Something comes up at work and you have to stay late, meaning you won’t be home in time to make the soup you’d planned for dinner, so you ask your partner to run to the store and grab a few things and get started on the prep. Rather than just doing what you asked, they give you a whole song and dance about how they never buy the right produce, and they’re happy to just eat late tonight after you’re back. If you find often yourself doing simple tasks because your significant other claims to not know how, or “fine, I’ll just do it myself then,” is a common refrain for you, your partner may be guilty of weaponized incompetence.
Originally coined in 2007, the term has been trending on TikTok lately — the hashtag #weaponizedincompetence has over 19 million views and counting — with people sharing instances of the behavioral pattern happening with their partner. If you want to know if this dynamic is occurring in your relationship, experts shared with Bustle what exactly weaponized incompetence is and it’s so important for couples to confront it.
What Is Weaponized Incompetence?
“Weaponized incompetence refers to pretending not to know how to do something when you do really know how to do it,” psychotherapist and writer, Emily Mendez, M.S. EdS, tells Bustle. “In a relationship, it could be one person saying something like, ‘I don't know how to do that. So, I'll let you take care of it.’ This can be seen as a manipulation tactic.” By feigning or playing up incompetence with something like grocery shopping or giving the dog a bath, the guilty party essentially ensures that next time, their partner will elect to do it themselves, rather than ask them for help.
The TikTok hashtag is full of other examples, too. For instance, one video shows the aftermath of a parent “watching” their kids where the sink is clogged, drawers are pulled out, and there are toys and paint everywhere. In another, a woman asks her husband to put away the leftovers, and the next morning, she finds the whole crockpot haphazardly jammed into the refrigerator.
According to Mendez, the behavior, sometimes referred to as strategic incompetence, is harmful because it creates an imbalance in the relationship with one partner putting in far more effort than the other. When one person feels like there’s a lack of support coming from their partner, the resulting dynamic can lead to resentment, friction, and distance.
Weaponized incompetence is also problematic because it’s passive-aggressive, relationship and communication coach, Chloe Ballatore, tells Bustle. “Kids do it a lot, but in grown-ups it's a bigger problem,” she says. “It’s a way of communicating that falls into the seducing with guilt category, and ‘You have to help me because I'm too dumb to do it,’ is the scripted message. If you are in a relationship with someone who plays this game, be ready to set a price tag for this behavior.” Tolerating it will only lead to burnout.
How To Deal With Weaponized Incompetence In Your Relationship
If this is something your partner always does, curbing the behavior will require a lot of patience on your part. However, it’s necessary if you want to achieve a more balanced relationship.
Start by having a conversation with your significant other about their behavior. “Maybe the partner doesn't realize that they are doing this, maybe they don’t feel competent, or it may just be a lack of self-confidence and not necessarily manipulation,” Mendez says.
Talking it out first will help clear up misunderstandings. For instance, if you’re dealing with young kids in particular, your partner might not feel completely comfortable doing certain tasks because they don’t want to mess it up. In this case, you can teach your partner how to do certain things — like a quick ponytail or the correct way to get in line for school pickup — so they can contribute their fair share toward taking care of the little one.
It’s also important to set clear boundaries for yourself and stick to them. If you feel like you’re doing way too much, don’t brush it off. “Communicate this to your partner and work with them to ensure that tasks are split up evenly,” Mendez says. As you’re renegotiating your expectations, a resource like Fair Play, a book-slash-game that aims to help couples make household labor more equitable, could be helpful guiding your conversations. Keep reminding yourself that your partner is a very capable adult who can do simple tasks. Nothing will ever change if you keep accepting the same behavior over and over again.
In some cases, talking to a couples therapist may be helpful. According to Mendez, a professional can help you work on your communication skills. They can also help you discover if there are any deeper issues that need to be worked on.
Emily Mendez, M.S. EdS, psychotherapist and writer
Chloe Ballatore, relationship and communication coach