In the year before I split up with my ex-partner, several things changed. I started to spend more time with new friends, stay out later on weekends and began treating myself to fancy pedicures on a bi-weekly basis. Most importantly, I stopped writing about my then-partner. Our relationship was already on the rocks and I didn’t want to air our dirty laundry in public — or at least that’s what I told myself at the time.
Over the course of a few months before I split up, my life had become increasingly self-focused, to the point where my then-partner noticed. “You never write about me anymore. It’s like I don’t even exist,” he said.
As shameful as it is to admit that he saw the signs, he wasn’t wrong. Whether I knew it or not, I was writing my way into a new single life — one where “we” was replaced with “I.”
Turns out, this phenomenon isn’t uncommon. According to a new study published in in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, evidence of an impending breakup can be found in the small words used in everyday conversations, often months before either partner realizes where their relationship is heading.
In this study, researchers at The University of Texas at Austin analyzed more than 1 million posts by 6,800 Reddit users, one year before and one year after they shared news about their breakups in the r/BreakUps subreddit. They found that three months before the breakup, participants’ language began to change and did not return to normal until about six months after.
“It seems that even before people are aware that a breakup is going to happen, it starts to affect their lives,” said lead author Sarah Seraj, a doctoral candidate in psychology at UT Austin. As Seraj explains, the way in which we alter our word choice when going through a personal upheaval can provide valuable clues about our emotional and psychological state.
Whether someone was getting dumped or was doing the dumping, the researchers found that three months prior to the event, participants’ language became more personal and informal, and they used the word “I” more often.
These findings are consistent with my own experiences during the time prior to my own breakup. While I wasn’t frequenting the r/BreakUps subreddit, I was spending an increasing amount of time online writing about my Feelings (with a capital “F”), as one was wont to do in the late aughts. Reading through the abundance of very moody blog posts and cringe-worthy tweets that I penned during that era before I split up, it’s clear that I was processing something even if I wasn’t stating it explicitly.
I was having a bad day.
I was feeling restless.
I was confused about life.
According to the researchers, this heavy reliance on “I” focused language is a sign that someone is, “thinking or working through something and are becoming more self-focused,” says Seraj. In my case, before I split up I was trying to work through the complex feelings I had about my relationship.
There were other issues at play. I was anxious, depressed and spending entirely too much time online. As Seraj notes, “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.”
It’s also important to note that researchers found similar language patterns amongst users going through divorce and other emotional upheavals. In other words, the person using “I” language might not be considering a breakup. Like many of us, they might just be having a hard time right now and need an outlet to process it.
Instead of using this study as an open invitation to rifle through your partner’s internet history (please don’t do this), take it as a reminder to check in with the people you love. If you’ve noticed a loved one seems detached, distant or has been glued to their screen (ahem, frequenting the many pages of Reddit), engage with them. Talk to them. Sometimes, what feels like an “I” problem is best worked out offline in a “we” setting.
[Minor alterations were made to this article, written by Simone Paget which first appeared in the March 14, 2021 Toronto Sun.]