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Weaponized incompetence: What it is and how to know if it’s happening in your relationship

Weaponized incompetence can be used when it comes to chores, child care and more. Here's what it means and warning signs it's happening.

Weaponized incompetence: What it is and how to know if it’s happening in your relationship

You’ve likely seen the posts on social media: A wife makes a grocery list with pictures because her husband can’t find his way around the store; a woman surveys her wrecked house after her husband watches their toddler; a mom asks her spouse to put away leftovers, only to find later that he’s lazily shoved an entire crockpot into the refrigerator. For a lot of women in relationships, these stories are all too relatable. They’re also prime examples of weaponized incompetence.

Weaponized incompetence became a viral buzz phrase in the summer of 2021, thanks to an onslaught of popular videos on TikTok. To date, the hashtag for the term has more than 67 million views on TikTok, and it’s being used to call out partners — mostly heterosexual men — who use or feign incompetence as a way to get out of doing things they don’t want to do and leave their partner carrying the majority of the mental load.

Weaponized incompetence can be deployed when it comes to basic chores, child care and even meal prep. But where did this phrase come from, and why is it having a moment? Here, mental health experts break down what weaponized incompetence looks like and how to tell if it’s happening in your relationship.

What is weaponized incompetence?

“Imagine you’ve just come home from a business trip, and the house is in disarray,” says Emily Mendez, a mental health expert, author and former private practice psychotherapist. “You ask your partner, ‘Why is our home a mess?’ They respond with ‘I’m not good at cleaning, so I thought you could do it,’ or they try to flatter you by saying, ‘I don’t know how to stack the dishwasher the way you do it, so I just left the dishes in the sink.’”

That is weaponized incompetence, she says. It’s “when an individual pretends that they can’t perform a simple action so someone will do it for them.”

On the internet, weaponized incompetence is presented as being largely experienced by women in heterosexual relationships. In one of the most viral examples, a TikTok creator who goes by the name Laura Danger calls out a dad who promised to watch the baby so his wife could shower, but then fell asleep, leaving their infant essentially unattended while the mom took a minute for herself.


#stitch with @kcrowe86 ahhhhh the ole’ weaponized incompetence.

♬ original sound – Laura Danger

“This is weaponized incompetence,” Laura explains in her video. “If your partner is saying, ‘Just ask me to do it, and I’ll do it,’ then they do a sh***y job or an unsafe job, they’re not actually doing it for you.”

“Sometimes this claimed lack of ability is due to lacking knowledge or experience, but that doesn’t cut it today. YouTube, anybody?”


Where did weaponized incompetence come from?

While the term “weaponized incompetence” might seem new and trendy, the concept has actually been around for decades. In 2007, journalist Jared Sandberg described the phenomenon in a Wall Street Journal article about “strategic incompetence.” Even earlier than that, in 1986, the business theorist Chris Argyris published a piece in the Harvard Business Review in which he described it as “skilled incompetence.”

These terms originally described the act of feigning incompetence to pass off labor in the corporate world. But by 2008, “strategic incompetence” was being used to describe unfair divisions of labor at home and in child care as well. The terms have continued to evolve in the fields of psychology and sociology. Kurt Smith, a licensed therapist and the founder of Guy Stuff Counseling and Coaching in Roseville, California, describes it to his patients as “faking incompetence.”

“Most people know what I’m talking about when I use that description,” Smith says. “Sometimes this claimed lack of ability is due to lacking knowledge or experience, but that doesn’t cut it today. YouTube, anybody? Who hasn’t watched a video to learn how to do something? The real problem is the intent behind it, as the terms ‘faking’ or ‘weaponized’ imply. This is a ploy that’s used to manipulate a situation or someone else.”

Does weaponized incompetence only affect women?

When you consider existing data on the equitable division of labor at home, it makes sense that women feel most impacted by weaponized incompetence, since they are often taking care of the lion’s share of household and child care tasks. According to a 2021 poll by McKinsey and LeanIn.org, since early 2020, mothers are more than three times as likely as fathers to shoulder the majority of household and parenting labor. They’re also 1.5 times more likely than dads to spend an extra three or more hours on chores and child care.

While women are more likely to shoulder the burden of weaponized incompetence, that doesn’t mean men are exempt. “Faking incompetence comes up all the time [in my practice],” Smith says. “One of the most frequent subjects is around money management. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told by people — both male and female — that they had to take over balancing their bank account because their partner kept overdrawing the account.”

Even though weaponized incompetence can be deployed by anyone to get out of an unwanted task, it’s still likely that gender roles have a big influence. “If one person was raised in a family where girls helped out with the laundry while boys played outside, they are more likely to repeat this behavior in their own relationship,” adds Lauren Debiac, a therapist at The Ohana in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.

Do people use weaponized incompetence on purpose?

While the word “weaponized” makes it seem like weaponized incompetence is always carried out with malicious intent, the reality is more complicated, the experts say.

In the worst case scenario, weaponized incompetence is intentional and calculated. “Sometimes it’s used by a partner strategically to shift the responsibility of tasks to you,” Mendez says. “This is a very skillful form of manipulation that can go unnoticed for some time.”

But, she adds, that isn’t always the case. “It doesn’t always come from a bad place,” Mendez explains. “It can stem from a lack of confidence or self-esteem; they may genuinely believe that they’re unable to perform those actions or tasks.”

“You and your partner share the weight of your chores and daily tasks because that harbors equality in your relationship. But as soon as someone engages in weaponized incompetence, it tips the scale.”


In either case, the biggest problem with weaponized incompetence is that it enforces a power imbalance that can ultimately create conflict and resentment.

“Imagine your relationship like a set of weighing scales,” she says. “You and your partner share the weight of your chores and daily tasks because that harbors equality in your relationship. But as soon as someone engages in weaponized incompetence, it tips the scale. The burden is heavier on one side than the other.”

Over time, this leads to frustration, anger and exhaustion. “Your partner’s willful ignorance can leave you feeling used and like your partner isn’t putting as much into your relationship as you are,” Mendez says. “If it carries on for too long, you’ll likely experience burnout.”

How can I spot weaponized incompetence at home?

According to the experts, weaponized incompetence can take many forms. It might include:

  • Claiming not to know how to perform basic chores.
  • Avoiding or refusing to learn how to do child care tasks.
  • Shirking responsibility for joint finances.
  • Lack of involvement in planning, scheduling and activities.
  • Avoiding responsibility for grocery shopping or meal prep.

“I regularly hear about incompetence being used regarding child care,” Smith says. “Many men will claim incompetence regarding bathing the kids, getting them to fall asleep, etc. Their partners will then take on the task out of frustration and for their kids’ well-being, otherwise their teeth don’t get brushed, hair isn’t washed or the 5-year-old is up until 10 p.m.”

Read more: 6 steps to curbing weaponized incompetence in your relationship

Mendez adds, “Another typical example is when an item is lost. Does your partner look for two minutes and then ask you to look, only for you to find it instantly?”

Weaponized incompetence can happen at any time with virtually any task. The biggest indicator is frequently finding yourself in situations in which your partner could take on or learn how to do something, but they pass the buck to you instead of taking initiative. 

Mendez sums it up succinctly: “If you find your partner often avoids basic tasks, and you catch yourself saying, ‘It’s easier if I just do it,’ you may be coming up against weaponized incompetence.”