I was recently talking to a friend about the reasons for lower divorce rates in India.
She told me something that frankly shocked me. Apparently, most divorces in the West are caused - not due to infidelity or domestic violence - but due to the unequal distribution of household chores.
I looked it up later and she was right!
Her theory is that most Indian marriages don’t end in divorce because:
either the woman succumbs to traditional gender roles and accepts that she has to do all the housework,
or the presence of domestic help in Indian homes cushions some of the impact of this disproportionate burden on women.
I wondered if she is right because do you realize what that will mean?
It will mean that our domestic helpers are not just cooking our food, dusting our shelves, and mopping our floors.
They are literally saving our marriages from certain doom.
As I was reading up more on the subject, I stumbled upon a term I had never heard before - Weaponized Incompetence.
For me, it was love at first sight with this term, because it encompasses pretty much every argument or strategy I had ever seen a man use to get out of being an equal partner in his marriage.
What is weaponized incompetence?
Weaponized incompetence is the strategy of saying “I do not know how to do this” in order to get out of doing a task.
Now, the term ‘weaponized’ makes it sound like a deliberate plan. And most men might say, ‘But I don’t deliberately do this as an evil masterplan. When I say I don’t know how to do something, I genuinely do not know how to do it.’
I believe you, men.
That said, if you run around your house with knives in both hands, you eventually will hurt someone.
The knives will become weapons, whether that was your intention or not.
And so is the case with one partner’s inability to do basic tasks at home - it becomes a weapon against the other partner.
Weaponized incompetence can be demonstrated by anybody - at work, or in relationships - but is most deftly showcased by men in Indian marriages.
For this piece, I sent out a call for stories with the following list to women:
When the man claims to not know how to do basic tasks.
When he does a task so badly that it has to be redone.
When he needs to be reminded so many times that it is easier to not ask him at all.
When he asks so many questions that answering them takes more energy than the task itself.
When he starts questioning the worth of doing a task the moment it is assigned to him.
Most of the women I sent this to wrote back that this is every interaction they have with their husbands - so they literally do not know how to send me just one story about it.
This is Weaponized Incompetence. A super effective technique that ends with the woman throwing her hands up and saying, ‘I don’t even know how to begin explaining this. Forget it, I will do it myself!’
Of course, it also ends with the depletion of love and trust in the relationship.
But that is clearly not as important as the short-term benefit of not having to do laundry.
Here are some creative forms in which weaponized incompetence exists in Indian marriages:
During the peak of the lockdown, Shweta was new mother with a full-time job. As if that weren’t enough, she also felt the bulk of household responsibilities fall on her shoulders in the absence of domestic help, as her husband refused to contribute.
Exhausted, she turned to automation.
“I came across the Dyson vacuum cleaner which is cordless and really simple to use. No bending to use a broom, no dust pans, no back pain. I ordered it and started using it. It is really a magic wand for people who are not able to do jhaadu (cleaning with a broom) in their home every day.”
Seeing her drowning in work, Shweta’s husband offered to ‘help her out’ with, surprise surprise, the easiest task she was doing.
“He asked me to show him how the vacuum cleaner is used. I was confused by this request because the device literally has only one button. You simply press the button and start cleaning.
But then his volley of questions began:
‘How do you charge this?
How would you change an attachment if you wanted to?
How do you operate it? Where does the dust go?’”
“I had to tell him that I was not born with all this knowledge. I had learnt all this from the manufacturer’s YouTube demos, and he could too.
He spends hours every day analyzing cricket shots from every angle on YouTube. Could he not look this up too?”
The short answer was ‘no, he could not’. Weeks passed, and she finally gave in.
“I searched again for all the demo videos that I had watched myself. I texted all the links to him. All he had to do now was to watch the videos I sent. But guess what. He never watched them, and I kept cleaning the house till the end of lockdown because ‘he did not know how to operate the complicated one-buttoned device’.”
When Harita and Samir got married, she was pleasantly surprised to hear him say he wanted them to divide household responsibilities equally.
