Am I co-parenting with someone with narcissistic personality disorder?

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Conflict-free strategies and coping mechanisms are best for ensuring the relationship remains as positive as possible. (Michael Olsen/Unsplash)
Conflict-free strategies and coping mechanisms are best for ensuring the relationship remains as positive as possible. (Michael Olsen/Unsplash)

Parental Alienation is one of the most talked about topics among co-parenting circles, one that proves both explosive and disturbing. 

To learn more about relevant definitions and frequently asked questions, read: Parental alienation explained: FAQs, terms and concepts

To provide a simple definition, parental alienation occurs when one parent fosters a rift between a former partner and the children they co-parent with, something SD Law South Africa has vast experience mediating. 

According to the local firm, parental alienation is often driven by an underlying cause, and in some instances a personality disorder such as narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). 

The firm has written extensively on the topic, and they've allowed Parent24 to share their advice on how to co-parent with a narcissist. 

Read on to learn more about NPD according to SD Law. 

Also see: Are joint custody and shared parenting a child’s right?

What is narcissistic personality disorder?

Technically there is a difference between narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), which is considered a psychiatric disorder, and narcissism, which is a social trait, but the boundaries are often blurred and the terms used inaccurately.

Someone who displays narcissistic traits may be vain and irritating, but is probably unlikely to become abusive or controlling.

NPD, on the other hand, is characterised by abnormal behaviour that includes exaggerated feelings of self-importance, excessive need for admiration, and a lack of empathy for others.

The bible of the American psychiatry profession, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), categorises NPD as a 'Cluster B' – dramatic – disorder, typified by a fixation on feelings of power and a grandiose sense of entitlement and superiority.

True NPD inhibits someone from forming meaningful human relationships; but, paradoxically, they may be charming and attractive, and vulnerable people in particular may be drawn to them. 

Are you experiencing narcissistic abuse?

While the disorder can only be diagnosed by a professional, SD Law advices that the following provides an idea of what co-parenting with someone with NPD might be like. 

Control

Pathological narcissists can be controlling and self-absorbed. They are often intolerant of different views and tend to blame others, being blind to someone else’s needs and insensitive to the effect their behaviour has on others.

Constant criticism

Their self-protection strategies often include belittling and undermining others, and over time the narrative of constant criticism can turn into outright insults and humiliation. 

Hostile accusations

If a partner attempts to question or confront them about their behaviour, they may turn it around and make hostile accusations towards the other. 

Manipulation

This term has been adopted by Erin Leonard PhD, a psychologist who specialises in relationships and parenting, to describe the manipulation of the other parent via the children. This often takes the form of lining the children up as allies while positioning the other parent as the opposition.

As much as it may gall you to do so, the best response is to ignore it. Determine whether or not your children’s safety is at risk. If it is not, then accept that your rules will not always be upheld in the other household, and the children will survive.

You may not approve of sweets before dinner or a later bedtime, but unless your child’s health is seriously jeopardised it is not worth provoking a major conflict.

If it blows up, in the children’s eyes the narcissist will be proved right – you are the bad guy, the killjoy, and the other parent is much more fun. If it is a non-issue for you, it will be for the kids too. 

Also read: My ex gossips about my parenting choices to her family! What can I do?

A note on gender stereotypes and NDP 

NPD is more prevalent in males than females, but that doesn’t mean fathers are always the protagonists and mothers always the victims in a difficult co-parenting situation.

Either parent can make the other’s life hell after the divorce. 

How to co-parent in a conflict-free manner if you suspect your co-parent might have NPD

If you've made it this far, you might suspect that your co-parent may have NPD. SD Law advises that using conflict-free strategies and coping mechanisms are best for ensuring the relationship remains as positive as possible. Here's a look at some of the ways to go about navigating life with an NPD co-parent according to the firm. 

Keeping emotions under control

If boundaries were important before, they are absolutely critical now. Your lives are separate. If you were the one who initiated the divorce, your ex may not want to accept that, but you must firmly and calmly establish and continually reassert your boundaries.

Do whatever it takes to enforce your limits, whether that means never inviting your ex into your home, or ending a phone call if the conversation turns abusive, etc. Just be sure to keep your emotions under control and remain courteous at all times.  

Avoid phone conversations as much as possible

Your only communication will be about the children, but that won’t stop the narcissist from using it to undermine, belittle or even threaten you.

Try to confine your communication to email or SMS/WhatsApp messages. Email is better for sorting out detailed arrangements, such as school holidays, and you can use short messaging for more immediate concerns, such as reminders about after-school activities or play dates.

Make sure your messages are only about these matters and don’t engage in exchanges about personal issues. Avoid phone conversations as much as possible.

Embark on parallel parenting

Sometimes co-parenting doesn’t work. The conflict doesn’t go away and the stress involved is unhealthy for you and the children. You want a friendly relationship for the sake of the children, but friendship is just not on the cards. In that case, forget co-parenting and embark on parallel parenting instead.

Parallel parenting means using the tactics described in this article to the full. Limit communication, set clear boundaries, don’t get embroiled in a tug-of-war with the kids’ affections, and remain calm and collected at all times.

In addition, you can’t play happy families at child-related functions. For example, don’t include your ex in a child’s birthday party. It is not reasonable for either of you to expect to mingle amicably with other parents when you can’t be civil to each other.

Hold separate birthday parties instead or trade off the host responsibility year to year. If your child is in a school production, attend on different occasions. If there is only one performance, don’t sit together. When parent-teacher night comes around, only one of you should go.

The other can schedule a separate meeting if your communication is so fraught you can’t even share the outcome. 

If the worst happens

No, we’re not talking about death. But if the narcissist parent ultimately forsakes their parental responsibilities and abandons their children, you may feel a combination of anger and relief, but your children will be heartbroken.

They may blame you. Worse, they may blame themselves. Whatever their reaction, your love and affection must be unstinting. Furthermore, though you may do so through gritted teeth, you must provide constant reassurance of the other parent’s love.

Stress that the absent parent is very sad and is missing them, but for reasons it may be hard to understand is not able to be in their lives right now.

Children can cope with being abandoned; the thought of not being loved does far more lasting damage.

#DignifiedDivorce: Everything you need to know about divorce

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