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There’s a considerable amount of discussion surrounding the topic of co-parenting with a narcissistic ex-spouse. Unfortunately, despite popular demand, there isn’t much research surrounding the topic, and when adults of divorce enter into therapy, the underlying issues they report rarely mention a narcissistic parent. Perhaps it’s because it’s difficult to label a person in our lives that we’re close to, or even to view a narcissistic parent in a way that questions them out of fear of losing the parent’s love. Whatever the case may be, there are many co-parents these days who would describe their ex as narcissistic, and since a narcissist doesn’t believe narcissism to be a real personality disorder, or a personal issue, it’s nearly impossible to get a narcissist to admit his/her faults and change. This makes co-parenting with a narcissist next to impossible, according to several professionals who have worked with, and have even been married to, narcissistic personalities.
Retire the Idea of Co-Parenting with a Narcissist
According to LCSW Linda Esposito, it’s pointless to try to co-parent with a narcissist. Instead, she recommends establishing ground rules, boundaries, and strategies for establishing peace of mind when trying to share custody with a narcissistic ex. This is because a narcissistic person is self-centered, and unable to empathize with others. This person doesn’t form the same emotional connections that others are capable of, and if a person questions the narcissist, or doesn’t believe the narcissist to be who he/she says he/she is, the narcissist is quick to withhold love, and cut a person out, even his/her own children. This makes for a co-parenting dynamic that can be in constant turmoil, as a narcissist will often be manipulative, and will create conflict as means of keeping the other parent engaged, and wrapped up in drama with little concern for how it affects the children, or anyone else outside of the narcissist’s own ego.
One way to minimize conflict with a narcissistic ex is by filing a parenting plan with the court that outlines all of the terms of co-parenting that have been agreed upon. Parenting coach Jennifer Wolf recommends this as a way to help minimize the narcissists ability to manipulate parenting plans in order to get one’s own way.
Know the 10 Commandments of a Narcissistic Parent
Certified divorce coach Cathy Meyer has personal experience co-parenting with a narcissistic ex, and says that knowing the 10 commandments of a narcissistic parent can be helpful in trying to share custody with such an ex. According to Meyer, the 10 commandments of a narcissistic parent are:
• “I am who I tell you I am.”
• “You will tell me things I want to hear or you will not be heard.”
• “You will feel the way I want you to feel or you will be forsaken.”
• “Love is conditional upon the aforementioned.”
• “Intimacy is vulnerability, and thus, death.”
• “There is only one road in and out of here.”
• “Children are like toys that become useless when they break, which is why they must be replaced with better toys.”
• “Parents are really one person in two bodies. When they individuate, they die.”
• “Conversely, siblings are really one person in several bodies. When they individuate, they die.”
• “Narcissism is a myth.”
Meyer goes on to say that if you find yourself trying to co-parent with a narcissist, it’s best to keep expectations low, not to expect to “get through” to one’s ex, or hold them accountable, and to stay diligent in one’s own parental duties; cleaning up the damage to the children left by the narcissistic personality. She also recommends counseling for the children and self when needed, as family and friends lack the training needed for handing a narcissist.
Tips for Coping with a Narcissistic Co-Parent
LCSW Linda Esposito highlights several strategies for coping with a narcissistic co-parent. Rather than trying to co-parent in a way that is fair, it’s best to focus on coping, and protecting oneself from any attacks from one’s ex. Some of her tips for coping with a narcissistic co-parent include:
• Minimizing Contact with One’s Ex: Narcissistic personalities tend to be high-conflict, and like to engage is psychological warfare. The goal is to keep a person involved in the relationship long after the divorce is finalized. Doing so serves no greater good, or benefit to the children or non-narcissistic parent, rather only supports the ego of the narcissist; giving him/her a sense of power and control.
• Set Firm Boundaries: Having strong boundaries surrounding the home, school, and community functions sets the children up for safety, security, and predictability which can counteract some of the psychological damage that a narcissist can inflict upon a child.
• Do Not Feel Sorry for the Children: As tempting as this may be, feeling sorry for children is only going to perpetuate a mentality of victimization that can carry with them, and affect their ability to form healthy relationships in the future. There are worse things that can happen to the children, and while it’s important to clean up the messes left by the narcissist, feeling sorry for the children isn’t going to do them any favors.
• Strive to Be Calm, Non-Emotional and Pleasant: While one parent may lack the ability to be calm and stable for the children, it increases the need for the other parent to be strong, and control emotions in front of the children. This is a difficult task to accomplish, and is definitely easier said than done, but it’s incredibly beneficial for the kids, as they can combat the psychological affects of a narcissist with the unconditional love and support of one parent.
• Model Social and Emotional Intelligence: Children need at least one positive role model to teach them how to manage emotions in a healthy way, and how to develop healthy coping skills. This can be further helped by nurturing the children’s unique talents, qualities, and sense of autonomy.
• Refrain From Criticizing One’s Ex in Front of Children: If a narcissist catches wind of such criticisms from the children it will only fuel the fire, and could cause unnecessary backlash against the children who are not equipped to handle a narcissist. In an effort to protect the children, keep any negative information about one’s ex away from their eyes and ears.
• Create Mental and Emotional Space From the Narcissist: This means removing the narcissist, and any reminders of this person from one’s home, computer, mobile device, and conversations. By not focusing on one’s ex, it is taking power away from him/her to do any further emotional or mental damage.
• Work Toward Emotional Regulation: Being in control of one’s own emotions is powerful when dealing with a narcissist. It can help to slow things down in the face of conflict, and allow one to pause before reacting. This can be done via the practice of mindfulness, meditation, and other relaxation techniques.
• Fight for the Children: When it comes to dealing with a narcissistic ex, and a high-conflict divorce, it’s always best to put the children first, and to fight for them with their best interests in mind. This includes choosing one’s battles with an ex wisely, and reacting to emotional intensity with warmth and kindness. If a child is refusing contact, it’s best to react with warmth, rather than intensity and anger toward one’s ex.
While it may not always be easy to deal with a narcissistic ex, and co-parenting can seem next to impossible, it’s possible to cope in a way that sets positive examples for the children, and promotes healthy coping skills, and emotional regulation despite having a narcissistic parent. Keep in mind that there are worse things that could happen in life, and that while it’s difficult to have a narcissist in one’s life, its of the utmost importance to handle a narcissist in a very strategic, careful way, so as to best help the children as they adjust and grow into adults.