Lesson #116: Un-learning Learned Incompetence

by Rachel on January 9, 2012

One of the biggest things I’ve learned after nine months of living in sin is that if you want something done a certain way…you should not do it yourself.

This is not what I would have assumed a year ago. If someone can’t do something “right” or the way you think it should be done, it’s your problem, right?

Eh. Maybe if you’re super, super anal and unreasonable about how you want things done. I mean, if you want to make sure the lines left in the carpet by the vacuum are perfectly straight, yeah…you’re on your own. But in general, no, you shouldn’t just do it yourself, because you’re contributing to the problem of “learned incompetence.”

Leah and I have had many long discussions about learned incompetence, after her coworker introduced us to the concept a few months ago. We use the term to refer to the idea that people learn to be helpless because other people teach them they are/allow them to be. I’ve become a lot more aware of all the ways we assume people can’t do certain things (say, based on their sex) so we lower our expectations…which actually just makes them incompetent.

And while both sexes perpetuate this, I was more interested in the ways women do it because that meant I might be part of the problem — and that bothered me.

Here is an example of how you, as a woman, might be a part of the problem to learned incompetence. Your boyfriend’s mom always did his laundry growing up. Then he got to college and sorta half-assed it once a semester for essentials (or, let’s be honest, just bought new underwear) but pretty much just waited until he could take piles of dirty laundry home with him over long breaks because he knew his mom would take pity on him and do it for him. If anyone were to question his mom, she might just laugh and say, “Oh, well, he could do it himself, but he’d probably turn all his whites pink! His father can’t seem to do laundry either…” and then everyone would nod and agree that yeah, men can’t do laundry.

So then you come along, and now that you’re living together, you’re disgusted by the piles of laundry that he’s leaving all over your beautiful space, and after telling him a few times to do it, he claims he doesn’t know how — which is somewhat true, because when he stopped taking it to his parents’ place, he started sending it out to be done (where, if statistics are to be believed, it was probably done by another woman) — and after a while, the piles start to gross you out, and that, coupled with the fact that he actually doesn’t really which cycle to use — because how the hell would he? — leads you to just start throwing it in with your laundry. And then a year later, you just do all the laundry.

And then twenty years later, your son is bringing his laundry home to you on his college breaks.

(And if you think women can’t be taught incompetence too, just replace “your boyfriend’s mom” and “do laundry” in that paragraph with “your dad” and “use a grill.”)

It’s hard to break that “men are incompetent/women are just better at certain things” mindset. You can’t make it through a single commercial break without seeing some man ruining dinner or living like a slob, waiting for some product (or woman, or both) to come along and make life easier for him. Even though it’s 2012, so many male characters on TV or in movies are shown as being immature and needing to be saved. It’s seen as somehow desirable and romantic when a big shot male character needs a woman to cook him dinner. I’m all for the idea of more women heroines rescuing men, but why are we rescuing them from household chores?

And even if you take TV and movies out of it, and even if you know that there are millions of men who can do laundry and millions of women who can change a tire, you’re left with friends, coworkers, and family who simply don’t care if they can’t. Right? We all just treat it as cute when people are bad at the things that stereotypes say they are. The worst we’re going to do is roll our eyes.

So at the beginning of living in sin, that was how I was. It wasn’t a huge problem; Eric and I are both capable of doing most things you’d expect 26-year-old adults to be able to do. That said, we both have our weaknesses. And I wanted to manage these weaknesses, to be “the one who is good at X” in the relationship, letting him be “the one who is good at Y.”

But once I became aware of learned incompetence, I didn’t want to waste my time and energy doing things for him or let myself grow dependent on him. I don’t skip doing bicep curls with my left hand because it’s weaker since I’m right-handed. “Well, my right arm is the one I use more often so I’m just going to go ahead and strengthen that arm and skip the left.” What? No. And similarly, the fact that I’m better at cooking both because I have more experience and because I genuinely enjoy it doesn’t that I should just shoo Eric out of the kitchen the second he makes a mistake. Nor should I dismiss the things I can’t do as well with, “Oh, Eric just does that for me now.” No. Gross.

