14 Rules for Co-parenting with a Narcissist
I’ve gotten pretty good at letting my ex-husband’s attempts to fire me up roll off my back. And that’s a good thing because he’s not going to stop trying to get under my skin anytime soon. He can’t and he won’t. Because he’s a narcissist.
Here’s a little backstory:
I Had to Divorce My Husband to Give Him What He Really Needed — A Mommy
“No Contact” wasn’t an option.
Just today, in the same e-mail — no actually in the same sentence, and without a hint of irony — he belittled me for “not working” and then ridiculed me for being a “writer”. Which, by the way, he put in quotes, just like he does when he uses my maiden name…which actually is my name, despite the disbelief conveyed with his Chris Farley-esque flourish.
But this is the same guy who also withheld December’s alimony and child support (which constitutes 75% of our income) until the 31st because he knew I had Christmas for four kids and two birthdays to fund and he couldn’t resist strumming the last chord of control he has over me.
He’s a real peach.
These days, I can brush his dirt off my shoulder pretty much as soon as it lands, but it wasn’t always so easy. I used to allow myself to be baited into power struggles, blame games, and debates about who was the better parent multiple times per day. I wrung my hands at his suicide threats and protected him from the consequences of his actions out of fear of retaliation. I protested and shamed him when he would ruin my plans by breaking his commitments to our girls and lectured him about his parental deficiencies. I took his abuse personally, responded to every ridiculous accusation, and wasted my precious energy marveling at his audacity while stewing in my own righteous indignation. And none of it got me anywhere. It was just a waste of my most valuable resource: my energy.
The cost of my reactions was too high. The reality was that he wasn’t going to change his behavior anytime soon, so I had to change mine.
And while that shift was liberating, it didn’t happen overnight.
I had to actively work to override two things: my thoughts and my behaviors.
Since I have made those adjustments, my ex has dropped to number eleven on my “Top Ten Most Important Things” list, all due to the strategies I implemented in both the handling of our communications and in regulating my own emotions, the latter being the more important.
I now have more energy for my “work”. I have more energy for my kids. I have more energy to do the things that will help me become the woman I want to be.
I understand having skepticism that anything can work. The abuse of a narcissist is insidious and pervasive. When it involves our children, we feel all the more helpless to fight it. There was a point when I truly didn’t believe that things could get any better. Looking back, I’m so glad I didn’t give up. Here are the things I learned that proved effective for me in moving his behavior to the bottom of the pile of things that deserve my energy and attention:
- Lower your expectations: Get rid of the shoulds and deal with what is.
This is the most important cognitive reframing strategy you have at your disposal. The disappointment of unmet expectations will make you miserable in any area of your life, but it is especially painful when you are watching your kids suffer the loss of the kind of dad they should have. Sometimes this comes more clearly into focus after you leave and he no longer has you to prop him up. It can be a shock seeing just how deficient he really is.
It seems reasonable to lament all the things a good parent would do and wish that you had a capable and mature co-parent. But, as anyone who has played Powerball at $200 million knows, wishing and hoping doesn’t get you anywhere.
Once you are able to see his capabilities and limitations for what they are, you will learn to let go of the disappointment you feel when he doesn’t show up as the child-focused parenting partner you wish you had, and that will save you some serious emotional upheaval. Less disappointment means you have more energy available for the positive things in your life.
I, personally, wasted a shit ton of energy nurturing my righteous indignance at what a good father should be. He would repeat the same asinine antics, just like he had 10 times before, and I’d find myself stuck in the refrain, “Can you believe this guy???” Finally, the answer came to me: “Yes. I can. In fact, I expect it. Because that’s who he is.”
And I stopped asking the damn question.
Sitting around lamenting all of the things he should be capable of (i.e. he should be able to read, he should be able to navigate a google calendar, he should be able to execute four days of visitation per month) did me zero good because he simply can’t do those things.
He’s a narcissist. If something doesn’t align with his agenda of self-promotion, he’s not interested.
And the sooner you come to terms with that, the less energy you will waste on fixing the unfixable.
2. Realize that his #1 goal is to get your attention.
Since you were married or intimate enough to have a child with him, it is almost certain that you spent time as his primary source of narcissistic supply. That means that he got addicted to your attention, be it negative or positive.
He will do anything, say anything, and act out in pretty much any way you can imagine to try to secure a reaction from you.
The only way to break his addiction is to cease to give him attention and that’s where the specifics of #3 come into play.
3. Set communication boundaries.
Communicate with your ex only on the following terms: He must have a reasonable request/statement, he must communicate it in a reasonable tone, and the topic must be about the children.
All three requirements must be present if he wants a response. Make him aware that if he violates any of these, his e-mail or text will be ignored. And when he tests your resolve (which he will) you must follow through and ignore them.
