If you've been paying attention to the media, you likely hear a lot about narcissism. You may know that, in general, a narcissist is excessively preoccupied with personal adequacy, and is mentally unable to see the destructive damage they are causing to themselves and others. It has been suggested that narcissistic personality disorder may be related to defenses against shame. Commonly considered traits include a sense of grandiosity or self-importance and a lack of empathy.
Less well recognized are narcissists who view many in their lives as unjust abusers. This type of narcissist is perhaps more insidious because they are initially much less recognizable and may view those in their lives whom they consider "on their side" as initially strongly positive but turn vehemently against them if adverse circumstances arise.
Whatever the cause of the narcissist pathology, it is important to know how to deal with one when you must continue a relationship. So much advice focuses upon terminating relationships with narcissists, but the reality, in divorce with minor children, is far different. Although problems may have preceded the separation and divorce, the clear delineation may now lead a narcissist to behave in ways that punish the former spouse and, by clear association, impact the children too.
The narcissist may be unwilling to negotiate simple terms in divorce or manage the myriad of post divorce issues that often arise and must be dealt with when children are involved. Unfortunately, the legal and therapeutic systems are not well designed to support either the adults or children when this occurs. Often, the parent who is the target of the narcissist is kept from a clear path to calmer waters, for themselves and the children, by a court system designed only for the most egregious and obvious offenses. Socioeconomic circumstances may protect the narcissist from the glaring eye of society and courts too if they can provide materially well for the children, even if not paying their agreed share of basic expenses, as agreed to in their divorce with the other parent, for example. Even simple scheduling snafus or schedule changes can result in a narcissist continuing along a path of elevated tension and toxicity that clearly impacts children. As parental conflict is the single greatest predictor of children experiencing problems when parents divorce, it is imperative that people have tools to manage this relationship.
So, what are real and practical solutions? The answer is likely more complex for an individual situation than can be captured more generally here, but it is important that the non-narcissist parent do these 5 things:
1. Create clear boundaries with a narcissist: Communicate by email and avoid in person or even text communications when possible as an inflammatory and impulsive response is more likely from a narcissist. It is important that you have a clear written record of what is expected and how things will proceed. Do not waver in your resolve when dealing with a narcissist even if they disparage you. They will take advantage of any perceived weakness. You should be prepared to negotiate but know in advance the limits of compromise as a narcissist will use almost any means to convince you they should always have their way.
2. Keep the conflict with the narcissist from your children: Do not disparage the narcissist to your children. They are the other parent of your children and criticizing the narcissist hurts them. If the children experience difficulty with the narcissist, make sure you help them with tools for managing the difficulty without criticizing the narcissist as a person. It may be necessary, when the kids are old enough, to suggest that they will likely need tools to deal with difficult people in their lives and that you can give them some ideas to do that.
3. Seek help for yourself and your children as needed: You may find that you need support to deal with a narcissist. In fact, it is likely that many people co-parenting with a narcissist experience many of the same symptoms as those individuals with post-traumatic stress syndrome. Don't take this lightly. Find a therapist well trained in how to support you, and your kids, so that you can stand by your children. There are also support groups to help you navigate too. Find them and share your story. A divorce coach is another important resource who may help you navigate difficult organizational and emotional waters with a narcissist.
4. Document, document, document: Having a written record will help you remember that you are dealing rationally and objectively in a very difficult circumstance. This requires you to keep a journal or simple calendar of what occurs so that you can remind the narcissist, if necessary, what the objective reality is. Keeping most of your communication to simple clear email will also create a good record too. The narcissist may not be swayed by logic but, if extreme behavior occurs, a court may need this documentation to act.
5. Seek legal assistance as needed. Do not allow the narcissist to convince you not to get good legal help. If your divorce advisor dismisses you or the situation, find another lawyer or use the resource contained in your divorce agreement to help sort out conflict before it rises to a level that may involve the children. If the children are already aware of the conflict, make certain they have good support too and make sure your legal advisor understands you want the conflict to end as soon as possible to reduce any possible harm to the kids. Ask for a timeline and make sure it is reasonable to be followed by counsel and the courts if needed. This is certainly not an easy path but one that must sometimes be pursued. You will likely still have to be the driving force to reduce the conflict for your kids.
In sum, there is no magic bullet for co-parenting with a narcissist. You will likely be their target until, and if, another adversary arises. In the meantime, remind the kids it is not their fight, and that you will do everything you can to protect them from the conflict. Strengthen your resolve and make sure your supports are in place. It may not be easy to co-parent with a narcissist, but with the proper tools you can take good care of your kids and yourself during this difficult time. And, remember, what challenges you now can make you infinitely stronger for the future. Take pride in the way you behave for your children and know that this is the very best you can do as they grow into adulthood. They will be infinitely grateful for that.