Co-parenting: This is the last in our three-part series on coping with, divorcing and raising children with someone with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). For more information on NPD and the personality traits it manifests, see our article on Narcissistic Abuse. To learn more about aspects of divorce involving a narcissist, see our article: When It All Gets Too Much – Divorcing A Narcissist.
The divorce is final, but you still have to deal with your narcissist ex. How to ensure co-parenting with a narcissist doesn’t become a battleground
In this final article, we look at the challenges inherent in co-parenting after the divorce. What are some of the tactics you can expect, and what are the strategies that will enable you to cope?
It’s not a gender thing
NPD is more prevalent in males than females, but that doesn’t mean fathers are always the protagonists and mothers always the victims in a difficult co-parenting situation. Either parent can make the other’s life hell after the divorce. Statistically, more divorces are initiated by women than men; and women are more likely to have custodial responsibility for children. But in this article we make no assumptions about the sex of the narcissist partner or the custodial partner and will use gender-neutral language throughout.
Don’t expect things to be different
Divorce often brings with it tremendous relief. The dying days of the marriage were tense, the divorce was fraught with conflict and emotional strain, and now you just want to get on with life in peace. But you have a child or children and you are both committed to being the best parents you can be and collaborating to give your children a good and happy upbringing. Right? Don’t bet on it.
The narcissistic personality is not suddenly going to change. And there is nothing like the co-parenting arena to bring out the worst in the narcissist. Firstly, if they do not have custody or joint custody, they have the opportunity to show the world how victimised they are, how you have wrenched their children away from them. Secondly, children can be strategic weapons. From bad-mouthing you to your children, to picking them up or returning them late from access visits, to disrupting the children’s routine just to get at you (e.g. allowing them to stay up too late and returning tired, cranky kids to you the next day), the narcissist has a whole new set of tools in the toolbox with which to torment you and bolster their own ego.
Some tactics they may employ and ways you can respond
The previous two articles in this series (Narcissistic Abuse, When It All Gets Too Much – Divorcing A Narcissist) outlined some strategies and coping mechanisms for relating to a narcissist in a conflict-free manner. The guidelines for moving into the co-parenting environment follow the same principles and include some specific tips for managing the post-divorce relationship.
If boundaries were important before, they are absolutely critical now. Your lives are separate. If you were the one who initiated the divorce, your ex may not want to accept that, but you must firmly and calmly establish and continually reassert your boundaries. Do whatever it takes to enforce your limits, whether that means never inviting your ex into your home, or ending a phone call if the conversation turns abusive, etc. Just be sure to keep your emotions under control and remain courteous at all times. Don’t give the narcissist any (legitimate) grounds for criticising your behaviour.
Your only communication will be about the children, but that won’t stop the narcissist from using it to undermine, belittle or even threaten you. If you get stuck in traffic and are late for a pick-up, be prepared for an angry confrontation or hostile messages on your phone. Try to confine your communication to email or SMS/WhatsApp messages. Email is better for sorting out detailed arrangements, such as school holidays, and you can use short messaging for more immediate concerns, such as reminders about after-school activities or play dates. Make sure your messages are only about these matters and don’t engage in exchanges about personal issues. Avoid phone conversations as much as possible.
This term has been adopted by Erin Leonard PhD, a psychologist who specialises in relationships and parenting, to describe the manipulation of the other parent via the children. This often takes the form of lining the children up as allies while positioning the other parent as the opposition. As much as it may gall you to do so, the best response is to ignore it. Determine whether or not your children’s safety is at risk. If it is not, then accept that your rules will not always be upheld in the other household, and the children will survive. You may not approve of sweets before dinner or a later bedtime, but unless your child’s health is seriously jeopardised it is not worth provoking a major conflict. If it blows up, in the children’s eyes the narcissist will be proved right – you are the bad guy, the killjoy, and the other parent is much more fun. If it is a non-issue for you, it will be for the kids too.
Furthermore, children are very adaptable and quickly understand that they have a different routine with each parent. It’s not that rules don’t apply; kids simply know they live by a different set of rules in the other home. Unless those rules are unreasonably harsh, or your kids are subject to discriminatory treatment relative to step-siblings, you must learn to accept them. Reinforce your own values and structures in your home, and as the children grow they will see for themselves how your conduct differs from that of their other parent.
Sometimes co-parenting doesn’t work. The conflict doesn’t go away and the stress involved is unhealthy for you and the children. You want a friendly relationship for the sake of the children, but friendship is just not on the cards. In that case, forget co-parenting and embark on parallel parenting instead. Parallel parenting means using the tactics described in this article to the full. Limit communication, set clear boundaries, don’t get embroiled in a tug-of-war with the kids’ affections, and remain calm and collected at all times.
In addition, you can’t play happy families at child-related functions. For example, don’t include your ex in a child’s birthday party. It is not reasonable for either of you to expect to mingle amicably with other parents when you can’t be civil to each other. Hold separate birthday parties instead or trade off the host responsibility year to year. If your child is in a school production, attend on different occasions. If there is only one performance, don’t sit together. When parent-teacher night comes around, only one of you should go. The other can schedule a separate meeting if your communication is so fraught you can’t even share the outcome.
If the worst happens
No, we’re not talking about death. But if the narcissist parent ultimately forsakes their parental responsibilities and abandons their children (data from the UK shows that one in five fathers loses touch with his children within two years of a break-up), you may feel a combination of anger and relief, but your children will be heartbroken. They may blame you. Worse, they may blame themselves. Whatever their reaction, your love and affection must be unstinting. Furthermore, though you may do so through gritted teeth, you must provide constant reassurance of the other parent’s love. Stress that the absent parent is very sad and is missing them, but for reasons it may be hard to understand is not able to be in their lives right now. Children can cope with being abandoned; the thought of not being loved does far more lasting damage.
We can help Co-parenting
SD Law & Associates are experts in divorce and family law and have helped many clients navigate divorce from a narcissist and negotiate custody or access to children. If you are considering divorce or need help with co-parenting arrangements we can support you through the process with compassion. Contact us on 086 099 5146 or 076 116 0623. Or contact us.
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