Co-parenting with my ex was never going to be easy: if he were willing to see other points of view; if we shared at least some of the same life values; if he were able to listen, we would probably be co-parenting as a married couple rather than co-parenting as separated parents.
Life doesn’t feel fair when you are co-parenting with a narcissist.
A narcissist believes that rules are for others – he doesn’t need to follow them. My ex agreed with me when I suggested that in order to provide some stability for our son we should try to stick to a routine. But this rule only really applies to me; he regularly requests changes to the routine to accommodate his golf weekends, surf weekends, work nights out, watching the football in the pub with his friends.
A narcissist is feels entitled…to everything. My ex feels entitled to see our son whenever it suits him, but at the same time feels entitled not to look after our son as arranged because it doesn’t suit his work schedule or because he wants to go away for a few days. My ex believes that I should feed his cat whilst he goes away on holiday. The list goes on.
A narcissist doesn’t listen. My ex asks questions about our son: “what have you done today?” “how did he sleep?” but he doesn’t listen to the answer. My family noticed this trait in my ex years ago, but I didn’t. I was probably blinded by my ex’s charm.
These are my tips for surviving co-parenting with a narcissist
1. Take your time
The early months of our co-parenting journey were characterised by a barrage of angry emails and text messages from him to me. Every time I checked there were more emails, more texts, more demands, more accusations, more threats. I still get fairly regular emails but these days they are primarily demands.
I learned not to reply to most of his emails or texts. My aim has been to demonstrate to him that he will only get a response from me if he can be polite and civil. I also leave it a few days before I reply. By leaving it a few days I give myself the time to get the tone of my email just right, to draft and re-draft, so that, by applying the rules below, I stand the best chance of getting the outcome that I want.
2. Negotiation with a narcissist is difficult unless you put the focus on why it is best for them
A narcissist is incapable of seeing anything from anyone’s view point but their own. I also find that my ex acts in haste and doesn’t think through the implications of his demands. He recently requested a change to the schedule that would have meant that he wouldn’t see our son on his birthday. I knew, upon receipt of the email, that my ex hadn’t checked his diary. This was an easy one because I was easily able to suggest that the original plan was better for my ex.
3. Persuade the narcissist that he will derive something significant from what you want
I know from the constant requests to make amendments to our son’s routine that my ex feels that having our son for two nights a week has a negative impact on his social life. I also know that my ex would never admit that our son is not his absolute top priority.
This is a tricky balance for me to play, but to get what I want (to stick to the agreed routine) I have to present a solution which enables my ex to have the best of both worlds. I gently propose (and it has to be gentle because a narcissist does not like being told what to do) an alternative which “enables you to go on your Golf weekend and to see your son”, but also works for me, and most importantly our son.
4. When the chips are down the narcissist has to feel that they are the victim
Despite his charming façade, my ex is a glass half empty kind of guy and always has been. He is the victim because I left him, he is the victim because I am, in his eyes, “dictating when he can see his son”, he is the victim because he is a single dad, he is the victim because he is in his mid-40s. The list goes on.
Any opportunity to recognise in conversation how difficult life is for my ex is worth taking. “I know that it is really difficult for you to drive to see your Mum” (it’s not difficult he has a car and she only lives an hour away), but this kind of conversation will turn the focus of the conversation to my ex and a narcissist always likes to be the focus of a conversation. It will also put him in a less combative frame of mind for negotiation.
5. When it comes to negotiation a narcissist always has to win
But, he won’t feel that he has won if you give up too easily. Learning how to stand up for myself has been one of my biggest challenges. My ex has a bit of a temper (not unusual for a narcissist) and during our relationship I used to let him have his own way to avoid his mood swings. It takes me a lot of time to prepare myself mentally for our meetings and I still get really apprehensive.
When in negotiation with a narcissist pick a number of issues that you want to discuss. Prioritise them. Pick the less important things and capitulate on these at the last minute so that he can feel that he has won.
6. If you concede to a Narcissist’s demands he will want more and more and more
…but you cannot go to battle on every issue. You will stand a better chance of getting the outcome that you need if he is not in a combative mood, this means really picking your battles and being smart about what is important.
7. Find yourself an honest cheerleader
I often discuss the conversations I plan to have with my ex with my mum. I send her the draft of my emails to my ex. I know that she will be honest and will tell me when I need to be a bit firmer, or when the tone of my email could be a bit softer.
8. Put everything in writing
Oh my goodness, this is the most important lesson.
There have been times in the last year when I have wondered whether I have been living in a parallel universe to my ex. A narcissist doesn’t listen, or at best they have selective hearing. We have had occasions when we both have a completely different recollection of what we have agreed. My ex has claimed that I have agreed to things which I know I haven’t. We now minute our meetings and I often refer back to these minutes when my ex claims that we’ve agreed something that we haven’t. It is working.
Surviving co-parenting with a narcissist is immensely tough, but, as I like to remind myself, being married to one would have been a whole lot tougher.