If you are recovering from a breakup of a cherished relationship, you may have a very important question in your mind: how long until your devastating heartache ends? People will have different answers depending on whom you ask, but it turns out that social media can give us a more substantial answer.

By analyzing people’s language changes on social media when they are going through a breakup, we can not only quantify how long the recovery period lasts, but also when the breakup process actually starts, even before the official end date. In recent research, we found that the breakup process lasts around nine months, starting from the gradual unraveling of the relationship to the official breakup date, and finally, to the uncoupling and recovery phase.

Our team identified a group of people who had posted about their breakups on Reddit. Reddit is a popular discussion website where people gather in different communities (subreddits) based on their interests. These communities can be centered around any topic under the sun, from tennis to cooking to relationship advice. Unlike some popular platforms such as Facebook or Instagram, users typically post using anonymous handles that are not tied to their real identity on Reddit. There is a subreddit called r/BreakUps that specifically caters to people seeking support during their breakup. After identifying about 6,800 users who had gone through breakups, we looked at their language up to a year before and after their breakup to understand how the process had unfolded. All analyses were conducted in the aggregate to preserve the anonymity of individual users.

Clues In Language

People’s language leaves subtle clues about their emotional and social state as they go about their daily lives. Also, people’s language patterns can go through drastic changes when they are going through a distressing life event, such as a breakup. These changes are largely unconscious but something computer-based analyses can pick up on.

After analyzing 1 million posts, we found that people’s language went through changes starting three months before they posted about their breakup, lasting about six months after the breakup. Their language became more self-focused, more personal, and showed signs of increased mental burden, which is typical of people going through a traumatic life experience. Importantly, these changes occurred even when people were posting on topics outside of their relationship, showing the deeply pervasive impact of breakups. In their real lives, these changes may have manifested in a lack of focus at work, less interest in technical tasks, and a general preoccupation with their personal lives.

What If a Person Recovers Slowly?

There were some differences between people who recovered quickly from their breakup versus those who took longer. People who had a slower recovery showed prolonged signs of increased mental burden and preoccupation, and also had more references to their ex and their shared life together. They had a difficult time untangling their identity from that of their partner and were struggling to understand why the relationship ended.

The language patterns observed in our project may help predict when people are at risk for protracted emotional distress during a stressful life event. If someone is in deep emotional distress six months or a year after their breakup, it might be a good time to seek professional help. A clinician can help uncover what remains unresolved in their mind.

What makes this work exciting to us is that never before have researchers been able to track the end of a romantic relationship across so many people in near-real time. With the public’s increased use of social media and the improvement of text analysis techniques, social psychologists have new tools to study deeply personal events such as breakups. The same techniques can be used to study things like bereavement and depression (and in fact, many researchers are doing exactly that) to provide insights to practitioners. As computer-based tools improve, increased use of text analysis in the field of social psychology is an inevitability and may provide a new understanding of the human mind.

For Further Reading

Seraj, S., Blackburn, K. G., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2021). Language left behind on social media exposes the emotional and cognitive costs of a romantic breakup. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(7), e2017154118. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2017154118

Sarah Seraj is co-founder and Chief Technology Officer at A Better Force, and her research uses language to understand the effect of both personal and collective upheavals on people’s well-being.

Kate Blackburn is a post-doctoral research fellow in the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and her research interests explore the perceptual and behavioral processes of language used in people’s stories and social interactions online.