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Journal of Social and
2021, Vol. 38(12) 3472–3496
© The Author(s) 2021
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Dirty laundry: The nature and
substance of seeking
relationship help from
, Andrea B. Horn
, Tabea Meier
Ryan L. Boyd
Interpersonal relationships are vital to our well-being. In recent years, it has become
increasingly common to seek relationship help through anonymous online platforms.
Accordingly, we conducted a large-scale analysis of real-world relationship help-seeking
to create a descriptive overview of the nature and substance of online relationship
help-seeking. By analyzing the demographic characteristics and language of relationship
help-seekers on Reddit (N= 184,631), we establish the ﬁrst-ever big data analysis of
relationship help-seeking and relationship problems in situ among the general population.
Our analyses highlight real-world relationship struggles found in the general population,
extending beyond past work that is typically limited to counseling/intervention settings.
We ﬁnd that relationship problem estimates from our sample are closer to those found in
the general population, providing a more generalized insight into the distribution and
prevalence of relationship problems as compared with past work. Further, we ﬁnd several
meaningful associations between relationship help-seeking behavior, gender, and at-
tachment. Notably, numerous gender differences in help-seeking and romantic attach-
ment emerged. Our ﬁndings suggest that, contrary to more traditional contexts, men are
more likely to seek help with their relationships online, are more expressive of their
emotions (e.g., discussing the topic of “heartache”), and show language patterns generally
Department of Psychology, Lancaster University, UK
Department of Psychology, University of Zurich, Switzerland
University Research Priority Program: “Dynamics of Healthy Aging”, University of Zurich, Switzerland
Security Lancaster, Lancaster University, UK
Data Science Institute, Lancaster University, UK
Charlotte Entwistle, Department of Psychology, Lancaster University, D26 Fylde College, Lancaster LA1 4YF,
consistent with more secure attachment. Our analyses highlight pathways for further
exploration, providing even deeper insights into the timing, lifecycle, and moderating
factors that inﬂuence who, what, why, and how people seek help for their interpersonal
Relationship help-seeking, natural language analysis, relationship problems, attachment,
Interpersonal relationships are vital to our well-being, yet they are complex and often
difﬁcult to navigate. The centrality of relationships to our lives is underscored by the
consequences that emerge from relationship problems. People going through relationship
difﬁculties report higher rates of sleep disorders (Chen et al., 2015), worse academic
performance (Field et al., 2012), and mental health issues (McShall & Johnson, 2015).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, romantic breakups are ranked as one of life’s most distressing
events (LeFebvre et al., 2015).
When facing relationship problems, we often engage in relationship help-seeking as a
means to improve our relational well-being, using other people as a resource to bring
alignment between our own expectations and reality (Holmberg & MacKenzie, 2002).
Today, however, we increasingly seek help for life stressors in online spaces, ranging from
traditional support forums to social networking sites such as Facebook (Pan et al., 2020).
This shift to online platforms provides new opportunities to study the underlying drivers
of relationship help-seeking behavior at large scale in real-world contexts. Using modern
natural language processing methods, we can begin to see—for the ﬁrst time—a high-
resolution, naturalistic view of relationship problems and relationship help-seeking
behavior in the general population. In doing so, we seek to gain a “big picture”per-
spective on the everyday prevalence of relationship problems as they are experienced by
the general public (rather than, for example, clinical/counseling samples), as well as a
better understanding of who experiences those problems. In this article, we:
1. Provide a brief overview of the changing nature of relationship help-seeking;
2. Identify new opportunities to leverage naturalistic, online data sources to better
understand people and their romantic relationships;
3. Empirically examine the characteristics, substance, and nature of relationship
problems and relationship help-seeking behavior through big data analytics.
A brief overview of the history of relationship help-seeking
Throughout history, humans have turned to others for relationship help, ranging from
close acquaintances to relying on impersonal, generic truisms, and cultural norms—and
each with its own beneﬁts and drawbacks (see Figure 1). In pre-literary history, humans
were necessarily limited to seeking help from those to whom they had physical access,
Entwistle et al. 3473
such as members of one’s family, tribe, or geographic region. One of the beneﬁts of help-
seeking from close others surrounds shared knowledge and context, which can lead to
more effective and meaningful advice-giving and receiving (Guntzviller et al., 2017).
However, relationship help-seeking in personal contexts can have drawbacks as well,
including a lack of objectivity or impartiality.
Historically, professional or “expert”sources have acted as a source of relationship
support during times of difﬁculty; such support ﬁgures have often included religious
authorities (e.g., Onedera, 2007), self-styled relationship gurus, and well-trained pro-
fessionals. In the early 20th century, professional marriage counseling emerged from the
eugenics movement (see Stone, 1949), later transforming into a fully-ﬂedged, empirical
practice (Gurman & Fraenkel, 2002). A strength of professional sources of relationship
support is their often minimal personal involvement, providing a balance of objectivity
and impartiality, yet affording the opportunity for some degree of personalized and
At the most impersonal extreme, people have commonly sought relationship help from
static, “one-size-ﬁts-all”resources, such as newspaper articles and books published in the
popular press. The 1990s were virtually awash in relationship self-help books publi-
cations, with Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (Gray, 1992) selling over 15
million copies to date (Beaumont-Thomas, 2017). While affording anonymity and some
potential for objectivity, boilerplate relationship help sources are often too impersonal to
be effective (Rosen et al., 2015).
Figure 1. The personal–impersonal dimension in relation to sources of relationship help. Note.
