n many types of relationships — with friends, co-workers, or siblings, for example — you can choose to detach from a person who doesn't treat you well. When you're divorced and co-parenting with a narcissist, that's not necessarily an option.
While this may not be an ideal situation for any parties involved, there are measures you can take to protect yourself from further emotional stress and help your children navigate their interactions with the other parent.
In this article, we'll talk about:
Narcissism is essentially a grandiose sense of self. It's the tendency to place one's own needs above the needs of others.
All humans display some narcissistic traits, especially as young children. But a small percentage show signs of pathological narcissism well into adulthood. It's estimated that 1% of the population has narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).
Some psychologists believe narcissism is the result of emotional neglect in childhood. A child whose emotional needs are not met can become overly focused on taking care of themselves, and therefore ignore the needs of the people around them.
Narcissism can look like:
If a number of these traits were present in your marriage and/or post-divorce, these may be signs you are co-parenting with a narcissist.
Co-parenting with a person who feels no empathy and doesn't accept responsibility for their choices can be challenging, to say the least. Although it can be tempting to label your former narcissistic partner and blame them for any difficulties you encounter as a co-parent, that probably won't help you or your children move on from the divorce.
Instead, let's consider some positive steps you can take.
If you experienced physical or emotional abuse or were in a high-conflict marriage, you may feel like you have low self-esteem post-divorce. This can make having to interact with your co-parent exceedingly difficult — even re-traumatizing.
Caring for yourself should come first. Here are some suggestions for doing so:
If you were or still are engaged in a custody battle or contentious divorce, be sure to hire family law professionals (lawyers and mediators) who understand what co-parenting with a narcissist could be like and can help protect you from any form of gaslighting or manipulation.
Despite the cooperative meaning of the word "co-parenting," you may not feel that there's much of a partnership between you and your ex.
A narcissistic co-parent may use things like failing to pay child support and withholding communication with your child as a means of manipulating you. While these tactics are certainly frowned upon by family courts, it can be complicated — and expensive — to try to hold someone accountable for an undesirable behavior pattern.
It's best to focus on what you can control and maintain integrity no matter what.
If your co-parent ignores your phone calls or refuses to allow your child to talk to you on their time, follow through on your end of the bargain and then step back. Make one or two attempts to call at the scheduled time (if you have one) or send a text to request a call. If you get no response, you might be tempted to continue trying. However, it's probably wiser to hold off and just keep a record of that interaction.
The same goes for obligations around pick-ups and drop-offs or shared expenses. Use tools to help you keep track of what's required per your court order and to record what actually happens.
A custody calendar can help you, even if your co-parent never looks at it. The same goes for the Onward App. You can send expense proposals that will serve as an easy record of dates and amounts the other parent owes, without worrying about how to gently phrase an email or text.
As hard as it is to come to terms with ongoing unfairness, sticking to the parenting plan on your end is likely to be the wisest decision in the long run. If you feel overwhelmed by your former spouse's lack of participation in the co-parenting relationship, turn to a support system — close family or friends who know the details of your divorce — rather than expressing your frustration in a way that might be used against you later.
Depending on your ex-spouse's response to your attempts to co-parent, you may decide it's best to go for a parallel parenting approach instead.
As the name implies, parallel parenting is a way of separately parenting after divorce. If positive communication strategies don’t work, you can choose to take care of your responsibilities and allow the other parent to do the same — with minimal interaction between you.
In some cases, this involves one parent using a strategy called the grey rock method. Especially if you endured any form of narcissistic abuse, you're within your rights to pull back from frequent interactions and only do what's necessary to fulfill your obligations.
Co-parenting is generally the goal in a legal sense, but sometimes it's unrealistic. A judge or lawyer may recommend that you both attempt to parent harmoniously for the sake of your children, but following through with this on a day-to-day basis could prove difficult in your particular situation.
If you feel parallel parenting will work better for you than co-parenting with a narcissist, there's no shame in going with it — and there's also no need to announce this decision to your ex.
Disclaimer: If your child has historically experienced abuse at the hands of their other parent, this advice does not apply.
You may be able to remove yourself a bit from your previous relationship, but your children may not have that same choice.
It's natural to want to guard them against the person who hurt you, but it's probably wise to allow your kids' relationship with their other parent to develop independently of the one you had.
Not getting between your child and your co-parent is helpful for your ongoing relationship with both of them, but it's also most likely a requirement of your divorce. Regardless of each parent's behavior, courts frown upon parental alienation: the act of demonizing the other parent in the presence of their child. Talking badly about your ex can be quite damaging to a child who still has to spend time with them, and likely has a deep love for them regardless of their flaws.
Instead, take it one day at a time and try not to worry about what your child is facing every time they're not with you. If you focus on being present and supportive when they are in your home, you'll offer a counterbalance to any stresses they encounter in their other home.
If you have older children or teenagers, they may have lots of questions about why your marriage ended. Don't be afraid to tell the truth, but keep it age-appropriate and refrain from name-calling.
Try to also highlight any positives about your co-parent. Sometimes, our pride can prevent us from acknowledging any amount of good our former spouse does. If your ex-spouse shows up for every one of your child's soccer games, make a point of expressing your gratitude for that.
Overall, it helps to put yourself in your children's shoes. What would you have wanted to hear about your own parents?
It's hard to see the proverbial forest for the trees when you're in the thick of co-parenting with a narcissist. You might feel less positive about your personal future than you would be if you weren't regularly dealing with narcissistic behavior.
But it doesn't have to stay that way.
You can make a choice to disengage from your former spouse's opinions or attempts to control the dynamic.
Things may not always go the way you'd like and you may feel like you have to protect your children, or the way a family court judge would say they should, but there is still hope for a calm and happy future for you and your children.
Chelsea is a twice-divorced mom of two boys. She is happily single parenting and doing her best to balance two simultaneous co-parenting relationships. Despite the complications, Chelsea can see the beauty in her story and believes healing is possible for the whole family.