A relationship with someone who has a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is one of the most complicated and challenging of all possible relationships. Those challenges unfortunately do not end following a separation or divorce, especially if there are children involved. Raising those children with a narcissistic former partner poses many unique co-parenting challenges and often requires some very specific strategies to protect both yourself and your children from further emotional harm.
What is a Narcissist?
It is important to start by defining what it really means to have NPD since this term is often applied very loosely. A person with NPD has a true mental health problem that needs to be diagnosed and treated by a trained mental health professional such as a psychiatrist or psychologist. Unfortunately, this rarely happens since they have little insight into their own problems and rarely seek help for them. This “diagnosis” often gets made by the abused and traumatized former partner who has been the brunt of the narcissists’ dysfunctional emotions and behavior. While there is clearly some danger to this diagnostic process, it is how it often happens. Given that, having a fuller understanding of the signs of narcissism seems essential for the narcissist’s former partner so they know exactly what they are dealing with and how to best protect themselves and their children from further abuse.
People with NPD have a rigid, long-standing pattern of thinking and behaving that starts in late adolescence/early adulthood and that interferes with all aspects of their functioning.
People with Narcissistic Personality Disorder have the following 10 personality traits:
- A grandiose and exaggerated sense of self-importance
- Preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty
- Belief that they are special and unique, and worthy of special treatment by others
- Require constant and excessive admiration
- Need to be the center of attention
- A sense of entitlement with unreasonable expectations of how they should be treated
- Interpersonally exploitative, taking advantage of others to meet their needs
- Complete lack of empathy, unable to recognize or identify with the feelings of others
- Arrogant, conceited, boastful, and pretentious
- A belief that others are envious of them
There is a qualitative difference between a person with a diagnosable NPD and what you might witness if your ex’s mood and behavior deteriorate, and they become self-centered, angry, and emotionally abusive as your relationship unravels. A relationship ending can bring out the worst in everyone involved, but that should never be the sole basis for assuming someone has NPD. The diagnostic criteria must be present and have existed for many years as a long-standing pattern, for someone to be truly considered having NPD.
Beyond being able to identify these 10 traits, it is also essential to have a clear understanding of 1)what to expect when intimately involved with a narcissist, 2) what to anticipate when the relationship ends, and 3) what the challenges will be when attempting to co-parent with them once the relationship is over.
Being in a relationship with a narcissist
The emotional impact on the (ex)romantic partner of the narcissist is pervasive and often devastating given the abusive behaviors that they constantly experience. These behaviors fall into the categories of being Accused, Belittled, and Controlled/Confused: the ABCs of narcissistic abuse.
You will often be accused of the same inappropriate behaviors that they are engaged in, a process called projection. You will be constantly told you are not good enough and will be berated for your inadequacies. They will take little blame or responsibility for their behavior and feel that everyone else, especially you, are the problem.
Hurtful things will be said to you, and they will appear oblivious to the pain that they are causing you given their lack of empathy. You will get described in degrading terms and they will tell everyone that you are the crazy one. They will appear charming to everyone but you, who will be exposed to their absolute worst.
You will feel constantly manipulated as a means of them getting their needs for attention met. You will be told that your experiences or feelings don’t matter since everything is about them. There will be payback for defying them or breaking their rules. All of these negative behaviors may be mixed with love bombing where they are using grand gestures to further manipulate you. This together with denying things they did or said will result in you wondering if you are going crazy. Your perception of reality will be questioned, a behavior known as gaslighting.
All these pathological behaviors mask the deep insecurity, shame, vulnerability, and humiliation that the narcissist experiences. It is essential to understand and remember that they are wounded and emotionally damaged human beings who lack the ability to establish and maintain healthy interpersonal relationships. While this doesn’t make coping with these behaviors any easier, it does serve to remind you that their behaviors are not about you or your inadequacy as they often try to make you believe.
How A Narcissist Reacts when a Relationship Ends
As a marriage or relationship with a narcissist starts to fall apart and eventually comes to an end, several very predictable things will happen given the nature of their mental illness. They will accept no role in the relationship failing and will put all the blame on you. Their personal attacks will get worse and their desire to create emotional chaos will escalate. Their attempts to control you will get more extreme and abusive. And what might come as a surprise and feel somewhat confusing, they may beg you to stay out of their fear of abandonment.
As you can see, things will predictably get worse before they get better. All their fears and vulnerabilities will be triggered as the relationship comes to an end, and the months following may be the most difficult that you have experienced. This intensity typically starts to decrease once things return to some new normal and both of you start the process of healing, although their inappropriate behaviors will never totally disappear. It will be important to hold onto this knowledge so that you can have realistic expectations and not set yourself up with the hope that things will turn peaceful as soon as you are no longer together.
The Narcissist Parent
All the traits associated with NPD are completely at odds with what is necessary to be a good parent. A narcissist is unable to provide unconditional love since their approval is contingent upon their children meeting their needs. They are unable to put their kids’ needs above their own or to be an empathic listener who can provide emotional support. They are unable to differentiate between their child’s behavior and them being a bad person, so they often demean and damage the child’s developing self-esteem. And as their children get older, they struggle to foster their independence since their primary interpersonal goal is to control the other person.
As a result of these parenting deficiencies, the narcissist enters the co-parenting relationship with serious limitations and challenges. Again, it is essential that you are realistic about what they can do so that you don’t expect more from them than they are able to give. That is a horrible set up for you and will only serve to leave you constantly upset and disappointed.
Co-Parenting with a Narcissist
This combination of emotional and behavioral instability results in the narcissist being a very challenging co-parenting partner. They lack the ability to do many of the things necessary for co-parenting to work. Those include respectful communication, compromising to resolve differences, putting the children’s needs first, and keeping emotions in check to avoid conflict. And remember that the period immediately following the separation/divorce may be the time that dealing with the narcissist is the most challenging and when the ability to co-parent is most difficult.
These are all the reasons why a parallel parenting plan is often the most appropriate and effective means of raising children with a narcissist, especially during the volatile early phase of that relationship.
What is Parallel Parenting?
Parallel parenting is based on two assumptions. The first is that children generally benefit from both of their separated parents playing an active role in their lives. The second is that the parents are unable to work together in a cooperative way to raise their children and attempting to utilize a shared parenting plan would be harmful both to the children as well as to the parents. Parallel parenting presents the best option to address both of those assumptions in that it allows parents to remain actively involved in their children’s lives with minimal contact with the other parent.
In this type of parenting arrangement, the amount of interaction between the two high-conflict parents is minimized as much as possible. Each parent has their own areas of responsibility, so they minimize the need for interaction and collaboration. Parents handle their time with the children in their own way, with no input from the other. Face to face communication is avoided and the preferable mode of communication is electronic.
There are many situations in which a parallel parenting plan is necessary for only a limited period following the end of the relationship to give both parents, especially the narcissist, an opportunity to de-escalate from all the conflict and tension. Once that happens, it is then possible to transition to a healthier co-parenting relationship that involves more collaboration and interaction. In other more extreme high-conflict relationships, that may never be able to become effective co-parents, and the parallel parenting model will be utilized throughout the children’s lives.
Having a complete understanding of who and what you are dealing with is the first step in establishing realistic expectations for your narcissist former partner’s future behavior. This will provide you with the greatest chance of being prepared for the expected challenges and armed with the strategies necessary to best protect yourself and your children from further emotional harm.