Sources by which relationship help-seeking occurs, varying in degrees of personal knowledge and
connectedness to help-seekers.
3474 Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 38(12)
Relationship help-seeking in an online world
Relationship help-seeking has continued to evolve in the digital age. Online social media
help us connect, create, and collaborate with people whom we have never met, making the
internet a particularly appealing medium for social and informational support. For the ﬁrst
time in history, individuals can leverage massive communities of complete strangers for
relationship help, receiving support that is personalized, information-rich, and free from
the immediate social pressures created by in-person support networks. Indeed, discussing
relationship problems online has become a common feature of modern relationships (Kim
et al., 2017).
Often compared favorably to traditional sources of support, online spaces provide
help-seekers with insights from ever-growing numbers of diverse individuals, with the
added beneﬁt of anonymity (Walther & Boyd, 2002;Wright, 2016; cf. Yip, 2020). The
beneﬁts of internet-facilitated support, and the anonymity that it provides, become
particularly visible when coping with topics that are often hard to share with real-life
acquaintances, such as highly intimate or stigmatized topics (Davison et al., 2000;
Stephens-Davidowitz, 2017). For example, the internet is commonly used to solicit
mental health support (DeAndrea, 2015). Groups who experience greater difﬁculties and
stigma with help-seeking across domains (mental health, relationships, etc.) may be more
likely to seek help through online platforms due to the anonymity that they provide (see
Hammer et al., 2013;Watkins & Jefferson, 2013).
Although past research has explored traditional relationship help-seeking among close
others and within professional contexts (e.g., Doss et al., 2009;Stewart et al., 2016), there
is limited research into the online relationship help-seeking process, including which
types of relationship problems motivate anonymous help-seeking online in the ﬁrst place.
Using modern data sources and analytic methods, we can begin to explore questions
surrounding the who,what,why, and how of relationship help-seeking in situ—that is, the
real-world lived experiences of the general public.
To date, we are not aware of any research that has conducted a naturalistic, large-scale
exploration of relationship problems in the general population. Accordingly, the present
study aims to broadly understand the characteristics of help-seeking in the digital sphere.
We additionally seek to explore how the analysis of rich, real-world language data might
provide insights into the prevalence of relationship problems, as well as individual
characteristics related to those problems. In particular, we aim to address three broad
research questions with our work:
•RQ1: What is the demographic proﬁle of individuals who seek relationship help
•RQ2: What are the central relationship problems faced today?
•RQ3: Does online help-seeking behavior provide real-world evidence for gender
differences in attachment states?
Entwistle et al. 3475
RQ1: What is the demographic proﬁle of individuals who seek relationship
The bulk of what we understand today about the psychosocial and demographic char-
acteristics of people who seek help for relationship problems originates from research
conducted in professional contexts (e.g., couples therapy). In such contexts, female
partners tend to recognize their relationship problems and actively seek professional
relationship help more than male partners (for a review, see Stewart et al., 2016). The
decision to seek professional relationship help is additionally inﬂuenced by age, with
middle-adulthood couples being more likely to actively seek professional relationship
help (Doss et al., 2003). Speciﬁcally, average age ranges are usually in the realm of 38–
41 years for those couples that typically seek professional help (Duncan et al., 2020;
Schoﬁeld et al., 2015).
Whether the demographics of individuals who anonymously crowdsource relationship
help in online spaces match those of people who typically seek professional relationship
help is unknown. Valuably, this knowledge should allow for greater understanding of the
facilitators and barriers to seeking help for relationship problems. If online help-seekers
are primarily middle-aged women, as in professional contexts, we may speculate that
online platforms simply provide an alternative, less resource-consuming option. Should
online relationship help-seekers show divergent demographics, however, we may suggest
that online spaces provide a support platform for individuals who traditionally would not
have sought relationship help from others due to well-established treatment barriers, such
as stigma, time, and ﬁnancial cost (see, e.g., Hall & Sandberg, 2012;Werner-Wilson &
Winter, 2010;Williamson et al., 2019). In our study, we create an initial, descriptive
understanding of online relationship help-seekers through basic demographic charac-
teristics to which we have immediate access, namely, age and gender.
RQ2: What are the central relationship problems faced today?
As with the question of who seeks help for their relationship problems, our understanding
of what relationship problems motivate people to seek help are largely based on research
in professional contexts. For example, communication difﬁculties are often cited as the
most common motivator for seeking professional relationship help. Other leading reasons
typically include issues with physical and emotional intimacy, trust, ﬁnances, and
housework, to name a few (see: Doss et al., 2004;Duncan et al., 2020;Roddy et al., 2019;
Schoﬁeld et al., 2015). Given the extreme differences in prequisites for seeking rela-
tionship help professionally versus online, it could be expected that the main motivations
for seeking relationship help differ between these support contexts. Put another way, past
research on relationship problems in the context of formal interventions (both online and
in-person; e.g., Roddy et al., 2019) are critical, but likely reﬂect skewed representations of
relationship problem distributions and prevalence in the general public, and in everyday
life. For example, ∼1% of couples raise “abuse”as a relationship problem in intervention
settings (Roddy et al., 2019), whereas the CDC reports between 5–6% of the general US
population has experienced some form of intimate partner abuse or violence within the
3476 Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 38(12)
past 12 months (Basile et al., 2011). Such discrepancies highlight serious under-
representation of prevalent relationship problems in professional settings.
