After the end: Linguistic predictors of psychological distress 4 years after marital separation

Kyle J. Bourassa, Karen Hasselmo, David A. Sbarra

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


Divorce is a stressful life event that is associated with increased risk for poor mental and physical health. A key goal for research in this area is to understand individual differences in who fares well or poorly over time, and whether behavioral markers of risk immediately after a separation predict longer term adjustment. This article investigates psychological distress in a sample of separated adults (N = 134, 84 of whom completed all follow-up assessments) who participated in an initial study and a follow-up assessment approximately 4.5 years later. Using multiple regression we examined whether two linguistic behaviors—the use of words from categories such as first-person pronouns and present tense words (verbal immediacy) and first-person plural pronouns (we-talk; e.g., “we” or “our”)—predicted self-reported psychological distress at follow-up. Increased use of first-person plural pronouns predicted greater psychological distress 4.5 years after marital separation. Additional analyses revealed that this effect was driven largely by differences in self-concept disturbance over time. The extent to which people use first-person plural pronouns following marital separation predicts increased risk for psychological distress years later, and this behavioral indicator may identify people who are at greater risk for poor adjustment over time.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1872-1891
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of Social and Personal Relationships
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 1 2019


  • Attachment
  • divorce
  • language use
  • marital separation
  • marriage
  • psychological distress
  • romantic relationships
  • verbal immediacy
  • we-talk

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Communication
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science


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