Is Your Partner Actually Terrible at Certain Chores and Tasks… Or Are They Weaponizing Their Incompetence?


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For anyone who has lived with a partner, deciding how to share household responsibilities can be a chore on its own. Sometimes, one person may take on additional responsibilities such as when their partner is ill or busy with work. But if you’re always doing the laundry or shopping for groceries because, as your partner claims, “you’re better at it,” this may be a sign of weaponized incompetence.

“Weaponized incompetence in romantic relationships refers to the intentional use of incompetence or helplessness as a strategy to manipulate or control a partner,” says therapist Benu Lahiry, LMFT, chief clinical officer at premarital counseling platform Ours. For example, someone may put off a simple task until their partner gives in and does it themselves. Or, they could feign ignorance, perhaps pretending not to know the phone number of the veterinary clinic or what brand of soap to buy.

Experts In This Article

This behavior isn’t limited to romantic relationships, either. Weaponized incompetence can also happen with friends, family members, and co-workers like, for example, when junior or female workers1 become the de facto note-takers or party planners. Whoever is involved, this behavior can erode trust in a relationship and lead to an unequal division of labor.

Who does weaponized incompetence affect?

Another term for this phenomenon, strategic incompetence, has been used in corporate circles for decades to describe when “a worker claims incompetence to pass off tasks to colleagues,” says clinical psychologist Wendy Walsh, PhD, relationship expert at “More recently, it has entered the lexicon of internet relationship bloggers when referring to lazy partners, who are most often male.” TikTok videos depicting this behavior have gone viral, such as the one of a woman who created a detailed grocery list for her husband including a map of the store, or the one of daughters chastising their dad for forgetting cups when he sets the table—his only job at Thanksgiving.

Weaponized incompetence can affect anyone, but it may have a disproportionate effect on women because of traditional gender roles and cultural expectations of women as caregivers and homemakers, Lahiry says. “When a partner exploits these stereotypes, it creates an environment where women feel compelled to accommodate their partner’s perceived incompetence,” she adds. We even have research showing that women tend to be more involved in chores associated with female stereotypes2 like childcare while men tend to perform traditionally masculine duties like home repairs and budgeting.

Similarly, a study of dual-earner couples found that when the division of housework is fair to both spouses, women experience greater relationship satisfaction and less conflict3. Mothers with more childcare responsibilities upon returning to work reported more conflict. “Men who have grown up in traditional gender role homes or who have not been asked to take on traditionally feminine tasks may find it hard to acclimate to these tasks,” says psychotherapist and executive coach Daryl Appleton, EdD.

Is weaponized incompetence always intentional?

Partners may weaponize incompetence to seek control or attention, elicit sympathy, or avoid negative consequences. This behavior tends to become a pattern when there’s some kind of reward, Dr. Appleton says. Maybe a partner, who says they’re “bad at planning,” gets more time to relax while you spend weeks researching flights and hotels for your vacation.

While it may seem like your partner is acting this way on purpose, weaponized incompetence can be unintentional. “For the average person, who has little insight and awareness, most behaviors are unconscious,” Dr. Walsh says. “Only people who may have traits of a dark triad personality (narcissism, psychopathy, Machiavellianism) tend to be deliberately sadistic.”

Another feature of weaponized incompetence is gaslighting, which involves “making someone question their reality,” Dr. Walsh says. For instance, someone may say to their spouse: “I’m not good with babies. Are you sure I can handle this?” This need for reassurance may be an attempt to gaslight the other individual or it could be a personality trait of someone who has difficulty making decisions or being alone, she adds.

How to tell if someone is truly unable to perform a task vs. weaponizing incompetence

Rather than being honest or direct, a person may resort to passive-aggressive tactics to offload responsibilities onto their partner, Lahiry says. For example, they may promise to do the laundry and claim they “just forgot” or overload the dishwasher, so everything has to be rewashed. Another example is declining to help with budgeting because they’re “not good with numbers.”

Recognizing when someone is feigning helplessness can be tricky. Dr. Appleton recommends looking for “patterns of behavior and whether the incompetence seems to conveniently serve the individual’s interests or goals.” For example, if running errands entails texting you every five minutes to ask where to find the shampoo or deodorant aisle, this could be their not-so-subtle way of telling you that shopping is boring, unpleasant, or beneath them.

“A partner who is genuinely struggling with a task will show a sincere effort in understanding the issue and improving to the best of their capabilities,” Lahiry explains. They care how their actions affect their partner. Meanwhile, someone who is weaponizing incompetence is “avoiding responsibilities, feigning a lack of understanding, or conveniently failing to complete tasks,” she says.

How to address weaponized incompetence if it’s damaging your relationship

Bailing on chores occasionally or not knowing how to do something isn’t necessarily a big deal. But, if it happens consistently, it can “breed resentment and create a power imbalance within a relationship,” Dr. Appleton says. Over time, this behavior can lead to a breakdown of trust, “which is a cornerstone of a thriving and healthy relationship4,” Lahiry says.

Below, you’ll find four tips for managing weaponized incompetence if you notice it cropping up in your relationship.

1. Practice open communication

Since your partner may not realize how their behavior is affecting you, you may need to bring it to their attention. You can share your concerns “in a way that is based in facts not emotion and at a time and place that your partner is better able to receive it,” Dr. Appleton says.

It’s also wise to focus on the dynamic you’re observing. Instead of accusing your partner of shirking their responsibilities, try saying: “I feel let down sometimes when you promise to do certain tasks and then say you’re unable to.” Dr. Walsh says. They’re less likely to get defensive5 if you reassure them that you have faith in them and want to understand their perspective.

2. Set expectations

Dr. Appleton suggests working with your partner to develop clear expectations for sharing responsibilities. You may discover certain chores that your partner doesn’t mind doing or perhaps could benefit from a little more practice.

Aside from chores, people feign incompetence to avoid conflict. “Taking note of where this pattern shows up will help pinpoint dynamics that are unhelpful to your relationship,” Lahiry adds. For example, maybe your partner needs a cooling off period during an argument or they want a sympathetic ear rather than advice.

3. Allow them to “fail”

If your partner doesn’t make the bed or fold the laundry the way you’re accustomed to, “let them do it without help or you stepping in,” Dr. Appleton says. She also suggests using encouragement and praise when you see improvement. Decades of research show that people learn best in a supportive environment6.

Dr. Walsh suggests giving your partner tasks and instructions to see how they do. If the issue concerns childcare, she recommends taking an infant care and CPR class together. That way, you’re both equipped with the same knowledge.

4. Seek couples therapy

It’s unlikely that your partner will change overnight. Having an outside perspective can be beneficial for understanding relationship dynamics. Working with a couples therapist can help with resolving underlying issues and improving your relationship with your partner, Dr. Appleton says.