Similarly, discrepancies in gender distributions of relationship problems may be re-
ﬂected differently in the general public relative to intervention settings. Many problems
are reported fairly equally by both men and women (Duncan et al., 2020), however, some
gender differences do exist. Relative to men, women are more likely to report partner-
speciﬁc traits and behaviors as problematic, and men report problems with physical
intimacy more than women (e.g., Roddy et al., 2019). As noted earlier, it could reasonably
be argued that such differences may result, in part, from social pressures arising from
stereotypes and gender norm expectations. Put another way, if existing gender differences
are (at least partially) a product of stigmatization and pressure to conform to gender
stereotypes (e.g., Cheng et al., 2015), we may expect diminished, or at least different,
gender differences in relationship problems shared in anonymous contexts.
Accordingly, in the present study, we explore the psychosocial topography of rela-
tionship problems as they are discussed by online help-seekers. We employ modern text
analysis methods—namely, the Meaning Extraction Method (MEM; Chung &
Pennebaker, 2008)—as a way to create a high-level map of the most common rela-
tionship problems discussed online. Brieﬂy described, the MEM is a topic modeling
technique that extracts psychologically meaningful themes from natural language—this
process works by identifying clusters of words that frequently co-occur across a text
corpus. The MEM has demonstrated value for understanding the psychosocial dynamics
of online communities (Blackburn et al., 2018;Currin-McCulloch et al., 2021). We
investigate potential gender differences in the topics raised by the online help-seekers
insofar as individuals from each gender divulge various relationship problems.
RQ3: Does online help-seeking behavior provide real-world evidence for gender
differences in attachment states?
There is clear consensus that a person’s attachment style—characterized by the mental
models of the self and social bonds over the lifespan—is essential to close relationships,
manifesting in the form of discrete attachment states and relationship behaviors and
cognitions (Hazan & Shaver, 1987;Mikulincer & Shaver, 2016). Importantly, gender
differences in attachment have been reported (Scharfe & Bartholomew, 1994;Schmitt,
2003), with recent work suggesting that, in general, men are more prone to dismissive
attachment and are less emotionally invested, whereas women are more emotionally
invested and prone to preoccupied attachment (Haydon et al., 2014) and/or secure at-
tachment (Grabill & Kerns, 2000). However, the question of whether persistent gender
differences exist in attachment is far from resolved (Bakermans-Kranenburg & van IJ-
zendoorn, 2009), particularly in real-world and everyday life. In our goal to better un-
derstand the “why”and “how”of relationship help-seeking, we were motivated to explore
gender differences through the lens of romantic attachment in the real-world.
Relationship help-seeking is a salient and emergent process of attachment states, and
the ability to passively examine gender differences in romantic attachment via digital
traces helps to shed light on the nature and development of gender-differentiated behavior
Entwistle et al. 3477
in the context of romantic relationships—a key domain with often contentious and
conﬂicting ﬁndings. As with the previous research questions, we note that other social
factors, such as real or perceived pressure to conform to gender stereotypes, may be a
driving force in shaping how attachment states manifest (see Pauletti et al., 2016). Here
too, a real-world analysis of attachment states should provide insight into whether
stereotypic attachment states are largely a reﬂection of immediate social pressures or,
alternatively, that attachment states are consistent with more general ﬁndings of long-term
attachment styles (see Del Giudice, 2019).
Importantly, attachment itself is observable in verbal behavior when discussing one’s
relationships (Horn & Meier, in press). Using an established language analysis program,
Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC; Pennebaker et al., 2015), we quantify relevant
language variables from relationship help solicitations. Brieﬂy described, LIWC is a text
analysis program that relies on an internal dictionary to map words to psychologically
meaningful categories. The psychometric validity of LIWC been extensively demon-
strated across thousands of studies in disciplines as diverse as psychology, computer
science, and communication (Tausczik & Pennebaker, 2010).
To date, very few studies have explicitly explored gender differences in verbal be-
havioral markers of attachment. In the current study, we signiﬁcantly expand on past work
both in terms of sample size and variable scope by examining a number of additional
language categories that can be reasonably expected to reﬂect attachment states, including
a wider range of emotions (rather than solely focusing on anger), cognitive processes, and
afﬁliation (see Table 1). Additional categories were selected on the basis of their the-
oretical relevance to expand the limited nomological network of associations between
attachment, gender, and verbal behavior.
Here, we brieﬂy highlight our rationale for the inclusion of each of the additional
language variables. First, afﬁliation reﬂects positive engagement/connectedness with
others; individuals who are more securely attached have been found to attach high
importance to afﬁliation goals in friendship (Mikulincer & Selinger, 2001) and can be
expected to likely think to a greater degree along an afﬁliative dimension when discussing
relationships (for an in-depth discussion on the relationship between psychological di-
mensions and verbal behavior, see Boyd & Pennebaker, 2017;Boyd & Schwartz, 2021).
Relatedly, one might anticipate that the broad expression of negative emotions in the
context of relationship discussions would be associated with preoccupied attachment,
based on the deﬁnition and characteristics of such attachment state (i.e., being anxiously
attached), whereas dismissive individuals tend to rely on less emotionally immediate
language (Borelli et al., 2013). Conversely, it could be intuitively presumed that people
who are securely attached would express more positive emotion and less negative
emotion when discussing relationships.
More broadly, “cognitive processing”language reﬂects greater cognitive load,
“working through”a problem, or preoccupation, such as is seen following a traumatic
event or relationship difﬁculty (e.g., D’Andrea et al., 2012). Individuals with a preoc-
cupied attachment style should therefore use relatively greater cognitive processing
language when discussing their romantic relationships.
