There are, thankfully, a few things that you can do when co-parenting with a narcissist which will help to maintain your sanity. These are things that you can do to protect you and your children. You can’t change your ex, but you can change the way you react to and interact with them.
1. Disengage, disengage, disengage. The best thing you can do for yourself is to emotionally buffer yourself from your ex. Do what you can to ignore, pretend they don’t exist, focus on the good in your life which is unrelated to your ex.
2. Communicate as little as possible.Similar to item #1, communicate with the narcissistic parent only as you have to for the kids sake. Any communication should be business-style in nature and not react to anything that doesn’t require a reaction for your children’s sake. If an email comes in from him/her which has accusations and blaming, do not not address it. If in the middle of the email it says something about your needing to take little Joe to his soccer practice, then ignore all the rest of it and respond “I will take Joe to his soccer practice at 4pm this Saturday. Thanks.”
Do not worry about anything other than items which may be placing your children in danger. If they are stuffed with junkfood all weekend while they are at the other parent’s, then feed them healthy when they are with you and explain how important it is for their well being. In the grand scheme of things, this is a very minor issue.
3. Remember that a narcissist projects. “Projecting” is common with narcissist personality disorder. A narcissist is suffering from the fact that there is a lot about their personality and self which is ‘unlikeable’. They can’t see those pieces consciously, but they know it subconsciously. In order to cope, they will project these unacceptable portions of themselves onto you. I understand it can be hard to hear negative, bashing comments about you and not react. This is one way to help you do that – remember that they are projecting. When your ex says “All you ever do is stuff the kids with junk food. You’re fat and unattractive and no one will ever want to be with you.” Immediately change it so that what you hear is “I am stuffing our children with junk food. I’m terrified that I am fat, unattractive and no one will want me.” It is somuch easier to ignore this way, and an essential component of following rule #1.
4. Don’t take to heart any threats, accusations or blatant lies about you. Remember rule #3, they project. Also remember that a narcissist needs, needs connection with you – even if it is negative connection. So he will escalate what he says and change what he says / does over and over again to get a reaction from you. In my life, the only thing that would get a reaction from me was stuff about our children, particularly threats to try to get custody. He knows this, and I guarantee you that this is a paramount reason why he takes our children for visitation (note – he probably also takes them because they give him narcissistic supply, and he is taking identity from them by associating himself as a father. Otherwise, he would be alone and that would be horribly frightening.)
5. Do not deviate from the schedule. Narcissists have difficulty with change, since they have no core sense of self, they use their environment to regulate how they feel. When the environment changes, they feel frantic. I can remember hearing “why are you doing this to me??” when I asked to make one small change to the schedule because a family member was ill. It took a long time until that sentence made sense for me. This rule also helps with #2 – communicate as little as possible. If the schedule is always the schedule, then there isn’t any reason to communicate.
6. You don’t need to bear the brunt of the emotion for your children. Yes, your narcissistic ex is going to dress up your children and use them to portray an image about himself. NPD people see their children as ‘an extension of themselves’, so it’s necessary for them to make sure they match the identity that they are creating. I don’t even recognize my kids if he dresses them, and they don’t recognize themselves. They resent that he does this to them and won’t listen to their preferences. This is their journey in life, not yours. This is where you have to take a step back and remember that there’s something they need to learn in life – just like we all do, and that perhaps dealing with a narcissistic parent is the journey and lesson that they have on tap for them. They will be stronger individuals than we grew up to be, because they will be learning this all first hand as young children. Again – as long as they are not in danger, you can work with them to help minimize the emotional impact. I may not yet have all the answers on how to do this, but I certainly think that there are some things which can be done.
7. Boundaries. Do what you can to draw clear boundaries with your ex. Boundaries are the end of me and the beginning of you. They are things that you can basically take for granted with a normal person, but you can’t with a personality disordered individual. Time is a boundary – if I’m supposed to meet you at 2 p.m. but I’m consistently late, I’m being disrespectful about your schedule, which is your boundary. When you were married, your ex probably insisted that you spend a lot of time with him, or at least available when he needed you. My ex used to say to me that I needed to do everything that I wanted in life during my work hours, because all the time outside of work needed to be spent with him. (ha! I laughed… then I realized he meant it… and I ran). What you like, dislike, believe in, stand for, need to do, friends you want to be with, where you live, your stuff – these are all part of what makes you who you are. Personality disordered individuals have poor boundaries. They have a hard time relating to others, understanding what’s appropriate, respecting other’s stuff, space, time. You may have not realized you were prime for issues like this, because perhaps you never had someone consistently defy your boundaries. It may be difficult to set boundaries with your ex because you need to understand and learn them first. Additionally, your ex will not like the boundaries you set. It will feel uncomfortable to them to have you draw those lines. You are not responsible for how they feel when you set boundaries which define what’s acceptable to you. If they have a temper tantrum, it’s ok… let them.