While some relationships are ended in the heat of the moment, for many the decision to break up with a partner involves several long, agonising weeks of weighing up various options. During that time, your attitudes and behaviours towards your partner may change — you might become colder or more distant, for example.
But what about your language? According to a new study, published in PNAS, the language we use on social media just prior to a break-up can offer a key insight into the emotional and cognitive impacts of a relationship ending. Looking at over a million posts from 6,803 Reddit users who had posted on r/BreakUps, the University of Texas at Austin team found changes in language that were so consistent they could even be found in posts completely unrelated to relationships at all.
In the forum, some users open up about why they’re thinking of ending their relationship, or ask advice from fellow posters about particular situations. Other users have been broken up with, using the space to vent and express their sorrow or rage.
The team looked at the language of forum users for evidence for two types of thinking: cognitive processing and analytic thinking. Cognitive processing is the kind of thinking people do while trying to understand particular problems that they know very little about. Language related to cognitive processing can be grouped by insight words like “understand”, causal words like “because” or “result”, and words related to self-discrepancy like “should”.
Analytic thinking, on the other hand, involves logical (sometimes even dispassionate) reasoning about a certain situation, reflected in factual rather than emotional language. The researchers also considered the focus of people’s posts: whether they were oriented around the self, with frequent use of “I”, or around a collective “we”.
The team used a text analysis system that calculated the percentage of words corresponding to these different dimensions of language, both before and after they had posted about their break-up, and both within r/BreakUps and elsewhere on Reddit. First, a pre-break-up baseline period was established, from a year to four months before the break-up; during this period, there were no significant changes in language. Language was then analysed in two week intervals until a year after the break-up.
The team found significant decreases in analytic thinking a month before the break-up, not returning to baseline levels until six months after the break-up. This suggests a serious disruption in people’s “normal” thinking patterns, starting up to three months before a break-up. The sharpest drop in analytic thinking came at the disclosure of the break-up, with people’s language becoming the most personal and informal in the immediate aftermath of their relationship ending. This remained true even when they were not talking about their relationship.
And while analytic thinking decreased, language related to cognitive processing increased. Use of “I” and “we” words also increased, peaking at the time of the break-up. The effect was largest, unsurprisingly, for “I” words — and again, held even when users were posting about topics completely unrelated to their break-up.
Though “we” words returned to their baseline levels within a month, analytic thinking and “I” words remained heightened for up to 14 weeks post-break-up. The team suggests that this shows people “continue to be self immersed” even if they have worked through their break-up and divorced themselves from their identity as part of a couple. When, through cognitive processing, people’s stories become more “developed and organised”, as the authors put it, analytic language starts to increase once again; overall, language patterns remained significantly different from baseline until around six months after the break-up.
So could writing about your break-up online help you deal with it better? Well, it’s complicated. While expressively writing about your emotions has been associated with higher levels of wellbeing, those who were long-term posters on r/BreakUps were less likely to return to baseline levels of language than those who had only posted once or twice. However, it was unclear whether these users had something else in common that affected their thinking and language, such as a cognitive style or personality trait.
It would also be interesting to look more deeply at the norms and jargons of particular forums and how these affect the way people write. Take another relationship-based subreddit, r/Relationships. Browsing the subreddit, you’ll often see the same kinds of language, structure and tone across posts, a standard way for people to write about their problems and challenges (often to fairly incongruous and amusing effect). Looking at the culture of individual forums could also give some insight into why and when people use the language they do, and how that language use relates to their own conceptualisation of their thoughts, feelings and lives.