Is co-parenting with a narcissist even possible? After all, a full-fledged narcissist has little to no empathy, uses their children as pawns and tends to manipulate the legal system to suit their own agendas. They also attempt to alienate the empathic parent from their own kids.
Unfortunately, when children are involved, it’s nearly impossible to go No Contact with a pathological ex-partner as is commonly suggested unless you are awarded full custody. Usually Low Contact (the bare minimum amount of contact you must have for the sake of the kids) combined with parallel parenting is the route many take in order to survive.
I asked survivors of narcissistic abuse to tell me some of the most difficult aspects of attempting to co-parent with a narcissist and share some of their most valuable tips for other survivors like them.
Here’s what they told me:
1. Find a therapist and attorney who’s thoroughly educated and experienced with personality-disordered individuals.
The most difficult aspect of co-parenting with a narcissist is how isolating it is. Many well-intended, but uninformed people (including those in the family court systems) can’t comprehend the idea of a parent being so manipulative and callous at their children’s expense and I don’t blame them. I wouldn’t believe some of the outrageous stunts he’s pulled either if I hadn’t personally experienced them. So I don’t talk about it much, which makes for a very lonely experience. To take it one step further: I would rename the experience of co-parenting with an ex that is a narcissist as “defense-parenting.” His blatant disregard for our children’s best interest when using them as a pawn to try to punish me for leaving the “United States of His Awesomeness” and trying to portray me in a negative light as a mother is disturbing to say the least.
Tips: Trust your gut! Find an amazing therapist AND attorney who’s thoroughly educated and experienced with personality-disordered individuals. The therapist will help you to find the inner peace you need to be the stable and empathetic parent for your children and your attorney will give you peace of mind when you’re ex tries to threaten legal measures (mine is on speed dial.)
Self-care, self-care and self-care!
Including all of the following: Feel your feelings, develop a good routine. Exercise. Love yourself: you are important, your happiness is important, and your kids happiness will generally follow. If you were able to get out of the relationship with someone like that then you are already stronger than you could even imagine. You got through their bullying, threats, and attempts at emotional homicide already! You have already done amazing things for your children by showing them that you took a stand against the toxic parent’s behavior for them and for yourself! And this will hopefully help them to love themselves and others as well. Hang in there!
2. If you are going to leave a narcissist, do not tell him you plan on leaving. If he or she mistreats you, document it.
If you are going to leave a narcissist, do not tell him (or her) you plan on leaving. Quietly get yourself a therapist and a lawyer. You will need both. Consult with them to make a plan for leaving safely. Don’t assume he won’t hurt you, your kids, or your pets physically just because he never has before. Arrange to have your kids start seeing a therapist immediately after filing the initial paperwork. The same day if possible. Please trust me on this one. It’s best to start now, not later.
If he mistreats you, your kids, or your pets in any way document it and do not tell him or her you are doing so. Save the documentation in a safe place. Communicate with him or her as little as possible. Give them as little information as possible. When you must communicate, be a “gray rock.” In other words, be as boring as possible. Do not react emotionally. Do not react AT ALL. ALWAYS communicate via email or text instead of in-person or on the phone. No matter what he does, never say anything to him that you would not want to read aloud in a courtroom.
Consider purchasing software like “Our Family Wizard.” It is extremely difficult to get full custody. The trend these days is 50/50. Unless you have ample documentation of him inflicting serious physical abuse on the children (not just you), you will most likely have to share custody of your kids. If this happens, you will need an extremely detailed parenting plan. Read up about “parallel parenting” because “co-parenting” is impossible with the personality disordered.
3. Do not feel guilty about leaving, and remember, you can’t appeal to their sense of guilt or shame. They won’t change. Arm yourself with evidence. Bring witnesses. Don’t assume the evidence you have will be seen.
Do not feel guilty about leaving. You aren’t doing your kids any favors by staying with a person who doesn’t treat you right. If you demand better for yourself, you will be setting a good example for them, and hopefully they will insist on being treated well in their relationships too when they are grown. One of the most important things I learned, that I wish I’d learned much earlier, is that you cannot reason with these people, so don’t even try. You also can’t appeal to their love for the kids, because they aren’t capable of truly loving anyone. They will use the kids as tools whenever they find it convenient.
You can’t appeal to their sense of guilt or shame, either, because they do not see anything wrong with their behavior and nothing you say will change that. Avoid putting yourself in a position where you are going to need to ask the narcissistic parent permission about day-to-day things. It should be written in a way that gives him (or her) as little power over your life as possible. If you two can agree to do things in a more relaxed way in the future, great. But you absolutely need to have this to fall back on if you want to leave the days of having him control your life behind.
