How Some Partners Try to Weaponize Incompetence
Changing the dynamic demands persistence and patience.
Posted January 30, 2023 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
- The term “weaponized incompetence” describes what happens when one person gets their way by falling into a pit of incompetence.
- One example is a couple whose roles and habits clashed on the fields of marriage and parenthood.
- Their change in relationship dynamic took practice and repetition.
Soojin* and Jay* had been married for seven years, and Soojin came to see me because she was at a boiling point. "We both work, we're both parents to the same two children, and we live in the same house. He knows as well as I do how much there is to do with the kids. But I always end up doing more!"
Is this a case of weaponized incompetence? The term, which sprung into existence somewhere on TikTok, brilliantly nails what happens when one person gets their way by somehow falling into a pit of incompetence, saddling the other person with work left undone.
Soojin and Jay always defaulted into a pattern: She would take the lead in outlining what needed to be done for the family's schedules, like packing the kids' lunches or planning after-school practices. At first, Jay would follow along, but often either forgot key steps or would text her several times at work over simple tasks. Frustrated at his seeming incompetence, she would step in to "do it right," becoming exhausted and angry along the way. Rinse and repeat.
In our joint therapy sessions, I got a better sense of the couple's backstories. Both had grown up in Southern California as first-generation Korean Americans, and Soojin, a daughter and sister, was expected to defer to her parents and older brother. A habit of excessive responsibility for and deferral to others had become her subconscious default pathway.
Jay, on the other hand, was raised in a home where the focus on him as the eldest and firstborn son was academic and professional excellence, but not much else. His mother was the primary manager of all household and child-rearing duties. His father, an engineer, was the lead figure in their family, and prone to volatile outbursts when upset—outbursts that never got resolved but flared, simmered, and then gradually dissipated without a clear resolution. As a result, Jay learned to keep his head down, and just get his work done.
Their early life roles and habits were now clashing on the fields of marriage and parenthood. Soojin was back in her role taking on the household responsibility, but between work and motherhood, her resentment and ability to manage reached a tipping point. Jay was also replaying his old script: household duties were not on his radar and he put minimal time into considering how it all got done. He also felt that the kids' daily schedules were too rigid, but avoiding conflict, did not express this to Soojin. Instead, he carried out her directions in a half-hearted way. But this failure to engage directly was only adding fuel to the relationship's fire.
To undo the cycle, Soojin had to see the ways in which she was re-playing her childhood script: taking on more than her share and not expecting that she could effectively ask for what she needed. Her old pattern of feeling resentment but still doing the work was reinforcing Jay's apparent inability to effectively manage their home life.
Jay, in turn, realized that he had been hesitant to voice his ideas on how to manage family life, like being more relaxed about the foods the kids took for lunch and easing back on the number of after-school activities. By trying to avoid conflict, he had silenced his own thoughts. He now saw that his ideas deserved equal discussion and that Soojin was willing to listen. He also became aware that unlike what he'd seen in his parents' relationship, he needed to strike a balanced partnership in terms of household and kid duties if they were to make progress as a couple.
They made a plan to sit down every Sunday afternoon and jointly create a list for the week. Soojin wanted their household planning to be a joint venture, not one where she was "giving directions like a traffic cop." Jay, for his part, took the step of directly expressing his own ideas on paring back the kids' schedules.
It was a happily ever starter. The change in relationship dynamic took practice and repetition since this was a new skill for each of them. Soojin had to stay consistent about not overworking at home, and Jay had to squelch his tendency to withdraw in the face of conflict. But over time, both began to get more competent at using their voices early on, advocating for what they wanted, and truly listening to the other person.
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*Names and personal identifiers have been changed to protect patient confidentiality.
Disclaimer: All content is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician. If you need medical or psychological help, seek guidance from your own physician or qualified mental health clinician, or call 911.
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