One person was dumped before finals week after a four-year relationship. Another broke off a relationship with their boyfriend because he had fallen in love with someone else.
These two brutal breakups seem to have nothing in common, and yet both users’ Reddit posts hinted at a breakup months in advance.
An analysis of over a million Reddit posts has shown that a user’s language patterns change up to three months before a breakup, according to a study published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Researchers took posts from over 6,800 users who had posted in the subreddit r/BreakUps and ran them through a text processing program to analyze their linguistic patterns in the year before through the year after their breakups. (r/BreakUps is an online forum on the social news platform Reddit, where over 143,000 members post their breakup stories.)
At the time of a user’s breakup post, there was a spike in the average use of self-focused words like “I” and “me,” which are personal pronouns, said lead study author Sarah Seraj, a doctoral student at the University of Texas at Austin.
The increase in self-focused words were observable three months before the breakup and didn’t return to normal language patterns – measured by the poster’s average patterns four to 12 months before the breakup – until up to six months after the relationship ended.
There was also a steep drop in a poster’s analytical thinking, which is a standardized measurement of the formality of someone’s writing, Seraj said. The drop, which indicates an increase in personal narratives and informal writing, happened because people were writing about deeply personal topics, she said.
Nonbreakup posts showed similar patterns
Researchers analyzed both a user’s posts in r/BreakUps and their posts in other Reddit forums, called subreddits. Self-focused words increased and analytical thinking decreased around the time of the breakup, regardless of whether their posts were about their failed relationship, the researchers found.
“The effects of the breakup are translating into other areas of their life, even when they’re not directly talking about it,” Seraj said.
At the time of the breakup post, there was a spike in the user’s cognitive processing words like “think” and “should,” which are used when someone is trying to work through a problem, Seraj said.
There was also a spike in a user’s collective thinking – noted by the use of the word “we” – at the time of the breakup, but it dropped back to normal levels within a couple months.
“They can’t really separate their partner’s identity from their own, so they use more ‘we’ words because they’re talking about their shared life with their partner,” Seraj said.
Long-term posters take longer to return to normal
Users who spent five or more days posting in r/BreakUps took much longer for their language patterns to return to normal compared to those who posted for fewer than five days. While short-term users’ analytic thinking returned to normal two months after the breakup, it took long-term users six months, according to the study.
The study didn’t analyze why long-term users took longer, but Seraj hypothesized that their breakups could have been messy so they needed more support, or the user kept ruminating on the relationship, preventing them from moving on.
For those still struggling six months after a breakup, Seraj recommended speaking to a therapist or seeking other professional help.
Reddit allows for authenticity
It has been difficult in the past to analyze the psychology of breakups because it’s something personal, and “it’s not like we can go to people’s homes and creep on them and see how they’re doing in their personal life,” Seraj said.
With social media, people post about their day-to-day lives in the moment. People leave traces of their emotional and psychological states in their online language, she said, and it’s available for researchers to look at.
Reddit users are also anonymous, which Seraj said allows them to be more authentic online and share personal accounts of their breakup without fear of it coming back to them in the real world.
This study proves that people spend a lot of time thinking about a breakup, said Gary Lewandowski Jr., professor of psychology at Monmouth University in New Jersey, who was not involved in the study.
The results also have shown “there are signs you’ve already started to disengage from your partner weeks ahead of the time when you actually end the relationship,” Lewandowski said.
If you notice that you’re using more self-focused words like “I, me and mine,” in regard to a relationship decision, it might be a sign you’ve already made up your mind, he said.
Speaking badly about your partner, whether on social media or in real life, is another relationship red flag, according to Lewandowski.
In a good relationship, much of who you are is intertwined with your partner, he said. “If you were to speak badly about your partner, you’re essentially speaking bad about yourself.”
A path forward
For long-term breakup posters, Lewandowski recommended they write about the positive aspects of their relationship so they can shift their focus onto the relationship as a whole.
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While most people grieve the end of a relationship, he emphasizes that not all breakups are bad.
“If that relationship wasn’t helping us become a better person, ending it can,” Lewandowski said.