It will be really hard to do at first, especially because he’s likely an expert at figuring out what will trigger a response in you. Which brings us to #4.
4. Commit to a 24-hour turn around time on communications.
Put a standard “hold” on any comm. that isn’t urgent or time sensitive. 24 hours is a good time frame to give yourself in order to blunt any reactionary emotions you might have. Even if you think you don’t need the 24 hours to regulate, do it anyway to condition him that you are not at his beck and call. If you need to take longer, by all means, take longer. If he accuses you of ignoring him, so be it. <Ignore>
Take whatever time you need to modulate the reactionary content of your replies and don’t respond until you can do so with your emotions in check.
Before I used the 24-hour strategy, my ex found that baiting me with false statements was particularly effective at getting me to react. I’m a fact finder and there are few things I hate more than incorrect info. So he would lob some contrived bullshit at me and my fingers would literally itch to respond. I believed that if I didn’t counter his accusations or assignments of blame with the truth, that my non-response equated to co-signing his assertions. And he knew that. That’s why he put them in there! When I realized that, I was able to prioritize depriving him of attention over correcting the record because only the former was going to bring me relief.
These days, if he wants to assert that I was late 6 times in a row when I wasn’t late once, so be it. <Ignore> If he wants to claim that I dumped his brother’s ashes all over the ground in some sort of retaliatory desecration of the dead (yeah, he really said that), I’m okay with that. <Ignore> My silence is not complacency and clearly, this isn’t a man interested in the truth, anyway.
“Your daughters will see through you and hate you when they grow up.” Cool, man. I guess we will see. But raising the specter of such isn’t going to buy you my attention. <Ignore>
5. Realize that his statements have zero information value.
Your ex isn’t coming from a place of trying to effectively co-parent. He may attempt to appear so on the surface, especially when others are watching, but he isn’t.
What he is attempting to do, by virtue of being a narcissist, is feed his narcissistic supply and, because that motivation will override all others, nothing he says can be counted on. He will tell you things that aren’t true in order to manipulate you. This is important to remember: There is zero information value in his communication. None.
“I will be there at 3pm” means nothing because if he finds a way to get attention from you that precludes him from being there at 3pm, he ain't gonna be there at 3pm.
I recently made the mistake of thinking that an e-mail saying “I will pick the kids up at 6pm on Christmas Eve” — one that was agreed upon and confirmed by both of us 45 days prior — meant that he would pick them up at 6 pm on Christmas Eve.
Crazy, I know.
But when he found a way to pick a fight about who was responsible for their transportation (i.e. get attention) the commitment he made in writing went out the window in favor of an attempt to control me. “No. That’s not fair. I’m NOT picking them up twice in a row” and “You need to drop them off to avoid confusion.” What ended up happening is that I ignored his abusive emails, didn’t give in to his demands, and I incorporated the kids into my Christmas Eve plans — something that these days I am always ready to do because I know that his commitments mean zilch.
The information content is his communications is zero. I repeat, zero.
6. Reverse his pronouns.
This is a method I’ve found to be extremely effective when trying to regulate my emotions in response to his accusations and abuse. Narcissists are masters of projection, which makes sense because it’s a very juvenile defense mechanism and narcissists are emotional children.
Think of it as the adult version of “I know you are, but what am I???” When your ex writes, “You are the worst mom in the world!”, be aware that he is really saying, “I am the worst dad in the world!”
When he says, “I sure hope your girls don’t grow up to hate you”, he’s really saying, “I sure hope my girls don’t grow up to hate me.” When I came to understand the extent of his projection, I was better able to resist the urge to reply to his baiting accusations and abuse.
7. Be a good mom to both your kids…and to him. I repeat from above: Narcissists are emotional children. Most developed their pathology as a very young child and it has become part of who they are. This is why it's so difficult for narcissists to be self-aware, let alone have the capacity to change.
They would have to annihilate their egos to accomplish such a feat and their egos were constructed to keep them alive. They are, and likely always will be, children in grown-up bodies.
It can be difficult to conceive of your ex as a toddler, but chances are if you examine his actions critically, you will see the similarities: They test boundaries, they tantrum when they don’t get their way, they are extremely self-centered, and they crave constant attention and praise.
The only way to have any mitigating effect on his behavior is to set boundaries like you would a child. Being a good mom doesn’t mean coddling and soothing. It means being consistent with limits and consequences. The challenge of a good mom is to make her children independent of her. You have to consistently allow him to experience the natural consequences of violating your house rules or he will never learn to function without you.
