Don’t worry, fellow wives. I’m not about to try to discredit weaponized incompetence.
Weaponized incompetence is real. It is neglectful. I’d argue that it’s abusive.
Just so we’re clear on my stance before we begin.
Weaponized incompetence refers to the intentional use or manipulation of incompetence or lack of proficiency as a strategy to achieve specific goals. It is typically discussed regarding husbands toward their wives, but it should be noted that anyone of any gender can use weaponized incompetence as a manipulation tactic.
When we talk about weaponized incompetence from husbands, which is the focus of this blog, we typically discuss the way that some husbands feign ignorance, inadequacy, or inefficiency to avoid contributing their part in household duties.
To give an example, imagine a wife asks her husband to tidy up the kitchen while she gets the kids ready for bed. He agrees. But thirty minutes later, after the wife has finished the complicated and multistep process of the bedtime routine, she enters the kitchen to find it in a state of disarray. The dishes are loaded in the dishwasher, but they are covered in grime that even the best detergent couldn’t cut through. The pots and pans she used to cook dinner are stacked on the stove rather than put where they belong. And all the clean dishes from the previous load are stacked on the counter top because “he doesn’t know where they go” (even though he has managed to complete this task in the past, when it was his decision to do so). Exhausted and overwhelmed, the wife now must re-do the task she asked her to do.
Next time, she’ll remember this. She won’t ask her husband to help. She’ll just do it herself.
And this is the intent behind weaponized incompetence.
As some of you know, my husband and I separated two years ago. The unfair division of household labor was one of our major issues that we just couldn’t seem to get around. Having had enough of carrying that load by myself, despite my pleas for help, I decided I would rather live on my own.
When we reconciled, we learned how to communicate better about household responsibilities. We adopted the Fair Play method, which provides a paradigm for delegating household responsibilities that is fair and equitable. My husband has become the man of my dreams. Not just in doing his share of the labor, but also in enriching my life, attending to my needs, and being so intimately invested in me and my well-being that he can anticipate ways to make my life easier.
I am a woman truly blessed.
So, I found myself in a bit of a pickle when my husband let me down the other day in what felt like a truly major way.
Earlier this week, while we were getting our children ready for school, I grabbed my keys to head outside and start the car like I do every winter morning. My husband offered to do it for me, and I was grateful. He came back inside and immediately had to jump on a phone call for work. I finished getting the kids ready for school, and we headed out the door.
When I got to the car, I realized that several things were wrong. First, the windshield was still completely iced over. The car had been running for close to half an hour—plenty of time for our thin southern frost to have been melted away with the defroster running. Second, the car was running and unlocked! My husband had left the clicker on the keychain with the ignition key, not bothering to slip it off, lock the door, and bring it back inside.
When I got in the car, already slightly annoyed, it was freezing. My husband had started the car, but hadn’t turned on the heat or the defroster. So, I had two freezing children who were whining and upset, and an opaque windshield that I couldn’t possibly see through until the defroster kicked in. Thankfully, we still managed to get to school on time, but only by the skin of our teeth and not without tons of frustration.
As I made my drive back home, I was seething. This is weaponized incompetence! He did this on purpose. Who turns on a car in winter and doesn’t turn on the heat?!
I was ready to give him a piece of my mind as soon as I walked in the door.
But thanks to all the therapy I’ve been in, I found my frustration beginning to ebb and a more sensible line of thinking breaking through the haze.
He offered to do this for me.
He wanted to help.
Do I believe that my husband is a manipulative dirt bag who intended to sabotage me and ruin my morning?
Or could there be another explanation?
The obvious answer is, of course, that there was another explanation: my husband is human. He made a mistake. He offered to help, and ended up doing the opposite. Whether it was because his ADHD medication hadn’t kicked in yet, or he just wasn’t quite awake enough to think through what he was doing, he made a mistake.
And it really is that simple.
By the time I walked in the door, I was calm. Rather than criticizing him for letting me down, I said, “honey, I love you so much. But please, next time you offer to start the car, actually turn the heat on!”
He stared at me like a deer in the headlights, and then we both descended into peels of laughter. It ended up being a funny and endearing moment. I was able to let him know that I need him to be more careful if he’s going to offer to help me, but in a way that didn’t accuse him of something far more nefarious than it actually was. It became a moment for us to connect, rather than to fight.
I think for some of us, especially those who have a history of our husbands not showing up for us the way we’d like, it’s easy to tell ourselves that every mistake is intentional; every time they let us down is an act of weaponized incompetence. And for some of us, maybe that’s true. But I do think there are some of us who have good, decent husbands who show up for us in every way possible, and who are still bound to make mistakes.
I’m learning that although my past is valid and my feelings about my past are equally valid, my husband and I both deserve for me to heal. I don’t deserve to live my life interpreting every mistake my husband makes as a sign that he is intentionally trying to let me down. And my husband deserves to be human and make mistakes without being accused of something sinister.
The car-starting situation was a useful tool for highlighting some work that I need to do in my healing. I seem to have some wounds from the past that haven’t quite healed, and it’s time for me to focus on those. I need to learn how to distinguish between clear, unequivocal weaponized incompetence (which, to be honest, I don’t think my husband is capable of anymore), from my husband making a mistake and me being triggered about it.
In our discourse around weaponized incompetence, we must not paint with an unnecessarily large brush. Not only is it unfair to our husbands—the good and decent ones who are trying their best—but it is also not good for our cause. If we depict every mistake a husband makes as weaponized incompetence, nothing we say about it will ever be taken seriously. We must correctly delineate weaponized incompetence from other things, making sure we call a spade a space, without calling the hearts, diamonds, and clubs spades, too. That is how we heal ourselves and our relationships. And that is how we create progress for better, more equatable, and ultimately more satisfying marriages.
Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.