What to Do if Your Co-Parent Is a Narcissist
Ten years ago, when Cat Blake divorced her husband, their daughter’s co-parenting was relatively straightforward. “We were co-parents relatively well, with a few hiccups along the way,” she says.
But a few years later, when she published an autobiography about her struggles with codependency, things got worse.
“My ex-husband and his new wife heard about the book and sued me for full custody of my then 8-year-old daughter and character defamation,” says Blake, who is now a divorce coach in Boston, MY. Legal fees wreaked havoc on her finances and she had to sell her house and file for bankruptcy.
Blake later realized that her ex-husband, who she says is narcissistic, didn’t even want more time with their daughter. “He just wanted to punish me,” she said.
What co-parenting with a narcissist looks like
“Co-parenting with someone who has a full-fledged personality disorder is extremely difficult,” says Mark Ettensohn, PsyD, author of Unmasking Narcissism: A Guide to Understanding the Narcissist in Your Life. Narcissists have a very unstable self-image, he says. They are often inflexible, defensive, and deal with the situation in an unhealthy manner.
If your parental partner is narcissistic, they may ignore, push, or test your limits. Or they may have less structure, empathy, or respect than you would like. They often get angry when you give them comments or criticism. It can be difficult to reach compromises. Their negativity could wear you out.
How to recognize a narcissist
Narcissists have a strong sense of greatness and self-importance. This means that they think they are more important than others and that they lack empathy.
Other signs of narcissistic personality disorder include:
- Arrogant attitude or behavior
- Take advantage of others to get what they want
- Believe that they are unique or special
- Exaggerate accomplishments and talents
- Excessive need for admiration
- Feeling envy towards others or thinking that others envy them
- Lack of empathy
- Obsessed with fantasies of brilliance, power or success
- Sense of law
What to do if your co-parent is a narcissist
Follow these steps if you are co-parenting with a narcissist:
Accept it. If your parental partner is a narcissist, they probably won’t change. “You have to understand the fact that you will have to co-parent with someone you might not like,” says Blake.
Set limits. Be clear and specific. Draw the line on what is OK and what is not. Don’t let them cross. Narcissists love control and will do whatever it takes to get it.
Make a parenting plan. Make a plan on how to drop off and pick up kids, and how to handle extracurricular activities, vacations, and discipline. Decide how you are going to speak and how often. Put the plan in writing, sign it and stick to it.
Limit communication. Your parenting partner may try to get your attention by communicating too much. They can suddenly tell you something that they need an answer to right away. Try to only use email to have a chance to breathe before responding.
Stay calm. When your partner makes you angry or angry, try to stay calm. Avoid engaging in insults or blaming. “Use clear language, unemotional words, strong body language and a voice,” says Blake.
Take a step back. Try not to take personal attacks to heart. Instead, recognize that what they say is more about them than you.
What you should not do
Here are some things to avoid if you are co-parenting with a narcissist:
Do not discuss. Narcissists make it hard to win an argument. They often speak in circles to confuse and overwhelm you. Keep your answers clear and short, without emotion. Don’t explain yourself or give too much information. This is also called the “gray rock method”.
Don’t be afraid of them. “They thrive on fear,” says Blake. “Narcissists are so easy when you realize what makes them tick. They just want attention and praise. Recognize when they’re doing something right. But respect your limits.
Don’t try to control everything. “As long as you’re doing your job, try to let go a bit of what the narcissist does in parenting,” Blake says. “Your kids come back fed and in one piece? That’s pretty good.”
Do not use your child. Your partner can use your child to get what he wants. They could make them spy on you for private information. You might be tempted to do it too, but it’s best not to.
How to protect children
“It can be difficult to protect kids from a co-parent’s personality issues when you’re not around to see what’s going on,” Ettensohn says. Focus on what you can control.
Talk to your child. Help them understand the behavior of their other parents. Adapt it to your age. Teach them that their parents’ behavior is about that parent, not them.
Watch what you say. Try not to say negative things about your parental partner. “It can turn your child against you and he might feel pressured to choose sides,” Ettensohn says. “Be aware of non-verbal communication, talk to friends and family within earshot, and compare your child to your narcissist,” says Blake.
Watch for signs of abuse. Look for anything that goes beyond the limits of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse.
Be a healthy parent. You can’t choose how your partner brings up your child, but you can compensate for it with healthy parenting. Be a good role model. Train your child through difficult times. “The antidote to your partner’s narcissism is acceptance, warmth, realistic assessment, and consistency,” Ettensohn says.
Co-parenting with a narcissistic ex-husband hasn’t been easy for Blake, but it keeps things in perspective. “Children only need a successful parent to become a successful adult,” she says.
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