“You’re not doing it right.” “These dishes go here.” “Did you grow up in a barn?”
These phrases, or similar ones, may be familiar to you if you have ever lived with a romantic partner. You probably heard them when you were trying to be helpful and they ended up causing a fight because you weren’t “doing something right.” If so, then you have experienced what scholars call gatekeeping.
The purpose of a fence is to either A) protect something or some area or B) establish an area as someone’s property. The gate, however, is the way for another to enter that area. If we open the gate, then we are welcoming that person into our personal space and showing that we want them there.
Likewise, most of us have specific ways we do things, especially household tasks. One person may sort their laundry by color while others sort it by fabric type. Some may like to have all the dirty dishes cleaned and put away before going to bed at night while others like to do it in the morning. But whatever our preference, we may put up a fence. In other words, we don’t allow anyone else to clean our dishes or do our laundry because we want it done a specific way.
In relationships we often put up gates into our protected areas. After all, we have all probably heard the advice that sharing in household work can be good for relationships. But what happens when we notice our partner is doing something different than how we want it done? Do we ever find ourselves giving them instructions, or taking over in frustration? In these moments we become like the dog who barks at the gate anytime someone walks by, or the troll demanding a fee to cross the bridge. We become a gatekeeper.
How Gatekeeping Hurts Relationships
Marriage scholars have found that gatekeeping typically does more harm than good in relationships, and they have even found some reasons why this might be the case.
Imagine the confusion that one partner might feel if after being asked to do some task like washing the dishes, their partner comes along and redoes everything they just did. Is it worth helping with that task if your partner is just going to do it their way anyways? Confusion like this can discourage helping behavior and create conflict and hurt feelings. Rather than helping around the house becoming a relationship builder, it becomes a relationship destroyer.
One of the strongest boosts to our self-esteem is feeling useful. When we feel competent in some task, we feel better about ourselves as well as our relationships. So what happens if a mother never lets the father take care of a child? Or someone tells their partner that they never make the bed right? It isn’t long before one of us will start to feel unwanted, useless, and incapable. In other words, we feel inadequate in the tasks we feel are important to us and our relationship. Such feelings can create feelings of distrust and ingratitude which can then undermine feelings of equality and teamwork.
3. Negative Communication Patterns
When it comes to communication, gatekeeping can quickly become a gateway to negative and ineffective communication. The demand-withdraw cycle, for example, is when one partner consistently and constantly makes demands of their partner with criticism and accusations, but instead of opening up dialogue about the issue, the other partner withdraws and shuts down. Patterns of gatekeeping can easily lead to such negative patterns as one partner begins to help less around the house and the other begins to make demands along with using terms such as “lazy” or “ungrateful.” Communication, just like the housework, becomes one-sided and unequal.
How to Avoid Gatekeeping
So if gatekeeping is so bad, how can we avoid it? Fortunately, there are many ways to create feelings of cooperation and teamwork around daily tasks. And most of them don’t even require much change in how we do things.
The first step to avoiding gatekeeping, and even adjusting to relationships in general, is to accept that our way is not the only way. We need to get away from thinking about doing something the right or wrong way. There are many ways to effectively complete one task or another, and recognizing this is an important first step to making relationships work. The key to acceptance is to remember the end goal of the task rather than focusing on how you reach that goal. As long as the dishes are cleaned without leaving behind a pile of shattered glass, let your partner do things their way when it is their turn.
After acceptance, the second step in overcoming gatekeeping is showing gratitude. Research shows that expressions of gratitude in relationships help us focus on the good qualities in our partner rather than their faults. When it comes to avoiding gatekeeping, gratitude can likewise help us focus on the contribution our partner is giving which increases the likelihood of continuing contributions, as well as helps us focus on their ability to get the job done rather than how they did it. Again, big picture thinking is the key.