Your Ex’s narcissism is a large part of why you’re divorcing at all, so the thought of having to continue to “work with your Ex” long-term to parent can feel daunting, intimidating, depressing, infuriating—as if you’ve not escaped them at all.
Divorcing with children is one of the hardest things you may ever do. But doing so with an ex-spouse who is also a narcissist, well, this presents its own ring of hell. For it’s likely that your Ex’s narcissism is a large part of why you’re divorcing at all, so the thought of having to continue to “work with your Ex” long-term to parent can feel daunting, intimidating, depressing, infuriating—as if you’ve not escaped him at all. Luckily, coparenting with a narcissist can be possible—you can do this. It simply requires a shift in your mindset and a change in your communication.
In fact, learning how to deal with a narcissist at arm’s length as your coparent is a critical piece to your recovery from having married one—and certainly critical to your children who are impacted by the actions of both of you.
Before we jump into sharing suggested practices, rules, and tips for coparenting with a narcissist, we want to address the obvious elephant on the page. You deserve credit here for what you are setting out to do, modeling the healthiest thing you can to your kids. Because the healthiest thing for you would be to have no contact with this person at all. If you had your choice you’d be done with him*. But he’s your children’s other parent. Here you are.
Let’s show your kids something different than what he is showing them.
First, though, we’ll get clear on what a narcissist is.
What is a Narcissist?
You may have heard the term thrown around, but it’s important to clarify the details and discuss some common misconceptions about what a narcissist is.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder is defined by the American Psychological Association as a disturbance characterized by a lack of empathy towards others, a sense of grandiosity or exaggerated self-importance, entitlement, and a fantastical sense of one’s power.
Narcissists also experience difficulty with any forms of indifference, defeat, or criticism, and often refuse to accept these common experiences as valid. They may go into a rage when their “power” is challenged, or they may attempt to discredit the individual sharing the information they feel challenged by.
They may depend on the admiration of others to validate their feelings that they are more important than others.
This can get tricky when children are involved, as children are an easy audience for validating a narcissist’s self-absorbed need for admiration. Coparenting with a narcissist can therefore provide some unique challenges.
Note that some narcissists may commandeer this phrasing to call others narcissists as a deflection mechanism. They are adept at manipulating whatever tools they have at their disposal to serve their own self-image fantasy.
After divorce, how do you move forward while coparenting with a narcissist?
It may not happen overnight, but once you become familiar with the frame of mind most helpful in working with a narcissist, knowing how to respond will become second nature.
Recognizing how narcissism works will also help you detach emotionally from whatever attempts a narcissist makes to manipulate you, the court systems, your family and friends, or your children.
To get started, keep reading now for our 41 tips for coparenting with a narcissist. And know that going forward, we will refer to your narcissistic Ex-Spouse as your N. Ex. or your children’s other parent or father.
Where Your Children Are Involved
Always keep your children top of mind and model healthy behavior to them.
If you cannot take in the full gamut of this list, at the minimum, remember this first rule and you won’t go wrong.
In reality, you may have escaped your former spouse, to some degree, but your kids have little choice in who their father is. If you think of your children first before responding to your N. Ex, you will be teaching your kids behavior and skills that will nurture them and their understanding of how to deal with a narcissist who happens to be a parent. (See #6)
Understand the difference between coparenting and parallel parenting and be honest with yourself.
Parallel parenting may afford some distance and reduced contact between you and your N. Ex., because, unfortunately, you will likely never attain the standards of a healthy coparenting relationship with the father of your children. Coparenting with a narcissist is typically not compatible with standard coparenting routines. Appreciating this will help you manage your expectations about the future by staying realistic and accepting the things you cannot change.
For this article, we will use the word “parenting” when guiding you, but—between us—you are probably not coparenting but parallel parenting.
Avoid talking about your Ex negatively or passive-aggressively (even if you hate him) as your children will internalize that you also feel this way about a part of them.
You are striving to help your kids cope with their other parent. If they express their frustrations with him, it’s important to listen and validate while also letting them know you’re available to help with whatever it is they feel they need.
Find professionals and put in place a support system for your children.
This is so they have a neutral place to go and vent; so they don’t feel like they are burdening you or their father. They may feel isolated from the outside world. Giving them space to normalize their feelings outside of their immediate family can be incredibly healing.