Last, a greater “all or nothing”
type of thinking may be indicative of preoccupied attachment, given that high rates of
3478 Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 38(12)
absolutist language have also been associated with problematic patterns of affect (see Al-
Mosaiwi & Johnstone, 2018).
Table 1. Language measures included in the current study and their previously reported
relationships to attachment states.
measure Example words Attachment state Reference(s)
Word count N/A () Dismissive
Waters et al. (2016)
Cassidy et al. (2012)
O’Hara (2007; cited from
Waters et al., 2016)
I-words I, me, my (+) Preoccupied Dunlop et al. (2020)
We-words We, us, our (+) Secure
Dunlop et al. (2020)
Borelli et al. (2019)
Negations No, not, didn’t() Secure
Waters et al. (2016)
Cassidy et al. (2012)
Prepositions After, near, close () Dismissive Waters et al. (2016)
Conjunctions But, also, and () Dismissive Waters et al. (2016)
Might, could, maybe (+) Dismissive Waters et al. (2016)
Filler words Like, so, erm () Dismissive Waters et al. (2016)
Anger words Angry, furious, mad (+) Preoccupied Borelli et al. (2013)
Cassidy et al. (2012)
Waters et al. (2016)
Sad, angry, anxious (+) Preoccupied Novel prediction
Positive emotion Happy, excited, joy (+) Secure
Sadness Depressed, tearful,
(+) Preoccupied Novel prediction
Anxiety Anxious, scared,
(+) Preoccupied Novel prediction
Think, puzzle, solve (+) Preoccupied Novel prediction
Afﬁliation Together, social,
Absolutism Always, never,
(+) Preoccupied Novel prediction
Entwistle et al. 3479
For all research questions, we analyzed a large collection of submissions to Reddit, one of
the most frequently visited websites on the planet (Alexa, 2020). Brieﬂy described, Reddit
is a massive, anonymous online discussion forum composed of thousands of sub-forums
(i.e., “subreddits”), each founded around speciﬁc topics (e.g., musicians, cooking, etc.).
Within each subreddit, users can create threads (i.e., “submissions”) about a particular
topic or respond to one another through hierarchically structured “comments.”As Reddit
is anonymous, publicly accessible, and content rich, it poses as a rich source of social
psychological natural language data.
We explored data from the r/relationships subreddit, one of the largest online com-
munities for relationship help-seeking, comprising over three million members. r/rela-
tionships is self-described as:
“...a community built around helping people and the goal of providing a platform for in-
terpersonal 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.”
Data were extracted from the larger PushShift database (Baumgartner et al., 2020)
using a custom-made Python pipeline. Given that the focus of the present research is on
relationship help-seeking (as opposed to the provision of relationship help), we collected
only submissions made by users and not comments in response to submissions. Only
users with a single submission to the r/relationships subreddit were collected, ensuring
data independence and preventing over-representation of high-activity users. Submis-
sions were collected across the full lifetime of the subreddit, spanning approximately
12 years (N= 521,536).
Data pre-processing and preparation
Data collected from the r/relationships subreddit were cleaned and prepared for analysis
according to standard guidelines (Boyd, 2017): formatting errors were corrected, HTML
entities converted to American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII), and
texts containing fewer than 25 words were omitted. Given our interest in exploring
explicitly romantic relationships, we only retained submissions that were categorized by
users (through “ﬂairs”attached to posts; see Supplementary Materials A) as related to
romantic relationships, which included the “relationships,”“dating,”“break-ups,”and
“inﬁdelity”categories. Pre-processing resulted in 184,631 submissions being retained
from the same number of unique users.
Reddit is an anonymous platform, and demographic data is not usually available for
individual users. In the r/relationships subreddit, however, submitters typically disclose
their age and gender, as well as the age and gender of their relationship partner(s), within
the title of their submission. For example, a 36-year-old man discussing a relationship
3480 Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 38(12)
problem they are having with their 34-year-old female spouse may provide contextual
clues by writing “I [36/M] and my wife [34/F]....”This unique feature allowed us to
automatically extract age and gender data for a majority sample users via regular ex-
pressions tailored speciﬁcally to the current dataset (for a recent, similar example, see
Jagfeld et al., 2021).
In total, we were able to extract demographic data for 80.05% (N=
147,796) of the users within our sample. Note that for the sake of simplicity, we use the
term “romantic partner”to refer to the relationship partner(s) being discussed, including
current, past, or speculative partners.
RQ1: What is the demographic proﬁle of individuals who seek relationship
To understand the demographic composition of individuals seeking relationship help
online, we examined age and gender compositions of r/relationships users who provided
such information, along with their romantic partners’age/gender composition (see Table
2). Additional analyses of user gender by submission ﬂair frequencies are presented in
Supplementary Materials A.
One striking pattern in gender distributions is that, contrary to what is commonly found
in professional settings, more men solicited relationship help through r/relationships than
women, with 54.62% of the users being men, and only 45.38% being women. Among
users’romantic partners, the relative gender composition is almost directly reversed, with
45.01% being men and 54.99% being women, reﬂecting that the majority of the sample
consisted of mixed-gender relationships (95.53%).
The mean age of online relationship help-seekers (24.04 years) was considerably
younger than average age ranges typically found in professional contexts (i.e., 38–
41 years; Duncan et al., 2020;Schoﬁeld et al., 2015), with the majority of users falling in
the 18–24 age bracket (54.95%). There was a small, statistically signiﬁcant difference in
the age of men and women seeking relationship help online, with women being slightly
older (t=12.17; p< .001; d= .06).
