[While it is hard to tell whether a person is being deliberately manipulative or not, it is safe to assume that if a person refuses to improve with time, it is a case of weaponised incompetence. First published in Women’s Web.]
Radhika Apte recently spoke about how her mother, despite being a professionally qualified working woman, still took on the additional responsibility of cooking for the family because she was conditioned into believing that women are natural caregivers. She explained how women take on the ‘assumed responsibility’ of caring for the family, even when they can choose not to. In such cases what men show is weaponised incompetence.
Even today, while women are empowered to dream of having fulfilling careers, it is assumed that they will continue to shoulder the entire load of taking care of the family. Even a woman who is professionally at the same level as her husband perceives cooking, caregiving and childrearing as her sole responsibility. When her partner “helps” with domestic chores or parenting, he is glorified for doing something that she does without the slightest acknowledgement.
The deep patriarchal conditioning that drives women to assume responsibility
One reason for this could be because women have grown up seeing their mothers and aunts rush home from work and plunge into housework without complaint. They saw how their mothers and aunts were busy cooking, cleaning, supervising homework and planning the next day’s activities while their fathers and uncles relaxed in front of the TV. And they believed that it was how things were.
Society perpetrated the myth by handing out “good parenting” badges to the father who dropped the kids off at the bus stop, while ignoring the mother who woke up at the crack of dawn to get the kids ready for school.
“Assumed responsibility” demands extreme sacrifice on the part of women, and it is important for women to recognise it, and to actively demand that their partners share in the household responsibilities.
When women ask that their partners share responsibility
However, very often, when women demand that their partners assume greater responsibility, they come up against “weaponised incompetence”. Weaponised incompetence is a behaviour pattern where a partner pretends to be bad at a task so they can avoid it.
Imagine this. It is a cold winter afternoon, and your partner makes you a perfect cup of chai with just the right hint of adrak. You savour the drink, and think of how lucky you are to have a partner who pampers you so much. Then you go into the kitchen to rinse the cup, and you see the mess. Saucepan still on the burner with an inch of tea congealing in it, large piece of ginger thrown in the sink, spilt tea on the counter, tea container only partially closed, sugar container where it shouldn’t be, milk put back in the fridge but without the lid. You spend the next five minutes cleaning up, and wonder if it wouldn’t have been easier to make the tea yourself. Your partners’ intent may have been honourable, but you feel cheated.
Imagine another scenario. You are the one who normally picks the children up from daycare, but there is an official event that you cannot avoid, so you ask your partner to pick them up just once. You inform him days in advance, remind him in the morning, and again in the afternoon. He keeps assuring you that he will do it. Then you get a call from the daycare- all the other kids have left and they are waiting for you to pick your kids up so they can close for the day. You call your partner desperately, and he is stuck in traffic and will take at least another hour to reach. You will never know whether it was deliberate or not, but you know that this is something you will never again trust your partner to do.
Imagine a third scenario. Your partner offers to cook dinner. He pours himself a glass of wine, turns on the music and opens the recipe on YouTube. Every two minutes, he asks you for a fresh ingredient. There is no chicken stock, and since you have not even seen the recipe, you do not know what to suggest as a substitute. The sauce bubbles over while the cheese is still being grated. The pasta gets overcooked because the video didn’t mention washing it with cold water to stop the cooking process. By the time dinner is served, the kids are cranky and not in a mood to eat anything. You smile valiantly and say that the food is good, but you know that you are never going to let your partner prepare dinner again.
Though you will never know whether these were done intentionally or not, they could be examples of weaponised incompetence. In each of these cases, the person either does the job badly, or does not complete the job. At times, the person implies that the other should perform the task since they are not good at it, or because they cannot do it the right way. Very often, the person takes so long starting and finishing the job that you decide it is faster to just do it yourself.
While it is hard to tell whether a person is being deliberately manipulative or not, it is safe to assume that if a person refuses to improve with time, it is a case of weaponised incompetence.
How do you recognise weaponised incompetence?
I can’t do this.”
“You are so much better than me.”
“You are so good at this.”
“I can’t do this now. Do you think you can do this?”
“There are six overs left. I will do it after the innings gets over.”
Each of these sentences sounds very different, but all of them could be a sign that a partner is weaponizing incompetence to get out of doing their share of the work.
Even if it is done subconsciously, the feeling of being manipulated builds up over time. The person stops trusting the other person to perform the tasks, and this leads to a power imbalance, and the feeling of being alone. The resentment builds up, which is not good for the relationship. Worse, children notice the power imbalance and start to think that all relationships are intrinsically disbalanced.
How can you tackle weaponised incompetence?
Communication is key
As with most such issues, communication is the key. The person who is at the receiving end of the weaponised incompetence should clearly communicate with the partner and explain why they feel manipulated by the behaviour. If there is a genuine explanation why a person is unable to complete a task, the person should be given the space to change the behaviour.
Setting boundaries of behaviour
The couple should also set realistic expectations, which clearly mentions which tasks are non-negotiable and where there can be some compromise. If despite discussing it, and setting boundaries and conditions the person refuses to show an improvement, it is certainly a clear sign that the person does not want to invest in the relationship.
Raising boys without gender biases
“Assumed responsibility” and “weaponised incompetence” are both the result of patriarchal conditioning which reinforces the belief that young girls are naturally more responsible and neat than young boys. Young women grow up believing that caregiving and housework is their responsibility, and young men grow up knowing that a woman will take care of their basic needs. Long term change is only possible if these gender based biases are consciously removed while bringing up young children. It is only when both boys and girls grow up knowing that housework and caregiving are gender agnostic that these imbalances will end.
In the meantime, we should continue to communicate in relationships to ensure that there is greater parity when it comes to carrying the load of housework and caregiving.