Tip: Check with your kids’ schools or their doctors for referrals to professionals who work with children your kids’ age.
Try to do everything to keep your kids out of conflict.
Your N. Ex may look for manipulative moments to use your children as pawns for leverage, or as a way to “recruit” them to serve him or his needs or his ideas of what they should be doing. Your N. Ex will not know how important it is to leave the kids out of conflict, tense moments, stressed scenes, because his ego and needs reign supreme. But if your kids are around try to stay calm and neutral in front of them and him. This is a key skill in coparenting with a narcissist.
It is not your job to educate your children about narcissists per se.
Instead, you can educate them subtly by modeling healthy responses to your N. Ex. Let them come to their own conclusions about your and his personality types. Throwing your N. Ex under the bus and labeling the summation of his existence as one word, “narcissist” only makes you look troubled too.
Don’t feel sorry for your kids.
It’s no picnic having a narcissistic parent, but there could be worse problems. Showing your children that they should be pitied is teaching them they are disempowered. Au contraire: as a result of having a narcissistic parent, they will learn coping mechanisms for surviving and growing and hopefully, avoiding a spouse like this down the road.
Your children may even act like their father. Observe your children — who have learned how to survive in this family, just like you did. Even if they are adult, their behaviors may reinforce the old, toxic norms they grew up with. Be patient and don’t expect your children to always understand you or the new normal. Therapy can help them (and you) get a more grounded sense of healthy behaviors. Coparenting with a narcissist can be exhausting, and you’ll need the steady reset of therapy to maintain your own mental health.
What’s more, expect your kids to act out.
It’s likely that your kids feel safer with you, which is why they may act out with you more so than their other parent. They’ve probably learned that their other parent’s approval is conditional, and they want to be loved by him (if even unconsciously). They may be more guarded with him because they don’t want the backlash of not pleasing him. Allow them the freedom to express their full range of emotions with you and without judgment, and make sure they know their feelings are valid.
Do not allow your children to replicate their father’s behavior.
While it’s important to validate your child’s acting out (this is a stressful time for them), you must make sure that you don’t sacrifice the boundaries of healthy engagement. Like their dad, your children may need retraining. Don’t give in to toxic behavior toward you. Calmly discussing the new rules of engagement without being reactive may be an important turning point in your relationship with them.
Tip: At your house, there are New Rules.
Model to your children what it looks like to trust your instincts.
This is a powerful lesson for any child. You don’t have to make it about their dad, but show them every day how important it is to listen to their inner wisdom and to not ignore red flags in life. Confidently show them what it looks like to know what you do and do not want.
Try to fill the void that your N. Ex leaves and nurture the unseen.
Observe how you think your N. Ex treats your kids and close the gap. By definition, narcissists put themselves first, so be the parent who puts your kids first and shows them your unconditional love. They need you more than ever.
Pay close attention to your child’s interests and cultivate their passions.
Your N. Ex is likely not doing that but pushing activities or commitments that he finds important (to him). Be the parent who sees your child’s individual, special talents and nurtures their unique interests. See them.
Be grateful and stay prepared for things to take a turn.
In the back of your head always remember, your N. Ex could complicate matters. Be grateful for the times when there is peace in your house and your kids can experience a kinder, stabler atmosphere. Seeing this difference between the homes will help your children realize they do have the power to create boundaries and to cultivate the life they deserve.
Be savvy about the research on kids and divorce.
Studies show that children whose parents broke up and coparented as civilly as possible were children who tended to weather the divorce best long term. Conversely, those kids whose parents split amidst high conflict and whose parents continued to generate conflict were kids who suffered the worst and had the hardest time resuming normalcy in their lives. Appreciate this and understand it’s going to take extra work on your part to demonstrate what healthy is because your N. Ex probably doesn’t have it in him.
Never give up on your children.
Your spouse may dominate, inconvenience, or manipulate them, but as their healthier parent, you can never give up on your kids. Show them you are always there for whatever (and whenever) they need you.
How to Interact with Your Narcissistic Ex
Do not openly criticize (or negotiate with) your N. Ex in front of your children.
Do you want him to do this to you? (We know, he probably already does!) But modeling healthy behavior is important for everyone involved and sets a precedent for future interactions. Also, if you’re thinking about a narcissist’s need to be adored unconditionally, having an audience of his “followers” (kids) may trigger his uglier behaviors. In other words, you’ll need to be much more tactful to get your message heard.
