That’s the finding of University of Texas researchers who analysed more than a million posts from nearly 7000 Reddit users over a two-year period.
The researchers identified what they called “language markers” hinting at relationship strife as far as three months out from the break-up.
These language shifts showed up not just in posts pertaining to the relationship but also in subreddits (forums) unrelated to matters of the heart.
The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, also found that traces of the psychological effects of the breakup lingered in language choices for up to six months after the dumping.
“It seems that even before people are aware that a breakup is going to happen, it starts to affect their lives,” says lead author Sarah Seraj.
As clues tend to be, those indicating relationship strife were subtle, with detection requiring a trained eye.
Users on track for a bust-up would start using the pronoun “I” more often. They would also increase their use of what psychologists call cognitive processing words, such as “think” “realise” and “suppose”. Combined, these language markers are typical of a person experiencing some degree of depression and who’s trying to interpret the meaning of something – a series of events or comments, perhaps.
The word patterns seen for breakups matched those of users going through divorce or some other life upheaval, the researchers say.
The longer a user posted directly about their breakup in its aftermath, the harder it had hit them, they added.
"What makes this project so fascinating is that, for the first time, through technology, we can see the way people experience a breakup in real time," says study co-author Kate Blackburn. "Implications for this research are far-reaching. It gives everyday people insight into how loved ones may respond over time to the end of a romantic relationship."