When, for example, it’s his visitation weekend and he doesn’t have a swimsuit for your kiddo at his house and texts you demanding that you stop whatever you are doing and drop the one from your house off…right now — and, of course, you ignore his demand because it is unreasonable and he has a responsibility to provide for his kids when they are in his care — he will sanctimoniously conclude that that reason your kiddo can’t go swimming is because of YOU…
…And that he can’t afford one because he gives you all of his money. And that she is now miserable sitting out at a pool party because you’re too selfish to bring it to her. And she’s sure going to hate you when she grows up and figures out how terribly you treated him.
Remember zero information content? You can’t be afraid of his protest tantrums. Chances are that laying down that boundary will result in one $12 swimsuit purchased from Target, a delightful swim at a pool party, and zero additional requests to supply swimwear — as it did for me.
Even if he doesn’t comply right away, your kiddo will be okay sitting out one afternoon and, truth be told, you aren’t responsible for the parental choices he makes in his home anyway. If he wants to disallow his kiddo to go swimming in order to engage in a power struggle over $12 and an admission that he has so little agency in his life that he’s incapable of a Target run, you’ve gotta let him shoot himself in the foot.
Be a good mom to all of your children, and that includes him.
8. Do what works for you. — If you find that taking his phone calls sets you into a fight or flight mode, stop taking his phone calls. Tell him that comm will be through e-mail only. If he demands to change a pickup time or wants a modification of the visitation schedule without a reasonable explanation, only oblige if it works for you.
This is very important to remember. If you always accommodate him and cave to his demands, he will never stop making them. It’s okay to accept his requests to deviate from the visitation schedule in ways that work for you, but it has to be on your terms.
You are the parent. You make the decisions.
9. Accept that you can depend on him for nothing. — My ex owes me alimony, child support, medical expenses, and is supposed to have visitation every other weekend. And I count on him for none of that. In fact, I assume like none of it will ever happen because, in several instances, it hasn’t.
He has missed picks ups. He has missed payments. Had I depended on him for any of that, I would be up shit creek.
When I have plans to go out of town, it seems natural for the ex to take the kids for that time. However, he has refused to do so 100% of the time, so I have learned to simply make other arrangments.
(In fact, he has gone so far as to say outright that if I ever offer him extra time with the girls when I have other plans, I can forget about him taking them. That he’s not interested in ‘helping’ me and he’d rather forego time with his children in order to spite me. Yeah. I told you, he’s a peach.)
This past summer, I had a trip booked to Madison, WI and he refused to pick up the girls for his weekend the night before I was supposed to leave. So… I depended on him for nothing.
I canceled my flight to ODR, bought 5 plane tickets to STL at 1 am, called my dad and step-mom who live in central IL, flew all of us to St. Louis, rented a car, dropped the kiddos with Grammy and Grampy, and then proceeded to my destination for the week. I didn’t panic. I didn’t get upset. The girls got a summer vacation and visit with their grandparents and I got to get my vacay on.
The abuse he heaped on me when I told him they were coming with me was pretty excessive, even by his standards, and that was to be expected. He called me selfish and accused me of kidnapping and berated my deficient mothering for “dumping them at my parents to go do my own thing”. <Ignore> <Ignore> <Ignore>
I gave exactly zero fucks and simply did what I needed to do, because I know that I am able to depend on him for nothing.
10. Own that you are the leader. Don’t ask him questions. Don’t ask his opinion. You decide what works.
True co-parenting isn’t possible with a narcissist because there’s only one grown-up in the equation, and the grown-up (that’s you) needs to take charge.
He is not capable of putting the children first because he’s all tied up in his own needs, so it’s up to you to lead him. Lead by example. Lead with instructions. Lead by being firm, but fair. Do not sink to his level.
Leaders don’t punch down and they don’t get involved in petty drama. They are too busy getting shit done. Leaders rise.
11. Validate your kiddos’ feelings — This is incredibly important. Having a narcissistic parent, especially if you share 50/50 custody, can be traumatic for a child. In your absence, your ex will likely use the child to get his needs met instead of you. This is heart-breaking, but the reality is that aside from getting the court to order a psych eval and fighting to get full custody (and it could come to that), you only control what happens at your house. So you need to make your home as emotionally safe for your kiddo(s) as possible.
They will get enough invitations to triangulation from your ex at his house. Don’t do it at yours. When you pick them up don’t even ask about what they did, aside from giving them a general opening to talk if they need to. Remind them that you are there to listen and, for god’s sake, you MUST be a safe person for them to talk to. When they say, “Dad did this thing”, you must be able to emotionally regulate or they will stop telling you.
Let them express their feelings and save the judgment. Provide them with hugs, safety, and warmth.
Resist the urge to badmouth him in front of them. That won’t convince them he’s terrible…it’ll ensnare them in a tug of war that will tie their little hearts up in knots.
Recently my kids shared with me that their dad doesn’t let them cry at his house unless they tell him what is wrong and why they are upset. If they won’t tell him, they have to stop crying or be punished. Let me repeat: My children are not allowed to emote at their dad’s house unless they give their dad the chance to talk them out of their feelings, which is exactly what he attempts to do. I remember that tactic because he used to use it on me.