I think that when it comes to living with a significant other, we have to be OK with letting then try and fail. Letting them try comes easier than letting them fail, though. Instead of reminding him to get his passport renewed 30 times, remind him once. Then? It’s not your problem. And I know this is hard; it’s easy to say “If he doesn’t have his passport, it will ruin my trip so that’s my problem.” No. It’s still his problem. He can deal with how pissed you are about him screwing up your trip; bet you next time he’ll renew his passport. Similarly, don’t keep telling her to call and make a doctor’s appointment. Yes, I know if she doesn’t get that mole checked out it might be cancerous and then you’ll be really upset, but just…stop. Shhhh. Just shhhh.

And if they try and don’t fail, awesome. But try to resist making a huge damn just because they broke stereotypes and did something any grown-ass adult should be able to do. You just aren’t going to see my O face when Eric makes me dinner. I really appreciate it, the same way I do when anyone cooks for me, but then I move on. It’s not that big of a deal, and treating it as such is condescending. It also just makes it seem like a special event rather than something that can and should happen on a regular basis.

If you can’t find the right balance between helping out your SO and teaching helplessness, use how you treat your coworkers as a guide. Yeah, you’ll do your cube mate a favor by inputting some Excel formulas the one time she needs to know how to do them at work, but you wouldn’t do it for her if it was one of her job requirements. Eventually, you’d let her bosses see that she’s struggling knowing that she’ll either learn Excel or deal with the consequences. And you don’t smother her in hugs and kisses and praise when she gets it right. You tell her good job and move on.

Trying and failing will lead to what I see as the ultimate goal: learning. I don’t want to hear men say, “I didn’t know how to do laundry and then I got married and now my wife does it;” I want to hear them say, “I didn’t know how to do laundry and then I got married and my wife taught me.” Or, even better, “Yeah, I know how to do laundry. My dad taught me when I was ten years old.”

I learned how to do a lot of things living with other women; I’d like to say I learned how to do a lot of things living with a man.

{ 49 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Caity @ Moi Contre La Vie January 9, 2012 at 10:05 am

“Instead of reminding him to get his passport renewed 30 times, remind him once. Then? It’s not your problem.” Oh. Dear. God.

I had an Outlook reminder that I snoozed after reminding him weekly for MONTHS. Did he renew the passport that been run through the washing machine? No, no he didn’t. Did a cranky Frenchman threaten to not let us into Paris? Yes, yes he did.


2 Cara @ I Don't Believe in Diets January 9, 2012 at 10:18 am

I really like this perspective. Does this mean I have to start doing things I don’t want to do as well because of a gender stereotype? Probably… Oh well. Worth it.


3 Suzanne January 9, 2012 at 10:23 am

Conversely, I’m 25 years old and I don’t know how to use a lawn mower. My dad was super overprotective when I was growing up (actually, he still is… he always reminds me to wear a seat belt when I leave). Even though I was expected to help out around the house, I wasn’t allowed to mow the lawn. I’ve always lived in apartments since then so I’ve never had to learn. I think it’s a pretty important life skill but I’m really intimidated by it.

Also, the first time my husband did our laundry when we moved in together, he put a bunch of my bras and tights in the dryer. Instead of telling him not to do that, I just started doing all our laundry. So, yeah… I’m guilty of it, too.


4 Danielle B January 9, 2012 at 10:25 am

Wow, this hits home on so many levels! Great post Rachel. I’ll be repeating “I will not enable helplessness” all day now!


5 Kavi @ Lab to Fab! January 9, 2012 at 10:27 am

Wow, never thought of it that way, but I’m an enabler! I’m the one who’s always reminding everyone fifty times to bring their IDs, or making sure we’ll have everything we need before setting off on a trip. Like you said, I always thought I was helping, or that those issues would impact ME. But you’re right, everyone has to learn on their own. Great post!


6 Paul McConaughy (@minutrition) January 9, 2012 at 10:43 am

Number one thing to learn yourself… finance stuff. It’s not that hard to put numbers in TurboTax… don’t leave it to him. If you have a 401K at work take one of the lessons offered by the provider company and handle the management a couple times a year. If you don’t have any retirement plan at work start one on your own. You can be informed about all of it thanks to Google, don’t get to where too many women in my generation are and have your man dying and you left not understanding the finances at all.

And since I’m on this kick you might as well have my number one piece of financial advice if you always want to be happy… Always live, at least, slightly below your means.


7 Rachel January 9, 2012 at 12:04 pm

I did my own taxes via TurboTax last year!! My mom made me do it. She used to take mine to be done with hers by an accountant but when she switched to Turbo Tax, she decided I would too and sent me the login info and told me to get down to business. I know Eric uses TurboTax and could have…”helped”? (I didn’t need much help!) but it just felt better/made more sense to just do it alone!