“We both worked in the same firm at equal levels of seniority so it seemed only fair that we also split chores equally. Samir is a meticulous planner and organiser, so we thought that ordering groceries might be something he would be able to do quite easily. It seemed to work fine in the beginning.
But as time went by and our family grew, he started passing on the mental load of tracking the consumption, keeping the delivery lead times in mind, planning for exigencies, etc. to me.
Pretty soon, he started demanding that I make a list of what needs to be ordered in what quantities and when. His job was not just pushing buttons on an app. But he still claimed credit for managing all the groceries for the family.”
Harita says she even accepted this as her reality.
“But then, he started expressing dissatisfaction with my planning skills.
Samir likes to order groceries in bulk, weeks in advance. He says it helps get better discounts, which is a valid point. But my brain does not work like his - I am unable to predict exactly what the family will eat 20 days in the future.”
“Often I realize we are out of something that we need the next day, and quietly place an overnight order on my phone. Samir flares into a temper when he sees me doing this.
We have the same argument almost daily. He asks, ‘Why didn't we order this before? How come you didn't know we were out of this? Why didn't you check when we were ordering stuff? Why didn’t you put in on my list?’
My question is, why should I have to give him a list at all? And if I am the one making the list every time, how does he justify in his head that he is still managing groceries?
Somehow I have become both - saddled with his responsibility, and labeled a failure at shouldering it to his satisfaction.”
Alisha is a mother of two who lives with her husband and in-laws.
“My husband is a nice guy. But his objective at home is to maximize the time he spends on the sofa in front of the TV, and minimize the time he contributes to house work.
He does this by bungling up basic tasks that he is secretly quite adept at.
For example, my mother-in-law - who handles the cooking - calls us all at mealtimes, and asks us to serve ourselves. All of us enter the kitchen, pick up the necessary cutlery, serve our food, and leave.
But when my husband enters the kitchen, he first asks the innocent question, ‘Kya karun, Mummy? (What should I do, mom?)’.
Every day his mom has to explain to him how to do the basic task of serving himself a plate of food.
And then he begins this elaborate dance where he acts like he doesn’t know where the plates are, where the bowls are, where the spoons are. He even pretends not to see the food items lying right under his nose! He intentionally gets in every one’s way, until his mother shunts him out of the kitchen. Ultimately, she either serves his food herself or asks me to do it.”
Here is how Alisha knows that his supposed incompetence is a scam:
“When there is a competing larger task at hand, all his confusion conveniently vanishes. For example, there are times when I am watching our toddlers and cannot step away. I ask him to either hand me some food to feed them, or hold them so I can fetch their food and he can feed them.
At this moment, he magically becomes a food-serving pro!
He goes into the kitchen, finds all the plates and bows and spoons, and is back in a flash with the right food in the right quantities for each kid. All this so that he is not saddled with the even bigger task of feeding the kids!”
When Aparna was meeting prospective grooms for an arranged marriage, she met Akshay.
“Akshay and I had similar educational and professional journies. During our first interaction, he seemed to be a perfectly nice guy. I saw no red flags whatsoever, and it seemed like there was hope for a match here.”
During their second meeting, Aparna asked Akshay the question every woman must ask a prospective life partner - how did he envision the two of them dividing household responsibilities after marriage?
“His clear response was, ‘Jise aata hai wo kare, mujhe nahi aata aur naa hi main seekhunga (These tasks should be handled by whoever knows how to do them. I don’t know how, and I have no intention of learning either.’
His mother did all the cooking, cleaning, and housekeeping for him. It was clear that this was a role his future wife would have to play alone. That brought our conversation to an end.
I got back home and immediately asked my family to communicate my ‘no’ to his family. You will not believe the number of times he texted me the next day, demanding an explanation for that rejection. He clearly could not imagine any reason a woman would pass on such a perfect catch!”
Jhankar shudders to recall her husband’s ‘help’ with household chores during lockdown.
