakup is going to happen, it starts to affect their lives," explained the study's author Sarah Seraj, who is also a doctoral candidate in psychology at 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."
The research stated that whether the individual was the one who initiated the split or was the one getting dumped, their vocabulary became more "personal and informal" — meaning they used words like "I" and "we" more — which indicates a "drop in "analytical thinking" and an increase in "cognitive processing."
"These are signs that someone is carrying a heavy cognitive load. They're thinking or working through something and are becoming more self-focused," Seraj noted. "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 verbal patterns continued for up to six months after the split, even when the individual wasn't talking about something related to the breakup. In some cases, an individual's normal language didn't return to normal for a year — though these people were the same ones who were constantly talking about their breakups, which may have made it harder for them to heal and move on.
"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," said the study's co-author, Kate Blackburn, a research fellow in psychology at UT Austin.
"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."