Panning around with a cellphone camera, 26-year-old Skye Vasquez reveals a home that looks ransacked: piles of sopping wet toys and toilet paper decorating the bathroom floor, a sink full of blue water, a paint-smeared children’s dresser and carpet, other miscellaneous items strewn about.
The disaster would have most viewers imagining her toddler was left completely unattended in the house for hours.
But, as the mother of three later explains, the mess was the result of her daughter being placed in the care of her husband for about an hour and a half — while Vasquez was busy putting the pair’s two younger children down for a nap.
What is weaponized incompetence?
Put simply, weaponized incompetence is when one partner feigns or exaggerates their inability to perform a task, no matter how simple or complex, in order to shift the burden of responsibility back to the other partner.
Although the term “weaponized incompetence” was coined relatively recently in 2007, the manipulative tactic isn’t actually new.
It falls more broadly “under the umbrella of what has long been known as passive-aggressive behavior,” explained Dr. Mimi Winsberg, MD, the Chief Medical Officer at telemedicine platform Brightside and author of Speaking in Thumbs. Over time, weaponized incompetence can erode trust in a relationship and build resentment, which can poison even the strongest partnerships.
“By not doing something or not addressing something, the person effectively acts in a hostile or manipulative manner,” the psychiatrist told In The Know. “People in relationships with one another naturally depend on each other for certain things. And when one person shirks responsibilities by feigning incompetence or worse yet — just doing such a poor job that it begs to be redone — the other person is certain to feel resentment.”
For Vasquez, whose children are just 5 years old, 2 years old and 5 months old, the manipulation tactic most often presented itself in her marriage when concerning childcare duties.
“It got to the point where I never felt comfortable leaving the house without my kids because I wouldn’t know what I’d be coming home to,” she told In The Know. “Either it’d be a huge mess that I’d end up cleaning or it’d be the silent treatment or anger directed at me from my husband. Either way, I would end up being punished somehow for not just caring for the kids myself.”
“No one is just so well-suited to take out the trash”
Some phrases that may signal weaponized incompetence are “I don’t know how to do that” or “I’m not good at that,” particularly when leveraged to avoid a task or chore that doesn’t require much skill to perform.
“It’s natural for couples to find their niche, so to speak, and divide responsibilities in such a way that plays to each of their strengths. If one person is a good party planner and enjoys that, they should absolutely take the lead on that front,” Dr. Winsberg explains. “But there are lots of daily chores that need to get done in an equitable way. No one is just so well-suited to take out the trash.”
Although weaponized incompetence may crop up in any type of partnership, it most often does in cishet relationships, with the male partner using it against the female partner.
Hüdanur Akkuzu, MA, a consultant at Oh So Spotless currently working toward a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, posits that traditional gender roles likely cause this disparity, supported by patriarchal social structures.
“In a patriarchy, housework and childcare are seen as women’s work,” she told In The Know. “The partner who uses weaponized incompetence may have grown up as a child under the care of only one reliable parent. Children [carry on] the behavior patterns they see from their parents when they are adults.”
“You’re going to end up a single dad”
According to a January 2020 report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, American women spend 37% more of their time on unpaid housework than men. As The Atlantic notes, even breadwinning women don’t see greater equity here. On average, women with unemployed husbands spend more time on household chores than their spouses.
The coronavirus pandemic brought with it new household responsibilities, forcing many couples with children to simultaneously work from home and assume the task of homeschooling.
All of this additional physical and mental labor has caused more and more women to speak out against inequality at home and the tactics used to enforce it — like weaponized incompetence — on social media.
Danger frequently calls out TikTok videos that feature wives making light of their husband’s weaponized incompetence, in order to show viewers that inequity is anything but funny.
In one of her most viral videos, she stitches with a creator who shared a video of a father excitedly handing a crying infant over to the child’s mother, who had asked him to watch the baby while she showered.
“When your partner needs to go take a shower, get the baby out of the house,” Danger said. “They do not want to hear that crying while they take the 30 minutes that nobody’s touching them.”
“Every time you do an intentionally half-assed, s****y job and then literally launch the baby at them when they get out of the shower, they lose confidence in you,” she continued. “They lose confidence in you valuing their time, and they know their kid’s just going to be sad and crying the entire time that they try to meet their own needs.”
“If you don’t step up and try your best and put your partner’s needs up there, she’s going to resent the s*** out of you,” she added. “And you’re going to end up a single dad.”
Danger, who recently became a Fair Play Certified Facilitator through a program developed by Harvard-law graduate and relationship expert Eve Rodsky, told In The Know she made her first video about weaponized incompetence in February 2020 after seeing another video discussing the term.
“The creator had responded to a phenomenon they’d seen where a male partner acted like they needed to be told each step of how something was done,” she explained.
At the time, Danger says she had a fraction of her current 197,000 followers — but the video still went viral, garnering over 175,000 views in a matter of days.
“My comment section blew up with folks reacting to finally putting a name to a phenomenon we’ve all seen,” she shared.
Danger says she didn’t address the topic again until one of her friends, who just had her third baby, shared a picture of her husband “begrudgingly” holding the infant in one hand and a phone in the other, captioned, “I’m so lucky! Dad and baby let me take 30 minutes to hit the gym.”
