Chelsey pouts when her husband upsets her. She rolls her eyes, looks away, or focuses on her phone when he tries talking to her. Sometimes, she delivers a sarcastic remark or just walks out in the middle of a conversation. She wants him to know how wounded she feels, but most often, he’s just confused by her protest behavior and nothing gets solved.

Shane uses a “match plus” approach whenever his partner disappoints him. If she takes too long to reply to a text, he takes even longer to reply to hers. If she cancels one of their dates, he’ll cancel the next two. In the back of his mind, his response should be teaching her a lesson. His protest behavior, however, is destroying the trust and closeness he and his partner formerly enjoyed.

What is protest behavior?

Protest behavior is any indirect action we take when we’re feeling strong, uncomfortable emotions and try to draw attention to them. Sometimes those emotions crop up as a result of something our partner has done, like in Shane and Chelsey’s examples. Other times we’re already in a funk and just want our loved one to notice and treat us with extra care.

At its best, protest behavior is an attempt to reestablish a connection with someone or fix an issue in the relationship. Because our action is so veiled, however, protest behavior is an unhealthy and potentially damaging way of expressing ourselves.

In addition to the tactics Chelsey and Shane use, protest behavior could include stonewalling, badgering, making our partner jealous, threatening to leave, hostility, gaslighting, or manipulation. These misguided strategies seldom have the desired effect. Rather than getting our partner to change or see things our way, they just create more conflict and tension.

Our protest behavior may get begrudging compliance from our partner. More often, it either muddles the issue or fuels our partner’s own negative response. The escalation then pushes our relationship into even more dysfunctional and abusive interactions.

Why we use protest behavior and how to stop

If you’ve used protest behavior, it doesn’t make you a bad person. It simply means you need to work on your emotional management and communication skills.

Protest behaviors are usually bad communication habits formed in our past—often before we knew any other way of getting our message across. Instead of expressing our thoughts and feelings directly and honestly, we play games and hope others will be able to decode our actions. Not surprisingly, this immature approach seldom gets us what we want as adults.

To stop this destructive pattern, we have to first recognize it. Then, we must intentionally express our feelings and ask for what we need in a calm, open, honest, and non-threatening way.

Note that this may require deeper work to understand our emotions and ask whether there’s another way to think about the issue so we feel less upset. If we’re angry or enraged, we’re not going to be capable of communicating in a calm, productive way. In fact, this inner process of self-soothing should be the first thing we do whenever we’re disappointed, hurt, afraid, or anxious.

Learning new patterns of interaction takes time and practice. Doing so, however, helps us break our unhealthy protest behavior habit and sets us up for better, stronger relationships.

Faith note

God instructs us to be direct and clear in our communication. Jesus, in his most famous sermon, said “Just say a simple, ‘Yes, I will,’ or ‘No, I won’t.’” (Matthew 5:37 NLT). He gives us this directive because he knows that being coy and expecting others to read our minds is always going to cause problems. It damages our relationships and leaves us frustrated.

God’s guidance is perfect guidance.