How to spot weaponized incompetence in someone you're dating

By Katherine

Have you ever had this exchange with someone on a dating app?

You: What do you want to do on Friday night?
Them: Dunno. Where do you want to go? You can choose. You're so much better than me at picking what we do. I'll leave it in your hands! Just tell me where to meet you and when!

That might sound like a benign exchange, but when it repeats itself over and over to the point where you find you're doing all the labor of researching, organizing, buying tickets, arranging transport, picking restaurants, finding out what movie theater is playing the movie and what time and how much the tickets are and can you buy them online and buying them for both of you and then sending a Venmo request and then sending another one when they forget...

(Just writing all that made me tired.)

Friend, you might be dealing with a case of weaponized incompetence in this person you're dating. Here's what that is, how to spot it, and what to do about it.

What is weaponized incompetence?

"Weaponized incompetence" is a form of passive-aggressive behavior - it's not overt, it's covert, which is how it can be difficult to spot. It's a way of manipulating other people in which someone will either do a task badly, pretend they can't do something, or insist that they're not very good at something, in order to push that responsibility/task off on to someone else.

Someone's deference to you being better at choosing activities to do on a date can be sweet at first, but when it becomes a habit and you suddenly realize you've taken on all the responsibilities of planning each and every date while the other person just comes along for the ride, that's weaponized incompetence.

Often you don't see weaponized incompetence until it's well and truly embedded in your relationship with someone. It disguises itself as innocence, or lack of skill, or bumbling ignorance. It can make you feel like you're needed, and like the other person wouldn't be able to cope without you. In the beginning of a relationship it can feel charming, but this wears off and leaves you flummoxed about how you became the default person to do all the work.

So what does weaponized incompetence look like in someone you're dating?

One of the most common signs is a consistent pattern of excuses for not handling basic responsibilities or tasks. Your date might repeatedly claim they don't know how to do something simple or crucial, like managing finances or making plans, despite having the ability to learn or access resources. If they can google it, but they leave it up to you anyway, they're just being lazy.

As weaponized incompetence manifests itself when you become more comfortable together, your date might demonstrate helplessness selectively, conveniently avoiding tasks they don't want to do or situations they find uncomfortable. This behavior is strategic rather than genuine, which will probably give you the ick when you realize it. They're using you to get out of their own responsibilities.

People who wield weaponized incompetence also really know how to dig their heels in and play to your sympathies. They're adept at justifying their incompetence with elaborate explanations or stories that you feel like a jerk for disagreeing with. But these narratives only serve to deflect your scrutiny and reinforce what a poor, sad victim they are who need you to rescue them.

Why did I fall for it?

You're a kind, good human and you want to help other people, right? Helping others makes us feel good about ourselves, plus it's been ingrained in our society from our playground days. It's also very definitely gendered - typically males exhibit weaponized incompetence much more than females, which is absolutely a holdover from the patriarchy.

People who are using this tactic likely can't even name it or don't realize it's harmful, they just know that it works for them and it gets then the outcome they want - less responsibilities, more fun, and the ability to control someone else.

They also probably won't take responsibility for what they're doing, and if you point it out, they'll shift the blame or minimize their role in things: "But I thought you liked being the person who plans the dates! Why didn't you ever say anything before this?"

What can I do about it?

If you're still figuring this out, or if you feel like you might be dealing with somebody who uses weaponized incompetence to get through life, here are some things to think about.

1. Trust your gut. If something feels off or inconsistent, pay attention to your feelings and observations without dismissing them. Your instincts are important.

2. Clarify your expectations and boundaries early in the relationship. Communicate openly about shared responsibilities and mutual accountability. If you feel like a nag, or they're calling you a nag, pay attention to this - you shouldn't have to nag someone to take on their share of the load.

3. Offer support and encouragement for personal growth and skill development. Observe how they respond to opportunities for improvement. If they constantly turn down chances to look something up, take a class, call someone for advice, or just do the thing, this is telling you they really can't be bothered changing their behavior.

4. Discuss your concerns with trusted friends or a therapist to gain perspective and validation outside the relationship. Sometimes all the wake-up call you need is an honest friend reaffirming that yes, you're right.

5. Consider whether their behavior aligns with your values and expectations for a healthy, balanced relationship, and whether there's long-term compatibility potential. Be prepared to reassess if patterns of weaponized incompetence persist. Do you really want to be doing all the things - and more - a year from now?

6. Nip it in the bud. If you notice the other person starting to go down the path of weaponized incompetence, point out that it's their turn to do/plan/organize and let them do it. If they are capable of change, and they want to change, they will. If not, you'll have valuable information you need to make decisions about what you want to do.

Navigating weaponized incompetence is not easy if you want to stay with the person or keep seeing them. If you want to dump their ass and move on, do it, and don't look back. They'll probably just keep repeating this with their next date, and the next, and the next. Shame people don't come with a warning label, right?

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