“As we all know, some men helped out with housekeeping during covid, and were celebrated like heroes for doing basic tasks that women had been quietly doing for ages.
But credit where it is due, my husband started doing the dishes during lockdown.”
Jhankar soon found out about the terms and conditions attached to his dishwashing.
“He would refuse to clean any utensils during the day. He declared that he would only wash utensils at night when all of us were done using them. This meant that there was a mountain of dishes in the sink by the end of the day.
What’s more, almost every other day, I would wake up to see the mountain still standing in the sink. When I would ask him, he would say ‘I will get to it na, you make tea - that is your job’.
I would ask him how I am supposed to make tea when all the pans are lying dirty in the sink.
He would get irritatead and ask why I can’t even wash one utensil to make tea, as if I was the one being unreasonable here!
This became a recurring theme all through lockdown: He would promise to do a chore, then delay it, then I would have to repeatedly remind him, and he would still not do it.
We were fighting all the time over the fine print of his tasks. Ultimately, he would declare that ‘I was nagging him’.
In the final tally, washing the utensils myself started feeling like an easier task than fighting over it again and again.”
Shanta told me another story about the distribution of household work during the pandemic.
“I live with my mother, father, and elder sister. My mother teaches senior school Biology, and was making the difficult transition to online teaching during lockdown. Her days would start at 6 am and end at midnight, most of which was spent preparing slides and content for online classes.
My sister is a Professor, who had her own teaching and preparing to do. I was in the third year of law school, and also doing an internship alongside my studies.
My father was unemployed by choice at the time.
This made him the family member with the most free time on his hands to take on household responsibilities.”
Of course, the division of labour went exactly how you would expect it to in an Indian household.
“Despite all of this, all household tasks were divided by three (among the three women) and my father was never expected to lift a finger. This irked me, but my father has a wild temper, so I kept quiet to keep the family peace.
However, my restraint was put to the test one day. I was on the second day of my period and on dishwashing duty. Exhausted and in pain, I was bent over the sink washing cup after cup discarded by my father after his many cups of chai.
When I could not take the pain anymore, I went to him and said, ‘Jab aap chai peete hain, cup uske theek baad dho liya kijiye (When you drink your tea, can you please wash the cup right afterwards?)’
He took great offense to this and said, ‘Jo kaam humne aaj tak nahi kiya, woh iss umar mein karna padega? (Do I have to do the task I never did my entire life now, at this advanced age of life?)’
I had simply had enough. The women were breaking their backs working, while my father spent all day watching news on the television. The household functioned around him without the slightest discomfort to him.
I said, ‘Ye meri umar hai kya, jhadoo-poccha-bartan karne ki? (So it is my age to be doing sweeping, brooming, and dishwashing?)’
He said, ‘No’.
So then I asked him who he thought was keeping the house running?
He had no answers.
He just kept shouting, ‘What I have not done till now, how can I start doing now?’”
Shanta says she would have loved to say a lot more to her father. But at this point, she broke down.
“That was the first time I had confronted him in my life. I was physically exhausted and emotionally drained. Frustration was overwhelming every cell in my body.”
I asked her if things changed at home after this confrontation.
“After that day, Papa started washing his teacups. But then, he would announce to the house every single time he washed a single cup.
Mind you, he never touched a single dirty utensil other than his own cup.
After a while, his constant taunts about ‘being made to do dishes’ got more annoying for us than actually having to wash the damned cups.
So we went back to business as usual. The women of the house did all the work - both inside and outside the home. And the man went back to drinking chai and watching TV all day.”
Ankita and her husband are a working couple who used to live with Ankita’s in-laws for the first seven years of their marriage.
Recently, they moved to a different city. They had a live-in helper who managed their entire household so the couple never really had to worry about chores.
“A few months later, our helper went on leave for a month.
No exaggeration - it was the toughest month of our marriage.
Within days, I realized that my husband was not willing to take on any household responsibilities. We had a lot of fights.
