How Do I Co-Parent with a Difficult or Narcissistic Ex-Partner?

How Do I Co-Parent with a Difficult or Narcissistic Ex-Partner? September 10, 2018

Perhaps one of your biggest disappointments for people who are breaking up or divorcing a difficult ex, one who has Narcissistic Personality Disorder; or one with narcissistic traits, is that co-parenting with him or her will be a challenge and in many cases impossible.

Parents in this situation must face this reality, learn coping skills, and have realistic expectations if they have children and strive to protect them from being stuck in the middle or emotional abuse.

One of my clients, Margaret put it like this: “I was hoping that John and I could be friendlier after we split so we wouldn’t have to put our kids in the middle like we did when we were married. Everything always felt like a struggle and sadly it still feels that way at times, even though we live in different houses and I am remarried.”

By definition, a person with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) feels entitled to certain privileges and their sense of entitlement may make them prone to punishing partners and/or children who don’t show them respect, admiration or attention. So, one of the main aspects of recovering from a partnership with a narcissist is setting firm boundaries and protecting yourself and your children.

Keep in mind, that a person with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) lacks empathy or concern for others so you can’t expect them to negotiate fairly or to keep your children’s best interests in mind.

In most cases, trying to co-parent cooperatively or have an amicable relationship with an ex who has NPD is problematic and not a realistic expectation because they’re so focused on themselves and their needs.  According to family therapist Virginia Gilbert, MFT, attempts to co-parent with a narcissist will keep you engaged in a battle. She writes: “Targets of high-conflict personalities need to accept that it isn’t wise to be “authentic” with their ex. Strategic, limited disclosures and iron-clad boundaries are essential in managing a high-conflict divorce.”

One of the most crucial things to keep in mind post-divorce when you were married to a narcissist or challenging person is to set good boundaries and abandon any thought of co-parenting as successfully as you would like to.

What is the solution for parents who want to co-parent with an ex who is challenging? According to Dr. Edward Kruk, Ph.D., “Parallel Parenting is an arrangement in which divorced parents are able to co-parent by means of disengaging from each other, and having limited contact, in situations where they have demonstrated that they are unable to communicate with each other in a respectful manner.”

Parallel parenting allows parents to remain disengaged with one another (and have a parenting plan) while they remain close to their children. For instance, they remain committed to making responsible decisions (medical, education, etc.) but decide on the logistics of day-to-day parenting separately.

8 strategies for dealing with a narcissistic, challenging or high conflict ex:

  • Limit your contact with your ex and try not to take calls from your children when they are with the other parent. Consider parallel parenting after consulting a lawyer and/or mediator.
  • Set firm boundaries for your kids. Since their live with their other parent is unpredictable, you will have to provide stability. High-conflict personalities thrive on the possibility of combat. Be prepared and write a script to use when talking to him/her and try to stick with it, using as few words as possible. For instance, if he/she tries to persuade you to change the parenting plan, say something like: “I’m not comfortable with this idea. I’m sure you have good intentions but this won’t work for me.”
  • Be the parental role model your kids need to thrive. Show compassion toward your children and don’t bad-mouth their other parent in their presence. Children are vulnerable to experiencing loyalty conflicts and shouldn’t be in the middle between their parents. Be aware of your tone and facial expressions during interactions with your ex in front of your kids.
  •  Keep your eye on the big picture in terms of your children’s future. Although it’s stressful trying to co-parent or even parallel parent with a difficult ex, it’s probably in the best interest of your children. Adopt realistic expectations and pat yourself on the back for working at this challenging relationship for your kids.
  • Focus on the only thing you can control – your behavior! You alone are responsible for your reactions to your ex’s comments and behavior. But don’t be persuaded by your ex to do something that you’re uncomfortable with just to keep the peace. Adopt a business-like “Just the facts, ma’am” style of communicating with him/her.
  • Don’t express genuine emotion to your ex or apologize for wrongdoing in the relationship.  If your ex is a perilous or abusive narcissist, they might interpret your apology as proof of your incompetence and use it against you, according to Virginia Gilbert, MFT.
  • Make sure you have a parenting plan that is structured and highly specific – spelling out schedules, holidays, vacations, etc. to minimize conflict. Using a communication notebook to share important details with your ex can be an essential tool and help you stay detached and business-like. Check out websites and articles on parallel parenting.
  • Do accept help from counselors, mediators, or other helping professionals. Make sure you have plenty of support from a lawyer, friends, family, and a therapist. Use a third-party mediator when needed. Educate yourself about strategies to deal with a difficult or high-conflict ex. Therapists who utilize cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) are usually the most successful dealing with survivors of a relationship with an ex who has a personality disorder.

Under the best circumstances, co-parenting is a wonderful opportunity for children of divorce to have close to equal access to both parents – to feel close to both of their parents. Experts agree that the outcomes for children of divorce improve when they have positive bonds with both parents. These include better psychological and behavioral adjustment, and enhanced academic performance. However, few experts discuss the drawbacks of co-parenting when one parent is hands-off, has a high conflict personality; or a personality disorder such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Keep in mind, that someone can display narcissistic traits such as lack of empathy and without being diagnosed with this disorder. Be sure to consult a professional therapist for more information about the difference and to learn coping strategies.

Truth be told, it’s crucial that you take an honest look at the affect your ex’s behaviors and the dynamics in your relationship are having on you and your children. Once you accept that you can only control your own behavior – not a person with a difficult or high conflict personality – your life will greatly improve.

You may decide that co-parenting which requires compromise and communication is not a good fit for your family. It might stir up more conflict due to a power struggle or your ex’s need to feel in control and uncompromising. If that’s the case, be confident in your decision and focus on carving out a new life for you and your children because you have learned to set limits on your ex and aren’t controlled by his or her behavior. After all, you and your children deserve to have a life filled with love and happiness!

Follow Terry on Twitter, Facebook, and, movingpastdivorce.com. Terry’s award winning book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website.

I’d love to hear from you and answer your questions about relationships, divorce, marriage, and remarriage. Please ask a question here. Thanks! Terry 

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  • momtotjl

    Thank you so much for addressing this topic. Most divorce and co-parenting resources do not address dealing with a narcissistic ex-spouse. This is the only article I’ve read that helps me realize I’m handling things the best I can and made me realize I don’t have to feel guilty for not having a congenial, perfect co-parenting situation because it probably isn’t possible. This issue may not be something most divorced parents have to deal with, but I appreciate you taking the time to address it for those of us who struggle with this situation.