“My video was expressing outrage at the idea that parenting one’s own child and providing your partner space to meet their basic health needs means they’re ‘lucky,'” she said.
“Putting clothes on your children isn’t a biological trait”
Christina (@pickle_plants), a 33-year-old mother of two from California, first began speaking out on the unequal burden women face in many American households after she came across a few TikToks of fathers putting their daughter’s clothes on incorrectly for school, including one for a girl’s first day of kindergarten.
But what made Christina even angrier than the videos themselves was the comments being left on them.
“In the end, what drove me to talk about the videos was not this man’s lack of childcare effort. It was the hundreds of comments laughing and shrugging it off as just ‘something dads do,'” Christina, who requested her last name be withheld, told In The Know.
“I just couldn’t help but think about how little effort the dad had to put in to make such a massive mistake. For her first day of kindergarten, no less! And [I] considered how that may have affected the mother’s mental load,” she added.
Christina believes that this type of “seemingly harmless” messaging is insidious in nature, as it furthers the false patriarchal belief that women are somehow genetically better suited for housework and childcare tasks. And thus, “we should not expect men to do [chores] properly, if at all.”
“Putting clothes on your children isn’t a biological trait mothers possess that fathers don’t,” she said. “It boils down to the amount of effort one puts into the task, just like everything we do in life. You’re telling me a Fortune 500 CEO is competent enough to run their company but seriously can’t figure out a domestic task without asking their partner for help? Please.”
“Few people want to be in an ongoing adult relationship with a child”
Both Christine and Danger said that their videos on weaponized incompetence tend to strike a chord with viewers.
“Weaponized incompetence is clearly triggering for many people; both the men who feel personally attacked and the women who recognize they’ve been taken advantage of by past or current partners,” Christine said. “Some people even connect it with their own childhood traumas of neglect from their fathers, which is a darker side of weaponized incompetence that I hadn’t even considered.”
“My comment sections can be a real rollercoaster,” Danger added. “I get women looking for a way out, stay-at-home dads who are excited to see someone loudly valuing the care tasks they participate in and the periodic angry man whose wife probably sent them my video.”
Proponents of these videos are known to use defenses like “it’s just a joke” and “it’s not that deep.” Christine believes many people utilize these justifications because they were socialized to accept this behavior from men. In a sad way, they can relate to the content.
“These videos continue to be popular because so many people can see themselves in [them],” she explained. “Just like TV sitcoms, one of the reasons they’re funny to us is because they’re relatable.”
“So often we can recall a time where our own partner or father did something similar and we connect with that experience,” she continued. “In a way, it’s like getting validation that, ‘See? Other husbands do the same thing, too.’ And if everyone else is going through the same thing, it must not be a big deal, right?”
Although it may feel natural to perceive instances of weaponized incompetence as comedic, Dr. Winsberg advises against it.
“In the right light, it might be funny or endearing, because at its core it’s childlike, and children are funny and endearing,” she explained. “But few people want to be in an ongoing adult relationship with a child.”
How do we put a stop to weaponized incompetence?
Damage from weaponized incompetence can potentially be undone if addressed early and effectively.
Dr. Winsberg advises a two-fold approach if you believe you are being manipulated in this manner.
Start by pointing out all the other ways your partner is “super-competent” and use that as a means of encouragement.
“For example; ‘I’ve always seen you do whatever you set your mind to. So I’m sure you can learn to separate the whites from the darks when it’s your turn to do the laundry,'” she suggested.
Then, let your partner know when you are feeling alone with a particular task and would like to share the burden with them.
“‘I feel alone when every weekend I’m the one taking our child to (name an activity),'” Dr. Winsberg gave as an example. “‘It would be really nice to have your company and share the experience with you.’ Or, ‘I’d love it if you surprised me with plans or took the lead on planning an outing or a trip.'”
For those who believe they might be guilty of utilizing weaponized incompetence and wish to course-correct, start by taking notice of the work your partner does to make your household and relationship run smoothly. Then, be proactive. Offer to help your partner with tasks before they even ask you to do so. Take the time and care to make sure the job gets done properly so your partner does not have to redo it later.
It’s crucial for those on both ends of this passive-aggressive tactic to take action because, if left unattended, weaponized incompetence can metastasize like cancer and destroy a once-healthy relationship or marriage.
As for Vazquez, the TikTok creator whose toddler wrecked her home while her husband was supposed to be watching her?
She is now a single mom of three, looking to heal herself from the emotional damage her relationship wreaked on her.
“I realized I’d had enough not long after posting that video and then I left my husband in October,” she told In The Know. “The video and all the support I got from other TikTokers is what gave me the strength to walk away from the toxicity.”
Vazquez says she hopes that by being open about her experience, she can help others escape or avoid experiencing similar manipulation. And whatever you do, she advises not allowing such behavior to slide.
“You can try and live with it or ignore it but the mental and emotional damage it does will slowly eat away at you,” she said. “It’s a form of manipulation and often coincides with other forms of mental [or] emotional abuse. Anyone experiencing this should find a therapist for themselves at the very least so that they can get a support system outside of the home and confide in trusted friends.”
“Most importantly, don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself and set your boundaries,” she added.
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