I suck at cooking. I’ve always sucked at cooking. I never learned to cook growing up, then at 19 I started a relationship with a woman for whom cooking was her love language, her way of feeling needed, and her sense of identity all rolled into one, so I was forbidden—in a literal, not a metaphorical sense—from cooking. For the eighteen years we were together, the kitchen was her domain. She would frequently tell me, in a ha-ha-only-serious way, that I was not allowed foot in the kitchen except by special travel dispensation.

I didn’t come here to talk about cooking, except that I totally came here to talk about cooking.

Let’s back up. I’ve spent the last week in Florida helping to care for my mom, who is in the last stages of terminal cancer. My sister flew into town earlier this week. It’s a bit jarring, the four of us being back in the house we lived in since the 1980s, back in my high school days.

As I look now at this house, these people, with eyes grown far more experience over the past three and a half decades, I’m finding myself thinking about how I grew up, and the forces that shaped me into the person I am.

My parents come from the “Silent Generation,” the generation between WWII’s Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers. (IMy sister and I are leading-edge of Gen Xers). My parents’ generation didn’t leave much of a mark on society—certainly not as much as the Boomers.

A lot of folks call my parents’ generation the Traditionalists. Coming back here, to this house, I can see why. A lot of folks call theirs the Traditionalist Generation; they missed the Depression and the world wars, but both those things were still close enough to be very real to them, so theiy turned inward, looking for safety in tradition. My parents were, and are, all about the traditional gender roles: for my entire life, my mom cooked and cleaned and generally maintained the house, even when she worked, and my dad virtually defined himself by his job.

My sister and I, well… Neither of us turned out conventional. She’s a lwayer who’s never married, and of course I went down a rather unconventional path in a lot of ways. But we were raised in an environment of gender roles and expectations so pervasive they became the air we breathed. I never learned to cook, she never learned to maintain a lawnmower.

Image: Tim Mossholder

Fast forward a while, and here I am, a newly-divorced 37-year-old man who can’t cook.

You might say that a 37-year-old man who can’t cook is rather pathetic, someone who’s on a fundamental level failed to master the most basic skills any adult should have, but if you did, I’d reply that, given my history and upbringing, you were…absolutely right. It is a sad and strange place to have a gap in one’s basic adulting skills the size of a Buick.

And I’ve been thinking, a lot, about how that came to be.

Thee’s a thing that can happen in relationships (and offices and pretty much anywhere else) called “weaponized incompetence.” It started out as a business idea—the guy who invented the phrase used it to describe people in a corporation shirking office duties by pretending they couldn’t do them, so their boss would assign someone else—but it absolutely happens in romantic relationships as well. It’s a specific, pernicious kind of passive-aggressiveness, a way of wriggling out of things you don’t want to do. Botch a job badly enough, often enough, and someone else may take over the job for you.

But here’s the thing:

New skills do not spring fully-formed from the head of Zeus. It takes time, and frequent failure, to master them (I’m painfully aware of that; I’m in the process of teaching myself CNC machining right now, which is turning out to be way harder than I expected. You’d be surprised how many tools I’ve broken and how much scrap metal I’ve made.)

Cooking is…well, not as hard as CNC machining, but harder to pick up than folks who’ve been doing it since childhood likely temember. It took me an embarrassingly long time to be able to cook broccoli, and I heckin’ love broccoli.

Beware the fail broccoli. (Image: Kaspars Grinvalds)

This wasn’t weaponzed incompetence. I live alone right now, having newly embraced a solo poly identity, and even with nobody else to take on the task, I’m still a mediocre cook.

There’s a flip side of weaponized incompetence. It’s a thing where a person claims they want another person to learn a skill, but absolutely won’t tolerate any of the mistakes and failures along the path to mastery. I’m still searching for the words to put to it, because I haven’t seen a lot of converation about it. (I talked to my wife Joreth about it earlier this evening; she suggested “malicious perfectionism,” but that’s not quiiiite right…most people think of perfectionism as something you apply to yourself, not other people. “Weaponized faultfinding,” maybe?

It’s what happens when you say “I want you to have this skill,” but then couple it with “…and I am unwilling to tolerate making any mistakes to acquire the skill.”

And it’s absolutely, totally 100% a power move.

It gives you a lot of power over someone. It simultaneously gives you whatever power comes with having that skill, and the perceived moral high ground (“look at me, forced into this job because my partner just can’t do it, can you believe it?).

The thing is, it’s completely reasonable to say “Look, this is a basic adult thing. You’re a grown person, I shouldn’t have to teach you this. You need to learn this skill.” Yep, you’re absolutely right, no argument.

But you cannot, you cannot, couple it with “…and I will not tolerate you making any mistakes while you learn how to do it.” At that point, it becomes manipulation.

It’s a subtle manipulation, one that a lot of folks probably won’t spot…hell, one I myself didn’t spot for more than a decade, until someone outside that particular situation pointed out to me.

And honestly, I had it pretty good.

Like, seriously, there are a lot of folks who grow up without learning basic adulting skills. A lot. And the definition of “basic adulting skills” changes with every generation anyway—how many Gen Z folks know how to balance a checkbook, or even know what an actual physical “checkbook” is?—so it’s going to be that way forever.

If oyu come from a privileged background of wealth, where you grow up in famous households with servants, you might not even have basic adulting skills like, oh, I don’t know, emotional regulation. And you very well might, as you struggle and make mistakes, end up with those mistakes on the cover of People magazine.

I don’t envy Britney Spears of Miley Cyrus, not one bit. When I burned the dinner, I had a lover who took that as an opportunity to exercise control over me while also being able to complain about the burden of taking control over me and not letting me keep trying to get the skill; win-win-win! But at least it didn’t end up as a smug media talk piece.

The tl;dr: There will be times in your life where you likely run up against some basic skill you don’t have but you really ought to. There will likely be a time in oyur life you have a lover who doesn’t have a skill you really think they ought to. It happens.

This situation is absolutely ripe for manipulation and control, on both sides. A ton of ink has been spilled on weaponized incompetence, but someone who wants an unhealthy power advantage in a relationship can take it, unearned, by simply demanding that their partner learn the skill but then being intolerant of failure.

People learning new tings, screw them up. If you want your partner to know how to cook—with is absolutely a reasonable thing—you have to be able to accept that sometimes they’re gonna burn the broccoli. If it’s not okay to burn the broccoli, you’re really saying it’s not okay for them to learn…and that gives you a dangerous kind of control.

Categories: Uncategorized

1 Comment

Chaz · December 10, 2023 at 7:04 am

Well, written, Sir. Many years ago a friend of mine (single male) was very proud of himself to announce that he couldn’t do laundry. He took his dirty clothes to his girlfriend’s and SHE did laundry. He thought it was very masculine and a “good” thing.
I thought, “If she bails on you you’ll have to wear dirty clothes until you coerce another woman into doing your laundry.” It was the furtherest thing from “masculine independence” I could imagine.

In the Air Force, “weaponized incompetence” was firmly installed. I ran a personnel office. I had one sergeant who was the backbone of the office. He was the victim of weaponized incmpetence. I knew that if I assigned a task to any of the other staff the chance that it would be screwed up was about 90%. If this guy was assigned to it the chance of failure was almost zero. Guess who did the majority of the work.

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