This Seemingly Innocent Habit Can Create Extreme Imbalance In Relationships

Let’s set the scene for a moment: After a long day at work, your partner asks if you could pick up some things from the grocery store. You’re a little tired, but you remember the last time they went themselves—they didn’t get half the list because they couldn’t find some of the items, so you had to go back to grab the rest of the food. Once you return home from errands, you wind up making dinner since they are a self-professed bad cook. Then you end the night putting away the dishes since your partner proclaims they’re not the greatest at loading the dishwasher, so it’s better if you start the load. 

Pushing off these domestic tasks once in a while isn’t a big deal. Perhaps your partner was in a lazy mood that evening, or they had a lot going on at work taking away time from tending to home responsibilities. Totally fair. But if they are consistently demonstrating this behavior, these one-sided actions may actually be weaponized incompetence in action—and a big contributor to domestic inequality.

What is weaponized incompetence?

Weaponized incompetence is a behavior pattern where one partner pretends to be bad at simple tasks to get out of shared responsibilities. It can look like not being able to step up with child care appointments because they say they can’t remember the name of the doctor, not giving the cat a bath because they don’t know how to groom them afterward, or not helping out with party planning because they don’t think they’re great at details. Whatever the case may be, the message comes across loud and clear: I don’t want to do it, so you do it. 

“The reason it is weaponized is because the partner places the responsibility back onto the other partner to complete the tasks, and it is intended for them to complete for future occasions,” psychotherapist and certified couples’ therapist Lee Phillips, Ed.D., LCSW, CST, tells mbg. 

Here’s how licensed clinical psychologist Holly Schiff, Psy.D., defines the concept: “Weaponized incompetence is when your partner attempts to avoid doing unpleasant tasks by pretending not to be able to do them, doing them poorly, or just being incompetent. This forces you to have to do it by yourself and pick up the slack. Over time, this will create a lot of additional mental baggage and workload, which will cause relationship tension, friction, and stress.”

These actions perpetuate a flawed dynamic in the relationship: By feigning mediocrity, the incompetent partner actively shows they aren’t genuine in their attempts to be better or do better. Meanwhile, the other partner is forced to step up and take over those tasks, creating resentment because they feel unseen and taken for granted. Indeed, in a 2016 study, researchers studied 6,300 different-sex couples and noted couples’ division of labor—paid and unpaid—was more highly associated with the risk of divorce than any other economic factor. 

Weaponized incompetence is typically seen in cisgender, heterosexual relationships with men leveraging it against their female partners, although Phillips says the unfair dynamic can occur across relationships of all kinds. And although most often used in reference to imbalance in couples’ domestic responsibilities, Schiff points out it exists across many situations and settings. She notes weaponized incompetence can play out in friendships, where one friend shoulders all the responsibility for plans, or in the workplace, where co-workers may expect women or younger workers to pick up administrative tasks that others are unwilling to complete. 

Weaponized incompetence is a tactic as old as time, but it’s recently entered the zeitgeist as an identifiable concept in the last few decades. There have been many terms describing weaponized incompetence and the way it enables an unfair division of labor—some early iterations of the term originally described the phenomenon as it exists in the workplace, such as a 1986 Harvard Business Review article about “skilled incompetence,” where one’s avoidance of conflict led to organizational havoc, and a 2008 Wall Street Journal piece about “strategic incompetence” wherein workers feign ignorance to get out of doing undesirable tasks.

In the domestic sphere, weaponized incompetence relates to other concepts like the mental load and emotional labor, which are used to cite common instances of inequitable and often invisible division of child care and household tasks.

Signs of weaponized incompetence in a relationship:

1. You hear these common phrases a lot.

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If you’re the responsible partner, you may find yourself saying conditioned responses like “don’t worry, I’ll just do it myself” or “it’s fine, never mind” if weaponized incompetence exists in your relationship. 

Phillips also shares some remarks that a partner weaponizing incompetence may make when they’re asked to do something or take on a responsibility of some kind:

  • “I have no idea how to do that.”
  • “I am not good at doing that.”
  • “I think you should just do it.”
  • “Remember last time how bad it was when I did it?”
  • “You’re better at it than me.”
  • “I’m really busy right now; could you do it instead?”
  • “I don’t know how to do this properly.”