There were interesting and distinctive trends in gender-by-age composition in our
sample, such as there being considerably more adolescent boys (N= 5447) than girls (N=
1828) seeking help. 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
(Duggan & Smith, 2013).
RQ2: What are the central relationship problems faced today?
To explore the topography of relationship problems within our sample—both in terms of
content and distribution—we analyzed r/relationships user’s solicitations for relationship
help using the MEM (Chung & Pennebaker, 2008; for additional discussions of the MEM,
see also: Boyd & Pennebaker, 2016;Markowitz, 2020). For MEM analyses, we used
Entwistle et al. 3481
Table 2. Age and gender composition of r/relationships users and their romantic partners.
r/relationships users Romantic partners
Total N(%) Men N(%) Women N(%) Total N(%) Men N(%) Women N(%)
Gender 147,796 80,722 (54.62%) 67,074 (45.38%) 130,404 58,692 (45.01%) 71,712 (54.99%)
Age 147,795 80,722 (54.62%) 67,073 (45.38%) 130,398 58,689 (45.01%) 71,709 (54.99%)
<12 years old 1 (0.00%) 1 (0.00%) 0 (0.00%) 9 (0.01%) 5 (0.01%) 4 (0.01%)
12–17 years old 7275 (4.92%) 5447 (6.75%) 1828 (2.73%) 6762 (5.19%) 1186 (2.02%) 5576 (7.78%)
18–24 years old 81,208 (54.95%) 43,387 (53.75%) 37,821 (56.39%) 66,150 (50.73%) 23,998 (40.89%) 42,152 (58.78%)
25–34 years old 53,928 (36.49%) 28,741 (35.60%) 25,187 (37.55%) 49,760 (38.16%) 28,470 (48.51%) 21,290 (29.69%)
35–44 years old 4765 (3.22%) 2776 (3.44%) 1989 (2.97%) 6386 (4.90%) 4198 (7.15%) 2188 (3.05%)
45–54 years old 562 (0.38%) 340 (0.42%) 222 (0.33%) 1022 (0.78%) 645 (1.10%) 377 (0.53%)
55–64 years old 51 (0.03%) 28 (0.03%) 23 (0.03%) 268 (0.21%) 167 (0.28%) 101 (0.14%)
65 years or older 5 (0.00%) 2 (0.00%) 3 (0.00%) 41 (0.03%) 20 (0.03%) 21 (0.03%)
Mean (SD) 24.04 (5.00) 23.90 (5.25) 24.22 (4.68) 24.66 (5.87) 26.28 (5.99) 23.33 (5.41)
3482 Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 38(12)
BUTTER (Boyd, 2020), an open-source text analysis application for social scientists. The
MEM conducted on r/relationships submissions resulted in 25 themes that reﬂected the
most prevalent relationship problems. Table 3 presents both the content and distribution of
each MEM theme. Brieﬂy described: when considering the Mean column, we see the
relative importance of each theme insofar as the typical amount that it is discussed in any
given submission. More importantly, however, is the Frequency column, which describes
the number of submissions that invoked each theme (for examples and information on
themes and theme extraction, see Supplementary Materials C). Note that any particular
submission may contain multiple themes, for example, sexual problems and
Table 3. Content and distribution of themes extracted by the MEM on r/relationships submissions,
in order of mean percentage of discussions (N= 184,631).
Theme Example words Mean (SD) Frequency (% of sample)
Heartache Heart, break, hurt 14.59 (2.96) 37836 (20.13%)
Communication Discuss, express, conversation 11.37 (2.64) 34026 (18.10%)
Shared feelings Told, upset, feeling 10.62 (2.43) 35709 (19.00%)
Time Morning, Friday, hour 6.68 (2.50) 27435 (14.60%)
Dating Date, casual, hook-up 6.00 (2.60) 28619 (15.23%)
Personal qualities Cool, nice, funny 5.20 (1.98) 25255 (13.44%)
Trust issues Trust, snoop, cheat 4.55 (2.34) 23201 (12.34%)
Intimacy Smile, cuddle, touch 3.93 (1.92) 22671 (12.06%)
Partying Party, drunk, Invite 3.49 (1.77) 23145 (12.31%)
Abuse Abusive, threaten, control 3.34 (1.67) 22822 (12.14%)
Distance Move, travel, long-Distance 3.00 (1.83) 19828 (10.55%)
Wedding Marriage, marry, wedding 2.78 (1.41) 22767 (12.11%)
Career Job, career, company 1.78 (1.51) 14337 (7.63%)
Finances Money, pay, debt 1.63 (1.61) 9994 (5.32%)
Family/Parenting Child, pregnancy, parent 1.58 (1.51) 13391 (7.12%)
Mental health issues Depression, diagnose, therapy 1.29 (1.10) 14950 (7.95%)
School School, college, semester 1.08 (1.56) 24665 (13.12%)
Hobbies Video game, music, sport 0.85 (1.34) 28763 (15.30%)
Religion Religious, belief, church 0.67 (0.94) 8442 (4.49%)
Housework Cleaning, laundry, cooking 0.60 (0.84) 6142 (3.27%)
Sex Sex, masturbate, porn 0.56 (1.22) 10117 (5.38%)
Language English, native, language 0.55 (1.00) 21122 (11.24%)
Body weight Lose-weight, overweight, diet 0.40 (0.68) 2259 (1.20%)
Substance use Drinking, drug, addict 0.18 (0.44) 2459 (1.31%)
Romantic gestures Thoughtful, gift, celebrate 0.01 (0.81) 48767 (25.95%)
Note. MEM = Meaning Extraction Method
Note. This table describes the content and distribution of the 25 themes generated from the MEM on r/rela-
tionships submissions. The mean values represent the mean percentage by which each theme was discussed
relative to the entirety of r/relationships discussions. The frequency values represent the number and percentage
of submissions that mentioned each theme (i.e., whereby the theme was present).
