Think you can hide your feelings pretty easily?
When doubts about a relationship start to creep in, people don't just blurt them out. They might not want to worry their partner and figure they'll ride out what could just be a rough patch. They probably think they can hide their feelings pretty easily.
But it turns out, hidden signs of their turmoil appear in the way they communicate.
In our recently published study, we were able to show that people's language subtly changes in the months and weeks leading up to a breakup – well before they've made a conscious decision to end things.
Mining Reddit for cracks
Breakups are difficult to research. They unfold over weeks, months – even years. To truly understand the dynamics of a breakup, researchers should, ideally, be able to track people's lives before, during and after the breakup takes place.
Historically, this hasn't been feasible. But the study of long-term relationships is beginning to change with the advent of social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Reddit. An increasing number of people are now chronicling their daily lives on these platforms, which allows researchers to look at how people cope with upheavals such as breakups both before and after the event. The analysis of people's daily language can reveal information about their shifting emotions, thinking styles and connections with others.
One popular social media platform, Reddit, has designed an online infrastructure that mirrors the way we socialize in real life.
There are hundreds of thousands of communities, known as subreddits, geared to different interests, from tennis and politics, to gaming and knitting. This allows like-minded people to hang out, chat about their interests and ask for advice.
We studied a community called r/BreakUps/, where people discuss the dissolution of their relationships. We identified a group of 6,803 people who had posted about their breakups and tracked their posts up to a year before and after they ended things. But we didn't just look at their posts on the r/Breakups subreddit. We tracked their words across all the subreddits they posted in during this time frame. We wanted to see if there were signs of their impending breakup even when they weren't directly talking about it.
After analyzing over 1 million posts, we identified language markers that could detect an impending breakup up to three months before it actually took place. And we detected changes in people's language that lasted up to six months after the event.
These changes were detectable even when people weren't talking about their relationship. It could appear when the poster was discussing sports, cooking or travel. Even though these people didn't necessarily know the end of the relationship was coming, it was already subtly influencing the way they communicated with others.
Worlds – and words – turned upside down
So how, exactly, does language change?
One big takeaway is that people tend to focus more on themselves, with increased use of “I"-words, as the breakup nears. This is common during a stressful life event, and other studies have shown an increase of self-referential language in people who are depressed or anxious.
At the same time, people's language shows drops in analytic thinking processes, which are often associated with formal and logical thinking. Their language becomes more informal and personal. They make fewer references to concepts, which causes drops in the use of articles such as “the" and “a." They're more likely to talk about other people than ideas.
Around the time of the breakup, people also tend to reference their partner quite a bit, perhaps because they have yet to separate their identity from their partner. Afterwards – as people process their heartbreak – they begin to shift their focus to people who are supporting them during a difficult time.
People's thought processes also experience drastic changes during the breakup. They begin to probe their understanding of the relationship as they try to figure out why it fell apart. This is typical of people trying to make sense of challenging life events, whether it's trauma or bereavement.
As time moves on, people begin to craft a coherent narrative about their breakup, which causes other more logical processes – the ones that deteriorate around the time of the breakup – to reactivate. When this happens, they're ready to move on with the next chapter of their lives.
For most people in our study, it took about six months for their language to return to normal. Of course, grief is a lengthy process and it's natural to feel pangs and mourn for the loss of the relationship occasionally, even after that.
The fact that language analysis can detect subtle signs of a relationship being on the rocks means that clinicians – whether they're mental health professionals, therapists or psychologists – could have a powerful tool at their disposal. For example, some people use phone apps to journal regularly. An app could automatically alert a user when their language is showing signs of extreme emotional distress and suggest resources or professional help.
This type of analysis is already being developed to detect and map other shifts in people's lives, whether it's their participation in a protest movement or the early stages of a health condition, and will only keep getting better as technology advances.
Sarah Seraj, Ph.D. Student, The University of Texas at Austin College of Liberal Arts; James W. Pennebaker, Professor of Psychology, The University of Texas at Austin College of Liberal Arts, and Kate G. Blackburn, Post Doctoral Researcher, The University of Texas at Austin College of Liberal Arts
Social interactions are important for building the strongest relationships.
- When someone says thank you, who is it for? According to Dr. Sara Algoe, expressions of gratitude have a positive effect on the person receiving the message, the person delivering it, and even those who witness the exchange. These types of social interactions are crucial for building lasting relationships with romantic partners, friends, and coworkers.
- "When we say 'thank you,' we're sending a message to the person who just did something nice for us, that they are valued, that they're seen, that the thing that they did for us was worth doing in the first place," Algoe says.