Calmly state your new rules to your N. Ex.
It is not like the old days when you were married. There are hard-line boundaries now. You are blocking him. You are not listening to him. You are not doing his bidding. You won’t argue in front of the kids. If he wants to let you know something (unless it is an emergency) there are clear protocols and boundaries for connecting to the mother of his children. The following are a few ideas you may want to consider.
Follow a parenting plan that is as comprehensive as possible.
Hammering things out in advance, and having rules to point to will help enforce boundaries with your N. Ex and make coparenting with a narcissist easier. You want to avoid making things up as you go along at all costs.
Commit to a parenting app that will enable your communication but also, critically, act as a buffer between you two.
The app will allow you to share school calendars, doctor’s appointments, and important meetings, without having to remind your N. Ex or having to connect with him to remind him. It will also document your having shared this information and when and if he reads it. It’s an excellent accountability tool to use when coparenting with a narcissist.We like Family Wizard because it’s among the oldest apps supporting parents and the one most often suggested by family courts.
Set up regular call times for your kids with each parent when they are at the other parent’s house.
This is important so it’s a rule and everybody can plan on it. (However, be prepared to hold the space for your kids if dad fails to take their call because he’s got something more “important” going on.)
Take a cool 24 hours before you respond to any of his communications (preferably through your parenting app).
This will give you time to consider how you want to respond in the interest of your kids. Of course, you cannot do this with everything. There will be times of urgency, and you will have to respond. But in general, putting a time barrier between your communications will serve the dual purpose of allowing you to emotionally cool off and will also send the message that you are a busy person and he is not your first priority. This sets a real precedent for responsiveness that will be easier to maintain long term.
Stay black & white. Do not emotionally engage with your N. Ex.
Limit your emotional vulnerability to him. Be careful of your heart and its pain, and your possible sense of anger or unfairness. Showing “how you feel” or exposing your vulnerability makes it possible for him to use it against you in the future. Remember: narcissists are not above using manipulation to get their needs met. Seeking “to reason with him” or “to explain your feelings” never worked before. Cut it, move on. And think about your kids. They need you to get the facts out to their dad. Keep it black and white.
Keep reminding yourself that the leopard doesn’t change his spots.
Just because you’ve been working on yourself and have had some epiphanies about your former marriage does not mean your N. Ex is doing any of that kind of work. Don’t expect him to change. You might want to remain skeptical of any claims he may make—how he has changed! or that he seems to be doing “even better now!” Remember, manipulation and showboating are in your N. Ex’s nature.
Do not bother sharing your truth that you find him to be a narcissist.
It’s not going to advance your relations, serve your kids or magically transform him into a philanthropist! Calling him a narcissist (even a suggestion that he needs help, therapy, counseling, etc.) will only backfire. As with your emotional vulnerabilities, you’ll need to resist the urge to show your cards with this revelation. A narcissist will never see themselves as one.
Practice your own rules and firm boundaries for dealing with him.
For example, when communicating, remind yourself of the BIFF rule. Keep your communication:
Be prepared for face-to-face meetings and public interactions.
Don’t wing it, prepare. If you don’t, you are likely to resort to the behavior you used to do (and how well did that serve you in the past?) Instead, visualize scenarios, practicing whom you want to be when you see your N. Ex and how you want to respond using BIFF. (See tip #24). You are retraining your body’s response system.
Tip: It helps if you visualize that your kids are watching you.
You can never apologize enough to a narcissist, and in their book, you will always be wrong. Stop trying to find a resolution by taking the hit or expecting his apology. He will never apologize genuinely for his wrongdoing, and your apologies won’t stop him from constantly blaming you.
Save your power.
This means not going head-to-head with your N. Ex. This will always trigger the worst of his narcissism. It will never work without greatly exhausting you and getting you emotionally fired up or feeling depleted. You can only outwit the narcissist by not engaging directly with him on an issue. BIFF, baby (See #24). You may also want to educate yourself on the “gray rocking” tactic of showing no emotion to a narcissist as a form of self-protection.
Do the Right Thing: don’t let his behavior affect yours.
It’s safe to say that your N. Ex will often not do the right thing when it comes to parenting, because narcissists think of themselves first and foremost, and they believe they can do no wrong—the opposite of a good parent. But if you endeavor to do the right thing for your kids, your children will see the difference one day. They may not understand you right now, but they will look back and remember how you showed character in difficult times.
