"Help! My narcissistic ex is making my life unbearable. I feel so overwhelmed and hopeless some days. How can I be a good parent when I'm so stressed out? The court didn't help, I've spent thousands on attorney fees, and I feel like nobody understands how manipulative my ex is. Can you help me?"
This is a type of email email I get far too often. The shame, stigma, and isolation surrounding high-conflict divorce can make co-parenting a nightmare. I have witnessed the contentious struggles and trauma of overwhelmed now-single parents whose lives are upended following divorce. Although you bear the pain of seeing your kids less and having your life dictated by a court order, there is hope for moving forward and defining your Plan B.
Many of you are here by way of my earlier post, “Forget Co-Parenting With a Narcissist. Do This Instead,” which has been viewed more than 550,000 times.
Why is this topic relevant? Because the stigma around high-conflict divorce is real, and the effects are toxic:
“Narcissistic pathology in the context of divorce manifests as a parent’s pervasive preoccupation with his own inner states and personal identity to the exclusion of the other parent and of his own children.” (Michael Friedman, 2004)
In addition to the collateral damage to minors, there’s the misconception that both adults are equally responsible for the contrary behavior. Sometimes, one party unilaterally drives the conflict. Take the classic schoolyard-bullying scenario: The bully repeatedly targets the victim, who finally stands up for him/herself. Because a fight ensues, both are equally blamed and punished.
Not to put all the blame the family court system, but judges, attorneys, mediators, and custody evaluators could benefit from internalizing this message: Co-parenting with a narcissist does not exist. My advice to co-parents is to raise your children in your home and do not meddle with your ex (suspected abuse excepted). As a psychotherapist specializing in co-parenting post-high-conflict divorce, I assure you, you are not alone. “Forget Co-Parenting…” is read 650-plus times daily. That’s a lot of stressed-out, single parents.
Filed under: Can’t make this up.
Let's pause and share a laugh; after all, humor acts as a buffer against tragedy. When you marry two volatile topics like co-parenting and narcissism, you best expect colorful commentary — weekly emails, social media DMs, blog comments, and “that one guy” situation I’m about to reference. While the majority of the correspondence is genuine, others use the platform to denigrate their ex, or tantrum.
Case in point: I'm utterly engrossed in re-watching Breaking Bad on Netflix one Saturday night when my mobile phone rings at 9:30 p.m. My heart skips a beat, because Walter White is about to blow his cover—again! After regaining my composure, I hear this message:
“Hi, Linda. I’m calling about your narcissism article on Psychology Today that my fiancé sent me. I want to talk because I don’t see myself in the article, and I’d like you to clear up some things. Please contact me, ASAP. I’m expecting your call.”
To the fiancé who passed along the article, I hope you passed on marrying that guy. Because he is not reading this article; narcissists do not see themselves as needing to change. But you, the non-narcissist, can change.
Here are 5 additional tips for establishing peace of mind, despite a toxic ex:
1. Get your narcissistic co-parent out of your mind/home/mobile devices/conversations.
Follow the court order, but never hit "reply" unless necessary. While incessant email, texts, and letters from opposing counsel feel like the vicious, unnecessary attacks that they are, you don’t have to respond to everything. Also, leave the details out of your other relationships. Friends, family and coworkers are not qualified to provide adequate support and understanding. That’s what therapy is for. And you can emotionally vomit all over us. Just kidding; but choose a clinician who is qualified to treat high-conflict divorce and co-parenting.
2. Regulate your emotions to retain your sanity.
Scheduling your replies to co-parenting correspondence also helps mitigate surprise attacks. Choose a time, day, and time limit for answering such communications each week. Boundaries are key. And yes, I know: Narcissists retaliate when limits are imposed. Still, it takes two to tango. Drama is draining; remove yourself, and s/he has no audience. Remember, the government doesn’t actually want to be involved in making decisions about your parenting practices.
3. Look at the big picture.
A hallmark of emotional maturity is weathering life’s storms. Yours may be a Category-5 hurricane, but there is an endpoint. Don’t focus on the breakdowns, but the breakthroughs. High-conflict divorce is a mean teacher, but the lessons are invaluable.
4. Find your safe place.
Anxious adults raise anxious kids. Do what you need to maintain that sacred space around your mental health. Think meditation, yoga, or church. (Jack and Coke may work, too, but you don’t need “substance abuser” added to the dirty laundry list of your ex's false allegations).
5. Fight for your kids (with two caveats):
First, define a worthwhile battle. Is $2,500 a judicious expenditure for filing a motion to choose your kid’s orthodontist? Probably not. Save your energy for the second caveat…
Be warm when emotions are hot. Alienation is real. Refusing contact with a parent creates substantial distress. The solution is warmth:
“For both fathers and mothers, warmth served as a protective factor against having a child refuse contact. Conversely, violence was a risk factor for having a child refuse contact. The implication of these findings is that a parent may be counseled to improve their own parenting style when a child is refusing contact, rather than focusing so much on the behaviors of the other parent.” (Scott C. Huff, 2015).
A Herculean fight, no doubt, but children only have one shot at childhood. Speaking of which, my heart breaks whenever adult clients of divorce cry, "I wish s/he would’ve fought for me. When I said I didn’t want to live with him/her, I didn’t mean it." The truth is that no matter how surly, indifferent, poised, or mature they may appear, kids are not equipped with the life experience to understand the consequences of their actions. But you are.
If 50/50, primary custody, or another timeshare is not included in the court order, make the most of your time together. Kids can thrive with the unconditional love of one stable parent. Eventually, they grow up and develop insight regarding narcissistic abuse:
"(Moné and Biringen, 2006) found relationships between alienating behaviors and current relationships with parents in college students. Notably, they found consistent evidence for a 'backfire effect,' wherein a parent's badmouthing of the other parent in years past was a negative predictor of their current relationship." (Michael Friedman, 2004)
Lastly, and because you’ve likely encountered your fair share of listicles: Make memories, laugh, and create positive experiences. Your children will be adults soon enough. Long after the ink has dried on your divorce decree and your kids have flown the coop, this era will be written as one chapter (or 18) ... but not your whole life story.
—For additional support in navigating the challenges of co-parenting, Linda Esposito, LCSW, offers Co-parenting Consultation. Click here for more information.
—For the latest research-based articles on healthy relationships and positive emotions, subscribe to Wired for Happy.
Copyright 2017 Linda Esposito, LCSW