Breaking up is hard to do, but a clean break is undeniably the best kind. Unfortunately, a clean break isn’t in the cards when you share a kid with someone. Enter co-parenting. Although rarely easy, many couples eventually find that co-parenting isn’t totally terrible and can be a healthy way forward for their family after separation or divorce. But what if you find yourself in the unfortunate situation of co-parenting with a narcissist? We spoke to the experts, and here’s what they have to say about how to cope with the hand you were dealt and keep things as stable as possible for your child.
Signs of a Narcissistic Parent
Most people exhibit narcissistic behaviors from time to time, but those who have multiple, deeply ingrained narcissistic traits might, in fact, suffer from a personality disorder (or something close to it). We asked Dr. Lea Lis, adult and child psychiatrist and author of No Shame: Real Talk with Your Kids about Sex, Self-confidence and Healthy Relationships, to share some of the signs that point to an ex’s personality being at the root of co-parenting problems:
- The parent is prone to becoming angry or punitive and lashes out if the child deviates.
- The parent expects inordinate praise, admiration or attention from the child.
- In response to the parent’s behavior, the child feels anxious, but favored; or, isolated and dejected.
Keep in mind that narcissistic behaviors will often be directed at the co-parent first and foremost, but the child will be negatively affected by the dysfunction, nevertheless. If any of the above signs sound familiar, we strongly suggest you opt for family therapy and mediation.
What is positive co-parenting and why is it important?
You and your ex may have agreed to raise your child together despite being separated, but it’s going to take a lot more than that to ensure that your kid has the stability, security and close relationships with both of you that they need. A positive and successful co-parenting dynamic requires that both parents set their emotions aside and engage in open, honest communication with one another. In a positive co-parenting dynamic, there is agreement between the parents, or at least enough mutual respect for compromise, on matters relating to the welfare of the child. In other words, a functional co-parenting relationship looks a lot like getting along with one another, even if just for the child’s sake. If one or both parties can’t rise to the occasion, the co-parenting process will break down and that’s bad news for everybody—particularly for a child subjected to the tension and hostility between their parents.
Why is co-parenting with a narcissist so hard?
Individuals with narcissistic features—namely those who meet the diagnostic criteria for the personality disorder or at least score higher on the spectrum—can be incredibly difficult to get along with in a relationship, and just as challenging to co-parent with once you’ve called it quits. According to Dr. Danielle Forshee, a psychologist and social worker who specializes in high-conflict family problems, one of the biggest reasons for this is that the narcissistic personality is often “very inflexible with their thinking...rigid with the way they see things and how they think things should be.” More bad news: Narcissistic types tend to have unreasonably high expectations of themselves and others, but they’re far more likely to be vocal about the latter.
Per Dr. Forshee, folks with narcissistic traits also “tend to have difficulty in moderating their behavior, meaning they’re typically super defensive.” In other words, if you’re co-parenting with a narcissist, you might find that even the most innocent and well-meaning feedback is perceived as a personal slight. As a result, what should be a run-of-the-mill co-parenting chat can turn adversarial in the blink of an eye—and it’s unlikely your narcissistic ex will take responsibility for the negative behaviors, let alone change them after the fact. The end result is a dynamic that is both upsetting and exhausting for the other parent.
Considering that successful co-parenting is dependent upon open communication and mutual respect, it’s no surprise that these traits often interfere with a harmonious dynamic. In fact, Dr. Forshee says that personality disorders like narcissism are present in almost all of the high-conflict cases she encounters—adding that narcissists will often snub the collaborative process of co-parenting and instead “lean on the adversarial system of the courts...looking for a higher authority to make decisions for them.”
Alas, Dr. Forshee says that co-parenting on a level playing field is far preferable to decision-making done through the court system, but when you’re co-parenting with a narcissist nothing is ideal. As such, the best you can do is to take advantage of the resources available to you—and if you’re going it alone, consider these tips below.
