Ever pretend to be bad at a household task so you don’t have to do it? This is known as “weaponized incompetence” and the dishonest behavior can quickly take a toll.
Whether you live in a tiny studio apartment or a four-bedroom house with a big yard, homes require maintenance. Your relationship, as you’ve probably learned by now, benefits from the same type of upkeep — and a big part of that is contributing your fair share in your shared space. Doing the laundry, washing the dishes, or mowing the lawn not only takes the load off your partner; it also shows that you value their time.
Rarely, though, is household labor perfectly balanced in a relationship. There may be chores you’re not good at or just don’t want to do, so your partner picks up the slack. To some degree, that’s normal. But if you don’t want to do something so much that you find yourself pretending you’re no good at it — maybe you purposely fold laundry poorly or always “forget” to load the dishwasher the right way — you’re guilty of a phenomenon called weaponized incompetence.
At first, you may feel relief about getting out of chores, but Michigan-based marriage and family therapist Carrie Krawiec notes that this dishonest behavior can quickly take a toll on your relationship. It’s important to recognize it and root it out at all costs.
What Is Weaponized Incompetence?
Sometimes called ‘strategic incompetence’, weaponized incompetence is “pretending to be incapable or insufficient at some task so that someone else will do it for you,” says Krawiec.
A feigned inability to contribute can manifest in a few ways. Someone may, for example, act like they don’t know how to mop the floors so they don’t have to do it. Or maybe they try something, but purposely do a bad job.
“For example if the man is asked to do the laundry and doesn’t want to do it, he may intentionally let a garment shrink or lose one of the socks so his wife will do the job properly next time,” adds Texas-based therapist Kara Nassour of Shaded Bough Counseling,
Weaponized incompetence can also be more subtle, especially if someone feels like their partner’s expectations about the “right way” are too strict. Maybe, for example, your partner has a system for folding laundry properly, and you know you’ll be “wrong” if you don’t follow it precisely. So rather than trying and failing, or approaching them about your thoughts on the matter, you simply fake incompetence out of frustration.
It’s important to note that weaponized incompetence isn’t limited to men; it’s just more common in men, largely due to cultural expectations of gender roles at home. “Our culture has divided tasks along gender lines for so long, causing men to sabotage tasks to keep the gender roles status quo,” says clinical social worker Kimberly Perlin.
No matter how it plays out, the goal of weaponized incompetence is to get one’s partner to throw up their hands and just do the job themselves. It’s a manipulative strategy to get out of a task in the moment and, ultimately, long-term.
“You fake incompetence or being bad at something so somebody else will do it for you and most likely never ask you to do it again,” says Holly Schiff, a clinical psychologist based in Greenwich, Connecticut.
According to Schiff, faking incompetence also sets the bar low for a partner’s expectations. That way, anytime you do contribute, your partner will value your effort. It might stem from laziness or a sense of entitlement.
It’s also possible that a person is pretending to be incompetent because they don’t know how to talk to their partner about, for example, feeling like they can never do certain tasks to their standards. It might feel easier, Nassour says, to sabotage a task rather than communicate directly about your feelings.
Like any other behavior, weaponized incompetence is more likely to happen when it’s reinforced, which can happen both ways.
“When a person’s load is lightened by playing dumb, they are the benefactor of negative reinforcement,” Krawiec says. “When a person learns they can’t rely on others and only get satisfaction from doing it their own way, they’re also more likely to repeat their behavior.”
The Harm in Acting Like You’re Helpless
Even if you don’t recognize your behavior as damaging, it’s detrimental to you and your partner in the long-term.
For one thing, weaponized incompetence is a betrayal of trust. By exaggerating your inability to complete a task, you’re being dishonest with your partner.
For another, it’s selfish, Krawiec says, because you’re not considering your partner’s mental load, or vice versa, and instead are only focused on yourself and your desires. By opting out of contributions, you’re also missing out on important opportunities to not only learn and grow but also show your kids what an equal household looks like.
“Continued weaponized incompetence contributes to burnout, distrust, and eventually, resentment,” says Schiff. “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.”
How to Prevent Falling Prey to Weaponized Incompetence
Habits like weaponized incompetence can be tough to unlearn, especially if you’re just now recognizing you might be in the wrong. But if you’re determined to improve your relationship, taking the tough steps to change your mindset and behavior is vital.
Once you notice the behavior, try to get to the bottom of it. Ask yourself whether you resent being asked to do something, if you’re upset with your partner, or if you’re bored or in a rut.
“By figuring out how you feel, you can make a more informed decision about how to act on it,” Nassour says.
Then, be open with your partner about your struggle so they can understand where you’re coming from and find a solution together. Carve out time to agree upon who does what, talk about what feels fair, and understand that you both might end up with jobs you don’t love. Recognize, too, that your partner likely takes on tasks they don’t enjoy doing, and that this type of sacrifice and compromise is an important part of a happy home and relationship.
This discussion is all the more crucial when both you and your partner are at fault. If the issue is more about disagreeing on how something gets done, then make sure to have a conversation about that. Let your partner know their expectations might be too rigid, and that while you’re willing to help, you feel like you can’t get it right. Then, decide together which chores absolutely need to be done a certain way, and which ones you can compromise on when you tackle them.
When you’re tempted to opt out, Krawiec suggests doing a cost/benefit analysis. Remember taking the easy route will only lead to resentment and frustration, harming your relationship and setting a poor example for your kids.
“The initial payoff of not having to do a job you don’t want to do may be nice,” she says, “but the long-term effects may be that your spouse sees you as incompetent, unreliable, and ultimately, not a good partner.”
To state the obvious, that’s not an outcome anyone wants.
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