Weaponized Incompetence — Miscommunication or Manipulation?

You might have heard of “weaponized incompetence” on social media — to date, there are thousands of posts that incorporate this term into their hashtags. These posts are generally examples of situations where one person fails a task so terribly that another person has to pick up the pieces.

But what is weaponized incompetence, and how does it lead to relationship issues? Is weaponized incompetence done intentionally and how can you identify it? And is it simply miscommunication or is it actually manipulation? We’ve answered these questions and more below so you can recognize when it occurs and work towards more balanced relationships.

A light skinned person arguing with a medium skinned person.

What is weaponized incompetence?

Weaponized incompetence describes a scenario in which one person, whether consciously or unconsciously, demonstrates failure at simple tasks so they can get out of what should be shared responsibilities. They might suddenly forget how to complete a basic, everyday-life chore and suggest that you do it instead. Or they might mess up a task on purpose so you’re more inclined to do the work, leaving them without the burden of responsibility. It’s a way to shirk accountability and responsibility, and is a sure way to erode trust within a relationship.

Is weaponized incompetence a form of gaslighting?

Yes, weaponized incompetence is a form of gaslighting. Gaslighting describes manipulation by an individual that pointedly suggests that another person isn’t making sense or that they are acting irrationally as a way to make them confused and insecure. Gaslighting is manipulative and often done for the benefit of one person at the cost of another person. Because weaponized incompetence is a way of manipulating a relationship, it can be considered a form of gaslighting. At its core, it is more than simply a miscommunication.

However, this behavior may sincerely stem from low self-esteem or a lack of confidence. It might also be a behavior that was learned during childhood, whether that’s from watching a parent engage in weaponized incompetence or through successfully engaging in the behavior themselves from a young age. However, at the root of the issue, feigning or emphasizing incompetence is manipulation, whether it’s intentional or not. The result is an imbalance in the relationship, which can cause many types of relationship issues.

What are some examples of weaponized incompetence?

There are many examples of weaponized incompetence found on social media. Sometimes, these videos are funny and comical. Other times, however, they can bring up feelings of anger, frustration, disappointment, and even hopelessness, particularly when they are all too relatable. Many of these examples are posted by women with white, cisgendered, straight men as their partners, especially those that are fathers shirking childcare responsibilities. However, it’s important to note that weaponized incompetence can happen in all types of relationships and for people of all identities.

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Common scenarios of weaponized incompetence

When it comes to scenarios where one is weaponizing incompetence, inherently these are scenarios where there is work to be done and multiple people involved. Weaponized incompetence happens when a person claims that they don’t know how to complete a task, particularly a simple task that most people are capable of completing. These tasks can include:

An example scenario involving weaponized incompetence between a husband and wife:

A wife asks her husband to do the laundry on Sunday afternoon so their child can go to school in a clean uniform Monday morning. The husband tells his wife that he doesn’t know how to use the washer, or doesn’t know how to clean the uniforms properly and says, “You know how to use it, why don’t you take care of that one?”. The wife then responds by telling him that she’s busy helping their child with a school project, which is why she won’t have time to also do the laundry. The husband continues to engage in weaponized incompetence by telling his wife that he can’t do the laundry because he “always messes it up” and that he doesn’t want to do it “the wrong way” again. This leaves the task and shared responsibility of having their child presentable for school the next day on the wife, even though she asked her partner for support.

It’s true that there’s a wide spectrum of skill when it comes to these scenarios. The differentiating factor for identifying weaponized incompetence is that the individual doesn’t even try to improve their capability or try to help. Even if they aren’t technically good at the task, they can at least attempt to complete the task genuinely with good faith, or help their partner complete the task. Instead, people who engage in weaponized incompetence write themselves off the tasks at hand and prefer for another person to complete it. They see their time and energy as more important than their partner’s time and energy, and insist that they simply cannot help out.

Common weaponized incompetence phrases

These are some common phrases, that can be helpful to look out for, that indicate that one might be utilizing weaponized incompetence.

Some of these commonly used phrases in weaponized incompetence include:

You might find yourself responding to the above statements by saying, “Fine, don’t worry about it” or “I’ll do it myself then.” If you respond in this way, then they’re off the hook, leaving you with yet another item on your to-do list.

How can I identify weaponized incompetence in my relationship?

Most commonly — and certainly most commonly talked about — weaponized incompetence occurs within the context of a romantic relationship. Often, weaponized incompetence occurs when partners live together and share the basic responsibilities needed to live adult lives.

To identify weaponized incompetence in your relationship, look for a few of the following red flags:

Can weaponized incompetence only happen at home?

Weaponized incompetence doesn’t only happen at home. It can occur in all types of settings and relationships. Within the home, partners and spouses can engage in weaponized incompetence — but so can parents, siblings, and children. For some individuals, engaging in this type of behavior can be age appropriate. Teenagers who are used to their parents doing all of the chores might push back on needing to do their own chores, which comes at a stage where they’re learning to challenge authority. To do this, they might pretend like they don’t know how to complete a chore or purposefully do a bad job to spite their parents. While more understandable, this type of weaponized incompetence is still an unhealthy behavior.

Weaponized incompetence is applicable to many situations. The term “weaponized incompetence” actually has origins in the workplace to describe a situation in which one coworker pretends not to know how to complete a task so they can avoid the responsibility, leaving their coworkers to compensate for them.

How can I work through weaponized incompetence?

The good news is that there are ways to work through weaponized incompetence. While it may take time — you may need to practice new patterns over weeks and months to make them a habit — it is certainly possible to challenge these behaviors and replace them with healthier ways to balance household responsibilities. Working through weaponized incompetence can help you build a stronger relationship and creates an opportunity to further build a bond that is built on trust and mutual respect.

One of the most important aspects of working through weaponized incompetence is building strong communication skills. Learning how to communicate your feelings and drawing your partner’s attention to how their lack of action makes you feel can help them understand why their shirking is not an acceptable behavior.

Setting clear boundaries is a key component of strong communication. Having conversations about your boundaries before a behavior occurs can a great way to ensure that they’re respected, as you can reference your previous conversation in the moment without your partner feeling blindsided.

You can also have a conversation about how you’ll hold each other accountable. However, if your partner continues to engage in weaponized incompetence despite you asking them to act in a respectful, fair way, then it may be time to consider leaving the relationship.

How can therapy help with weaponized incompetence?

Weaponized incompetence, even when unintentional or unrecognized, can be a huge reason for relationship issues. Therapy can help you sort through your relationship issues and come up with a plan to address this particular pattern of behavior.

During individual therapy sessions, you’ll unpack your thoughts and feelings and receive helpful perspectives from your therapist. You might practice setting boundaries through role-playing with your therapist, or you might learn more about effective communication strategies to use in your relationship.

You can also work with a therapist in a couples therapy setting. With this type of session, you and your partner will meet with a therapist together. Your therapist can provide helpful feedback and facilitate the difficult conversations that come with boundary setting and working through relationship issues, helping you to heal your relationship. Both individual and couples sessions can be beneficial.

If you would like to start therapy to help with relationship issues, finding a therapist that you trust and feel comfortable around is of paramount importance to therapy outcomes. You can search the Zencare therapist directory to find a therapist in your area who specializes in this area by using the Zencare directory filters. Watch their introductory videos to get a sense of their personality and therapy style. Once you’ve found someone that you think would be a good fit, reach out for a call.