Dating

Breakup signs: the subtle way to tell if someone is thinking about ending a relationship

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Lauren Geall
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A heartbreak lollipop

Ever wondered whether there’s a way to tell when someone is thinking of breaking up with you? According to a new study, the clue could lie in the way they speak.

There’s nothing worse than a breakup hitting you out of the blue. It’s like emotional whiplash – one day, you’re thinking about next week’s date night plans, and the next, they’re asking you for a ‘talk’. It’s hard to comprehend how the person you thought you knew so well could have hidden such a big thing from you. But there’s no way you could have known, right?

According to a new study published by psychologists at the University of Texas, that may not be the case.

Their research – which was published in Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences – found that, months before a breakup, the small words your partner uses in everyday conversations can provide insight into their intentions. 

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To find out how language can predict a breakup before it happens, the team of researchers looked through more than a million posts from 6,800 Reddit users who posted about their breakups on the r/Breakups subreddit (a forum on the site).  

By analysing posts from those users both before and after their breakups, the researchers found that the language used on the site started to change three months before a Reddit user’s breakup, often before they knew the end of their relationship was on the cards. That language change typically lasted for up to six months after the breakup, too.

But what kind of language changes are we talking about? Annoyingly, they’re rather subtle: one of the main changes the researchers detected was an increase in the use of “I” and “we” pronouns. 

A couple breaking up
Breakup signs: according to the study, people use more “I” and “we” pronouns towards the end of a relationship because they're carrying a “heavy cognitive load”.

“These are signs that someone is carrying a heavy cognitive load,” Sarah Seraj, the lead author of the study, explained in a press release. “They’re thinking or working through something and becoming more self-focused.”

This pattern is interesting, but remember that your partner talking about themselves more doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to break up with you, so don’t panic. What this study does reveal, however, is one of the many reasons why language can often be the key to understanding what people are thinking.

Other language changes identified by the study included a drop in formality (which shows a reduction in analytical thinking) and a rise in words associated with ‘cognitive processing’. These are the words we use when we’re trying to make sense of something, such as “want,” “would” and “suppose”.  

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Perhaps most interestingly, the researchers found these language changes to be true of both the person being broken up with and the one ending the relationship, meaning that, even if you’re not consciously aware the end of a relationship is coming, it can still affect you.

Although this study may not focus on the cheeriest of subjects, it’s interesting to see just how big an impact a breakup can have on you – not just emotionally, but in the way you approach and navigate the world.  

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and work. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time.

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