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Parenting is hard work. Co-parenting can be even more daunting. And if you’re co-parenting with a narcissist, well, it may feel near impossible at times.
Take a deep breath. While you may be tied to this individual through your children for what seems like forever, you can set up some boundaries and find support to make the task a bit less maddening.
Co-parenting alone brings about some unique challenges that take cooperative thinking to overcome. Things like splitting time for custody or holidays can be difficult for even the most agreeable parents.
If you can cooperate, it makes the situation much better for all parties involved, especially the children. But, as you may already know, narcissists may be the opposite of cooperative.
People with narcissistic personality disorder tend to have:
- an inflated sense of importance
- an excessive need for attention
- a history of turbulent relationships
- a fundamental lack of empathy for the people around them.
All these things are directly at odds of the traits needed for positive parenting and a good family dynamic.
In fact, Melanie Tonia Evans, author of “You Can Thrive After Narcissistic Abuse,” explains that your ex may even try to use your kids against you. Sound familiar? She further explains that along with conflicts, you may experience a number of other challenges while co-parenting with a narcissist, including:
- not agreeing to custody and other arrangements
- not acting nice or agreeable for your child’s sake
- interfering with your child’s routine, appointments, and belongings
You might see a common thread among these challenges — and that’s the narcissist’s need for control.
While this can be frustrating to deal with, unless there is abuse or some other major reason to keep your ex away from your child, it’s generally a good thing to try to find a way to make the situation work with both parents in the child’s life.
But how to make the situation work? Well, there are many ways you can take back the control when it comes to co-parenting.
Establish a legal parenting plan
Narcissists may want to be in the picture as much as possible. If you strike a legal parenting plan or custody agreement, you’ll have everything in writing. That way, if your ex starts demanding more time or trying to manipulate certain situations, it’s formally enforced by a party outside your relationship.
A plan might include things like who pays for medical costs (or who pays what percentage), visitation schedules for everyday life, and visitation schedules for holidays. Whatever is covered under your custody agreement should be written down and detailed so there are absolutely no gray areas that could be exploited.
Obviously working with a lawyer is an expense, but establishing a legal plan can help for the duration of your co-parenting years.
Take advantage of court services
A guardian ad litem (GAL) is a court appointed (neutral) person who looks out for the “best interest of a child.” You can request that one be appointed.
The guardian becomes familiar with your child and their situation and makes recommendations to the court based on their needs. With regard to co-parenting, this might include things like where your child will spend most of their time or how much contact a child should have with either parent.
Mediators, on the other hand, serve as a go-between for communication and resolution between parents. In some places they are a required part of custody disputes while in others their assistance is optional.
They can help resolve any issues that brought you and your ex to court. They do not give orders or advice. Instead, parents decide the parenting plan while working through mediators. Then this plan is brought to a judge and eventually becomes court ordered.
Maintain firm boundaries
Narcissists feed on the reactions they get from others — whether good or bad. Setting up boundaries is a way that you can limit your ex’s ability to get you fired up.
For example, you may suggest that you communicate only through text or email. That way, you have some time to react before you respond to requests and other communications coming your way. It also helps you with documentation, which we’ll cover in a minute.
These boundaries can extend to your ex’s relationship with your child as well. If your court-ordered agreement allows, consider scheduling specific times when your ex can call to speak with your child during visitations. And stick to your guns. The narcissist may not respond well to having boundaries set at first, but — with time — you’ll find they’re necessary and oh-so helpful.
Related: How to successfully co-parent
Parent with empathy
It may be hard to avoid getting caught up in the dramatics of co-parenting, but try your best to remember your child in all this. Parenting with empathy means putting yourself in your child’s shoes and responding to situations in ways that take their feelings foremost into account.
You can also help your child to recognize their own feelings — whether that’s sadness, frustration, or anger. If they know what they’re feeling, they can better talk about it and work through tough times. And keep in mind that your child is likely not getting this type of positive modeling or understanding from their narcissistic parent, so it’s doubly important.
Avoid speaking ill of the other parent in front of the kids
Along with this, it’s a good idea to keep conflict with your ex and specific name-calling or other complaints to yourself (or perhaps a trusted friend, family member, or therapist). Ranting just puts your little one in the center of something they didn’t ask to be a part of. It adds stress and the pressure of taking sides.