For the first time in seven years, I started doubting our relationship.”
Ankita tried to negotiate an equitable division of work with her husband.
“Every time I asked him to do something around the house, he would start asking first principle questions about why we needed to do the task at all.
He would paint me as an unreasonable person, and himself as a man of simple needs:
‘So what if we run out of some groceries every now and then?
So what if the laundry is not done every day?
So what if we let things run out in the house before we buy them?
So what if the house is not cleaned daily?
Why do you want to fill water bottles? Why can’t we fill water directly when we are thirsty?
Why do you have to be so organized?
Why do you have to control everything?
Why do you want everything to be so perfect?’”
I asked Ankita to share some examples of what her husband saw as her unreasonable standards.
“There are hundreds of examples of basic household chores which he labeled as my ‘high standards’.
He thinks keeping clothes back in the cupboard after they are washed and ironed is a tall order.
He wanted us to cook once in a week, and eat stale meals the rest of the time.
He wanted laundry to be done only when we run out of clothes to wear.”
What ‘simple men’ like this ignore is that most domestic tasks need to be done for the health and safety of the family.
Putting them off is not a minor inconvenience or a matter of preference. It shows a lack of concern for your family and a lack of respect for your partner’s time and effort.
“When I told him that I was feeling overwhelmed with the amount of work I had to do at home, his standard response would be, ‘Don’t do anything for me. I will do my work by myself.’
I would ask him to please tell me what this looks like. Should I cook food partially? Should I make only my side of the bed? When I do laundry, should I first separate his clothes from mine?
Most of the house work in a family is common. We cannot live like college roommates with a line drawn in the middle of the house.”
Seriously doubting whether their marriage worked anymore, Ankita turned to her married women friends for advice.
“Turns out, all of their husbands say the same things!
My friends advised me to accept that my husband will never do much around the house. They said the sooner I accept this, the happier I will be. And the more I try to fight it, the more I will suffer.
Their life experience - and the experience of generations of women before us - proved that the men simply never change and women have to treat them like children.”
Ankita decided to give in and accept the inevitable.
“I realized that my friends were right. I counted days till our house helper got back, and I accepted that I would have to do all the work at home until then.
My husband still thinks that he is a great partner because ‘he is a simple man who does not add to my load’. It is a low bar and not even true, but I don’t want to spoil my relationship arguing about it.
My choice is between striving for equality or saving my marriage. I have chosen to save my marriage. I feel helpless but this is how most married women feel.”
When I put out a call for stories for this piece, Kinjal wrote back to me saying her partner ‘ticked all the boxes of weaponized incompetence’ I had listed.
“The first time I enlisted his help to change a bedsheet he just stood there holding one end, and actually asked me, ‘Now what?’
I remember saying, ‘Put it in your nose! Where do you think it goes?’”
“We fought nonstop about absolutely stupid things. Like, how he would never wipe the kitchen counter after he was done with his late dinners. Or, after being asked to do it a million times, he would take a dirty wet cloth, not wring it dry, run it listlessly over the counter - leaving it now covered in dirty water stains with food particles in it.
When I would show him the mess he had left behind, he would act exasperated and say, ‘Saaf kar toh diya counter! (I cleaned it, didn’t I?)’.”
If Kinjal ever asked him to make a cup of tea, he would suddenly remember urgent calls to make and emails to send.
“Without exaggeration, he would then take at least an hour to do these things. By which time, I would have either made a cup for both of us, or forgotten I ever wanted the damned tea.
If by some miracle, he did make a cup, he would just leave dirty utensils caked in dried tea leaves on the gas stove and walk out of the kitchen to go conquer the world (i.e., watch cricket on his phone).”
The pattern extended to pretty much every task he undertook.
“He would not even do the bare minimum. Just enough for him to be able to say, ‘I did it. Now I can’t help it if it’s not upto your standards’.
He saw any and every task he did as a favour to me. So I either had to accept the quality of work he churned out, or do it myself.