Understand that in family court, people lie with impunity every day. Be prepared for the possibility that he will make up outrageous bullshit to try and discredit you. Arm yourself with evidence. Bring witnesses. Don’t assume the evidence you have will be seen. His lawyer may prevent the most important items from ever going before the judge. Be strategic about when and how you present it to ensure it goes on record.
Don’t assume you will be able to get a word in edgewise when you are in the courtroom. It’s much better to get important information across as part of a written declaration.”
4. Practice consistent self-care. As our children bear witness to our ways of self-care they, in turn, learn how to do the same for themselves.
The most difficult aspect of “co-parenting” with a narcissist is seeing how your children are affected by the narcissist’s manipulation tactics. Witnessing your children’s confusion, anger and hurt without being able to prevent any of it makes you feel so helpless. The constant instigating – lies and games they play, manipulation of the system, and fervent counter-parenting – can leave you depleted.
Tips: Practice consistent self-care. No matter how great the challenge, treat yourself with kindness and love, understanding and self-forgiveness. It is in this light that we remember we are free of being under the same roof with the narcissist, sleeping now in the absence of monsters under our beds or in our closets.
When we learn to breathe with purpose (and not just for survival) our children learn to do the same, by imitation. When we learn how to care for ourselves, we learn to avoid the narcissist’s attempts to throw us off balance. While it may still strike a chord (or a few) the effects become less potent as we take our time to respond (if at all) to texts, emails or phone calls. Responding without emotion in clear, concise messages (when necessary) and knowing when to ignore insignificant attempts to throw you off balance are key.
How I stay strong during this difficult time: remembering it is because I said “no” one last time (after 18 years, on and off) that “we” are no longer. I broke a cycle, was able to get back on my feet and obtain my first full-time job (with benefits) after not working full-time for almost 12 years.
I pray. I meditate. Music soothes me. Writing relieves me. The blessing of a support system (including family, close friends, a new chance at love and an amazing therapist) help keep me afloat. Being mindful of my blessings has been essential throughout this healing journey.
As our children bear witness to our ways of self-care they, in turn, learn how to do the same for themselves. In providing examples on how to cope with stressful situations (like how to avoid bullying, how to nurture inner strength) we teach them the way of the survivor. We protect and save them by protecting and saving ourselves. We stay strong by making ourselves priority, so we can continue guiding (and providing for) our babies, in light.
5. Make conversations strictly about the children. Don’t talk about anything other than them. Be boring. Be emotionless. Give them nothing to feed off.
The most difficult aspect about co-parenting with a narcissist is trying to agree on things. They twist and complicate things to create drama with even simple ‘yes or no’ questions. Then when you get annoyed or agitated that they can’t give you a straight answer, they tell you to calm down and stop acting crazy. For example, my daughter was admitted to hospital the other day for an allergic reaction – the narcissist made the situation so much worse by over-reacting, making it all about himself and being very rude and blunt to myself and the hospital staff. I asked him to leave numerous times and called him out on his behavior. I told him it wasn’t about him and that he needs to leave if he kept this up.
They just don’t get that being a parent is putting your child’s needs first – not their own.
Tips: Don’t be afraid to disagree with them. Don’t let them try to sway your decisions. They will manipulate you to get their own way every time. Be on the ball and have your guard up when dealing with them face to face.
Make clear boundaries and make sure they respect them by following through with those boundaries. They will try to get you to drop your guard, it’s like they can sense when we are vulnerable or feeling down, and this is when they are most likely to strike and throw something out of left field. You might then find yourself agreeing to it even though you don’t want to.
If they cross your boundaries, call them out on it. The more you let slide the more they feel they can get away with. They live for control – don’t let them have it!
Make conversations strictly about the children. Don’t talk about anything other than them. Be boring. Be emotionless. Give them nothing to feed off. They will get bored of this very quickly.
6. Try to make sure you’re in control of the schedule of visits and only tell your ex things on a need-to-know basis. The main thing to remember is when your children come home, give them as much consistency and stability as you can.
The most difficult aspect of co-parenting with a narcissist has been witnessing the way he has treated my daughter. My ex has 2 daughters, one 19 and our daughter who is 11. He is tall and willowy, never had a weight issue, but he calls our daughter fat. He calls all women fat, he undermines the confidence she has worked so hard to build. His life continues, I get very little notice in relation to when he can see her. She’s too afraid to say no. He’s utterly charming and doesn’t understand why she’s afraid of him. I understand completely. It’s his way or the highway. My daughter shuts down when she’s been with him. He has her because it’s the right thing to do, she spends most of her time in her bedroom, playing her piano or talking to her friends. He does nothing fun with her.