Avoid emotional arguments
Again, try to keep emotions out of the mix. Your ex is likely to revel in seeing you super anxious or upset. Don’t give them the satisfaction. And when it comes to arguments, avoid using your child as a go-between, negotiator, or to otherwise gather information. Keep things between you and your ex.
If this is especially hard for you to master, try treating your communications with your ex like a job. You don’t have to agree on everything, but you do have to work together. This mindset may help you muscle through rough discussions and keep the conflict to a minimum.
Reframing your expectations may also help. If you go into different parenting situations expecting some kickback, you may be less shocked or stressed when issues arise. Alternatively, you may be pleasantly surprised if something goes over relatively easily.
Remember: Co-parenting can be challenging even if parents are generally agreeable. While some situations may be made particularly difficult dealing with a narcissist, some of it is just part of adjusting to the new normal.
Write everything down. Or keep a digital log of things you feel are important. These might include the dates and times when your ex won’t grant the agreed upon visitation or any abuse/neglect you suspect. Anything that doesn’t feel right or isn’t being executed as you’ve agreed should be recorded if you want to take action on it.
You may even want to bring an unbiased person (a neighbor, for example) to serve as a witness to what you’re describing, like late or skipped pick-ups/drop-offs. All the evidence you gather can be used in court to help you with custody. No detail is too small.
If it’s getting to be too much to handle on your own, reach out. A licensed therapist can help you work through issues and come to solutions for those especially impossible scenarios. Even just talking through your feelings with a neutral person can help you take a step back and reassess your situation.
And therapy isn’t a bad idea for your child either. Your child’s feelings about divorce are likely different from your own. You might try to find groups through your local school or community for children of divorce. Beyond that, if you notice your little one is acting out or having a particularly rough time, ask your pediatrician for a recommendation to a child or adolescent therapist.
Related: When to consult a psychologist
Maintain perspective on conflicts
Even during the worst times, be sure to acknowledge what you’re up against. Underneath that exterior of bold confidence, the narcissist is actually extremely sensitive to criticism and likely has very low self-esteem. Your conflicts are much less about the situations at hand and far more about ego.
Knowing this is half the battle. What’s important is that you stay sane and your child stays safe. Advocate for your child and keep their interests closest to your heart. In the long run, shifting the focus off all the spats and keeping your efforts on what’s truly important will only strengthen your relationship with your kids.
Try parallel parenting
When all else fails, you may want to consider parallel parenting, which isn’t the same thing as co-parenting. This type of arrangement allows you to stop having contact with your ex as much as possible. In especially toxic situations, parallel parenting allows each parent to parent the way they choose when the child is in their custody.
How does it look? Parents do not attend things like school concerts, sports events, or parent-teacher conferences together. You will also likely choose neutral spots for pick-ups/drop-offs from visitations. Communication only happens when it’s absolutely necessary. While this may sound rather tumultuous for the child, it does take quarreling between parents out of the equation, which can be beneficial.
Even better, perhaps with enough distancing, you and your ex might be able to eventually build better communication and cooperation.
If your ex has become either emotionally or physically abusive, the time to act is now. Do everything you can legally do to remove your children from their care. And if you’re struggling with what to do first, reach out for support anywhere you can get it (counselors, lawyers, family, friends, etc.).
The priority is to get your child into a safe environment. And this may mean making visitation under supervision via court order. This is where documentation comes into play. If you can provide documentation of physical or emotional abuse, neglect, or any other concerns — it will help your case.
Call your state’s department of family and protective services or the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1−800−799−7233) for more information. Don’t hesitate to contact 911 or your local emergency services if you are in a dangerous situation and need to get out fast.
Co-parenting with a narcissist may feel like the most impossible thing ever.
Tweak your approach in ways that allow you to take more control of what you can. Don’t feed into your ex’s incessant need to rile you up. Reach out to your support system for help and don’t hesitate to contact the support services that are in place through the courts and your local community.
Above all else, keep the line of communication open with your child — and keep breathing. You can do this.