When We Fail to Communicate

My husband almost got a wedgie this weekend.

I had done all the back to school shopping. It was a nightmare — an enormous chore. But it was my chore, something that I had chosen to do myself. When the shopping was done, I came home with everything on the supply list along with a few groceries for our house. I separated everything into two piles, one pile containing the things to be put away in the kitchen, and the other pile to go to school with the kids on Monday.

Sometime later that day, my husband Charlie decided to “help me” by going through the school supply pile. He found a box of gallon sized Ziplock baggies and, realizing that we were out, he decided that those must have been mistakenly sorted into the wrong pile. He snatched the box out of the school supply pile, ripped it open, and immediately put 3 of the bags to use. The following day, as I was organizing the school supplies, I asked Charlie if he had seen the Ziplock baggies. He said yes, they were in the drawer.

Son of a bitch.

I was so aggravated. It had taken me forever to find the exact kind of bags the teacher requested with just the right slider on them. Now, I was going to have to make a trip back to the store and find them again. It was an inconvenience I just didn’t want to be bothered with.

The old me would have been furious. Why does he always do things like this?? Why is his incompetence always making more work for me?? Why is he so CLUELESS about things like this??

But thankfully, I’ve been to a lot of therapy. So has Charlie. We’ve learned how to not spiral out over basically inconsequential things like this.

I chose to laugh, lovingly call my husband an idiot, and head back out to the store. What a shock — we can actually handle life’s little bumps in the road without making it a huge issue.

So, why am I talking about this? The reason, I think, might surprise you.

I’ve spent a lot of time talking online about weaponized incompetence. I spoke about this during a time in my marriage when I truly felt like weaponized incompetence was happening with my husband. I felt completely alone with the household affairs, feeling like my husband could help me, but chose to feign ignorance instead. Since then, we’ve both grown and matured (and, as I mentioned, been to therapy). He has become the partner I always wanted and that I deserved all along. He is a devoted husband and father. He has his own responsibilities around the house that he takes care of without fail. He also pays attention to how I’m doing with my responsibilities, and offers to step in to help me when it looks like I might be drowning. He is a good man. I no longer feel like I’m fighting a losing battle with weaponized incompetence.

Now that we are in this heathy place, there is actually a bit of discomfort for me. It was easier when I could blame life’s tiny inconveniences on an aloof husband who wasn’t attentive to my needs or what was going on in my life. Now that my husband is so involved, I have to look closer at myself when things go wrong. I have to ask how I might have contributed to the problem.

This is the part that I think some women who have followed me a long time might balk at, but I feel it needs to be said anyway.

When you are in a healthy marriage with a partner who contributes evenly to the domestic labor, most issues that arise about that labor probably happen because of a lack of communication.

And if it’s a lack of communication, I’m also partly responsible. That’s the part that makes me uncomfy. I’d rather dig my heels in and blame my husband when things go wrong, and I am inconvenienced. Now, I have to own my part.

Here’s the thing. When it came to the Ziplock baggies, my first reaction was to be angry. I felt this sense of injustice, of unfairness. Must be nice to have never done the back to school shopping and therefore be completely unaware that Ziplock bags are always on the supply list. How lovely it must be to not have to think about that stuff!

In a weaponized incompetence mindset, that’s how you think. You focus on the fact that your partner gets to be blissfully unaware of the things you have to do and take care of, and that their ignorance creates more work for you.

But in this case, with my loyal husband who does so much to help me, I can’t really think like that anymore. As I reflected on how the whole Ziplock debacle unfolded, I made a discovery that should have been obvious all along.

Of course, he doesn’t know that Ziplock bags are usually on the back to school list because I’ve always claimed that as my job. I have never asked him to help me, never included him in that chore. If I have claimed a chore as my responsibility, I can’t expect him to know all the tasks, sub-tasks, and demands of that chore. It absolutely stands to reason that someone who has never done back to school shopping wouldn’t realize that Ziplock baggies are a school supply these days. It makes total sense that he would see them sorted with the back to school stuff and decide to “help me” by putting them way with the other groceries. In light of that, it is completely unfair of me to be angry at him for making that assumption.

The problem here isn’t that my husband interfered with my chore. It isn’t that he weaponized his lack of understanding about my chore, either. The problem is that we didn’t communicate.

It would have cost me two seconds to educate him about my chore. Babe, this pile is the school supply pile. There’s stuff in here like Ziplock baggies and paper towels that don’t look like school supplies, but they were on the teachers’ lists, so please leave them there.

Likewise, it would have cost Charlie the same about of time to inquire about the Ziplock baggies. Hey babe, I saw we were out of Ziplock baggies, but there’s a box in the school supply pile. Before I take some, were these supposed to be put away with the rest of our groceries?

The entire Ziplock bag situation could have been avoided with some simple communication on our part.

I can already hear some of you saying, “Yeah, he should have definitely asked before taking the Ziplock bag, but you shouldn’t have had to ask him not to go taking things out of a pile you’ve already sorted. That’s just putting an unnecessary mental load on you.”
And yes, I understand that point. When we talk about the mental load of women in households, we often talk about things like this. I generally agree that many men need to work harder to anticipate things and to share evenly in the mental load because, sadly, it’s still very typical for women to take on most of the mental load in households. But I would also argue that if taking a few seconds to communicate something to my husband (telling him the Ziplocks are for school) will save me from a bigger chore in the long run (making a second trip to the grocery store), I think it serves both of us for me to do that.

I just think we need to be balanced when we have these conversations. There is a time and place for talking about weaponized incompetence and mental load in our marriages. But there is also a time to recognize that a lot of these problems can be resolved with better communication from both parties. When both spouses are choosing to communicate clearly and effectively, so many of the day to day problems simply vanish.

I’m happy to be healing, to be leaving behind the mindset that my husband is intentionally making my life harder. I’m glad he has shown me that he is a committed partner who wants to contribute equally in our home, so that when little things like this happen, I know it is a simple mistake. I can own my part in how the mistake happened, and work to prevent things like that from happening again.

Ultimately, we build the kind of marriage we want to have. I am choosing a peaceful marriage, one that doesn’t have to get tripped up over tiny bumps in the road. To build such a marriage, my husband and I have to both commit to better communication — perhaps even to overcommunication. It is through this communication that we learn to navigate life’s little obstacles with grace and togetherness, finding peace instead of conflict, and building a better marriage as a result.


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.

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