If you spend time on social media, you’ve probably heard the latest relationship buzzword that’s making the rounds: weaponized incompetence.
This term has gained mainstream fame over the past year, thanks to TikTok creators calling out their predominantly male partners for not doing their fair share of domestic labor and child care. Weaponized incompetence occurs when someone uses incompetence, whether feigned or genuine, as a manipulation tactic to get out of taking on certain tasks at work or at home. This could mean a partner who consistently lets things get completely out of control whenever they’re tasked with caring for the kids or a partner who repeatedly leaves all the chores to you because they claim to not be able to do basic tasks as well as you do.
“Weaponized incompetence means that the behavior is part of a manipulative pattern to uphold an unequal and even dehumanizing power structure,” says Sarah Spencer Northey, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Washington, D.C. “When incompetence is ‘weaponized,’ we get into the realm of major relationship betrayal.”
We’ve already shared expert tips for understanding and identifying weaponized incompetence in your relationships. But once you know it’s happening, what should you do? Here, therapists and mental health experts break down six steps you can take to address weaponized incompetence from a partner and begin the work of healing your relationship.
1. Call it out
If you think your partner is using weaponized incompetence to get out of doing their fair share, don’t let it slide, says Kurt Smith, a licensed therapist and the founder of Guy Stuff Counseling and Coaching in Roseville, California.
“Call it out repeatedly,” he says. “You don’t have to be accusatory or mean. Just reflect on the behavior and how it makes you feel. For instance, you might say, ‘When I’m the only one who bathes the kids, I feel like a single parent, and it’s really frustrating.’”
Some partners may try to redirect by saying they don’t know how to do something or they’re worried they won’t do it well, but don’t let that steer the conversation. “Emphasize that all you’re looking for is effort and that the effort is made consistently,” Smith adds.
2. Don’t minimize the behavior
It may be tempting to brush off inequalities at home, either because the trope of the “fumbling dad” has been so normalized or because talking about it feels really complicated. But if you’re trying to combat an unequal division of labor, Northey says it’s important not to make light of what’s happening.
“Some people have taken to posting their complaints as a joke on social media,” explains Northey. “If the behavior is an anomaly in an otherwise equal relationship, then it’s fun to laugh. But when we are talking about an exhausting pattern, it’s not cute or funny. It’s unfair and stressful.”
Not only could minimizing the problem keep you in a damaging cycle in your relationship, but it also sets a bad example for others in your household. “If we have any hope of raising children who will transcend current power inequities, partners need to be talking about putting their family system back into a fair balance,” she says.
3. Get to the root of the problem
If someone is repeatedly using weaponized incompetence to get out of doing things and harming their realtionship, an important question to ask is: Why?
“Explore why your partner feels they can’t do something, refraining from judgment and blaming,” says Emily Mendez, a mental health expert, author and former private practice psychotherapist. “Just listen to what they have to say.”
It may be that they’re trying to avoid an argument or they have genuine hesitations about performing certain tasks. Talking about it honestly can help you work towards a solution together, says Mendez. “Here’s an example of how to approach the issue with your partner: ‘Recently, I feel like I’ve been doing most of the chores. When can we chat about this?’”
4. Talk about how to be a better team
“All you’re asking for is a partner who tries,” Smith says. “That’s something that everybody can do — try. And we actually get better at the things we try and are willing to try again.”
In order to kick off a conversation about division of labor, Northey often encourages couples to list all the tasks associated with managing a home and taking care of dependents. “I have them give a percentage estimate of how often each person is doing each task,” she notes. “It’s OK if each task isn’t at 50% for each person, as long as it feels equal.”
“Keeping score,” or keeping track of everything you’re contributing in a relationship, isn’t something Northey recommends doing long term. However, if there is disbelief that things are unequal, you may need to temporarily “keep score” in order to illuminate how labor is really being divided, hold everyone accountable and rebuild trust, she notes.
5. Be willing to negotiate
Sometimes people don’t tackle certain chores because they genuinely don’t like the task or they’re tired of doing it. Northey says getting honest about the division of labor in your household is also a great opportunity to speak frankly about the things you don’t like or don’t want to do.
“It’s OK to admit you don’t like to do something if you are bringing it up as a negotiation, not a manipulation strategy,” she says.
When someone whines and complains about or entirely avoids a task that’s supposed to be their responsibility, that’s a manipulative tactic, points out Northey. “A negotiation is saying things like: ‘I think you like doing this more than me, so can we trade tasks?’ or, ‘If you do this for me, I will make it up to you in ‘X’ way.’”
And if you have the means, hiring a house cleaner in order to ensure a task gets done is OK — as long as it is not otherwise unfairly burdening your partner, adds Northey.
6. Prioritize partnership
The biggest problem with weaponized incompetence isn’t that someone has to do the dishes more often or that only one person takes out the trash. The real problem is that weaponized incompetence contributes to resentment, burnout and distrust. “Underneath the games someone may be playing, what they are doing is hurting their partner,” Northey says. “To feign ignorance and not do something so that you can get out of your responsibilities is similar to lying and cheating.”
Smith encourages the partner who does this to be honest with themselves about why. “We’re all guilty of believing things about the kind of person we are that don’t match our behavior,” he notes. “Everyone can try to do something, so why don’t you?”
For partners who need some motivation to step up, Northey advises, “Think of how your labor contributes to filling up the love tank for your relationship. It’s as important for keeping the love alive as having regular dates, physical intimacy and other ways of connecting.”
In short, you’ll do well to turn towards empathy and love. Northey concludes, “Remember that sharing the burden of maintaining a home and caring for children are acts of love.”