So, you've found a partner you like enough to hunker down and share your life with. You've moved from spending evenings and weekends together to sharing a home and you're looking forward to cosy nights on the sofa and waking up together every morning.
And yet, things aren't as rosy as they first seemed and you find yourself wondering, "who is this person?". They're kind and funny, you feel like you have a secure attachment with them. But despite being a fully-functioning adult, they let the dirty laundry pile up, seem taken aback whenever you suggest they cook something more than toast and seem incapable of using a toilet brush. They seem to be completely incompetent.
It transpires that you've gone from being their fun, sexy, loving partner to feeling like their parent. It's an unsettling feeling that gets more and more troubling with every dirty sock you pick up off the floor. "Is this how it's going to be from now on?" you ask yourself. "Am I living with a man child?"
Division of domestic labour
But this is more common than you might imagine. The grim truth is that whether you've recently moved in or have spent years married with kids, domestic labour is *still* not evenly distributed in the home. In 2021, research by YouGov suggested that 38% of women who work full-time and have a partner say they do most of the housework and childcare – with just 9% of working men with partners say the same.
If you're reading this, these numbers probably aren't a surprise to you. You're likely at the sharp end of that statistic, shouldering far more household chores or childcare than your partner and assuming the mental load for everybody involved.
"But it's not their fault," you think. "They just don't know how to keep the house in order, or maybe my standards are just too high." There are honestly so many reasons why someone might not look after themselves or their home quite as well as we might expect, whether it's mental health struggles or self-esteem.
However, when it comes to dating someone who doesn't have any extra hurdles to overcome, are we sure they actually lack basic cooking and cleaning skills? Is it really a case of them struggling with a live-in relationship after being single? Without you, do you really believe that they would simply never buy groceries or remember to change the bedding? It's likely that the answer to these questions is "no".
Cue weaponised incompetence. Also known as "strategic incompetence" the term was first defined in 2007 by Jared Sandberg in a piece for The Wall Street Journal. While Sandberg's exploration of the phenomenon was more general, covering our professional, academic and personal lives, the notion of weaponised incompetence resonated strongly with women in relationships and marriages who were all too used to partners faking incompetence to avoid simple tasks.
As Sandberg put it: "The only thing the person claiming not to understand really doesn't understand is that the victim ultimately stuck with the work sees through the false incompetence." In other words, we're onto you.
What is weaponised incompetence?
More than a decade after Sandberg's original article was first published, "weaponised incompetence" took off on TikTok. Currently the #weaponizedincompetence hashtag has 66.6 million views views on the app, and TikTok is now home to a host of videos showing painfully familiar scenarios. See: returning home after time away to find the house in an absolute state, or the mess left after a partner tries to cook dinner versus when you do it. It's funny, but it's also deeply unfunny.
The videos can sometimes feel harsh, especially when we don't know whether the partner in question has consented to their (often literal) dirty laundry being aired in public. However, the clips speak to a growing and valid frustration: people are sick of gendered inequality going unaddressed in the most intimate aspect of their lives. And these people also harbour a growing suspicion that their partners' "inadequacies" are being exaggerated on purpose - especially when it comes to domestic tasks like cooking and cleaning.
So what are the characteristics of weaponised incompetence and how exactly do we tackle it? We called on Lucy Rowett, a Sex, Intimacy, and Relationships Coach to find out more.
When a term becomes something of a catch-all for negative behaviour, it can become easy to lose sight of its intended meaning. With that in mind, Lucy breaks down the exact meaning of weaponised incompetence for us. "Weaponised incompetence is when somebody deliberately does a task badly or pretends to not know how to do a task so that the other person in the dynamic will do it instead.
It sets off a behaviour pattern where one person feels resentful for having to do everything themselves and at the other for being incompetent, while the other can manipulate the situation to avoid responsibility," she says. "These kinds of patterns play out in both romantic relationships and families, but also in friendships, and the workplace."
How does weaponised incompetence impact relationships?
As you might expect, the imbalances created by weaponised incompetence cause a lot of ill feeling. "Weaponised incompetence is especially prevalent in heterosexual relationships, where statistically, women do most of the work and it creates resentment," says Lucy. However, the most troubling aspect of the phenomenon is that it traps partners into an unhealthy dynamic which could eventually kill any natural chemistry and erode the emotional connection.
"When a man thinks he cannot do a task or pretends he cannot, it ultimately backfires on him because the relationship becomes almost parental rather than partners. Men take on an almost child-like role, and this is not good for his own self-growth or confidence," says Lucy. "For women, they end up taking on a maternal role which will kill any passion and chemistry between them. While we may think of household tasks as trivial, anybody who has done the bulk of them will say they absolutely aren't!"
Lucy's comments here are supported by science. Researchers have found that the unequal division of domestic labour (which can stem from weaponised incompetence) is a serious cause of harm for heterosexual couples' sex lives. Specifically, a study published in The Archives of Sexual Behaviour in 2022 noted that this kind of scenario could contribute to feelings of stress and unfairness, which may lower the female partner's libido.
How do I call out weaponised incompetence?
Lucy's advice is clear, call it out. "If this is something your partner does, curbing the behaviour will require a lot of patience on your part, but it’s necessary to achieve a more balanced and happy relationship. It’s important to set clear boundaries with your partner and if you feel like you’re doing too much, don’t brush it off communicate with them."
Entering into a collaborative conversation and showing how this behaviour is creating easily avoidable pain points harming the relationship is a good first step. "Many couples will recognise this is present in their relationship in some capacity and recognising when it is negatively effecting your relationship and sex life is key," says Lucy.
"Stay a week or two away with a friend." advises Relationship Therapist an Author Philippa Perry in a most recent advice column for The Guardian - a piece that had the internet divided on whether the woman writing in should walk away or try to make a marriage with a man child work. "It may bring it home to him just how much there is to think about and do that should be shared. Remind him the children have grown out of all their clothes and shoes on your way out." she says.
But Philippa also advises that jumping to separation or divorce probably isn't the answer. It's communication that will help to solve this problem and achieve a more even distribution of domestic and emotional labour. It's important to hold space for one another within the dialogue and to create a judgment-free zone where each can explain how they may feel hurt or dismissed by the dynamic.
[pullquote align='center']"Weaponised incompetence stops women from having enough energy to pursue their own goals"[/pullquote
"It's important to note that both partners play into this dynamic, it's not just men at fault here," agrees Lucy. "Often a woman can become condescending towards her partner at his perceived incompetence, which then exacerbates his feelings and behaviour. But when a man uses weaponised incompetence, he is not only sabotaging his relationship, but perpetuating gender equality and preventing his partner from having enough energy to pursue her own goals."
It takes two
It can also be helpful to express that taking a more active role in the household can be important for men's own self-growth and journey of feminist allyship. "When men are encouraged to participate more in tasks that their partner would do, they not only realise how much energy it was sapping from their partners, but it builds their own confidence and sense of achievement," Lucy explains.
"We are living in a critical time in terms of realising gender equality, and many men were not raised or encouraged to do household tasks as it would have been done by their mother or other female relatives. It may feel uncomfortable at first, but we must make this change."
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