It was dark and drizzling when I walked back alone to my Oxford dorm room, curled up around my laptop, and dove into the digital record of our relationship. I was unsurprised to find that our emails became more frequent after I left for England. But I felt a jolt when I discovered that I sent my boyfriend far more emails than he sent me.
I closed my program, made myself a cup of tea, called my boyfriend, and asked him why, according to the data, I missed him more than he missed me. He said that wasn’t true, he just preferred to talk on the phone rather than send me emails. I went back to the data to see if it substantiated his claim, and indeed it did: He used “call me” and “phone” more frequently in his emails.
Having avoided one potential breakup, I returned to the data and looked at how the average length of our emails changed over time. I found large spikes corresponding to the first three times we were apart for our university’s spring, summer, and winter breaks. These lengthy emails turned out to be, unsurprisingly, the sort of pour-your-soul-out messages that accompany first infatuation. The content of the emails changed over time in other ways as well. For example, we used the word “promise” more frequently early in our relationship, often to make the sort of charming but trivial pledges that build trust—“I promise not to kill you,” or “I promise never to make you go to a yacht club.” On the other hand, we began to use nicknames and endearments only later in our relationship—promises replaced by pet names.
Then I wondered if differences in our personalities would show up in our emails. I compared the words I used with the words he used; this revealed that, contrary to gender stereotypes, I am probably more aggressive. I am responsible, for example, for more than 95 percent of the profanity in our emails. He is much more likely to use the phrase “I am not sure,” and is also responsible for 60 percent of the incidences of “sorry.” I have a penchant for bleaker topics, and am more likely to mention “pain,” “cancer,” and “suicide.” I am also more likely to make sweeping generalizations about men, as evidenced by my more frequent use of “boys” and “male.”
We each bring up our interests: He, the quadrilinguist, mentions Greek, Latin, and Italian. I use words related to statistics. Our language is distinctive in other ways. He, the New Englander, is much more likely to use the word “dandy” (as in Yankee Doodle); I, who when comfortable with someone begin talking like a frat boy, am much more likely to use the word “bro.”
To avoid getting dumped, I will stop sharing details of our emails and will instead share two larger lessons I learned about love. The first is that statistics can be unexpectedly, painfully powerful. I had long known the joy of slicing out truth with a statistical scalpel, but here the heart I’d cut into was my own. Why does my boyfriend apologize more than I do? Why have our emails gotten shorter? What if I still want promises, not just pet names? Another statistician of love, the founder of the dating site OkCupid, once said that analyzing people’s relationships made him “very grim” because he had to “embrace the darkness.” I always found this a bit melodramatic, but perhaps he simply empathized better than I did with the lovers who went under his knife.