Even if your kids aren’t around, do the right thing to remind yourself of the type of person you are, no matter who’s watching.
Model to your N. Ex the way you want to be treated.
Let’s face it, selfless behavior does not come naturally to your children’s father. He needs to learn how things should be done. Instead of telling him or yelling at him, or begging him, show him how by being that person. While there’s little guarantee that he’ll catch the drift, it may at least be easier for him to play along with the healthy routines you set than to disrupt them. If he does attempt to get a reaction from you, showing him that he has no more power over your emotions may ultimately cause him to become disinterested in trying.
You have no control over him or how he does things inside or outside his house. Be selective with what you learn about and what gets you upset. Choose your battles wisely. And don’t let your children think you are quizzing them about how things are done in dad’s house.
Part of showing that your N. Ex no longer has emotional power over you is to ultimately make that true. Whether it’s the right women’s divorce group, meditation, a new activity, hobby, or therapy (or all of the above), you’ll need to find your way to avert your eyes and take back your life. In doing so, you are accepting the only control you have is over yourself and how you show up for your kids.
This means letting go of the fantasy (no matter how dim it is) that your N. Ex is there for you in any way.
Sometimes with distance, one forgets certain things about our N. Ex. The distance can cause us to soften, or to even romanticize who he is. ‘Oh, he’s not that bad.” (We, women, have an incredible ability to forget pain, otherwise, we would never give birth a second time.)
Do not delude yourself into thinking he will be there for you if you need him. Never expect anything from him, and you will never be disappointed again. Coparenting with a narcissist can be lonely, but as long as you know you’re doing it alone from the start, you won’t set yourself up for disappointment.
Be prepared to repeat and remind your N. Ex of your boundaries.
Your N. Ex probably benefited from your lack of boundaries before, so he may continue to try to exploit you even post-divorce. Be prepared to repeat and stand by your boundaries. This is also a way for you to remind yourself by putting it into your muscle memory: you are breaking with your past and forging a new chapter as a single mom.
Repairing Your Relationship with Yourself
Keep a log.
Document your ongoing experiences with your N. Ex. Date it and keep it simple with each account being one or two lines. Make sure you indicate how his behavior impacted your children (first) and you (second) at the time. A simple log will be helpful if you ever need to go to court or prove what’s been or not been happening. And the court system will be more interested in how the children were impacted in any of these interactions.
Keeping a detailed log can be helpful to validate your feelings and experiences with factual details, too. You may have been at the receiving end of your N. Ex’s gaslighting behavior, which eroded your trust in yourself and your memories. Rereading your log and seeing what’s black and white can help you metabolize what you’ve been and are going through.
You’ve been damaged, but you’ve shown yourself that you can do incredible things, like survive divorcing and coparenting with a narcissist. Keep taking steps forward not backward. Also, a strong mama who keeps evolving is the best mama for her kids.
Keep track of all bills and receipts paid.
Your N. Ex loves to argue, blame or distort the facts. So, expect more down the road and be prepared to respond with black and white facts and figures. Knowing that you’re retaining this tangible proof can help you feel safe and build confidence in your ability to troubleshoot any issues that arise.
Narcissists often consciously or unwittingly perpetrate harmful attachments onto their children. When coparenting with a narcissist, strive to see this behavior developing and do everything to stop it in its tracks.
Realize that if you’ve been in a long-term marriage, partnered with a narcissist, you’ve been trained to think a certain way: always putting your former narcissist first. Forgive yourself, because that’s how you survived.
Break old patterns and continue your transformation.
You are learning how to break with your former behaviors and discover who you are. For those women who are older, and rebuilding after gray divorce, these patterns are especially difficult to break and can be reinforced by the way your older children treat you. You don’t have to do it alone: get support.
Find your tribe.
Appreciate that you N. Ex may think he’s special and the only one of his kind. But a lot of women have divorced partners just like him, and once you realize this, you realize too how genuinely good it feels to be with other women who understand what you have been through. Coparenting with a narcissist is unfortunately a common situation.
Consider joining a group of women who are committed to reinventing after divorce, women who are seeking to do right by their kids and live another story.
* At SAS, we support same-sex marriages. For the sake of ease, we may refer to the Ex as “he/him” but we understand that exes come with many gender identities.