The researchers found people dealing with impending breakups began using the pronouns “I” and “we” more frequently up to three months before their breakup. 

Overall, the language of people who were breaking up with a partner, as well as those who were being broken up with, also became less formal and more personal. According to the researchers, these changes can express a drop in analytic thinking and an increase in cognitive processing.

“These are signs that someone is carrying a heavy cognitive load,” said Sarah Seraj, M.S., lead author and psychology doctoral candidate. “They’re thinking or working through something and are becoming more self-focused.” 

In general, people who are depressed or sad might start using the word “I” more often, Seraj explained. “When people are depressed, they tend to focus on themselves and are not able to relate to others as much.”

People showed these shifts in language even when they were discussing topics totally unrelated to relationships, the researchers found, showing how pervasively a breakup can impact someone’s life on a subconscious level.

While these patterns began to ease after six months for most people, some users’ language didn’t return to normal for up to a year post-breakup. Those who took longer to get over the breakup were more likely to be retelling their breakup story for months after it happened, which the researchers believe made it harder for them to heal.