Ten years ago, when Cat Blake divorced her husband, co-parenting their daughter was relatively smooth. “We were co-parenting relatively well, with some hiccups along the way,” she says.
But a few years later, when she published an autobiography about her struggles with co-dependency, things took a turn for the worse.
“My ex-husband and his new wife got word of the book and sued me for full custody of my then 8-year-old daughter and defamation of character,” says Blake, who’s now a divorce coach in Boston, MA. The legal expenses upended her finances and she had to sell her home and file for bankruptcy.
Blake realized later that her ex-husband, who she says is a narcissist, didn’t even want more time with their daughter. “He just wanted to punish me,” she says.
What It’s Like to Co-Parent With a Narcissist
“Co-parenting with someone who has a full-blown personality disorder is extremely challenging,” says Mark Ettensohn, PsyD, author of Unmasking Narcissism: A Guide to Understanding the Narcissist in Your Life. Narcissists have a highly unstable self-image, he says. They are often inflexible, defensive, and manage the situation in unhealthy ways.
If your parenting partner is narcissist, they may ignore, push, or test your boundaries. Or they might parent with less structure, empathy, or respect than you’d like. They often get angry when you give them feedback or criticism. It can be hard to reach compromises. Their negativity could wear you down.
How to Recognize a Narcissist
Narcissists have a strong sense of grandiosity and self-importance. That means they think they’re more important than others and lack empathy.
Other signs of narcissistic personality disorder include:
- Arrogant attitude or behaviors
- Taking advantage of others to get what they want
- Believing that they’re unique or special
- Exaggerating achievements and talents
- Excessive need for admiration
- Feeling envy toward others or thinking others envy them
- Lack of empathy
- Obsessed with fantasies of brilliance, power, or success
- Sense of entitlement
What to Do if Your Co-Parent Is a Narcissist
Take these steps if you’re co-parenting with a narcissist:
Accept it. If your parenting partner is a narcissist, they probably won’t change. “You have to wrap your head around the fact that you’ll have to co-parent with somebody that you just might not like,” Blake says.
Set boundaries. Be clear and specific. Draw the line on what’s OK and what’s not. Don’t let them cross it. Narcissists like control and will do whatever it takes to get it.
Make a parenting plan. Make a plan for how to drop off and pick up kids, and how to handle after-school activities, holidays, and discipline. Decide how you’ll talk and how often. Put the plan in writing, sign it, and stick to it.
Limit communication. Your parenting partner may try to get your attention by over-communicating. They may suddenly tell you about something they need an answer for right away. Try using email only, so you have a chance to take a breath before you respond.
Stay calm. When your partner lashes out or makes you angry, try to stay calm. Avoid engaging in insults or blame. “Use clear language, words without emotion, strong body language, and voice,” Blake says.
Have perspective. Try not to take personal attacks to heart. Instead, recognize that what they say is more about them than you.
What Not to Do
Here are some things to avoid if you’re co-parenting with a narcissist:
Don’t argue. Narcissists make it hard to win an argument. They often talk in circles to confuse and overwhelm you. Keep your answers clear and short, without emotion. Don’t explain yourself or give too much information. This is also called the “grey rock method.”
Don’t be afraid of them. “They thrive on fear,” Blake says. “Narcissists are so easy when you realize what makes them tick. They only want attention and kudos.” Acknowledge when they do something well. But stick with your boundaries.
Don’t try to control everything. "As long as you do your job, try to let go a bit of what the narcissist is doing in parenting,” Blake says. “Do your children come back fed and in one piece? That’s pretty good.”
Don’t use your child. Your partner may use your child to get what they want. They might have them spy on you for private information. You may be tempted to do it too, but it’s best not to.
How to Protect Kids
“It may be hard to protect kids from a co-parent’s personality issues when you’re not there to see what’s happening,” Ettensohn says. Focus on what you can control.
Talk to your child. Help them understand their other parent’s behavior. Make it age-appropriate. Teach them that their parent’s behavior is about that parent, not them.
Watch what you say. Try not to say negative things about your parenting partner. “It can turn your child against you and they might feel obligated to pick sides,” Ettensohn says. “Be aware of non-verbal communication, talking to friends and family within earshot, and comparing your child to your narcissist,” Blake says.
Watch for signs of abuse. Look for anything that crosses the line into physical, sexual, or emotional abuse.
Be a healthy parent. You can’t choose how your partner parents your child, but you can offset it with healthy parenting. Be a good role model. Coach your child through rough patches. “The antidote to your partner’s narcissism is acceptance, warmth, realistic appraisal, and consistency,” Ettensohn says.
Co-parenting with a narcissistic ex-husband hasn’t been easy for Blake, but she keeps it in perspective. “Kids only need one high-functioning parent in order to grow into a thriving adult,” she says.