Forget coparenting; aim for parallel parenting
When I left my husband, I had never heard the phrase “narcissistic personality disorder.” A friend suggested that I Google it, which I did, and then I spent the next few weeks glued to the Internet. My learning curve was massive. I encountered foreign acronyms, new mental-health terminologies, and descriptions of disordered people who sounded exactly like my husband.
I felt like a billion light bulbs had cleared the fog from my brain.
Of course I knew my husband was rigid, had high expectations, lacked empathy, seemed to run hot and cold, and easily discarded people for bizarre reasons. Additionally, he was not friends with any of his ex-girlfriends, told a perplexing number of stories in which someone else had done him wrong, seemed to make and break all of the rules, and—come to think of it—I had never actually witnessed him apologize to anyone in the six years we had been together.
But the idea that my husband could have a personality disorder absolutely floored me. Though I was relieved that I was not crazy and had not been imagining his strange behaviors, I was also devastated, because a personality disorder diagnosis meant that my husband likely would never change.
In the two years since leaving my ex-husband, I have navigated police reports, a restraining order, the family court system, a custody evaluation, various therapists, and supervised visitation requests to protect my children. If you’re involved with a narcissist, then you know this: A divorce with a narcissist is not like other divorces. A custody dispute with a narcissist is not like other custody disputes. A narcissist is self-centered, highly abusive, and lacking in empathy or self-awareness. He will attempt to punish and control anyone who causes injury to his fragile ego. He is incapable of putting another person’s interests ahead of his own, and this includes the well-being of his children.
Looking back, I had no idea what I was in for when I left my husband. The journey of leaving a narcissist is a seemingly never-ending path of stress, exhaustion, grief, and confusion. And for those of us who share children with a narcissist, that grief and stress is magnified exponentially. So from one Solo Mom in the trenches to another, here are some ways to keep your sanity while attempting to coparent with a narcissist.
Embrace parallel parenting
Even though most exes talk about coparenting, coparenting with a narcissist is impossible, so forget that. Parallel parenting is your best bet. The concept of parallel parenting is this: your house, your rules, your peace. His house, his insanity, his circus.
If your children are switching homes on a regular basis, they’re no doubt being exposed to a whole lot of dysfunction while with the narcissist parent. Aside from documenting or pursuing legal action when extreme (or illegal) issues arise, the best way to stand up to the insanity is to balance it by building a safe and healthy home for your children. Aim to build your home on a foundation of everything the narcissist’s home isn’t—empathy, unconditional love, appropriate boundaries, vulnerability as a strength instead of a weakness, and the safety to express real feelings.
Record, document, and document some more
When you are forced to orbit around a narcissist, crazy-making and gaslighting is par for the course. Documentation will become an important lifeline. During my custody battle, my memory had become so foggy from years of narcissistic abuse that I relied heavily on my Google Calendar and journal to remind me of what had been happening that very week.
If you’ve been down this road for a while, you’re aware of how onerous documenting is. It’s something extra to do, on top of all of the other tasks you’re responsible for as a Solo Mom. Not only does it feel like the narcissist is manipulating your children, but he’s also infringing upon your free time, your ability to relax and enjoy your life, and your brain power. But whatever you do, keep documenting.
The unfortunate part of sharing children with a narcissist means you likely will find yourself back in court. And depending on the state of his finances, you might be back in court often. As the stable, responsible parent, your job is to document every single time the narcissist is late for visits, says manipulative things to your child on the phone, keeps your child out until 11p.m. on a school night, or chooses to go on vacation with his new girlfriend instead of making time to visit the kids. Whether you choose to record your notes in a journal, send yourself an email, or make a voice recording, your documentation could prove essential to your future case. Also, check recording laws in your state. If you live in a “one-party consent” state, you can legally record phone calls and conversations in which you are also a participant.
Stick to the plan
In a normal coparenting relationship, there is give and take. The parenting plan signed by both parties serves as a guide. In a truly amicable separation, there might not even be a parenting plan. But if you are coparenting with a narcissist, you need a parenting plan made of steel. And it’s best to stick to the plan. If the parenting plan says one phone call after dinner, do that. If the parenting plan says 14 days of vacation per parent, do not accommodate his request for 18. If you don’t have an iron-clad parenting plan, the narcissist will attempt to interpret and exploit any fuzzy language in the plan to his benefit.
When parallel parenting with a narcissist, you will need to apply the basic principles of love-and-logic parenting, but modified to accommodate the toddler living inside the body of this grown man known as the narcissist. Repeat after me: natural consequences, natural consequences, natural consequences.
In parenting speak, this means that if Johnny forgets his soccer uniform, he can’t play in the game. In coparenting-with-a-narcissist speak, this means that if the narcissist is two days late confirming his parenting time, he’ll have to wait until next week.
Don’t feed the narcissist
Narcissists feed on chaos and energy. As such, the narcissist will be looking to steamroll you at every opportunity. He will create mountains out of molehills. He will ignore court orders. If you’re in the middle of a divorce or custody evaluation, he will delay. He will be late with paperwork. He might refuse to communicate entirely (like my narcissist), or he might send a dozen emails of rambling nonsense on a daily basis. As much as possible, find a way to let the small stuff roll off your back.
The general rule of thumb when detaching from a narcissist is to go “no contact.” This means exactly what it sounds like: no communication whatsoever with the narcissist. But when you share a child, “no contact” is harder to achieve. As much as possible, refuse to engage with the narcissist. Insist on written communication only. The narcissist will fight this (mine still does) because he knows it’s much easier to disorient someone over the phone or in person than via email. Stand your ground, Solo Mom.
Focus on you
I know the idea of focusing on yourself sounds crazy. You, with a kid or two tugging at your pant leg. You, with a full-time job, an ex-narcissist determined to make your life hell, and a sink full of dishes. I get it—it’s hard for me to focus on me too.
In the world of Solo Moms recovering from narcissists, we throw around the term self-care, but we often forget to explain what it means. I like to think of it as doing good by myself. Treating myself kindly, as though I am my own child. If that means a chocolate bar in the bathtub after the kids have gone to bed, do it. If that means Monday afternoon yoga class while the kids are at school, sign up. Knit a hat, write a story, go for a run, or scribble in an adult coloring book.
You might be interested in the article “What I Now Know Two Years After Divorcing a Narcissist” by the same author.
Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.