Protest behaviors are actions we take when something is going wrong in a relationship and we’re trying to “fix” it. While they can often come with good intentions, they are ultimately an unhealthy and potentially toxic way of expressing ourselves.
Every relationship has problems. The big difference between healthy and unhealthy ones is how we respond to them.
When your needs aren’t being met in a relationship, how do you react? Do you calmly express your thoughts and feelings to your partner, or do you kick and scream until they give in?
“Protest behaviors” are actions we take to try to reestablish a connection with someone and get their attention. They are often done in response to something going wrong in a relationship.
While protest behaviors are an attempt to “fix” something going wrong, they are usually misguided. Often instead of getting a person to change, or see things from your perspective, they just add further conflict and tension.
At best, a “protest behavior” may get someone to begrudgingly give into your demands. At worst, they can escalate into a toxic and abusive relationship.
When left unchecked, protest behaviors become just a normal way people communicate in their relationships. Instead of voicing themselves honestly and openly, they end up playing games and following old patterns that always turn out the same way.
Keep in mind, protest behaviors don’t necessarily mean someone doesn’t love you anymore – or that the relationship can’t work out in the long-term – they are just a sign that you need to work on your communication skills more.
Common Protest Behaviors in Unhealthy Relationships
Here are the most common protest behaviors. Do you recognize any of them?
- Badgering: Badgering is excessive attempts to get someone’s attention, including excessive texting, calling, messaging, etc. Badgering is often pressuring someone to connect with you or respond back to you when they aren’t available or simply don’t want to at the moment. In many healthy relationships, it is important we learn how to give people space and not need their undivided attention 24/7. One follow-up call/message can be appropriate, but if a person still hasn’t gotten back to you by that point it usually means they aren’t going to.
- Stonewalling: Stonewalling is purposely withdrawing your attention and ignoring someone. Sometimes it can be a way to punish or manipulate a person, including not answering calls, texts, or messages – or purposely not spending time with them. One common example of this is the silent treatment. In unhealthy relationships, a person can become very “hot” or “cold,” where one day they are showing a lot of love, attention, and affection, then the next day they turn it all off when they don’t get exactly what they want.
- Keeping Score: Keeping score is a “tit for tat” approach to relationships. It can take many forms, but often the idea is to “give back” what someone else did to you. So if someone takes two days to answer a call or text, then you wait two days to respond back. Or if someone forgets to give you a gift on your birthday, then you don’t celebrate their birthday. It can also take more extreme forms such as if someone cheats on you, then you have to cheat back to “even the score.” Ultimately, keeping score is a game people play that only escalates toxic behaviors and increases tension and conflict.
- The Jealousy Game: A person may try to create feelings of jealousy to prove their worth or make their partner feel inferior or insecure. This can include flirting with others (especially in front of their partner), sharing stories about people hitting on them or giving them positive attention (both online or in the real world), still spending time with ex’s and staying in close contact with them (keeping past relationships on the “back-burner”), or always comparing their partner to their ex (“My ex always laughed at my jokes” or “My ex and I always had the same movie tastes.”) The jealousy game is toxic because it’s a way for the person to try to boost their ego and convince themselves, “I can do better than you” or “I have other options too.”
- Threatening to Leave: Threatening to leave or end a relationship is another unhealthy way people try to rekindle love and attention, even if they aren’t serious about leaving. These empty threats are often designed to try to jolt the other person to change their ways or shape up. Like the jealousy game, it’s an attempt to diminish a person’s value by saying things like “I’d be happier without you,” or “I can leave you whenever I want,” or “You need me more than I need you!” While there are certainly situations where leaving a relationship is the most appropriate response (especially if the relationship is truly toxic, abusive, or unfixable), threatening to leave (but not being serious or following through) is ultimately a tactic used to manipulate people and maintain a sense of dominance or superiority in the relationship. It’s essentially a way of saying, “Give me what I want or I’m going to take the whole ship down with me.”
- Acting Hostile: Most actions that spring from anger or hostility aren’t going to help a relationship. This can start off with “harmless” passive aggressive behaviors, including nonverbal communication such as rolling your eyes, looking away, distracting yourself while someone is talking (with phone/TV/video games), leaving in the middle of a conversation, or a sarcastic and condescending tone of voice. It can also escalate into active aggression including yelling, getting into someone’s personal space, and outright physical violence and abuse.
- Manipulations: All of the protest behaviors mentioned above are types of manipulation (whether direct or indirect) – their purpose is to try to change someone’s behavior – but keep in mind that manipulation can take many different forms. Any type of lying or dishonesty has its roots in manipulation, such as saying you have plans when you don’t, or not being truthful about where you were last night, or refusing to admit when you’ve made a mistake, or changing the facts of a story to better serve you (gaslighting), or any other type of psychological game. This article highlights some of the most common protest behaviors, but it’s by no means a complete guide.
Have you seen any of these protest behaviors in action? Perhaps you’ve committed some of these in the past – or maybe you’ve had other people do them to you?
The first step is to recognize when you fall into these behavioral patterns. The next step is to learn how to voice your needs and communicate your feelings openly and honestly, in a non-threatening and non-manipulative way.
Of course this is easier said than done, especially if you have a history with these unhealthy patterns. Becoming a better communicator is a never-ending process. It requires that we are always listening, observing, learning, and adapting to others in the moment.
Try your best to recognize the next time you want to do a protest behavior, and instead turn it into an opportunity to have a real conversation about what you value in a relationship and what you need from your partner to feel safe, loved, and secure.
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