Anyway, great advice!


8 Rachel's Mom January 9, 2012 at 9:04 pm

When I read this I was thinking that it’s not just couples that enable each other, it can be parents and/or children, too. I like your tax example. Here’s another one….me programming the DVR for a woman who has been a nurse for over thirty years, who can operate ventilators and IV pumps all on her own!


9 Lizilla January 9, 2012 at 12:06 pm

Financial knowledge is something that is not taught to most people though something that affects you everyday of your life. This is great advice!!


10 SP January 9, 2012 at 10:52 am

I like the perspective, but I just don’t know if i can do it. If I don’t “make” him do some things, they won’t get done, and while it might not seem like my problem… is it really not? He needs to go to the doctor/dentist/etc.!! How do you get over that?

(His mom told me to make his dentist appointments for him. That is crossing a line I won’t cross. He’s an adult! But I can now see how he’s gotten this far in life without making his own appointments.)

So how do I get over it? Reminding him once just doesn’t seem to work!


11 Rachel January 9, 2012 at 12:02 pm

It’s really not! How are his dentist appointments your problem?! If reminding him once a week doesn’t even work, why bother? Stop reminding him and let his gingivitis remind him in a year!


12 Nikki January 9, 2012 at 11:02 am

It’s taken me almost 32 years to “get” something like this.
I don’t have a significant other at the moment, but I can see that as I’ve gained confidence, how I treat my co-workers has changed. I used to totally be the type that would just do it for you!!
Now, I’ll do my fair share and the rest can go to pot if you don’t chip in. ;)
Thanks for posting this…I think issues like this too easily just become the status quo (typical gender roles, in this case) but that doesn’t help anyone!


13 Alicia from Poise in Parma January 9, 2012 at 11:13 am

My dad taught me how to do the laundry. I was 15 and ready to start driver’s ed, but the deal was that I shouldn’t learn how to drive a car before I knew how to use the washer.

That said, he still won’t teach me how to change a tire.


14 D January 9, 2012 at 11:39 am

Hmmm. I get where you’re coming from, because my boyfriend, despite his blatant attempts to lie about it, does not know how to do laundry. He also doesn’t know how to cook or do some basic house stuff (getting a stain out a carpet, etc) because he has never lived alone (he’s 23). He lived with his parents, then dorms, and then now with a couple of friends/housemates. In most regards he’s independent – has graduated, works a good job, sets up bills/internet, financially responsible – but he just doesn’t know how to do some things that you learn when you live alone.

On the other hand, I’m 22 and have lived alone since I was 20 and consider myself extremely independent. I graduated when I was 20 and moved across the world to start an internship in another country. Now I still live by myself, in grad school, got 2 jobs, etc. I also have a car, which my boyfriend doesn’t, and I know how to do *most* car stuff.

But when my boyfriend and I are together (which is rare – we have a very LDR) I still like him to do stuff “for me”. And when we eventually move in together, I will probably rely on him for hanging shelves/building things/etc. It’s not because I can’t do it (I just built a desk last night), but because my love language (which I learned about from your blog!) is acts of service. I don’t think cooking for your man is enabling anything, but can just be how you nurture/care for someone. And when my boyfriend learns to drive and gets a car (he has lived in a big city all his life and doesn’t need one), you can bet I will want him to service my car, etc.


15 Rachel January 9, 2012 at 11:59 am

I don’t think there is anything wrong with being generous with your acts of service. Like you, I love cooking for people (not just guys, but friends and family too)! But I think there is a line that you can cross when you don’t let them do things for themselves or treat them like they can’t, you know? I don’t want to feel like I’m incapable of doing certain things just because I have a partner. I feel like it’s good to not just DO, but TEACH. In my opinion, in the example you gave, your boyfriend deserves to have that experience you had from living alone when you gained that independence. I guess I want to learn and want other people to want to learn too, you know?


16 Katie January 9, 2012 at 12:22 pm

I agree with this comment. I am not an outwardly affectionate person and it can be hard for me to talk about my emotions (something I am working on) so the way that I show my boyfriend that I care is through things like cooking for him or taking care of chores if I am at his apartment and I know he has a lot going on in his life. I know that he can do these things for himself (afterall, he lives by himself), but it really is the best way for me to express my feelings. Anyway, this is an interesting discussion, and I will have to keep this in mind for the future.


