The term may seem like a handful, but in a nutshell, weaponized incompetence occurs when someone purposes to not learn tasks so they don’t have to do them, invalidates the importance of certain tasks, or intentionally does the task poorly so they are not asked to do it again.
This comes from our last blog post/podcast about the mental load. You can find our blog post here, and the podcast episode titled “The Mental Load of Women” here. Remember, this mini-series about relationships has the goal of reconnecting and improving the relationship. A lot of the content in these posts are things that can fly under the radar and cause low-key (or high-key, depending on the situation) conflict in a relationship. The hope is that by bringing them to light, we can help you identify where some work can be done by both people to improve the relationship for both people.
So, in talking about the mental load of tasks tied to the household falling to one member (let’s call them Person A), we sometimes see Person B using this weaponized incompetence to keep from sharing the mental (or physical) load of the household.
How does it impact a relationship?
Now, this can be a tactic that is used purposefully to manipulate Person A, or something Person B learned or witnessed and has subtly (or subconsciously) used throughout their life as a way of coping. Either way, weaponized incompetence can impact the following things in a relationship:
- – Division of Labor:
- One person ends up carrying most of the mental load
- One person can end up doing most of the parenting/caretaking of children
- The partnership is then unequally yoked (click here to read more about being unequally yoked in a relationship)
- – Quality of Relationship
- This unequal division of labor and feeling like each person is working against the other can cause the relationship quality to decrease
- Emotional intimacy can lessen
- Sexual intimacy can lessen
What can be done about it?
Our next podcast episode will dive into how to bring this to your partner and start a conversation if you see this happening in your relationship, so stay tuned for that. You can follow us wherever you find your podcasts (click here to find us on Apple Podcasts), or follow us on Instagram @wholeselftherapists to be notified when our next episode is released. But for now, some things you can do if you notice this in your relationship is establish clear boundaries, and have clear cut expectations. Remember, a boundary is about what you will do or will not do, not rules for the other person to follow or punishment for them. For example, you can set a boundary of “I can only handle doing my own laundry and the kids’ laundry.”
Now, we do occasionally hear people say that a boundary like that is childish, and “tit-for-tat,” or the person who that boundary is being set to will claim that it is.
Are boundaries “fair”?
It’s important to recognize that matching someone’s level of engagement is not taking “an eye for an eye” and making the whole world blind. Let’s say, for example, a couple is experiencing some relationship distress. We’ll call one partner Cora, and the other Mike. Cora and Mike both work full time, and Cora does most of the cleaning, cooking, and maintenance of the household. Cora feels frustrated because she has a lot on her plate with work, and is exhausted trying to keep up with the grocery list, meal prep, and cleaning. She asks Mike if he could take over the laundry duties to help her out. If Mike uses weaponized incompetence, here are some things he might say or do:
- “My job is harder and I make more money, so I shouldn’t have to worry about doing laundry”
- “You’re better at it than I am, so why can’t you just do it?”
- He might do the laundry but leave it in the dryer
- He might do the laundry but discolor the whites or use the wrong detergent
Mike could be doing these things intentionally or subconsciously. Mike might have had a parent that used weaponized incompetence to get out of tasks, so that’s how he learned to get out of tasks. Either way, Mike is leaving Cora with more work, or doesn’t necessarily help her out. As a result, Cora can set a boundary and say, “Mike, I only have the time and energy to do my own laundry from here on out,” and then proceed to only do her own laundry.
Is Cora being childish? Or taking an eye for an eye? Really, what Cora is doing is choosing to match Mike’s level of engagement. By Mike shirking responsibility and not being willing to help Cora out in their shared household, he is showing her what kind of engagement he wants.
If that is how he is choosing to show up in the relationship, that shows what kind of partnership he wants. In order for their household to be equally yoked, it’s okay for Cora to show up as he is showing up, have less on her to do list which will inadvertently help her mental health, and it also gives Mike a natural, logical consequence of how he’s showing up in the relationship. It almost makes us ask, if it is okay for one partner to be less engaged in a shared household, why would it not be okay for the other one?
In a nutshell, if Person B is not showing up as a partner in a relationship, then Person A cannot show up either and have it be an equal, balanced partnership. Instead of going above and beyond, being unequally yoked, and running circles until exhausted around the less engaged partner, it is okay for Person A to evaluate their mental load, decide what they’re capable of handling, and letting Person B take on responsibility for their shared household.
So, again, we highly recommend having clear boundaries and expectations in your relationship, and (as always) finding a therapist to help you work through your specific situation.