7 Tips for Co-Parenting with a Toxic Ex
Co-parenting with a narcissist might feel like an impossibility—and in some cases, it actually is (more on that later). However, this challenging personality type does exist on a spectrum and when the individual in question has a mild-to-moderate manifestation of the personality disorder, there are some things you can do to make your co-parenting routine easier. With that in mind, here are some tips for how to improve a co-parenting dynamic with a narcissist.
1. Avoid confrontation
Remember what we said about narcissists leaning on adversarial systems? Well, chances are you’ll be on their combat radar long before family court enters the picture, and possibly well after if it comes to that. So, what do you do when you’re experiencing a pattern of escalating communication? First off, if your ex likes to stir the pot, do your best to just be above it. (Easier said than done, we know.)
When there’s a recurring issue that needs to be addressed, Dr. Lis says that a non-confrontational approach is also key—but that doesn’t mean you have to roll over. In this case, it’s important to speak your mind, but you can do so whilst accommodating the narcissistic temperament (i.e., sensitivity to perceived criticism) by putting your thoughts in an email. This way, your ex has some extra time to process, and you don’t have to bear the brunt of a dramatic knee-jerk reaction...or at least not in person.
2. Set boundaries
Entitlement, a hallmark of narcissistic personality disorder, is one of the most frustrating and galling things you might encounter when dealing with a difficult co-parent—and sometimes this can take the form of excessive communication. Parents in this situation should think not only about how they respond to the other person, but also whether they need to respond at all, says Dr. Forshee, adding that certain applications like Our Family Wizard are particularly helpful in terms of structuring the communication and reinforcing boundaries around expected response time. (Hint: If you feel like you’re talking to your toxic ex now more than ever, this is the app for you.)
3. Keep your emotions in check
Per Dr. Forshee, it’s especially important for people in fraught co-parenting situations to practice emotional regulation. Regardless of whether or not your ex can rise to the occasion, emotional regulation from just one party (i.e., you) will go a long way towards diffusing conflict and keeping things relatively sane. Not sure how to practice emotional regulation or struggling to do so when faced with your unreasonable ex? Totally normal—and just one of the many reasons why co-parenting and therapy are a match made in heaven. (Seriously, if you can—enlist the help of a professional.) When you’re practicing emotional regulation on your own, Dr. Forshee recommends you “focus on solutions to problems, rather than just reacting to problems.”
4. Make proposals
Once you’ve successfully achieved a solution-oriented state of mind, the next step is to throw some ideas out there—preferably via email, as previously mentioned. The catch is this: A laid-back exchange of ideas isn’t likely to go over well with your inflexible, adversarial ex. As such, you’re better off communicating solid proposals, rather than using your ex as a sounding board for solutions. This minimizes the back-and-forth and the related risk of “lengthy diatribes” that Dr. Forshee says are common to high-conflict co-parenting situations.
5. Remember B.I.F.F.
B.I.F.F. stands for brief, informative, friendly and firm—and it’s the acronym you should swear by when it comes to communicating with a narcissistic co-parent, says Dr. Forshee. This one’s pretty self-explanatory, but this communication style covers all the bases mentioned above—namely keeping your cool and maintaining your boundaries at the same time.
6. Give praise
Entitlement and an inflated sense of self-importance are two hallmarks of the narcissistic personality, but at the end of the day narcissists are driven by a desperate need for admiration. As such, Dr. Lis says the easiest way to avoid escalating things when you’re co-parenting with a narcissist is to give them the validation they’re seeking whenever possible: “Make sure you praise anything the co-parent does well. They need approval [and] a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”
7. Know when to walk away
If your toxic ex seems hell-bent on locking horns with you, it’s important to know how and when to disengage. As soon as your co-parent crosses a line and starts to get nasty, it’s best to cut off text and email correspondence for a few days and “wait for the fire to run out of fuel,” says Dr. Lis. Bottom line: If your co-parent’s aim is to get your goat, don’t help them achieve that goal.