Have You Been Shot With The Flaming Arrow Of Incompetence?
“Don would be lost without me – he can’t even do laundry right!”
“I never do it right – can you please handle this?”
“Ugh, Sara overdrew her account again. Good thing she’s got me to keep things on track.”
“Honey, I can’t make this work – can you fix it?”
Unfortunately, these statements probably do for many couples. It’s unfortunate, because these are all phrases typical of either perpetrators or victims of weaponized incompetence.
Weaponized Incompetence – When “I Can’t” Really Means “I Don’t Want To”
In most healthy relationships there’s a division and balance of duties.
- One cooks, the other cleans
- One does the laundry, the other puts it away
The versions of how couples divide and conquer can go on and on.
But in some cases that division can become deliberately and unfairly out of balance. Often this happens when one partner seems unable to complete tasks correctly or doesn’t grasp how a certain chore works and therefore messes it up – continually.
In other words, they’re incompetent.
But are they really? Or have they learned how to use the appearance of incompetence in a way that gets them out of less desirable tasks?
This is more than, “I’m tired, would you mind loading the dishwasher?” or, “I have my hands full – can you give the kids a bath?”
Incompetence becomes weaponized when a task is intentionally done poorly so that the responsibility for the task will always fall to their partner.
How Do You Know If Incompetence Is Real Or Weaponized?
It’s true – some people are better at certain things than others. And many partners have different versions of what something being done “right” looks like.
Weaponized incompetence, however, is a form of manipulation where the goal of the action or behavior is complete failure. And, that failure is blatant rather than simply another version of how to accomplish something.
For instance, consider the above two situations and appropriate responses verses weaponized responses.
- “I’m tired, would you mind loading the dishwasher?”
Appropriate response: “Sure. You usually do this though – so, is there a particular way you want it done?”
Or does it but the platees are facing in versus out and bowls are on the top rack. Result – dishes are cleaned.
Weaponized response: “I always do it wrong – I think you should do it.”
Or does it but doesn’t rinse any food off, lays the plates facing up on the top rack, and claims there’s no room for glasses. Result – dishes stay dirty and have to rewashed.
- “I have my hands full – can you give the kids a bath?”
Appropriate response: “Yes, is everything in the bathroom that we need?” Result – things are located, and kids get washed.
Weaponized response: “Um, no, I can’t control them and it’s just too much for me to handle.”
Or puts them in the bath, allows them to cry, fling water, leaves shampoo in their hair, and puts their pajamas on backwards. Result – dirty kids and a messy bathroom.
Both the weaponized responses are done with the clear intent to fail and demonstrate an inability to carry out the task.
5 Signs Weaponized Incompetence Is Playing A Role In Your Relationship
Some of you may now be thinking back and wondering if your husband really can’t operate the vacuum or your wife truly can’t effectively pack a cooler. Or have they weaponized incompetence and are using it strategically to get out of undesirable duties? Hmmm…
The good news is there are some additional signs to look for when it comes to determining if it’s truly weaponized incompetence.
See if you recognize any of the following:
- You feel as though you do more than your partner. For example, while you’re still working and doing chores, they’re generally relaxing and watching TV.
- You often feel frustrated with your partner and taken advantage of.
- You frequently say things like, “Never mind – I’ll do it.”
- Your partner leaves all planning and scheduling to you.
- You often hear complaints like, “I can’t find (insert item here)” after only looking for a moment. And yes, you know that it will only take you 30 seconds to find said item.
If these hit home it’s quite likely you’re dealing with weaponized incompetence.
How Do You Disarm The Person Brandishing Their Incompetence?
If you feel that your partner is purposely failing or doing things poorly to be excused from their fair share, the health of your relationship and your sanity depends on you initiating some changes.
Before you do, however, you should first consider how you play a role in their behavior.
Yes, you may have a part in this.
One of the dynamics that can result in what seems like weaponized incompetence is when one partner is perfectionistic and hypercritical.
One of the things I hear often when one partner is accused of not pulling their weight is,
“I tried, but everything I do seems to be wrong, so I stopped trying.”
What do I mean? Well,
- Remember the husband who can’t vacuum? That could be due to a wife who gets angry because the lines in the rug aren’t uniform or going the right way.
- The wife who can’t pack a cooler? It might be because her husband simply unpacks and repacks it the way he wants it every time.
In these cases, it’s not weaponized incompetence but a response to controlling behavior and that’s a different problem. Also damaging – but different.
If you’re certain that you haven’t created your own problem by regularly criticizing your partner’s attempts at helping out and its truly manipulative weaponized incompetence, consider the steps for initiating change:
- Don’t ignore it. It may seem easier just to do it yourself, but eventually resentment will become overwhelming and destroy your relationship.
- Have an honest and direct conversation about the imbalance in responsibilities and how it’s affecting you and your relationship.
- Be prepared with examples but refrain from being accusatory. This is a conversation not a confrontation.
- Listen. In some cases, the incompetence may actually be fueled by a fear of disappointing you or causing harm.
- Agree on a fairer division of tasks and be prepared to offer instruction and guidance if your partner truly feels uncomfortable with any portion.
- Set boundaries. It can be really tempting to fall back into old habits and do things for them – especially if you’re quicker at them – but don’t. This is enabling and is another part you play that must stop.
A relationship requires working as a team. Weaponized incompetence prevents that from happening.
If one person shoulders most of the load the team will eventually fall apart. And the likelihood is that long before falling apart happens, growing apart and unhappiness will set up as the regular state of things. No one wants to live in that state either.
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Author: Dr. Kurt Smith
Dr. Kurt Smith is the Clinical Director of Guy Stuff Counseling & Coaching, a Northern California counseling practice that specializes in helping men and the women who love them. His expertise is in understanding men, their partners, and the unique relationship challenges couples face today. Dr. Kurt is a lover of dogs, sarcasm, everything outdoors, and helping those seeking to make their relationships better.