What is weaponised incompetence and how does it affect sharing the load in the home?

What is weaponised incompetence and how does it affect sharing the load in the home?
  • PublishedJune 4, 2024

Does your partner forget items at the shops, or wash reds and whites together? Maybe they make a habit of saying you just do certain chores better?

They could be using weaponised incompetence — a tactic to avoid certain tasks or responsibility — and in extreme cases, maintain power and control over their partner, explains Carly Dober.

She’s the director of the Australian Association of Psychologists and is based in Naarm/Melbourne.

Weaponised incompetence is a non-clinical term that has gained traction over the past decade.

The behaviour can take place at work or in the home, for example, and is often gendered, Ms Dober says.

“There is no data on it, [but] I often hear about it clinically from clients — particularly mothers and wives, and also sisters where they might be the eldest daughter and the caring load is on them,” she says.

“It’s out there enough that people are [relating to] the term and finally saying ‘there is name for what I’ve been experiencing for so long’.”

What weaponised incompetence looks like in relationships

In intimate partner relationships, weaponised incompetence often presents itself with domestic tasks and caring labour, explains Ms Dober.

“It demonstrates helplessness, real or false, in order to avoid certain tasks or responsibility, thus making other people feel they have to step in and do it for them.”

Examples from Ms Dober, and Professor Michael Wenzel from Flinders University’s College of Education, include:

  • Going shopping but coming back with half the list, or the wrong items.
  • Doing the dishes, but leaving them to soak in the sink for days.
  • Cooking meals that are “unappetising”.
  • Doing the laundry, but not separating the items correctly.
  • Refusing to change nappies due to “not knowing how”.
  • Not being involved in organising appointments or social engagements.
  • Avoiding discussing financial responsibilities.

Professor Wenzel says tasks might not necessarily be done badly, but in a way that the other partner needs to step in.

“They might be getting the kids ready in the morning for school, but are taking too long, so the partner gets impatient and takes over,” Professor Wenzel says.

Ms Dober says it can also be what is said.

“It can just be phrases. Saying things like ‘You are just so much better at this than me’ … ‘This is what you do best, you’re so great at it’ [or] ‘Remember how bad I stuffed up last time, it’s just easier if you do it’.”

Have you experienced weaponised incompetence in a relationship? How did it impact you? Share with us at everyday@abc.net.au

How it reinforces the unequal division of labour in households

In Australian households, women spend eight hours more per week on unpaid domestic work than men, and women living with children spend more than 35 hours per week doing unpaid domestic work (while men spend 19.7 hours).

Weaponised incompetence in the home leads to the perpetuation of these gendered role divisions, says Professor Wenzel.

“It draws heavily on stereotypes and therefore on social realities, where traditionally boys and men are not socialised or taught or expected to be good at certain tasks,” he says.

“[In heterosexual relationships], women get locked into traditional roles, doing most of the household work and therefore being prevented from following other pursuits, be it professional or otherwise.

“[Weaponised incompetence] can maintain this inequality.”

He says for parents especially, it’s our responsibility to “raise our kids differently” and break down these gender stereotypes.

“[Demonstrate that] it’s not assumed there are different skill sets for men and women.”

A woman vacuuming the floors while a man sits on a couch and uses a laptop. The living room has plants and prints on the wall.
Weaponised incompetence in heterosexual relationships keeps women “busy” in the home, experts say.(Pexels)

The spectrum of weaponised incompetence

Weaponised incompetence exists on a spectrum, explains Ms Dober.

At the extreme end, she says it can be abusive when it’s about maintaining control over another person.

“It can be a tactic that is used in order to keep someone busy, keep someone stressed, or keep them in the home.”

At the other end, Ms Dober says it could be rooted in anxiety, where a person is nervous about doing something and having it “evaluated negatively”.

“The person might be super anxious … and trying to avoid discomfort or being criticised.

“[In this scenario] it’s typically a ‘one-off’, and more often than not, they are an equal partner.”

In the middle of the spectrum, weaponised incompetence is used to “shirk responsibility” and avoid engaging in whatever labour is needed, such as chores or child care, to instead “enjoy more free time”, Ms Dober says.

“When it is intentional, we are more looking at a pattern of behaviour — a long-standing tradition of them not wanting to engage in shared division of labour in the home, or [of them] getting people to do things for them.”

What to do if you feel your partner uses weaponised incompetence

The starting point is a conversation about how the way the unequal load is having a negative impact, our experts recommend.

Professor Wenzel says while the label of weaponised incompetence is helpful for some to understand the behaviour, it could be problematic for others. So it may not always be useful in the conversation.  

Ms Dober suggests describing “the impact it has on you” and to “share the amount of time and energy it takes you to do these tasks”.

“See if there is any way a more equal distribution can be actioned.”

She adds that such conversations will likely be revealing about the intent behind the weaponised incompetence from your partner.

“If it’s unintentional, you’ll be able to negotiate boundaries … [and] you might need to have weekly chats to check in.”

If the issue continues and it becomes apparent the lack of support is intentional, Ms Dober says to chat to friends, family, and trusted professionals such as a psychologist to “evaluate what impact this is having on your health and wellbeing”.

“What would you like your life to look like? It’s up to you and your social supports to decide what to do from here.”

SOURCE: ABCNEWS

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