2. You feel like you are being manipulated. 

“Relationships are about the balance of give-and-take,” Schiff says. “It is reasonable that your partner may not know how to do something. The difference between that and weaponized incompetence is that the latter is behavior that is part of a manipulative pattern [and] done with the purpose of upholding an unequal and uneven power structure.”

If you think they’re lying about their abilities or they’re gaslighting you, pay attention to those signals. (And note, weaponized incompetence can also happen subconsciously—but that doesn’t make it any less manipulative.) 

3. You feel taken advantage of.

When the other partner greatly exaggerates their inability to do something, it subconsciously communicates that their time and energy is much more valuable than your own. Your role as a partner shifts to include being both the maid and the de facto manager of the house, all without monetary compensation or adequate appreciation for your efforts. 

4. You feel alone in the relationship.

If your car breaks down or you have to plan a birthday party for a family member, take note if you aren’t going to your partner for help. Unexpected stuff comes up all the time, but it’s normal to hope and expect your partner to show up when you need them. If you’re doing things on your own constantly, that’s a big sign there’s an unfair standard in the relationship. 

5. You don’t trust your partner.

If your partner agrees to carry out the tasks, albeit begrudgingly, you may coddle them through the process by overexplaining the steps or providing extremely detailed instructions. Even when they are able to do it, you may expect you’ll have to redo it afterward. 

6. Frustration is a common emotion.

“Continued weaponized incompetence contributes to burnout, distrust, and eventually resentment,” Schiff says. By being OK passing off the obligation, the supposedly incompetent person is intentionally choosing to hurt their partner: “You are pretending to not know how to do something in order to get out of responsibilities, which for some, can be seen as similar to lying and cheating.” Meanwhile, their partner ends up feeling annoyed and defeated.

7. The relationship feels stagnant. 

When weaponized incompetence happens in a relationship, the relationship can feel stuck because one partner is favoring comfort over fulfilling responsibilities. After a while, being together doesn’t feel growth-oriented. Instead, the relationship feels like it’s in a rut—you may be focused on improving yourself, but because they’re not committed to changing and improving themselves, the quality of the relationship suffers. 

How to deal with weaponized incompetence.

Schiff suggests coming up with an action plan to keep both partners accountable and commit to real, actionable change. (We’ve got a full guide to sharing household work more fairly that can help you shape this conversation.)

“Open communication and setting boundaries will be key in addressing and dealing with weaponized incompetence in a romantic relationship,” she says. “Delegation and setting up clear and agreed-upon standards will ensure that both partners are taking ownership of specific tasks and that responsibilities are balanced and equal.”

Don’t be disheartened if it doesn’t feel like you’re making a lot of progress at first. Schiff points out it’ll require multiple dialogues and continuous open communication to remove this dynamic from the relationship.

Weaponized incompetence isn’t so cut-and-dried either. “Even though you think your partner may be using weaponized incompetence, make sure this is really what it is. You don’t want to accuse them of something they are not doing,” Phillips says.

That’s why a transparent conversation where you’re willing to hear out both sides is essential. Phillips points out your partner may be harboring codependent tendencies that make them feel like they’re not able to complete a task without your help. If that’s the case and you’re open to working with them, support them so they feel empowered to be an equal contributor. “Look at it like an opportunity to teach them. You never know; this can be an intimacy builder.” 

Weaponized incompetence can negatively affect even the best relationships. To improve the relationship, healthier communication is a key element to sharing household chores in an effective manner. Navigating conflict thoughtfully presents an opportunity to strengthen the relationship further and grow together. 

However, Schiff says the point at which you should consider it a deal-breaker is if it continues to be a persistent problem even after you have openly discussed how you are feeling and if they have made no effort to adjust their behavior. One person can’t do all the work in the relationship—not even to save it. You deserve to have a relationship marked with genuine reciprocation and mutual teamwork.

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