Entwistle et al. 3483
communication issues. Tellingly, the mean number of themes present in any given r/
relationships submission was 2.81 (median = 3; SD = 1.92), highlighting that the majority
of submissions (>50%) were made by users who were motivated to seek help not for a
single relationship problem, but rather larger constellations of problems.
Consistent with past studies of professional relationship help-seeking, communication
was a central motivator for help-seeking in our sample, with the second and third most
commonly discussed topics relating to communication. Notably, “heartache”was the
most commonly discussed theme, indicating the psychological distress caused by the
relationship problems being discussed. Other frequently discussed themes included: focus
on time, casual dating, personal qualities, trust issues, intimacy, partying, and abuse.
Romantic gestures, substance use, and body weight were considerably less common (see
Supplementary Materials C for additional notes). Visualizations of the four top- and
bottom-scoring MEM themes, by mean, are illustrated in Figure 2.
We performed additional analyses comparing men and women’s use of each MEM by
comparing mean percentages (see Figure 3; full analyses presented in Supplementary
Materials D). Most gender differences found were generally small, but theoretically
meaningful. The largest gender difference was the use of the “school”theme, with men
spending more time discussing things related to school than women—a potential by-
product of the age difference within our sample. More pronounced and meaningful gender
differences emerged, with men more commonly discussing themes of heartache, dating,
partying, personal qualities, and language; women spent more time discussing themes
related to ﬁnances, abuse, distance, and housework.
Figure 2. The four most-discussed (top row, blue) and least-discussed (bottom row, red)
relationship problem themes.
3484 Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 38(12)
RQ3: Does online help-seeking behavior provide real-world evidence for gender
differences in attachment states?
To examine the relationship between gender and romantic attachment, we conducted
independent-samples t-tests on each LIWC metric presented in Table 1, using user gender
as the predictor. Results are presented in Table 4, with visual presentation in
Supplementary Materials B.
Our results indicated a clear, patterned association between gender and linguistic
markers of attachment. 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; see Table 1), with greater words overall used, more
self-focused language (i.e., I-words), cognitive processing language, negations, absolutist
language, overall negative emotion, anger, and anxiety words; this pattern was matched
by less couple-focused language (i.e., we-words), afﬁliative language, and positive
emotion words. 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, cognitive processing words, negations, ab-
solutist language, and overall negative emotion, anger, and anxiety words. However,
some patterns indicative of dismissive attachment were present among men (relative to
women) including fewer words used overall, fewer prepositions, fewer ﬁller words, and
more tentative language.
Figure 3. Boxplots showing mean percentages of Meaning Extraction Method themes split by
gender of user (N = 147,796). Note. The full table of statistical comparisons for each theme is
presented in Supplementary Materials D.
Entwistle et al. 3485
In the present study, we provide novel insights into the nature and substance of rela-
tionship problems—based on a sample of Reddit users—using natural language analysis
methods. To our knowledge, this is the ﬁrst study that has provided a large-scale, high-
resolution, naturalistic view of relationship problems and relationship help-seeking in situ
within the general population.
The ﬁrst aim of the present study was to describe the demographic composition of
online relationship help-seekers relative to those who typically seek help in more
traditional/professional contexts. We examined the age and gender of individuals seeking
relationship help online via the r/relationships subreddit, ﬁnding a greater percentage of
men soliciting relationship help than women. Interestingly, this differs from traditional,
professional contexts, where women are typically more willing and active in seeking help
for their relationship problems compared to male partners (Stewart et al., 2016). This
discrepancy in ﬁndings supports our notion that men may ﬁnd anonymous, online re-
lationship help settings preferable to in-person contexts, likely due to stigma attached to
help-seeking behavior in men (Hammer et al., 2013;Vogel et al., 2011). As mentioned
above, these results could also be interpreted as an over-representation of help-seeking by
Table 4. Gender differences in language categories indicative of romantic attachment states (N=
td95% CIMen (N= 80,722)
Word count 524.17 (402.93) 555.74 (375.96) 15.55*** .08 35.54 to 27.59
I-words 8.13 (2.23) 8.44 (2.23) 26.68*** .14 .33 to .29
We-words 1.72 (1.20) 1.64 (1.15) 14.60*** .07 .08–.10
Cognitive processes 14.44 (2.91) 14.48 (2.79) 3.02** .01 .07 to .02
Conjunctions 7.93 (1.55) 8.13 (1.47) 26.07*** .13 .22 to .19
Prepositions 13.68 (2.01) 13.33 (1.89) 34.59*** .17 .33–.37
Filler words 0.05 (0.14) 0.05 (0.13) 3.04** .02 .00–.00
Afﬁliation 4.94 (2.01) 4.80 (2.02) 13.72*** .07 .12–.16
Positive emotion 3.00 (1.28) 2.96 (1.29) 5.36*** .03 .02–.05
Negative emotion 2.48 (1.30) 2.69 (1.35) 29.39*** .16 .22 to .19
Anger 0.67 (0.69) 0.75 (0.73) 22.00*** .11 .09 to .07
Sadness 0.58 (0.58) 0.57 (0.57) .17 .02 .01–.01
Anxiety 0.53 (0.54) 0.61 (0.56) 27.34*** .15 .08 to .07
Negations 2.41 (0.96) 2.53 (0.93) 23.86*** .13 .13 to .11
Tentativeness 3.29 (1.37) 3.20 (1.29) 13.55*** .07 .08–.11
Absolutism 0.97 (0.60) 1.03 (0.59) 17.11*** .10 .06 to .05
Note. Means refer to percentages of the total words used. CI = conﬁdence interval.