17 Stina January 9, 2012 at 11:41 am

Another spot-on post! I had a moment of realization this weekend that was exactly what you’re talking about.

I’ve been putting off buying tires for much longer than was probably safe. For the most part, I put it off because I was not on board with dropping $500 plus, but at least part of the delay was because I had no idea where to go, what to buy, how much to pay. In the end my boyfriend did everything, and I swiped my card at the PepBoys. As I was swiping my card though, I realized it was positively absurd that I didn’t know a single thing about what had just happened except that it was cosing my $526 dollars. I vowed right then and there that next time I need new tires (or some other work on my car) I will do the research and figure it out myself. I’m sure I’ll ask for input from my boyfriend or dad, but I want to be able to make an educated decision all on my own.


18 deva @ deva by definition January 9, 2012 at 11:46 am

Totally agree. The Boy didn’t really do laundry much until we were living together. I remember getting a few picture messages with “is this the right setting?” on it when I’d ask him to do the wash while I was at work.

Fast foward 4.5 years and he’s doing laundry no issues – and no picture messages, doing dishes, etc. I had to remember that we are both adults who are capable of caring for ourselves, and that it was OKAY if I didn’t want to do it all.


19 Lizilla January 9, 2012 at 11:59 am

Awesome! My mom and dad taught both my brother and I how to cook, mow the lawn, do dishes, do laundry, change the oil, etc. My husband and I share the chores. We each have our strengths and weaknesses but we show each other how to do things. My brother-in-law does everything for my sister-in-law and she just lets herself be completely incompetent. Once we went shopping together and she had to park in a parking garage and completely panicked because her husband always did that for her. At 31 years old that is ridiculous and I let her know that.

Appreciate when people do things for you but know how to do stuff for yourself. Contrary to what some ladies think its not cute to be incompetent. Sexy is knowing how to use a drill. :)


20 Dallas January 9, 2012 at 2:06 pm

I would like to get a banner that says, “it’s not cute to be incompetent.” and I would like to get one that says, “Yes, I have a vagina. It doesn’t mean I can’t assemble my new bookcase.”

Right on.


21 Jessica @ Stylish Stealthy and Healthy January 9, 2012 at 12:10 pm

I had a friend/coworker that I was soooo guilty of this with. Like, talk about major enabler. But in the last few months I’ve taken a big step back and realized I can’t keep complaining about a situation that I’m guilty of perpetuating. Unfortunately, the friendship has suffered a lot from doing so, but I guess in the long run, at least I know what kind of friendship it was, you know?


22 Amy January 9, 2012 at 12:37 pm

Yes yes yes! Yet again I find myself agreeing with you 100%. This explains a lot of why I am now divorced. You are not a helpless child. I am not your mother. Now just be a grown ass man and do it. Perhaps I should forward this to him? His girlfriend might appreciate it! Great quality post!


23 Rachel January 9, 2012 at 12:57 pm

Love this comment! And it actually raises another question for me…how do we feel about the expression “I am not your mother”? I feel like people use it all the time and I often wonder what the hell I’m going to say when I am someone’s mother. Because I don’t have any intentions of being a housekeeper. Just wondering if this is a sort of reinforcement of the problem at hand or if it’s just a harmless statement. Anyone?


24 Dallas January 9, 2012 at 1:57 pm

Annoying statement.

Yeah, when I have kids who grow up to be regular sized humans but they’re still eating my food and sleeping in my house, they can damn well do their own laundry.

I started doing laundry at 8, because my mom had AIDS and not pitching in wasn’t really an option. I seem to have turned out alive and well-adjusted.

On the other hand, I made a killing at my summer nerd camp where we had to do our own laundry, doing laundry for teenage boys. I’m seriously. I got paid $6 a load. That’s a lot of money at 16.


25 MelissaNibbles January 10, 2012 at 3:56 pm

How about, “I’m not your caretaker!” Just take gender out of it.


26 Rachel January 10, 2012 at 9:11 pm

Count it! Nice work, Nibbles.


