Me, myself and I: Little words may signal a big breakup is coming — long before you know it

“It’s not you, it’s me.… I’m the problem.” 

Sound familiar? That classic breakup language cuts fast and deep.

But in reality the process is slow-growing, and it turns out signs of a looming breakup may be hiding in the seemingly innocuous words we use everyday — well before we or our soon-to-be-ex are even aware the end is near.

That’s what psychology researcher Sarah Seraj’s findings suggest in a study published this week in the journal Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences.

Seraj and co-authors at the University of Texas at Austin combed through one million posts from nearly 7,000 Reddit users. They reviewed posts one year before and one year after users shared experiences of a breakup in the Reddit “r/BreakUps” discussion group.

They found the language used by these people — whether the topic was hobbies, politics, whatever — was marked by an increased use in certain articles, prepositions and pronouns — including a spike in “I words.”  The change was detectable up to three months before the breakup, and up to six months after.

“Whether they knew that they were headed for a breakup or not, their lives were already being affected up to three months before,” said Seraj. “I definitely didn’t expect to see such huge differences last for so long.”

Sarah Seraj is a postdoctoral student and researcher in the department of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. (Submitted by Sarah Seraj)

Reddit afforded Seraj an interesting opportunity to study the messiness of breakups — and a massive amount of data.

The r/Breakups reddit group works as something akin to a support group: contributors share stories of emotional devastation stemming from the end of a relationship and other users offer advice and support. The sharing itself can be cathartic, said Seraj, and the posts generate helpful advice on navigating heartbreak from others who have been there.

But the social media platform has countless other communities that function like bulletin boards dedicated to different interests. There are over 350,000 members of the r/Knitting group alone. 

Unless a user deletes their Redditt account, all of their comments across groups remain visible for all to see. 

This enabled Seraj to identify the accounts talking about love loss in the breakups page, and from there follow their history of comments in a range of other contexts and groups.

Me, myself and I

There were subtle features in users’ language that caught Seraj’s attention, and these cropped up in r/Breakups and other pages where they posted.

Words like “I” and “me” and “myself” — what Seraj terms markers of self-focus — were used more than usual in this nine-month window before and after breaking up. 

The anonymous user in this r/Breakups post uses these words 22 times in the span of three paragraphs, which is followed up with half a dozen supportive comments:

Past research has demonstrated increased use of self-referential “I words” occurs when people are going through something distressing. It’s often correlated with sadness or depression, and that’s what Seraj thinks is happening in r/Breakups. 

Not so logical

She also noticed two other patterns. 

“Ought,” “perhaps,” “maybe,” “because” and other words associated with cognitive processing and reasoning through problems also increased in frequency.

“People were essentially trying to understand why their relationship had ended, their own role in it,” said Seraj.

And there were large drops in the use of words commonly tied to analytic thinking, or the ways in which we think about the world in logical and formal terms.

“They were talking about deeply personal topics and they weren’t really talking about abstract concepts,” said Seraj.

What makes her team’s findings robust, Seraj says, is that she observed these patterned shifts in language in a large sample (6,800 users), in the Breakups group and across a range of other contexts that had nothing to do with relationship problems.

Seraj and her colleagues’ findings also lined up with past psychological research on divorce and other emotionally distressing experiences that tended to result in similar language changes, she said.

You’re not alone

In other words, our words say more about our mental state than we realize.

It’s possible similar shifts may be found in how people express themselves when going through other kinds of emotional upheaval — like the death of a loved one or other kinds of trauma, said Seraj. That requires further study.

But she can also imagine a day where her research is used as a foundation for some form of therapeutic tool — maybe a journalling app that can analyze text and checks in with users once the rate of “I words,” and other language associated with distress, begins to increase.

Until then — and just in time for Valentine’s Day — there’s one important takeaway for all the jilted lovers.

“We saw in the study that the whole process lasts nine months … it’s totally normal, even after that, to have pangs of grief and mourn for the loss of the relationship,” said Seraj. 

“People aren’t alone.”


Written and produced by Bryce Hoye.

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