- Expressing gratitude is easy, and the research shows that the benefits far outweigh the effort.
A study finds that sexual regret doesn't change how we behave in the future.
- Researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology investigate the degree to which regret regarding sexual encounters makes us modify our behavior.
- Women more often have regrets about encounters that occurred, while men regret the ones that didn't.
- According to the study, people keep doing what they've been doing and continue to have the same regrets.
When it comes to sexual encounters, both women and men may be left with feelings of regret in the fading afterglow. Women, according to recent research, are more likely to experience "action regret," wishing they hadn't had sex. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to report "inaction regret" if they feel they've passed up on a sexual opportunity.
Both may experience regret, says a new study, but not so much that it changes their behavior going forward.
Speaking to Norwegian SciTech, the lead author of the study, Leif Edward Ottesen Kennair of Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), says, "For the most part, people continue with the same sexual behavior and the same level of regret."
The evolutionary value of emotion
Credit: Morgan Lane/Unsplash
"We wanted to examine if their level of regret contributed to a change in behavior the next time around," says senior author Mons Bendixen, who collaborated with Kennair and postdoctoral fellow Trond Viggo Grøntvedt.
Explains Kennair, "A lot of emotions are functional, like disgust that protects against infection and fear that protects against danger. An evolutionary approach has helped us understand anxiety by understanding the function of fear: fight-flight-freeze is about avoiding danger and defending ourselves against it."
The authors say that psychologists generally assume that emotions such as regret serve an evolutionary purpose — they keep us from repeating undesirable behavior.
"Researchers," says Grøntvedt, "have found that most people believe this is true for regret. They assume that regret is actually a helpful negative feeling. People assume it guides them not to repeat what they regretted."
The flexibility of regret
Credit: Priscilla Du Preeze/Unsplash
To see if sexual regret does actually change people's behavior, the researchers invited NTNU students to complete an anonymized web questionnaire about sexual regret. Prospective participants were told:
"We invite you to participate in a research project that examines students' thoughts and feelings after having had casual sex (intercourse), and what factors that may affect these… Some of the questions are sensitive and relate to sexual acts and choices you may have made. Responding may cause some discomfort and embarrassment, and we recommend that all participants sit in an uninterrupted location when answering the questions."
Individuals who agreed to participate were asked to fill out the survey two times, 4.5 months apart. The volunteers were between 18 and 30 years of age. For the first pass at the questionnaire, 529 students, 63.2 percent of whom were female, participated. Just 283 people completed the questionnaire both times.
The questionnaire revealed a resounding, "Nope!" Four and a half months later, individuals had continued to hook up or not hook up in the same way they had at the start of the study. They also exhibited the same level of regret.
Credit: Phix Nguyễn/Unsplash
Kennair admits, "We are not that surprised. If regret helped, would not most sinners eventually become saints? What do you regret the most often? Has it changed your behavior?"
The researchers suggest that, as they suspected at the outset of the project, regret is an emotion that's adaptive, with its impact on behavior dependent on context. In the case of sexual regret, there may be a disconnect between what we think we should want and what we really want.
It may also be that habit simply overpowers regret. Previous studies have found that habits create ever-stronger neural pathways — it's why people often repeat mistakes. The idea is that making a mistake a first time creates a neural pathway to which we increasingly and unconsciously gravitate each time we repeat the error.
Kennair cautions, however, against getting too hung up on sexual regrets.
"And yet," he says, "there are some folks who think that depressive ruminating and worry are a good idea. But the way we treat depression and generalized anxiety disorders is by helping people to stop ruminating and to stop worrying. Not everything people do, think or feel is an evolutionary adaptation — sometimes it is not appropriate either."
In-depth research suggests BDSM practitioners can experience altered states of consciousness that can be therapeutic.
- BDSM is an acronym encompassing a variety of sexual practices that include: bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, and sadism/masochism. The practice of BDSM usually consists of partners taking on specific roles in which one partner is dominant and the other is submissive.
- BDSM practitioners (individuals who frequently engage in BDSM play) can experience various mental health benefits from engaging in their scenes.
- According to the research, subspace is often characterized by the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, the release of epinephrine and endorphins, and a subsequent period of non-verbal, deep relaxation.
