How Gatekeeping May Be Negatively Affecting Your Relationship

In your relationship, if one person constantly instructs the other on how to do things, like how to make the bed a certain way, or berates them for not folding the laundry perfectly, then gatekeeping could be an unwelcome aspect of your dynamic. No one wants to feel like they can't win, that they can't do anything right, or that no matter how hard they try, they simply can't please their partner. If this is how you feel in your relationship or you've heard your partner express these sentiments, then there may be an aura of gatekeeping preventing your relationship from having a foundation of healthy communication. Fortunately, with the proper awareness and the right tools, as well as genuine desire and cooperation from both partners, you can unlock the gate that is keeping your relationship from thriving and create new, healthy patterns.

The Knot defines gatekeeping as a dynamic of one member of a relationship instructing the other person to complete specific chores or tasks and following up by micromanaging and critiquing the way the task was performed. Like many communication patterns learned from an early age, gatekeeping can be a habit so deeply ingrained that the person who is doing the gatekeeping may not even realize their own behavior. Here's what you should know about gatekeeping in relationships and how it may be negatively affecting your own relationship dynamic.

Gatekeeping creates an unhealthy communication climate

The foundation of any healthy relationship should be solid communication rooted in mutual respect. However, many times people enter into relationships with learned behaviors and communication patterns that aren't as healthy or positive as they should be. Per Positive Psychology, the way we speak can create a communication climate that is either positive and helpful or negative and harmful. The communication climate created in a relationship develops from the words that are said, how they're spoken, and the availability of space for the other person to respond. If one person feels ordered to do chores or tasks, overly critiqued or insulted for how they perform the task, and unable to respond or be heard, then a negative and unhealthy climate of communication will be cultivated in a relationship.

Gatekeeping is an unhealthy pattern of communication that can lead to power imbalances in a relationship, particularly if one partner feels constantly demeaned by the other (via Marriage). To make a relationship work, both people must compromise to some degree, and mutual ground should be found when it comes to how things are done. When gatekeeping is present in a relationship, the person who feels overly criticized for not doing tasks to their partner's liking may ultimately end up compromising too much. The unhealthy communication patterns gatekeeping is rooted in create communication climates that negatively affect the power dynamics in a relationship and potentially even the self-esteem of the person constantly subjected to criticism.

Gaslighting and gatekeeping go hand-in-hand

Gatekeeping is extremely similar and akin to gaslighting, a type of abuse rooted in unhealthy communication patterns that causes a person to second guess themselves because they are heavily questioned, criticized, or dismissed by someone else (per Acenda Integrated Health). In the case of gatekeeping, gaslighting, and relationships, the trio mixes to create a dynamic in which one partner in a relationship becomes gaslit through the other person's gatekeeping tendencies. 

The effects of gaslighting can be severe, and an atmosphere of gatekeeping and gaslighting in a relationship can create a negatively toxic environment. One effect that gaslighting can have on the affected person is the habit development of constantly feeling the need to apologize. When connected with gatekeeping, one person being routinely berated and criticized for not performing tasks to their partner's approval can lead them to over-apologize and develop thought patterns where they feel as though they need to consistently apologize for their task completion not being up to par. Ultimately, the gaslighting that stems from gatekeeping may lead the affected partner to doubt their ability to complete simple tasks and even come to doubt themselves. This negative cyclical nature of the relationship between gatekeeping and gaslighting can result in a power imbalance in which the partner responding to the gatekeeping develops feelings of unworthiness that could lead to anxiety, depression, and other harmful impacts on their mental well-being.

Projections of perfectionism are self-fulfilling prophecies

For the partner conducting the dynamic of gatekeeping in a relationship, it's likely that their learned patterns of unhealthy communication stem from a deep desire to achieve perfectionism (via Marriage). To tie the cycle together and make sense of it, there is a strong likelihood that a person who exhibits gatekeeping behaviors was subjected to gatekeeping themselves, particularly during their childhood, and struggles internally with lacking self-esteem when it comes to achieving perfection in task completion. While determining the cause of gatekeeping doesn't eliminate or undo the negative effects both gatekeeping, and subsequent gaslighting have on the current relationship or the person being subjected to constant criticism, shining light on how unhealthy communication habits developed can initiate the process of changing them. Many times, people who have gatekeeping tendencies aren't even aware of their own habits and the negative effects they have on relationships. Of course, recognizing and acknowledging one's own unhealthy patterns is the first step in achieving positive change, so the person must be willing to engage in methods such as education and therapy in order to rectify harmful gatekeeping dynamics.

When true perfectionism is at play, the behaviors exhibited by the gatekeeper can be just as self-defeating as they are defeating of the other person in the relationship, according to Brown University. By nature, perfectionism is detrimental in that excessively high and often unrealistic goals lead to constant disappointment, which acts as a barrier to success and emotional fulfillment.

Gatekeeping lacks gratitude

Everyone likes to be told that they're doing a good job and that their efforts are recognized. When a relationship is tormented by gatekeeping, there's a good chance that gratitude is lacking and therefore making the relationship's dynamic even worse, per Marriage. Not having one's attempts to positively contribute to household chores or the relationship, in general, may even exacerbate the negative effects of gaslighting perpetuated by gatekeeping. When the gatekeeper critiques, nitpicks and insults the way their partner completes tasks, it can be insinuated that a mindset of gratitude isn't at the forefront of the relationship. The cycle of gatekeeping, gaslighting, and lack of gratitude continues to spiral downward, and the relationship's dynamic presumably continues to become worse. Conversely, people who use their energy to express gratitude towards their partners have less time to pick apart minuscule imperfections.

Harvard Health Publishing reports that when partners express gratitude for one another's efforts, then two positive outcomes become likely. The first is that a person who receives gratitude from their partner feels more positively about the relationship. The second outcome is that when someone feels appreciated and genuinely thanked for their contributions, they're more likely to feel comfortable speaking with their partner about concerns in the relationship. Even though addressing concerns can be uncomfortable, feeling appreciated can lead to an atmosphere of emotional safety in a relationship that makes conflict resolution go more smoothly and effectively. The result is a communication climate that is healthy and uplifting.

Overcoming gatekeeping and creating positive patterns

After coming to terms with the presence of gatekeeping in your relationship, understanding the underlying root causes of unhealthy communication patterns that may demoralize your partner, and making a commitment to cultivating a positive and healthy climate of communication, it's possible to turn things around and say goodbye to the habit of gatekeeping. It's a difficult undertaking, but if both partners are committed to learning how to genuinely support each other and express gratitude over gatekeeping, then it's possible to shift your relationship onto a trajectory of uplifting communication patterns, states Marriage. And if it's better for you to exit the relationship involving gatekeeping, pursuing knowledge of healthy, productive communication skills can be extremely helpful in future relationships, both romantic and platonic.

While major concerns in a relationship should be addressed with your partner, being okay with letting little things like not having the laundry perfectly folded or having the bed go unmade for a few days is going to serve your relationship in the long run by avoiding the act of gatekeeping, per The Knot. Knowing what to address and what to let go of when it comes to annoyances and minor imperfections is the key to finding balance and eliminating gatekeeping tendencies. It may be easier said than done, though, so utilize resources like a strong support network, open dialogue, and therapy to help you conquer patterns of perfectionism and other potentially harmful habits you may bring into your relationship.