What is weaponised incompetence?

The manipulative behaviour that tears apart relationships.
weaponised incompetence

Has your partner ever pretended to be bad at vacuuming, or claimed to not know how to poach an egg? If so, you’re most likely witnessing ‘weaponised incompetence’ happening in real time.

Weaponised incompetence is a passive-aggressive pattern of behaviour where someone in a relationship, whether it be professional or intimate, either deliberately performs a task poorly or pretends not to know how to do a task in order to avoid responsibility.

“Basically it’s an avoidance of responsibilities. It can be strategic and intentional or it can be unintentional. It’s a form of resistance to taking on the mental load or domestic chores,” says psychologist Jocelyn Brewer.

What causes weaponised incompetence?

“There’s loads of causes for weaponised incompetence,” Jocelyn says. “Maybe you have a doting partner that’s good at overfunctioning but it can also be internalised patriarchy as well. It’s this idea of ‘I shouldn’t have to do those things’.”

It’s no secret that despite working just as much as men, women still manage the majority of domestic labour. 

According to the 2018 Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey, even when both partners work full time, Australian women are still more likely to take on the majority of chores. This remains the case even when the woman is the primary breadwinner.

Moreover, the 2021 HILDA survey found that women do 21 more hours of unpaid work per week compared to men.

“It can also be a way of avoiding doing the boring stuff by dressing it up as ‘oh but you’re so good at this particular chore’. It’s not quite gaslighting but it’s certainly manipulative behaviour.”

Women still disproportionately do the majority of the domestic labour. Getty

What does weaponised incompetence look like? 

As humans, we have a natural thirst for knowledge and learning to do things is a constant in life. However, there’s a difference between simply not knowing how to do something, like use a dishwasher, and an outright refusal to do it altogether.

“Recognising weaponised incompetence is about noticing patterns and noticing whether there’s a genuine sense ‘I don’t know how to do this’. Above all else that person needs to be willing to try to learn and have a growth mindset,” Jocelyn explains.

“But in saying that, we have to be careful that sometimes on the other end of the spectrum, we can get stuck on a particular way of doing things by saying ‘I want you to do it my way’.”

“There’s a great book called Drop the Ball, it’s about being willing to hand over the mental load to our partner because if we overfunction, we can inadvertently give permission to the other person to underfunction.”

How to call out strategic incompetence?

Weaponised incompetence can be disastrous to relationships. It creates an unfair imbalance of the mental and physical labour which can lead to unhappiness and the demise of the relationship altogether.

So how exactly do you call out this behaviour? Jocelyn says that it requires communication and expressing that you’re looking for effort and to relieve the mental and physical load.

However, if you find that even after a discussion, you’re still being met with that same behaviour, does that mean you should break up?

“That’s a complex question,” Jocelyn says. “It comes down to their responsiveness to the conversations you have around those patterns of weaponised incompetence. It depends on whether they’re responsive to that feedback or whether they double down on those behaviours.”

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