Obviously, as I am not there, I can’t see or hear what’s going on. It’s totally useless discussing it with him as he doesn’t see the issue – well, they never do, do they? She loves being with me, but the whole experience has created anxiety attacks and a massive co-dependence on her part. She sees a counselor, which he pays for, but he NEVER asks how she is or how he can help. The main thing to remember is when your children come home, you should give them as much consistency and stability as you can. And if you’re still in love with your narcissist, do not use your child as a pawn. The onus is on the non-narcissistic parent to ensure the children are able to be children, able to talk if they choose, able to process and evaluate.
Tips: 1. Try to make sure you are in control of the schedule of visits/sleep overs. Make them stick to it. It’s more stable and consistent for everyone. 2. Don’t be tempted to interrogate as soon as your child or children get home. This just pushes them to withdraw into themselves. 3. Try to have as little contact with your ex as possible. Tell them things on a need to know basis. Learn to let go, learn to love yourself. Most of all understand, acknowledge and let go of what has been done to you. I worry that my daughter will fall for a narcissist, I worry her mental health is suffering. While he doesn’t care! Not fair, but true. Protect yourself by minimum contact, read self-help books, talk to friends and family, realize this was not your fault.
7. Remember, you are now the source of 50% of the decision-making for your child, and 50% of the input your child gets. Focus on giving your child the best example to learn from.
The most difficult part of co-parenting is that your kids still witness the toxic behavior. We have to have the difficult conversations with our children to try to teach them better behavior patterns. Focus on teaching your kids to be better people instead of why the other parent is wrong.
Learning and setting boundaries is one of the most important things to protect you. And it is okay to set boundaries so YOU feel safe. If that means you do the swap in a public place – do it. You do not have to be nice, invite them in etc. Your feelings count too!
It’s all about being in control for a narcissist. Understanding the motive will help you see what they are trying to get from you, whether it’s they’re suddenly nice or pitting others against you. Knowing the motive helped me not take it personal and detach from the behavior.
Kids can decipher different rules for different homes. My son quickly learned this at two years old. We used the phrase “At mommy’s house we (insert desired behavior).” Remember, you are now 50% of the decision making for your child, and 50% of the input your child gets. Focus on giving your kids the best example to learn from.
Understand your kids will act out after you leave. Don’t take it personal; they’re expressing the anger they we’re afraid to express around your ex.
I learned so much from the programs offered by W.E.A.V.E. Not just to how to heal myself, but how I got there in the first place, and how to grow to not attract a similar relationship. I also learned how much it affects our kids…and how to teach our kids to not repeat the behavior. My goal with my kids is to break the chain of abuse. It stops with me.
8. Impart information about psychological manipulation in an age appropriate way so that your child has the ability to name, identify and recognize abuse when it occurs.
What can be difficult is when the non-character disordered parent believes/hopes that it will be possible to co-parent with a narcissist. The notion of co-parenting doesn’t exist. Accept parallel parenting and realize that there may be a mixture of counter parenting.
Tips: 1) Minimize contact. Communication in writing only and topics related solely about the children. 2) Establish firm boundaries. Go gray rock and be matter of fact/unemotional. 3) Model good mental health to your children. One attuned parent has more influence than toxic relatives. Impart information about psychological manipulation in a developmentally sound way so that your child has the ability to name, identify and recognize abuse when it occurs. Brainstorm self-care tools so that when your child is with the other parent, they can access when needed. Encourage them to use their voice and allow them to use it. Allow your child to grow into their own person.
9. Use reflective listening with your children and do not date immediately after leaving the narcissist. Give yourself time to heal.
The most difficult aspect of co-parenting with a narcissist is that few people, or systems like legal systems understand just how challenging it can be. It’s very frustrating to hear “Oh well, you’re just two people who can’t get along.” It’s so much more than that. I wish there was more understanding about this topic in the justice system or something that could be done legally to stop his harassment.
Tips: For children and teens I’ve found just reflective listening helps. “It sounds like you’re feeling ____ about ____.” Everyone likes to feel heard. For myself, I had to convince myself that one day my kids would see the truth, even when each was alienated from me. Eventually they did, it I did not believe it at the time. After leaving the narcissist, do NOT date right away because (in general) you will only attract another if you go out there before you get right with yourself and heal. Broken attracts broken and healthy attracts healthy. For myself I also had to own my choices; why I stayed as long as I did with him, I had to recognize my part in letting it go on, not making a choice to leave is still making a choice to stay. It was also extremely important for me to learn boundaries and when to use them.