27 Lindsey January 9, 2012 at 12:40 pm

Agreed on all fronts, however, as a Melanoma survivor I think it’s important to point out that : “Similarly, don’t keep telling her to call and make a doctor’s appointment. Yes, I know if she doesn’t get that mole checked out it might be cancerous and then you’ll be really upset, but just…stop.” is not the right attitude. For some reason skin cancer has gotten the rap of the cancer that “everyone gets” and you just have the mole removed and it’s gone. Not the case at all, it’s a deadly disease and if you see something suspicious on yourself OR someone you love it is your duty to do whatever it takes to get them or yourself to the doctor even if it involes a club and a burlap sack. After a very extensive surgery leaving me with a huge scar and mild disfiguration of my chest, I am INCREDIBLY thankful that my mother nagged me for months to go get the mole checked out. I know you were using that as a way to make a point, but just as you would encourage/demand/ force your boyfriend go to the doctor if he had a testicular lump, the same should be said for suspicious moles. End Rant. Love your blog, just had to do my duty as a survivor. :-)


28 Rachel January 9, 2012 at 12:51 pm

Fair enough. I should have chosen a better example!


29 Bess @ I Dream of Greenie January 9, 2012 at 12:50 pm

LOVE this post… very good point with these lines: “I don’t skip doing bicep curls with my left hand because it’s weaker since I’m right-handed.”

And “You just aren’t going to see my O face when Eric makes me dinner. I really appreciate it, the same way I do when anyone cooks for me, but then I move on. It’s not that big of a deal, and treating it as such is condescending. It also just makes it seem like a special event rather than something that can and should happen on a regular basis.”

I feel like so many people either seek out partners who can do everything they can’t or will stay in a dysfunctional relationship if they are getting “enough” out of the deal to keep them from taking on new skills. Thanks for shedding light on why we should empower ourselves to handle things we might have otherwise left for our partners, parents, etc.


30 Sarah January 9, 2012 at 1:10 pm

First – excellent content lately- so many articles that I instantly wanted to share! After posting this article, I had a conversation with a male friend who brought up that many people enable learned incompetence because they need to feel needed.

My thoughts were that I don’t want to be needed for stuff like that. When I’m with somebody, I want to be with somebody that is fine taking care of themselves, but wants to be with me anyway. It’s good to be needed, but it better the fuck not be for laundry or as a life secretary. Perspective. Company. Sex. Venting. Laughing. Making the bed less cold. Having holiday plans. These are things it is ok to need me for.

Teaching your SO (/roommate/family member/whatever) to do something for him/herself doesn’t mean they don’t need you – it means you are helping them grow as a person. If that is threatening, then you should probably reevaluate how you’re looking at the relationship.


31 Rachel January 9, 2012 at 1:30 pm

Sarah…I started to quote this and then realized I love every bit of it so there’s no point in quoting just one line! Damn. This is great insight.

“It’s good to be needed, but it better the fuck not be for laundry or as a life secretary.”

Especially that.


32 Lindsay January 10, 2012 at 11:01 pm

I loved this comment as well! Instantly shared it with my boyfriend because (I believe) that is the relationship we strive for. I wasn’t used to it at first as my last boyfriend was super needy, but what Sarah lists above are exactly what I want to be needed for!


33 Caitie January 9, 2012 at 1:34 pm

Ahhh what an awesome post! This is so, so true. I have three comments:

1). The “it’s not your problem” lesson has been hard for me to learn, because I’m a really Type A control freak. Plus I grew up in a house where nothing would get done unless you did it yourself, so I’m used to “just getting it done” and will take over if something isn’t happening on the timeline that I feel is appropriate. Which is silly, because it’s really not going to kill me if that picture is hung six months later than I wanted it to be.

2). My little brother is my parent’s favourite and is enormously coddled, especially by my mom. He didn’t have a part time job until the age of 19 (mostly because he’d been an elite athlete and every spare moment was spent at training/camps/tournaments). And I swear, he was almost late to work every single day this summer. My mom would nag him endlessly, it would turn into a fight, and I would be like “why are you nagging? It’s his problem if he gets fired for being late”. And once she stopped nagging and started treating him like the adult he was, he got his shit together and started getting to work on time.

3). I worked at a pharmaceutical company, and the lab I worked in was all female. We had this one male co-worker, who was flamingly, bumblingly incompetent and the laziest individual I’ve ever met. And you know what? He got away with being a lazy ass because the women would all roll their eyes and clean up after him, or roll their eyes and fix his mistakes. Why? This was his JOB. There was NO reason why he couldn’t clean up after himself and pay attention to his work like a normal human being. Needless to say, I hated that job.