3486 Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 38(12)
female users relative to the baseline demographic composition of our sample (Duggan &
Smith, 2013). Given that we do not have access to the demographics of passive users who
do not post to the subreddit, we suggest that our conclusions on the contribution of gender
toward the propensity to seek relationship help online be interpreted tentatively.
Those posting to the r/relationships platform were found to be considerably younger
(average age 24 years) than people who typically seek relationship help in more traditional
contexts (average age range 38–41 years; Duncan et al., 2020;Schoﬁeld et al., 2015), with
the majority of r/relationships users falling in the 18–24 age bracket. This ﬁnding
suggests that the anonymous, convenient, and broadly accessible nature of the online
help-seeking space enables those who traditionally under-represented or less likely to
seek help (e.g., young men) by overcoming barriers related to stigma or resource
availability. These results complement the wider support-seeking literature highlighting
that online spaces provide greater opportunities for support-seeking through the erosion of
barriers associated with traditional contexts (DeAndrea, 2015;Vitak & Ellison, 2013).
Notably, given that online relationship help-seeking is particularly common among
younger age groups, it could be inferred that the informality of the online help-seeking
environment is providing means for people to seek help and advice for more casual and
early-stage relationships (e.g., at the “dating stage”) compared to the stage at which
people more commonly seek professional relationship help (i.e., after several years of
Our topic modeling approach revealed 25 themes that help to illuminate the topog-
raphy of relationship problems in the general public. Analysis of the distribution of
themes revealed that the most commonly discussed topic on the r/relationships platform
was “heartache,”supporting the notion that romantic dissolution and breakups are
particularly distressing life events (LeFebvre et al., 2015). Moreover, the frequent dis-
cussion of feeling heartache is interesting given that this is not a speciﬁc relationship
problem being discussed. Rather, people appear to simply be using the online platform to
express their distress and seek general emotional support from others, suggesting that the
emotional pain experienced following relationship problems or dissolution is perhaps the
strongest motivator of reaching out for social support—more so than seeking to resolve
any particular problem in and of itself.
What is particularly revealing from our analyses is that the main motivators identiﬁed
for relationship help-seeking in the digital space were generally consistent with the main
reasons for seeking relationships help identiﬁed from previous research in more tradi-
tional, professional contexts. Speciﬁcally, in line with previous research highlighting
communication difﬁculty as the most common motivator for seeking professional re-
lationship help (Doss et al., 2004;Duncan et al., 2020;Roddy et al., 2019), as well as
being the leading cause for romantic breakups (Morris et al., 2015), communication was
also found to be the most-discussed relationship problem within our sample (discounting
the general topic of heartache). Other core themes captured from the r/relationships
discussions are also consistent with the main reasons for professional relationship help-
seeking, such as issues relating to intimacy, trust, ﬁnances, and housework. This con-
sistency in relationship help-seeking motivators between anonymous, online contexts and
Entwistle et al. 3487
more traditional, professional contexts strengthens the idea that many relationship
problems are common and ubiquitous.
Critically, we ﬁnd that in many cases, our results reﬂect more realistic real-world
prevalences of relationship problems outside of therapeutic contexts. For example, the
WHO reports that around 13% of surveyed women report some form of intimate partner
abuse in the previous 12 months (World Health Organization, 2021); our analyses found
that 12.14% of submissions contained a non-negligible reference to the “abuse”MEM
theme, strongly contrasting with only 1.3% in intervention contexts (Roddy et al., 2019).
Similarly, other relationship problems, such as communication difﬁculties and conﬂict,
may be over-represented in traditional contexts (e.g., 27.2% in Roddy et al., 2019; our
sample: 18%). Other themes showed strong convergence with past work. For example, we
found highly similar rates of family/parenting problems being raised as reported in past
work (7.12% in our sample; 6.6% in Roddy et al., 2019).
Our analysis of relationship problems revealed small, consistent gender differences.
Among the more pronounced gender differences, men more commonly discussed themes
of school (the largest gender difference), heartache, dating, partying, personal qualities,
and language; women more commonly discussed themes related to ﬁnances, abuse,
physical distance, and housework. Notably, the fact that the heartache theme was more
commonly discussed by men emphasizes how men are at least as equally as affected by
relationship problems as women and feel comfortable to express and seek support for their
distress in online, anonymous settings. We therefore re-emphasize that existing gender
differences identiﬁed within traditional contexts may at least partially be a result of
stigmatization and pressure to conform to stereotypes. However, our ﬁnding that women
discussed things like abuse, ﬁnances, and housework more than men instead indicates
some continuation of gender norms “spilling over”into the online platform. Rather than
eliminating or reversing gender norms, the anonymous online platform instead appears to
provide a space where gender norms and stereotypes are relaxed, particularly those that
carry strong stigma (e.g., expression of emotional distress by men).