10. Give up trying to make decisions together; the narcissistic parent will not do it. You have to parallel parent, not co-parent. Validate the feelings of your children; you must be their rock.
The most difficult aspect of co-parenting is the belief that it’s actually possible to co-parent with the narcissist. Co-parenting means you both are committed to raising the child with the child’s best interest at heart. The narcissist does not have the child’s best interest at heart, regardless of how hard he (or she) tries to portray himself as the perfect parent.
Trying to co-parent with him will allow him to continue his crazy-making abilities he subjected you to in your relationship. This is why you can’t do it. His goal is to hurt you through the child. His goal is to alienate you from the child. So when you’re trying to sign the kids up for an activity, school, take a fun trip, etc, he will not consent, he will prevent you from doing anything because he wants to control you regardless of what is best for the child. His need for control will prevent you from being able to do anything. He does not care about co-parenting, even though he’ll pretend to be such an upstanding father to other people. So get the idea of co-parenting out of your head and instead you have to parallel-parent.
Tips: Give up trying to make decisions together, he cannot do it. You must parallel-parent. This means do your absolute best for your kids while they are with you, and when they are with him you focus on healing yourself. You will have no control over what goes on when your children are away from you. It is the most unnatural feeling for a mother to not be able to protect and do for her child. But to preserve your sanity you must let go while they are with him. When they come home to you, hug them, love them, ask how their time was. Do not badmouth him. Validate their feelings, validate their reality. He will try to brainwash them. He will tell them lies to alienate them from you. Tell them that if they hear anything that makes them feel strange inside, they can come to you and you will always validate and be honest with them.
The most important thing is they must be empowered to trust their gut feelings at very young age. You will be their rock. You endured the abuse and you know how it feels to be invalidated, unheard, lied to, ridiculed. You must realize that you endured this to become the best mother to your kids, because you can help them through it. Their reality will be different than yours. They will want love from your ex and they will seek his validation just like you did, and it will break your heart when he lets them down, but imagine if in your marriage or relationship you always had someone who validated every single thing you said. You’d be much stronger than you were, right? So now you get to be that person for your child.
As much as it hurts to have this monster who wants to destroy you being around your child, know that you cannot control him and the court most likely won’t help you, so you need to have the least amount of contact possible and only email pertinent things. Give up phone calls with your kids because he’ll make them feel bad for saying “I love you mommy.”
Protect them by disengaging, as hard and painful and excruciating as it is. Do not engage with your kids while they are with him. Tell them they can call you at any time, but do not interfere if at all possible. Every phone call will be monitored by him and he will have other women around your kids to upset you. It will upset you and then he will use that against you as if you are “crazy.” Get it in your decree, or parenting plan, that you can sign up the kids for things on your custodial time if you pay for it yourself. It will save you the headache of trying to wait for his “consent” or money from him. Do not engage in arguments, go grey rock. Do not tell your ex what your kids say, either. Don’t say “Max is afraid at your house, Max told me you don’t get up in the middle of the night when his sister is crying, etc.”
Your child will be punished if you say this, he will be made to feel guilty and he won’t tell you things anymore. So you must know that all you can do is empower your child, and not put your child in any situation where he/she will be in trouble. Do not do any physical custody exchanges if possible. Have your parent or friend or anyone pick up the kids but you. Do not try to have parent/teacher meetings together. Do as much as you can separately and without drama. He will use every event for drama. Do not let him. Have a great therapist and be involved in your child’s school as much as possible. Keep as much consistency in your child’s life as possible by keeping him/her in the same school with a strong support system. Attend performances but stay away from him and his harem.
You must document everything, but do not place all your hope in the court system. If you can get sole legal custody to make decisions without his input, by all means get it. But be prepared for an all-out battle and know that the court system will buy into the narcissist’s lies and charm, and the court process will assault you a hundred times over.
Family Court is a stage for the narcissist. The lawyers, the drama, the testimonies… it all feeds into their need for attention, power, and control. Avoid it if possible but if you must go to court, go for full legal custody to make decisions on your own. In court, speak your truth but know that everything you bring up will feed his need to get revenge on you, in any way he can. Know that you tried your absolute best to protect your kids. He will try to “win” at any cost so if you go this route, be prepared, be strong, and be your child’s voice even if nobody believes you or hears you. Know you tried your best, know you are a fabulous mother, know he can never be the parent that you are and never ever let him take that away from you.