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Happy Couples Are on the Same Page – Literally

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Do your partner's love letters to you sound suspiciously like the ones you pen? Don't call the plagiarism police: You two may just be very happy together.

A new study finds that people match each other's language styles more during happier periods of their relationship. Even famous poets who were married exhibited this effect in their poetry, the study found.

The tendency to mirror our voice to that of our conversation partners is called "language style matching."

"When two people start a conversation, they usually begin talking alike within a matter of seconds," said James Pennebaker, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin and an author of the new study published in the September issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. "This also happens when people read a book or watch a movie. As soon as the credits roll, they find themselves talking like the author or the central characters."

Talk this way

Pennebaker and his colleagues tracked language use by 2,000 college students responding to class assignments written in different language styles. The results confirmed that language style matching extends to the written word. When an essay question was written in a dry, confusing tone, students responded with dry, confusing answers. If the question took a flighty, casual tone, students responded with "Valley girl"-like answers peppered with "like" and "sorta."

Next, the researchers used historical figures to find out if language style matching could reveal schisms or closeness in a relationship.

They began with Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, psychologists who corresponded almost weekly for seven years. Using style-matching statistics, the researchers were able to chart the two men's tempestuous relationship from their early days of joint admiration to their final days of mutual contempt by counting the ways they used pronouns, prepositions and other words, such as “the,” “you,” “a” and “as,” that have little meaning outside the context of the sentence. Such words can be indicators of a person’s style of writing (and speaking).

How do I love thee?

Married Victorian Poets Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, along with 20th century poet couple Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, also revealed more in their poetry than they perhaps realized.

"Style words in the spouses' poems were more similar during happier periods of their relationships and less synchronized toward each relationship's end," study author and psychology graduate student Molly Ireland said in a statement.

Plath and Hughes, who had a famously rocky relationship, were less matched overall than the lovey-dovey Barrett-Brownings. Even Plath and Hughes' high point of style matching didn't reach Barrett and Browning's low point.

The researchers are now investigating whether language style matching during everyday conversation can predict the beginning and end of romantic relationships. If the method works, the researchers said, it could be a quick way to judge whether any two people, whether romantically involved or not, are likely to work in harmony.

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