5 Seemingly Innocent Things People Say During Fights That Sound Like 'I Want To Break Up'

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Couple having a disagreement

You feel annoyed with your partner. You tell them about it, but they respond with their annoyance. You get triggered by their tone. You escalate just a little.

They match your tone and volume, throwing in a little sarcasm for good measure. You get a little louder to match their sarcasm with a bit of criticism.

They fly into defensiveness, and now you’re getting pretty loud. You hear yourself yelling.

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Five things people say during fights that sound like 'I want to break up' — and why.

1. I’m done!

2. I’m out of here!

3. I can’t take this anymore!

4. I’m leaving!

5. I want a divorce!

You feel like you mean it and your partner responds by looking hurt and walking away. To them, these phrases sound like “I want to break up!”.

Sound familiar?

In this type of interaction with your partner, a lot is going on in our brains and nervous systems. Let’s talk a little about how the nervous system works:

When we are calm, our nervous systems are in a relaxed state. Neuroscientists tell us that we are in a ventral vagal state.

A ventral vagal state gives you abilities.

1. To focus and concentrate

2. To engage: listen, absorb, problem-solve, and connect to others

3. To be in the present moment

4. To be flexible and resilient

5. To feel hope

6. To grow and change

So what happens to disrupt this state?

Essentially, human beings are “wired for connection”. We are most calm when we feel safe and are connected. However, we are also “wired for survival”.

Because of a process called “neuroception,” we constantly check the environment for safety and danger. We must feel safe, or our survival drive kicks in.

When our partner’s body language, tone, volume, movements, words, or actions signal a lack of safety to our brains, we react. Our need to survive overrides our need to be in connection.

Our reactivity can go only a few ways. Our nervous system drops out of the Ventral Vagal state and lands in our sympathetic nervous system.

Effects of the sympathetic nervous system.

1. Uneasy, antsy, sensing danger, frenzied

2. Hypervigilant, alarmed

3. Unable to see signs of safety – or misread them

4. Disconnected from ourselves and each other

5. Mobilized into fight, flight, or fawn

When we drop into this fight or flight response, we have the essence of an argument or the “power struggle” in Imago Relationship Therapy.

While no longer operating from our wise-thinking adult cortex, we begin to say and do things purely emotional and reactive. After a bit, we may feel neurobiologically overwhelmed by the fight and begin to shut down, dropping even further down the vagus nerve to a dorsal state.

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The dorsal state causes reactions.

1. Withdraw or shut down emotionally

2. Feel numb, alone, and abandoned

3. Can’t be reached

4. Feel hopeless

5. Collapse or freeze

It is not uncommon in this kind of interaction between partners for things to be said that aren’t true or not what was meant.

This is where we say things that threaten the stability of the relationship.

Once the nervous system returns to a calm state there is usually remorse and regret. Apologies are made, and couples move on.


The memory of these fights, these dangerous words, are stored in our limbic brains and sit there waiting to be triggered again. Have you ever had a fight with your significant other that sounded like a repeat of a previous fight? We become more sensitive to the threat of being abandoned or left.

Frustration and exasperation cause you to say dangerous words.

1. I’m done!

2. I’m out of here!

3. I can’t take this anymore!

4. I’m leaving!

5. I want a divorce!

These words threaten your partner, and their nervous system will create the dynamic described above.

In therapy, I urge couples to learn self-regulation to contain their reactivity and keep from saying such things to one another.

It is critical to know to take a break, breathe deeply, and come back more calmly to solve the problem that annoyed you. Then, it’s essential to have peaceful communication where each of you listens to the other with understanding and empathy

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In an ideal world, you would use peaceful words

1. This is getting heated. Let’s take a break!

2. I can’t take any more arguing. I’m going to calm down and be back soon to talk to you!

3. Wait, I need to take some breaths right now!

4. I love you, but I can’t do this right now!

5. I’m so mad I’m about to say things I don’t mean!

The road to Relational Maturity is paved with our mistakes. Try to pay attention to how you may be threatening your partner when triggered and emotional.

Learn to take a break when triggered into fight or flight. Know how to come back and communicate skillfully with your partner so that you can solve your problems without threat.

With a little collaborative work, you and your loved one can stop the cycle of arguing and fighting and deepen your emotional connection.

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Mary Kay Cocharo is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in West Los Angeles, California.