34 Phoebe January 9, 2012 at 1:36 pm

This is a really interesting post that made me think a lot about how it applied to my own life. (Warning – novel ahead.) Like other women above, I’ve always thought of myself as extremely self-sufficient. I’m great at putting together furniture, cleaning, laundry, fixing things that break, sorting out computer problems, dealing with gross tasks, emergency plumbing, etc. Also, these were all modeled for me by my parents – both of my parents are fairly handy but somehow my mom, who lived by herself for 20 years of her adult life, was more of the “go to” fix-it or DIY person which has always seemed awesome to me.

My (sadly, now ex-)boyfriend is NOT good at any of these things. However, he has a lot of other good abilities, for example he doesn’t procrastinate about renewing documents or returning library shit on time or sorting out complicated registration things like bills or online banking or issues with our lease, all of which totally overwhelms me. So typically I would do the physical stuff and he would do the fussy stuff I hate, or nag me into doing whatever I absolutely had to do myself. He can’t cook at all (he said he failed at making grilled cheese while I was away once) so I would cook, but he makes us sandwiches all the time – research shows sandwiches taste better when other people make them! And while he did his own laundry sometimes, a lot of the time I would do his too because I like doing laundry and I like “feeling domestic” about it – research shows that performing traditional gender roles can be sexy and fulfilling. (I wrote a paper about this once in college!) Despite this, I still felt like I did the majority of the “household work” and maybe that contributed to my wanting to leave in some ways. But also, there’s the fact that I like the apartment kept a certain way and if he’s happy with it a different way, it’s on me to make it look like how I want it after a certain point — although it’s reasonable for him to do some things just because they make me happy even if he doesn’t see the need for them. Like D said above, though, I feel like it brings me a lot of happiness to do nice things for him and to feel like I’m being taken care of when he does stuff for me. I don’t necessarily want an equal partnership like I’d want a roommate or work relationship to be – I think I want to feel like I would be slightly incomplete without him and vice versa. Maybe that’s just romantic idealizing though.

There are a couple books of essays that touch on these issues, “The Bitch in the House” ed. Cathi Hanauer and “The Bastard on the Couch” ed. Daniel Jones (her husband!) which sounds like it could be gimmicky but both are really superb and feature excellent writers.


35 Rachel January 9, 2012 at 2:09 pm

Love novel-length comments!

It’s great to hear from people who are more comfortable doing things the “old-fashioned way.” The thing is, I just would hate to see you or a partner not be ABLE to do those things. We all have things we hate doing and are happy to push them off on other people who don’t mind them and who are better at them. And I absolutely get that feeling fo wanting to be taken care of/take care of someone else. What I worry about is when it veers into “I want to take care of someone so I’ll date someone who is immature” or “I want to be taken care of so I’ll date anyone.” Not saying that’s the case with you, but that’s where I feel like it can go for some people.

Like Sarah said above, if I complete someone, I don’t want it to be because I do his laundry. I want it to go deeper than that. But that’s just me.

Anyway, thanks for the long and thoughtful comment and I’ll definitely check out those books. They sound right in my wheelhouse. And if you’re into reading about this kind of thing, I recommend The Meaning of Wife. Definitely touches on a lot of the research about gender roles and feeling domestic…I loved it!


36 Stephanie @ LoveLaughterLight January 9, 2012 at 3:02 pm

Two words: Great post!


37 Kaytee January 9, 2012 at 4:15 pm

Ugh, I needed this post. I am such an enabler. Not that Kyle doesn’t do anything around the house, but I constantly pick up after him and text him to remind him of things he needs to do. Sometimes I feel like I owe it to him because I don’t have a job and it’s so nice to feel needed, but I probably need to find a balance between doing things for him and letting him take care of things on his own.


38 Nicole @ Giraffelegs January 9, 2012 at 5:26 pm

Literally I am nervous for the day I move in with my boyfriend. If his stumble even so much as grumbles his mom will sprint to the kitchen and make him a sandwich. Thankfully with time I have learned to spray him with a water bottle and ultimately tell him to fuck off and make his own sandwich. While he’s at it maybe he can make me one as well.


39 Bridget January 9, 2012 at 8:44 pm

This post stirred up a bit of feeling in me. On one hand, I totally agree. Living on your own, away from family, and single will make you quite competent in things you’d never think you’d need to do. However, the issue I ran into when I began dating again was that I had a hard time letting the guy do things for me since I was so used to being independent. It’s been drilled into my head to Do things on your own! Change your own tire! Grill your own burger! that when it came to rely on someone…I just couldn’t do it. It felt like I was betraying my independence to let him do things for me. But once I let him…it was kind of nice. It’s not that I can’t open the pickle jar…it’ll just take me longer, hurt my hand, and possibly involve pliers. Being in a relationship involves relying on each other and being somewhat dependent on each other. It doesn’t mean I can’t survive on my own or that I’m incompetent. It means I trust someone enough to reveal where I struggle and let them be there for me and that they trust me enough to pick up where they struggle as well.