The psychology of BDSM
Many experts have weighed in on the significant mental and physical health benefits of sex:
- Lower blood pressure
- Stronger immune system
- Better heart health
- Improved self-esteem
- Decreased symptoms of depression and anxiety
- Better sleep routines
However, there is an increasing interest in studies that explore the specific mental and physical health benefits of BDSM practices. BDSM practitioners (individuals who frequently engage in BDSM play) can experience various mental health benefits from engaging in their scenes. For example, one study suggests that being dominant in the bedroom can boost your work ethic. Other research in this area has suggested engaging in BDSM activities can boost your mental well-being and increase awareness of your attachment style in partnerships, which can ultimately lead to healthier relationships. Additionally, unhealthy stereotypes and misconceptions about BDSM have also been addressed by experts.
A natural starting point for more research surrounding the mental health impact of BDSM practices is to explore what happens in a person's mind and body when they experience intense sexual activity. While physical reactions (such as arousal and climax) are quite typical, there is something unique that happens to individuals who participate in intense BDSM scenes.
What is "subspace" in BDSM play?
Subspace is defined as a state of transcendence reached by submissives through intense physical or psychological experiences with their partner. This can happen through sensory triggers (the use of paddles, blindfolds, restraints) or through emotional triggers (certain words or phrases, meaningful expressions).
This space, while experienced differently for many, can be described as a nearly-hypnotic feeling that takes over when the submissive partner is highly engaged in their role.
What is "domspace" in BDSM play?
Domspace is defined as an altered, elevated state of mind that Dominants (during BDSM scenes) experience through intense physical or psychological experiences with their submissive partner. This can happen through sensory triggers (using paddles or restraints on your partner) or through emotional triggers (expressing certain words or phrases to your partner, meaningful expressions, the notion that your submissive trusts you enough to be vulnerable with you).
While subspace can be described as a "hazy" or "blurry" trance-like state, domspace is often described (by individuals who experience it) as an intense, euphoric, and focused state of mind.
Are there therapeutic benefits to submission?
Experts weigh in: there may be therapeutic and relational benefits to being a submissive person in BDSM scenes.
Photo by LIGHTFIELD STUDIOS on Adobe Stock
According to the author of the study, Dulcinea Pitagora: "Because the BDSM community has been historically vilified due to stereotypes reinforced by negative media exposure and inadequate education, relatively little is known about the phenomenon of subspace outside of the BDSM community."
There is a proven connection between BDSM interactions and altered states of consciousness.
According to a 2016 study, there is a direct link between BDSM interactions and ASCs (altered states of consciousness) - the significant one, in this case, being that engaging in a submissive role during BDSM play can lead to transient hypofrontality.
Transient hypofrontality, a term coined by Dr. Arne Dietrich, is when the focused, thought-processing part of the brain is "shut off" by external triggers. An example of this is the difference between engaging in a competitive sport and running in a beautiful park. During a competitive sport, your brain will need to make a variety of complex decisions. While you're running a calmer path in a beautiful park, however, your mind can "let go" of that prefrontal engagement and you can experience an alternate (relaxed) state of consciousness. For a submissive, during BDSM scenes, this can result in reduced self-reported stress and increased sexual arousal.
Transient hypofrontality has also been used to describe severe "end-stage" addictions. This ability to "shut off" the thought-processing function in your brain can actually cause "involuntary" cravings for this feeling. This can be why many submissive practitioners become reliant on their BDSM activities.
The study explains, "In order to examine an alignment of transient hypofrontality with subspace, the authors collected additional self-reported data describing experiences of subspace; a comparison of these datasets confirmed that the characteristics of transient hypofrontality were consistent with those of subspace."
Experiencing subspace during BDSM play can activate the sympathetic nervous system.
According to the research, subspace is often characterized by the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, the release of epinephrine and endorphins, and a subsequent period of non-verbal, deep relaxation. This chain reaction can often lead the submissive in the scene to experience a temporary state of depersonalization and derealization (which are generally experienced as positive and pleasant in this context).
The key to experiencing this trance-like state is having a partner you trust, research suggests.
This state is highly sought after by individuals who identify as submissives in the BDSM context - and the key to achieving this state of being is having a dominant partner you can trust. This type of trust and reciprocal consent can provide an entry to subspace.
"Because the participant who identifies as the sadist, dominant [or top] in a given scene is generally charged with monitoring and protecting their partner, the [submissive] bottom in the scene might be better situated for achieving an altered state of consciousness and transcendence." - Rethinking Kink, 2010
BDSM could be used as a way to heal from trauma and benefit your relationships, experts suggest.
While there is no research to date that has sought to capture the specific experiences of subspace and how they relate to relationships and healing, many experts believe BDSM can in fact provide therapeutic and relational benefits to those who engage in the practices.