Last, we explored the use of online relationship help-seeking as a digital trace for
generating novel insights into the relationship between gender and romantic attachment.
We examined gender differences in romantic attachment through the analysis of pre-
selected linguistic markers of attachment states-of-mind, building on limited previous
work in this domain. Overall, the general patterns of language used by men and women
discussing their relationships on the r/relationships platform appears to suggest that
women may be more prone to preoccupied attachment states, whereas men may be more
inclined toward secure attachment states. These ﬁndings align, in part, with those from
previous research suggesting that women are more prone to preoccupied attachment
(Haydon et al., 2014)—and, importantly, extends them into everyday life in the real
world. However, our ﬁndings run counter to previous research indicating that men are
more prone to dismissive attachment (Haydon et al., 2014). While several explanations
for such patterns are possible, we suggest that modern, online help-seeking platforms may
allow men to behave in ways that contradict the dismissive stereotype, again highlighting
the powerful role of stereotypes in in-person relationship help-seeking behavior (as
similarly shown when considering cross-cultural differences; (Schmitt, 2003).
3488 Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 38(12)
Nevertheless, it is important to emphasize that we did not possess established measures of
attachment style in our study. Moreover, 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.
Limitations and future directions
While the current study comprises a large, real-world sample, it is not a globally rep-
resentative sample. Given that our data were collected from a single website—albeit one
of the most visited websites in the world (Alexa, 2020)—our sample may be biased in
ways consistent with its user base, both demographically (e.g., younger, male, American)
and psychosocially. It is therefore possible, for example, that the skew toward men and
younger people within our sample could simply be a product of the demographic
composition of Reddit. Despite such limitations, our sample is large, diverse, and highly
international, creating a strong starting and comparison point for future research in this
We also note the tentative nature of our ﬁndings pending further exploration in samples
with more varied measures. For instance, within our sample, we cannot say whether
gender differences were confounded with the current “stage”of relationship problems
people were experiencing. Indeed, the choice to seek help online versus professionally is
likely shaped by complex interactions between characteristics of the individual, such as
gender and age, and characteristics of the relationships, including speciﬁc relationship
problems and stage of relationship, and the language that partners use to convey and make
sense of those problems. While such intricacies are beyond the scope of the current study,
future research should aspire to disentangle such complexities.
Regarding our ﬁndings involving various gender differences, it is possible that women
are more likely to seek relationship help once their relationship problems are at a more
severe stage (see, e.g., Ansara & Hindin, 2010), whereas men may be more likely to seek
relationship help at a much earlier, less severe stage, for example. Indeed, gender dif-
ferences in the themes discussed do seem to suggest that men may in fact be seeking
support for relatively more casual, early-stage relationship problems compared to women.
For example, men more commonly discussed lighter topics stereotypically associated
with youth and greater immaturity, such as dating and partying, whereas women spent
more time discussing more serious topics, such as abuse and ﬁnances. Were there gender
differences in the stage of relationship problems for which people were soliciting help, it
is possible that this may have at least partially driven our associations found between
gender and attachment state. We are unable to determine the presence or absence of such
effects within our current sample.
Last, although the present ﬁndings provide novel insights into relationship help-
seeking in online anonymous contexts, the quality of the help and advice given within
these contexts remains unaddressed. Although the anonymous and effortless nature of the
online space indeed provides numerous beneﬁts to help-seekers, we do not know whether
the advice provided in such settings is of sufﬁcient quality to facilitate healthier rela-
tionships. If the advice provided is of poor quality, relationship problems may be
Entwistle et al. 3489
exacerbated, contributing to further interpersonal problems. We anticipate further ana-
lyses of anonymous, online relationship discussion platforms to determine the quality and
subsequent implications of such advice.
The present study is the ﬁrst to leverage big data and modern natural language analysis
techniques to better understand relationship help-seeking in naturalistic contexts in the
general population. 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. With the expansion of AI and automated natural lan-
guage generation, we expect that the near future holds high promise for increasingly
useful identiﬁcation of—and help with—relationship problems in everyday life.
During her work on this project, Tabea Meier was a pre-doctoral fellow of LIFE (International Max
Planck Research School on the Life Course; participating institutions: MPI for Human Devel-
at zu Berlin, Freie Universit¨
at Berlin, University of Michigan, Uni-
versity of Virginia, University of Zurich.
The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following ﬁnancial support for the research, authorship, and/or
publication of this article: Preparation of this article was partially funded by a grant from the Swiss
National Science Foundation (#196255). Ms. Entwistle’s contributions were made as part of a PhD
funded by the EPSRC. Ms. Meier’s contributions were made as part of a PhD funded by The Jacobs
Open research statement
As part of IARR’s encouragement of open research practices, the authors have provided the
following information: This research was not pre-registered. The data used in the research are
available. The data can be obtained at: https://osf.io/5qzcs/or by emailing: c.entwistle1@
lancaster.ac.uk. The materials used in the research are/are not available. The materials can be
obtained at: https://osf.io/5qzcs/or by emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org
Charlotte Entwistle https://orcid.org/0000-0002-2739-2644
Andrea B. Horn https://orcid.org/0000-0003-2729-7062
Tabea Meier https://orcid.org/0000-0003-2902-4113
Ryan L. Boyd https://orcid.org/0000-0002-1876-6050
3490 Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 38(12)
Supplemental material for this article is available online.
1. Directly relevant to the current study, recent ﬁndings show that increases in cognitive processing
language predict impending romantic breakups (Seraj et al., 2021).
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