I just don’t want women to get so caught up in I WILL NOT LET ANYONE DO ANYTHING FOR ME BECAUSE I CAN DO IT ALL MYSELF idea. Because it takes a just as strong woman to let someone else in and care for her.


40 Rachel's Mom January 9, 2012 at 9:32 pm

We (the teachers I work with) were just having a discussion about this the other day at lunch. We were talking about how many reminder notes and computer generated phone messages get sent home from school. Most of the teachers felt one note should be sent home, and then it is the parents’ responsibility to put it on a calendar and remember it. We enable them by sending all the notes home. One problem teachers see a lot is irresponsible parents, and in turn, irresponsible students, so we constantly try to remind them to be responsible with all the reminders. Maybe dealing with the consequences of being irresponsible is better than trying to stop it from happening. It doesn’t matter that
we send. notes and make the phone calls…someone always brings their kid at 8:40 on Late Start days when school doesn’t,t start


41 Rachel's Mom January 9, 2012 at 9:35 pm

Argh….trouble using the Kindle keypad at the end of my comment….school doesn’t start until 11:05 on those days.


42 Parita @ myinnershakti January 9, 2012 at 10:02 pm

This post has my mom’s name written all over it. And since I’m a lot like her, it has my name written all over it. I’m going to have to send this to my fiance and remind him to remind me not to be an enabler once we’re married. But I really think you’re spot on with the concept – great post! I’m a big believer in learning lessons by trial and error, but it’s hard to step back when the learner is someone you really care about or when something of yours is at stake (selfish but true).


43 K @ The Chic Teach January 9, 2012 at 10:21 pm

Okay, since I’m a teacher, I see this type of thing all the time.

If I have a certain standard for my students, or try to brush off certain skills that they’re missing, then they will NEVER LEARN THEM. For example, I teach them at least once a week the difference between there, their, and they’re, because if I don’t teach them or turn a blind eye to it, they will always fail at it.

It’s gotta be the same thing with adults. Frankly, if people don’t know there’s something wrong with what they’re doing, how they’re behaving, or what they DON’T know, they’ll never be able to change.


44 Rachel's Mom January 9, 2012 at 10:42 pm

What grade level do you teach?
I try so hard to make my students responsible. They usually know better than to come to me and say, “I can’t find my highlighter” (or something similar) because they will always get a response that is something like this: “I cannot be responsible for twenty-eight highlighters in this room, but you can be responsible for one. ” Or, if it is a repeat offender, they may get the slightly more sarcastic reply that sounds like this: “Well let me just run right over there and find it for you!” One time, when a kid told me he couldn’t find his crayons, ANOTHER KID said, “Well, let her just run right over there and find them for you!” It was pretty hysterical because this was a really quiet kid, who never said much who said it.


45 Jessica January 10, 2012 at 3:28 pm

I agree with the comment from Rachel’s mom about parents enabling, also. Growing up, both my parents were excellent cooks, so I never bothered to learn how to make anything. Then in college I ate in a dining hall. When I finally lived alone I ate simply and grudgingly cooked meals for one when I had to. Then I got married to a man who couldn’t cook, either.

The thing is though, yeah, I could have easily said “we’re both learning how to cook.” But I didn’t. I decided that I was more interested in controlling the amount we spent at the grocery store and the amount of healthy stuff we ate than he was, so I took on the task of cooking pretty much exclusively. And I’ve never regretted it.

Presently, I really like cooking and my husband would rather do cleaning. I don’t see any reason why tasks have to be divided so evenly that we both do tasks we don’t care for just in the interest of fairness or not enabling “helplessness.”

He can easily fend for himself when he has to. But if I prefer to do 99% of the cooking, why not? I’d rather be content than 100% fair.


46 Megan C. January 10, 2012 at 5:49 pm

You are so right that people will continue to not do things if you do them for them. And it is a disservice to them and to you.

I got incredibly lucky as far as my husband. He’s been on his own in the Navy since he was 18 so he cooks, cleans, and does laundry. To be honest he cleans the bathroom with more detail than I do. We had a deal when he was home (he’s deployed) that if I planned the menu (including telling him where the recipe is located), we’d go grocery shopping, and he’d cook dinner because he got home first. Then we’d split the clean-up.