"Given the associations between ASCs and subspace described above, the authors' findings on ASCs can be extended to the analogous experience of subspace. The study suggested that symbolic action can have a profound effect on psychological processes and connected trance (a type of ASC) with the healing properties of the trance state."
Scrap getting fitter or eating better and focus more on the people in your life.
Maybe you're one of the 74% of Americans in one survey who said they planned on hitting the reset button on Jan. 1 and resolving to improve. Those New Year's resolutions most commonly focus on eating healthier, exercising, losing weight and being a better person.
Admirable goals, to be sure. But focusing on body and mind neglects something equally important: your romantic relationship. Couples with better marriages report higher well-being, and a recent study found that having a better romantic relationship not only promoted well-being and better health now but that those benefits extend into the future.
The lesson is clear: Your relationship is important. Resolve to get it right.
That doesn't mean you have to be perfect. But here are seven resolutions based on recent psychological research that you can make this New Year to help keep your relationship going strong.
1. Set yourself up for success
Adjust your mindset so you see your relationship as a key source of positive experiences. Psychologists like me call this boosting your social approach motivation. Instead of merely trying to avoid relationship problems, those with an approach motivation seek out the positives and use them to help the relationship.
Here's how: Imagine a conversation with your partner. Having more of an approach motivation allows you to focus on positive feelings as you talk and to see your partner as more responsive to you. Your partner gets a burst of positivity, too, and in return sees you as more responsive. One partner's good vibes spill over to the other partner, ultimately benefiting both. After a year when your relationship may have felt unprecedented external strains, laying the foundation to take advantage of any positives is good place to start.
2. Be optimistic
While things in the past may not have always gone how you wanted, it's important to be optimistic about the future. But the right kind of optimism matters. A 2020 research study from Krystan Farnish and Lisa Neff found that generally looking on the bright side of life allowed participants to deal with relationship conflict more effectively – as they put it, better able to "shake it off" – than did those who were optimistic specifically about their relationship.
It seems that if people focus all their rosy expectations just on their relationship, it encourages them to anticipate few negative experiences with their partner. Since that's unrealistic even in the best relationships, it sets them up for disappointment.
3. Increase your psychological flexibility
Try to go with the flow. In other words, work on accepting your feelings without being defensive. It's OK to adjust your behaviors – you don't always have to do things the way you always have or go the places you've always gone. Stop being stubborn and experiment with being flexible.
A recent study by Karen Twiselton and colleagues found that when you're more flexible psychologically, relationship quality is higher, in part because you experience more positive and fewer negative emotions. For example, navigating the yearly challenge of holidays and family traditions is a relationship minefield. However, if both partners back away from a "must do" mentality in favor of a more adaptable approach, relationship harmony will be greater.
4. It's OK to put 'me' before 'we'
It's easy for some people to play the self-sacrificing martyr in their romantic relationship. If this sounds like you, try to focus more on yourself. It doesn't make you a bad person or a bad partner. When you're psychologically healthy, your partner and your relationship also benefit.
Recent research identified four main traits that are part of good mental health: openness to feelings, warmth, positive emotions and straightforwardness. These traits help with being more clear about who you are, feeling better about who you are, expressing greater optimism and less aggression, exploiting others less and exhibiting less antisocial behavior. You can see how what's good for you in this case would be good for your partner too.
5. Do something for your partner
But it's not all about you. Putting your partner first some of the time and catering to your partner's desires is part of being a couple. A 2020 study by Johanna Peetz and colleagues found that prioritizing your partner makes you feel closer to them, increases positive feelings, reduces negative ones and boosts perceived relationship quality.
In the new year, look for ways to give your partner some wins. Let them get their way from time to time and support them in what they want to do, without exclusively prioritizing your own wants and needs.
6. Don't be so hard on yourself
So many New Year's resolutions focus on body image. Aspirations to eat better and work out often stem from the same goal: a hotter body. Yet, research from Xue Lei shows that you may not really know what your partner wants you to look like.
Women tend to overestimate how thin male partners want them to be. Similarly, men believe that female partners want them to be more muscular than women say they do. It may seem harmless, but in both cases individuals are more critical and demanding toward themselves, in part based on misreading what a partner truly desires.
7. Stay in touch
I saved the easiest item on the list for last: Touch your partner more. When Cheryl Carmichael and colleagues followed 115 participants over a 10-day period, they found that initiating and receiving touch – things like holding hands, cuddling, kissing – were associated with both a boost in closeness and relationship quality. Importantly, being touched by your partner has the added benefit of making you feel more understood and validated. Who couldn't use more of that in the coming year?