What is Gatekeeping in a Relationship?

Here's what that viral term *really* means—and how to work through it.
Frustrated couple sitting on couch at home
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sarah hanlon entertainment and celebrity editor the knot
Sarah Hanlon
sarah hanlon entertainment and celebrity editor the knot
Sarah Hanlon
Entertainment & Celebrity Editor
  • Sarah is the Entertainment & Celebrity Editor for The Knot, with special focuses on pop culture and celebrity wedding news.
  • Before joining The Knot Worldwide, Sarah was a contributing writer for Bravo at NBC Universal.
  • Sarah has a degree in journalism and resides in New York City.
Updated Jan 18, 2023

When it comes to internet slang, there's no shortage of viral words and phrases that have been adopted into everyday language—especially for talking about relationships. Within the last few years, buzzy terms like "ghosting," "love bombing" and "gaslighting" have become incredibly common. And, if you're familiar with the term gaslighting, there's a good chance you also know the phrase "gaslight, gatekeep, girlboss." Funny, sarcastic, and a little tongue-in-cheek, this parody of "live, laugh, love" is something you've probably seen all over Instagram and TikTok (and even said yourself). In this instance, the words are meant to be used in good fun. The true gatekeeping definition, though, is one you should definitely understand.

Gaslighting is one of the most frequently used relationship terms online today, though its counterpart, gatekeeping is a bit more elusive. While the words themselves are sometimes said in a joking manner, the actions they represent can actually be signs of toxicity or even emotional and psychological abuse. We know that gaslighting is the result of an abuser attempting to sow self-doubt and confusion in their victim's mind. But what is gatekeeping? Here, we define this popular term, explain exactly what it looks like in relationships, and share tips on how to address and handle it with your partner.

What is Gatekeeping?

The gatekeeping definition may vary depending on your source. According to Cambridge Dictionary, gatekeeping is defined as "the activity of trying to control who gets particular resources, power, or opportunities, and who does not." Similarly, Merriam-Webster notes that a gatekeeper is "a person who controls access."

In simple terms, gatekeeping can be understood as the act of withholding something. You can experience gatekeeping in nearly any environment, from work to your personal life. Of course, the gatekeeping meaning may vary based on who's performing the act and what exactly they're withholding.

Gatekeeping in relationships is a serious red flag to be on the lookout for, as this can often be viewed as toxic, manipulative or even abusive behavior—especially if the gatekeeper is withholding information to maintain power over you.

How to Identify Gatekeeping in a Relationship

So, how do you identify gatekeeping in a relationship? It's important to be hyper-aware of your partner's actions, and how they make you feel. After all, gatekeeping can take many forms. Let's say you're on a dating app, and a match you've been talking to for a few weeks knows that you're looking for a serious, committed relationship… but they don't share the same goal. To string you along, they can be gatekeeping the fact that they don't want to become exclusive with you, solely because they enjoy the non-committal nature of a situationship.

Gatekeeping can also occur in a long-term partnership, or even in your marriage. Perhaps your partner despises the way you currently divide household duties. While you might think they don't mind cleaning the kitchen every night after dinner or leaving work early to pick up the kids from school, they might feel like there's an imbalance in the workload split. If they feel this way for weeks, months or even years without speaking up, they're gatekeeping that information from you. Over time, this could lead to prolonged feelings of frustration, irritation or tension.

In more serious—and sometimes harmful—situations, gatekeeping can be linked to things that affect the power dynamic in your relationship. Money can be an example of this. Let's say your partner handles all the finances in your marriage. If they're limiting or withholding your access to bank accounts, money that's rightfully yours, or information about your financial status that could affect you, this can be an example of gatekeeping.

How to Identify & Handle Gatekeeping in a Relationship

Identifying gatekeeping in a relationship can be tricky, particularly because the gatekeeper is purposely withholding information from you. While you might be able to pick up on different toxic actions, such as love-bombing or gaslighting, gatekeeping relationships can be more challenging to spot. Here are some easy ways to identify and manage a gatekeeper relationship.

Evaluate your trust levels with your partner.

While it's important to fully trust your partner, it's just as crucial to trust your gut. If there's a small, nagging feeling that you can't fully trust your S.O., take some time to explore why. Have they lied to you in the past? Do they display other concerning or toxic behaviors? Have they given you any reason to believe they could be gatekeeping information from you? If you answer yes to any of these questions, consider how the inability to fully trust your partner is inhibiting you from having a healthy relationship. The second you feel like the power balance is off, you might want to have a serious conversation with them, or seek the help of a professional.

Keep an eye out for other toxic behavior.

If you're concerned that your partner might be gatekeeping in your relationship, be on the lookout for other forms of toxic behavior. It can be helpful to familiarize yourself with other relationship dealbreakers, such as gaslighting, poor communication, secrecy, or unhealthy money habits, to name a few. If you notice that your partner exhibits one or more of these traits, you may also be able to identify their gatekeeping as well.

Write in a journal.

Identifying toxic behavior in your relationship can be challenging, particularly if the perpetrator is intentionally trying to mislead you. Just like gaslighting is used to create self-doubt and confusion, gatekeeping may also leave you feeling unsure if you're actually experiencing what you think you are. Start keeping a private journal that documents your conversations, experiences and feelings. Being able to look back at your own words may help you notice patterns or examples of gatekeeping you might not have realized before.

Work on your self-esteem.

One thing that some toxic behaviors have in common is their ability to lower your self-esteem. If you aren't confident in yourself and your worth, you may be less likely to trust your intuition when it comes to identifying—and handling—something like gatekeeping. Be intentional about prioritizing self-love. Surround yourself with friends and family members who make you feel valued and appreciated. Spend time doing activities you enjoy, such as reading, journaling, meditation, crafting, or listening to podcasts. The more you pour love into yourself, the more likely you'll be able to feel confident in your ability to identify and handle negative or toxic behavior in your relationship.

Have an honest conversation with your partner.

When you're confident that you're experiencing gatekeeping in your relationship, have an honest conversation with your partner if it feels safe. One thing you'll want to avoid, though, is heading into this discussion with an accusatory tone. After all, no one wants to be called a gatekeeper, and being defensive may limit your ability to listen to each other and find a resolution. Instead, raise your concerns and explain how the withdrawal of information makes you feel. Your partner might not even realize they're gatekeeping. Perhaps they haven't told you that they feel like there's an uneven split of household chores because they're afraid of upsetting you, or because they don't like confrontation. Sitting down and talking through your feelings in a constructive manner will help you and your partner work through the challenges at hand.

Seek the help of a licensed professional.

In situations where you don't feel safe, or if you feel like your circumstance warrants professional help, it might be time to work with a licensed therapist or marriage counselor. Handling gatekeeping isn't black and white, and your relationship is incredibly nuanced. (In other words, it might not be enough to ask your partner if they're gatekeeping information from you, especially if you don't feel like you can trust their response.) A professional will be able to identify what you're experiencing while providing tactical resources and a personalized action plan to help you address gatekeeping in your relationship. While seeking out a therapist can feel daunting at first, their expertise can help you understand the gatekeeping meaning and handle it once and for all.

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