As far as laundry he does his own and I do my own. Too many of my things have special care instructions and he’s worried he’ll ruin something so this works for us. If I make a pile of things that go in the washer and then into the dryer he’ll wash them but other wise I’m on my own.

And since he’s deployed I’ve had to take on a number of things that he used to take care of like fixing the garbage disposal, changing light bulbs in our high ceiling areas, mowing the lawn, fixing the lights in the kitchen, taking out the trash, etc. None of them are big they are just things I didn’t have to worry about before.


47 Summer January 10, 2012 at 7:45 pm

I was VERY briefly married at age 23. My ex-husband (I hate even saying that term!) flipped a switch as soon as the ink dried on the marriage license and suddenly there was an enormous amount of tension if I didn’t properly fulfill my role as “housewife.” Nevermind the fact I worked a full-time job from 6am – 2:30pm, went to the gym five days a week afterwards AND was going to school in the evenings for my real estate license; while he was a firefighter with a 24-hour on, 48-hour off schedule. Regardless of his abundance of free time, he would constantly chastise me for not taking care of various chores around the house while he was gone. Namely, the laundry. We did not have a washer/dryer in the house and lived in a not-so-great neighborhood with an even worse laundromat down the road. I couldn’t go in there at all without being offered drugs or very blatantly getting hit on even if he was with me. His solution to this problem? I should have taken the laundry to his parents’ house and tended to it there. His parents lived on a different side of town and his mother was nearly *always* home. Although I liked his family very much, sorry, but my free time is MY free time, and I didn’t always want to spend it chatting with his mother for hours while the laundry washed.

I also heard endless complaints about how I’d sweep the floors but fail to vacuum the rug that particular day, would clean the kitchen but didn’t put a dish back exactly where he wanted it…he even criticized me for not being thoughtful enough to lay out his clothes each night! What really pissed me off is how he would compare me to other women – both to exes of his and the wives/girlfriends of his friends and coworkers. I was often compared to an older woman he dated who had three children and would lay his clothes out night same as she did with her kids, cook him breakfast each morning, etc. And once we were once outside painting a shed in the heat of summer and I was wearing a bikini top and shorts, because why not work on my tan, you know? His friend came over to hang out and help and I later was told that a “real woman” would have put a shirt on when her husband’s friend came over.

Needless to say, I realized I made an enormous mistake and we were divorced within a year. But all of that behavior? Entirely because he was coddled by his mother, even after he’d grown up and moved out. She prided herself on the fact that “her babies” always had a home-cooked meal three times a day, clean, pressed clothes, etc, as they were growing up and he was never taught that reality involves doing domestic things for yourself from time to time. Absolutely ridiculous. Even better? After we divorced, he ended up going back to and marrying that older woman with the three kids. He WANTED a motherly figure as his wife and would openly admit to such, which I find entirely disturbing all on its own, but that’s for another discussion.

Years later (I’m now 27 and have been a homeowner for two years), there are certain things that I simply prefer to do myself, even if my dude-friend is willing to do them for or with me. My own laundry, specifically. I know which pieces I don’t throw in the dryer and it gives me an intense amount of anxiety to even think about someone else handling my clothes. I’m super anal about only washing in cold water and drying on extremely low heat. But I digress. I absolutely believe that yes, we do tend to fall into gender-specific roles that are perpetuated by our own damn selves and that often leads to co-dependency or, as you mentioned, incompetence.

I love to bend the roles (and rules!) though, and I’m a huge DIY’er both around the house and with my car. I adore the fact that I’ll have my car up on ramps and I’ll be underneath it changing the oil by myself, while my boyfriend is calling the shop to set an appointment to take his in for such a simple maintenance task. Me > him.

Great post!


48 Mayor Gia January 10, 2012 at 9:57 pm

Ooooof I saw my dad do the learned incompetence thing all the time growing up. SO ANNOYING.


49 N. January 23, 2012 at 10:41 am

This post really hit home with me. I live with my SO and am struggling with his inherent laziness. I’ve done a decent job at not enabling him – but now it’ s getting tough: he got fired from his job and now cannot afford his share of the bills.

So what do I do? Nag him to get a job? Kick him out? We’ve had several “mature,” sit-down talks about it (and a few screaming fights), and I’m at my wit’s end…


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