There is no requirement to share at my house. They can emote until the cows come home because this is their safe place. They don’t have to tell me anything but I am there for when they want to…and they do…because I am a safe place for them.
12. Know the laws in your state as to when the kiddos can decide for themselves whether they want to exercise visitation. My ex hasn’t seen my oldest daughter in a year and a half, by her choice.
As she got older and matured emotionally, she was able to see his self-centeredness and attempts at manipulation and she finally decided that she was done exposing herself to them.
I see my other children headed in the same direction and it breaks my damn heart. As they get older, they are expressing more and more resistance to wanting to spend their weekends over there. If he doesn’t change (which I don’t expect him to) I anticipate that he will lose them all.
Of course, he blames her estrangement on me. Rare is the communication from him that doesn’t misuse the term “Parental Alienation”. He accuses me of going to great lengths to turn the girls against him; an accusation which is unfounded and, in the end, matters in exactly zero ways.
Our daughter has told him what he needs to do to reestablish a relationship, but he would rather concoct a story that blames me than take responsibility and make changes in himself. So she let go.
After a certain point, your kids have the right to decide whether the relationship works for them. And while it’s true that both parents play an extremely important role in the lives of their children, it’s also true that parents with pathology, specifically narcissistic parents, can do significant damage to a child’s psyche through emotional abuse and gaslighting. Sometimes “no contact” is best for the kids too if they are old enough and mature enough to make that decision.
My daughter went through counseling to help her decide, including 3 joint sessions with her dad. It wasn’t a decision made lightly, but it was important for her emotional well-being and she’s happier and healthier now than she has ever been.
13. Stop worrying about what other people think. 70% of mental health professionals cannot identify a narcissist without speaking to family members.
Expecting his family, the ones who created the pathology, and his friends, the ones who actively enable it, to suddenly see the truth is a fantasy. You must accept that he will characterize you as the devil to anyone who will listen.
Narcissists are driven by external validation and the story he fabricates about how poorly you treat him feeds his ego with his secondary attention supply (family and friends). If he loses his pity and victim status, he will collapse in on himself like a dying star.
The thing to remember is that my positive feelings about myself don’t come from what other people think and neither do yours. Hell, he could create a “We Hate A.J. Kay! She’s so mean to her ex!” FB group with 10,000 members and I would give exactly zero fucks because anyone who is vulnerable to his influence and buys into his lies unquestioned isn’t anyone I want in my life.
14. Report abuse. — This is critical. There is a line and you have to know when it has been crossed. Remember how I said my ex was supposed to take the girls on Christmas Eve? Because he didn’t pick them up? Well, instead of spending the evening ice skating with our dear friends, we stayed home and I called the National Domestic Violence hotline while they went swimming after my ex threatened, “Don’t you think you’re going to get away with this!” and repeatedly demanded to know where we were.
Take threats seriously and document them. Report anything that is reportable. For your safety, threats can never be tolerated.
There are still times when his bullshit gets under my skin. When it comes to my kids, I have a tendency to defend and protect at all costs. Which means that I can be baited into exchanges and arguments if he manages to press the right button. And part of his pathology is to probe until he finds a weakness. Narcissists naturally do this. They systematically search for chinks in your armor.
If he throws enough bologna at the wall, a piece or two is going to stick.
So, I don’t beat myself up when I make mistakes. One important thing I came to realize is that while I am very intelligent — far more intelligent than he is — his pathology is smarter than me. It’s cunning and insidious. If my ability to perform cognitive overrides and regulate my emotions is akin to an antibiotic, his narcissism is a stage 4 malignancy. And I’m not going to shame myself when the medicine doesn’t always work.
If I didn’t have children with him, I would have bailed on the relationship long ago. So long ago that I’m pretty sure that he wouldn’t recognize me in public today. However, the reality is that we do share four children so I don’t have the “No Contact” option.
Of course, I wish I had a grown-up co-parent to support me and the girls, but that’s the price I am resigned to pay for doing such a shitty job at mate selection. And since taking responsibility benefits my children and empowers me, I don’t hesitate to put the work in now to save them the pain later.
I doubt that it will ever be easy co-parenting with a narcissist. The good news is that, by divorcing or leaving him, both you and I took a giant step toward removing his influence from our lives.
Your energy is precious and your kids deserve your best. You cannot be the parent you need to be when you are wasting your energy on the emotional upheaval he is trying to elicit to serve his own needs.
Protect yourself and your resources and change your thoughts and behaviors. I know its hard to imagine now, but if you commit to the process, dealing with him will get easier.
***Feel free to reverse the pronouns. The wasn’t written as a gender-specific guide***