His competence level was so poor, it felt inconceivable that this guy could stay alive without my intervention.”
At least Kinjal’s story had a happy ending.
“I divorced him.
I sometimes look back and wonder how I put up with him for as long as I did.
My parents did not raise me to make excuses for my partner and think ‘men will be men’.
I grew up seeing my dad and mom divide chores almost equally. To this day, my father does a lot of cleaning, shopping, and laundry at home, despite being the sole breadwinner.
Seeing them inspired me to never enabled my ex’s ineptitude without at least putting up a fight.
I know not every woman has that privilege. Sometimes, you just get tired of fighting. It takes two days to resolve a fight but two minutes to spread that bedsheet or clean that counter yourself. This is how men like my ex win.
But living like this was unacceptable for me. So I walked out and said ‘Never again’.
Today, I am with a partner who does not see sharing basic household responsibilities as a favour he is doing for me. I pray and hope more women can have the privilege to demand more or find better partners.”
Would your marriage survive without domestic help?
A survey in the UK found that “56% of couples cite day-to-day domestic issues as a ‘major factor’ when ending a marriage. As many as 59% say it is difficult staying in a relationship when one partner is not helping around the house.”
A Swedish journal published a study that concluded: “Using both partners’ housework reports, we document that - discrediting women’s housework contribution, or reporting she does less than she reports - is associated with lower relationship satisfaction. Women in these partnerships also consider breaking up, and the unions are more likely to dissolve. Our results identify the gendered impact of housework inequality on relationship stability.”
This study from Korea even showed that “women who were dissatisfied with their husbands’ participation in housework were at higher risk for suicidal ideation.”
These findings might surprise some men but none of this is news to most married women - in India and around the world.
So here is the uncomfortable question: If you did not have house help, would your marriage survive it?
The pandemic gave us a glimpse of what such a life might look like. Women cooked and cleaned and did childcare and elderly care and attended zoom calls for work and online classes for kids. The labourforce participation of Indian women fell drastically during covid as any woman who could make the choice to quit her job did it just to keep her head above water.
But the pandemic at least came with the hope of light at the end of the tunnel.
What if this was to be your entire life?
Women, would you resign yourself to the role of silently suffering as you shoulder all the household responsibilities in your marriage? Or would you walk out?
Men, would you rather that your partner was only left with the above two options as you drove her into depression and suicidal ideation with your weaponized incompetence? Or would you own up to the fact that you do, in fact, know how to use a vacuum cleaner without being coached and cajoled?
It goes without saying, but maybe I should say it anyway:
Every competence that your wife seems to magically have and you don’t - can be acquired. She was not born with it. She acquired it, and so can you. You can Google it, you can ask someone to teach you, or you can learn on the job.
The only prerequisite is for you to actually love her.
With this, we have officially made it to the end of the 100th edition of Womaning!
Thank you for all the love!
I am planning to do Womaning full-time soon, so keep reading, sharing, subscribing, and sending me your beautiful messages and coffees. ❤️
And to everyone who told me when I launched this newsletter - “What will you write on this subject beyond a handful of posts? Won’t you run out of content soon?” - I have just scratched the surface yet.
Here’s to the next 100! 🥂
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As a male guilty of so many of the above, I want to add another Weapon to the list, which I am again guilty of. It is called "Weaponized Guilt". This is where the men accept they are incompetent/procrastinating/ignorant and that they should improve but never do. It is when we accept that women of the household work disproportionately and unfairly, recognize that we men should do better, but then delay getting better. This is made worse by accepting this guilt openly in front of friends do. I have said things like, "She does everything, runs the house and is awesome. I dont do anything man, I know I have to help her". But that helping eventually never happens. I am taking small steps to improve, but far away from being an equal. I hope to keep doing better and not considering it a favor.
touched beyond words. as a woman standing at the cusp of her prime youth, i’m tarnished for life, at least when it comes to the institution of marriage. i hope my cynicism gets better with time, however, till then, i’m happy with my individualism.