For those navigating a long-term relationship, you know all too well how easy it is to argue with your partner about the small things - and we're talking about the small-small things. Like maybe they don't fold the shower towel correctly (as in, they don't fold the shower towel the way you do). Or maybe they subconsciously load knives into the dishwasher face up, despite you accidentally cutting yourself the last time it happened.
Whatever the case may be, minor disagreements around chores like these are pretty common and can be healthy when communicated effectively. But what's not healthy? Normalizing weaponized incompetence.
Relationship and communication therapist Nirmala Bijraj, LMHC, says weaponized incompetence is strategic incompetence, meaning "a person pretends to not know how to do a task or half-asses a task in order to get out of doing that task again, thereby manipulating the situation to benefit their needs."
Though it doesn't just happen in romantic relationships - it's fairly common in the work place or a family setting, too - we spoke with experts about what weaponized incompetence looks like in romantic relationships and how it can be extremely detrimental to someone's mental health.
What Is Weaponized Incompetence?
Generally speaking, when someone doesn't want to do something - whether they find it boring, meaningless, or unpleasant - they pretend like they don't know how to do it in hopes the responsibility can be passed on to their partner, Bijraj says.
Oftentimes, this is demonstrated through household chores. For example, your partner could be weaponizing their incompetence if, while vacuuming or washing the dishes, they purposely do a poor job so that you have to take over that task for it to be done more cleanly or efficiently. Weaponized incompetence can show up with planning travel or other future plans, too: "One partner may feel responsible for setting up a vacation itinerary because of the other person's haphazard organizational skills that doesn't lead to a good plan," Bijraj says.
Although to some people this may not seem like a big deal, placing the burden on your partner to complete tasks you don't want to do can take a toll on your partner's mental health. It can "foster resentment in a relationship, which can manifest in anger and frustration, as well as passive-aggressive behaviors," Bijraj says. It can also make people feel extremely overwhelmed, stressed, and not supported by their partner.
Is It Weaponized Incompetence, or Does Your Partner Simply Not Know How to Do Something?
Basic chores like cleaning the dishes and vacuuming should be easy for most people to complete efficiently. But if someone has never done laundry or cooked a meal that wasn't a frozen Trader Joe's dish before because someone else in their household previously held that responsibility, it's possible they may genuinely not know how to complete these tasks. That doesn't give them a pass, though.
Bijraj says it has everything to do with whether it is a one-time issue or becomes a pattern. If it's a one-time thing, it's likely they simply didn't know or were raised to think a certain chore was done differently than how you may have been raised to do it. If that's the case, those issues can be solved with proper communication. But if you notice it becomes a pattern and your partner is continually saying things like, "I don't know how to do this" or "You do it better," all while leaving it up to you to do those tasks all the time, "it may be weaponized incompetence because they do not want to do the task," Bijraj says.
She adds that sometimes, a person will put themselves down by saying things like "I can't cook" or "I'm not good with grocery shopping" because they truly believe that. When this happens, "that person needs to spend some time working on themselves and learning how to do these tasks for themselves," Bijraj says. Bottom line: weaponized incompetence is normally on purpose.
How to Address Weaponized Incompetence With Your Romantic Partner
If you notice your partner half-assing chores or tasks, you should talk about it right away. "Addressing the issue very clearly and directly is the best course of action," Bijraj says. Though you may feel like you shouldn't have to do this as it makes you feel like you're being your partner's mom - and this is absolutely valid, especially for cis women - you could say something along the lines of, "I'm feeling like some chores aren't getting completed in the most efficient way. How can we get to a place in which the household chores are being distributed more equitably between us?"
It's also possible that, by having a conversation about what chores each of you hate less, you can come to an agreement on who will tackle what chore. For example, if your partner truly hates cooking and you don't mind it, maybe that's something you take on. If you truly hate taking out the trash and your partner doesn't mind it, that's something they can take on.
During these conversations, be wary of your partner gaslighting you or invalidating your feelings, which you should absolutely consider a red flag and potentially a deal breaker if so. Because if your partner "continues to gaslight you and not take responsibility for their actions and continues to implement the same pattern of behaviors," it may be time to find a new partner, Bijraj says.
That said, couples therapy is always an option. "Working through your feelings and learning how to communicate your feelings by working with a licensed professional therapist is a great way to begin the process of communication needed to resolve the issue," Bijraj says. Just be mindful that if you have already addressed the issue without seeing any improvement from your partner, we promise you, you can find a new partner who does, in fact, know how to complete basic tasks and chores.