- "Heartache" and the hurt caused by being brokenhearted is the #1 topic discussed by men seeking relationship help from strangers online.
- Anonymous Reddit posts reveal that men will openly discuss their emotional pain and heartache online, if the risk of social repercussions is low.
- Men use more "we-words" when discussing heartache; women Redditors use more "I-words," which may reflect higher rates of preoccupied attachment.
A new first-of-its-kind study (Entwistle et al., 2021) cataloged the language patterns and word choices that men and women use when they're anonymously seeking relationship advice from strangers online. These findings were recently published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
This paper shatters some gender stereotypes by showing that, in general, men experience more emotional pain during breakups than they'll openly admit in real-world contexts—where there tends to be a higher risk of negative social repercussions associated with openly discussing heartache.
For this study, senior author Ryan Boyd and colleagues analyzed demographic characteristics and language patterns of 184,631 men and women seeking relationship advice on Reddit. According to the researchers, this is the first-ever big data analysis of the language used by "relationship help-seekers" on Reddit's publicly accessible and anonymous r/relationships discussion forum.
"Our findings suggest that, contrary to more traditional contexts, men are more likely to seek help with their relationships online [and] are more expressive of their emotions (e.g., discussing the topic of 'heartache')," the authors explain. Words like "heartbroken," "regret," "cry," and "breakup" were frequently used when male Redditors asked for help dealing with their heartache.
Men are more likely to mention "heartache" and "emotional hurt" on Reddit.
The r/relationships subreddit forum is self-described as: "A community built around helping people and the goal of providing a platform for interpersonal relationship advice between Redditors. We seek posts from users who have specific and personal relationship quandaries that other Redditors can help them try to solve." When there's little or no risk of social repercussions, men seeking relationship advice from other Redditors are willing to wear their hearts on their sleeves and openly discuss the pain and hurt caused by heartache.
This subreddit forum is a massive online community with over three million members. It gives social psychologists a rare peek into how men and women really feel based on natural language data in a "moderately personal," anonymous setting.
"Most of what we know about relationship problems comes from studies of people in couples therapy, which includes a rather specific subset of people—people who have the time, money, and motive to work on their relationship problems," first author Charlotte Entwistle said in a news release. "We wanted to understand not only what relationship problems are most commonly experienced by the general public, but who experiences which problems more."
"As we were conducting the study, we realized that this was an important opportunity to put a lot of common ideas about gender differences in relationships to the test," Boyd added. "For example, are men truly less emotionally invested in relationships than women, or is it the case that men are simply stigmatized out of sharing their feelings?"
Contrary to typical gender distributions found in offline settings where women are more likely to seek relationship advice from a professional therapist, 54.62% of Reddit's r/relationships users were men, and 45.38% were women. As might be expected, people posting on the r/relationships platform tended to be considerably younger (average age 24 years) than middle-aged adults, who are more likely to seek relationship help via offline channels.
"Traditionally, women are more likely to identify relationship problems, consider therapy, and seek therapy than are men," Boyd noted. "When you remove the traditional social stigmas against men for seeking help and sharing their emotions, however, they seem just as invested in working through rough patches in their relationships as women."
This research also shows that during adolescence, more boys (N = 5,447) seek relationship advice on Reddit than adolescent girls (N = 1,828). "Although our exploration of demographic characteristics provides a novel glance into who seeks relationship help online, we note that these findings may also simply mirror the more general composition of Reddit, which skews toward young males," the authors write.
Girls may also be more likely to share contextualized relationship information with friends without the fear of risking negative social repercussions associated with discussing highly personal topics without the cloak of anonymity. On the flip side, boys may turn to Reddit because the platform's anonymity reduces vulnerability and lowers their risk of embarrassing social repercussions.
Men tend to use more "we-words" when discussing heartache. Women use more "I-words."
The latest (2021) study into the nature and substance of seeking help from strangers online via Reddit's r/relationships platform sheds light on some linguistic markers for attachment styles. Along these lines, previous research (Haydon et al., 2014) has shown that, on average, women may be more prone to preoccupied attachment than men.
"When discussing their relationships, women (relative to men) used language consistent with more of a preoccupied attachment state (consistent with prior research findings and expectations, with greater words overall used, more self-focused language (i.e., I-words)," the authors write.
"Contrastingly, men showed language patterns more consistent with a secure attachment state: greater use of we-words, affiliation words, and positive emotion words, paired with lower rates of I-words," they add. "However, some patterns indicative of dismissive attachment were present among men (relative to women)."
"I know it's been some time, but there's something on my mind. I haven't been the same since that cold November day. We said we needed space, but all we found was an empty place. And the only thing I learned is that I need you desperately. No matter how I try, you're always on my mind." —Whitney Houston, "Where Do Broken Hearts Go?"
Looking at the use of "I-words" vs. "we-words" in Whitney Houston's song "Where Do Broken Hearts Go?" is a pop-culture example of how pronoun usage might reflect someone's attachment style. Much of the language in this song (e.g., "no matter how I try, you're always on my mind") could be interpreted as reflecting a female protagonist experiencing preoccupied attachment.
That said, even though the latest research suggests that women may be more prone to preoccupied attachment states—and that men, in general, may lean towards more secure attachment—this Reddit study didn't establish measures of attachment style based on "I-talk" vs. "we-talk." (See "We-Talk Is Linked to Healthier and Happier Relationships.")
"We do not know the extent to which various attachment styles self-selected into the r/relationships platform, potentially skewing the representativeness of our sample," the authors explain.
More research is needed to fully understand how gender and gender stereotypes influence mens' and womens' language patterns when seeking relationship advice online. "We are optimistic that future research will be able to further improve and refine upon our analyses, providing even deeper insights into the timing, lifecycle, and moderating factors that influence when, where, why, and how people seek help for their interpersonal relationships," the authors conclude.
Facebook image: Maridav/Shutterstock
Charlotte Entwistle, Andrea B. Horn, Tabea Meier, Ryan L. Boyd. "Dirty Laundry: The Nature and Substance of Seeking Relationship Help from Strangers Online." Journal of Social and Personal Relationships (First published: October 23, 2021) DOI: 10.1177/02654075211046635