While there are more men diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) than women, that does not mean that women never have the personality traits that meet the criteria for this mental health issue. In fact, the statistics indicate that 7.7% of men will develop narcissistic personality disorder in their lifetime compared to 4.8% of women.
As a result, there will be many separated and divorced people with children facing the challenge of attempting to co-parent with a former wife with pathological narcissism. It is crucial for them to fully understand how the long-term narcissistic traits that are characteristic of a person with NPD present somewhat differently in women and how they will impact their parenting relationship. This knowledge will enable them to have realistic expectations about the challenges of co-parenting with a narcissist and to develop the strategies necessary to best protect their children and themselves from further emotional harm.
What is Narcissistic Personality Disorder
In general, all 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. Someone with NPD has many of the following characteristics:
- 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 exaggeration of their achievements/talents
- Require constant and excessive admiration and 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
Based upon psychological research, there appear to be two major subtypes of narcissism, overt or grandiose narcissism and covert narcissism, and the research suggests that women tend to fall more into the covert subtype.
Overt/grandiose narcissism is what most people think of when they describe the classic traits and tendencies of a narcissist. These include exaggerated feelings of self-importance and entitlement, an outgoing sense of over-confidence, an obsessive need for admiration and praise, a complete lack of empathy for others, and a tendency toward hostility and aggression when challenged.
Covert narcissism (CN) is a subtype of narcissism that has recently been much more understood, and which is more typical of women with this disorder. It is not actually a separate diagnosis but rather a way to describe a subset of people who meet the general criteria of NPD. While they still have an exaggerated need for admiration and are unable to feel empathy like an overt narcissist, their outward behavior is very different and more introverted. This often makes it harder to identify and somewhat more confusing for the person dealing with them.
A person with CN tends not to be outgoing and attention-seeking like the more overt narcissist but may appear shy or withdrawn. They might avoid social situations since they create too much anxiety for them. While they do not appear to be grandiose or express a sense of self-importance, they struggle with a very fragile self-esteem and need constant validation to prove they are okay. They are also more prone to depression. Despite these differences between overt and covert narcissism, the nature of the abuse that they cause is similar and the experience of interacting with them can be equally traumatic.
The Challenges of Co-Parenting with a Narcissistic Ex-Wife
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 to be an effective co-parent. 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 these challenges are the most pronounced and the ability to co-parent is most difficult.
These are all the reasons why parallel parenting is often the most appropriate and effective means of raising children with a narcissist former wife, especially during the volatile early phase of that relationship.
What is Parallel Parenting?
Parallel parenting is a parenting plan based on two assumptions. The first is that children generally benefit from both of their 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 do so 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 or with the help of a professional mediator.
Even with a parallel parenting plan in place, there remains the potential for both you and your children to experience further emotional damage at the hands of the narcissist. Therefore, it is essential that you implement a variety of strategizes to minimize the chances of that happening.
Steps to take to Protect Yourself
- Reframe your expectations and be realistic about their ability to co-parent
- Expect challenges and approach them calmly and rationally
- Fully embrace the reality that you have no power to change them
- Avoid emotional arguments whenever possible
- Commit to staying calm and un-emotional when you do have to interact since they feed on your negative emotions
- Maintain perspective on conflicts and remember that it is about their low self-esteem not your inadequacy
- Find yourself a good therapist to help you heal, stay firm in your boundaries, and support your challenges
- Retain a compassionate and assertive attorney with experience dealing with narcissists
- Establish firm boundaries, especially about communication, and stick with them consistently
- Create an extremely detailed parenting plan that you always follow, the greater the detail the less conflict there will be
- Document everything should you need it for future litigation
- Have minimal contact with your children when they are with your ex to avoid conflict
- Have a parent coordinator appointed by the court or seek one out independently to help resolve conflicts
- If there is potential for abuse, take action to protect yourself
Steps to take to Protect your Children
All the strategies you can use to protect your children from a narcissist parent share a similar goal. They all focus on you providing the balancing, healthy counter to the problematic behaviors exhibited by their other parent. You need to show them, by example, that there is a healthier way of interacting than what they experience with their other parent. That can seem like a daunting task, particularly as you struggle with your own emotional challenges. However, given that you have no power to change your ex, this is the best and only way to protect your children that is truly within your power to achieve.
- Teach and model appropriate social interaction by being respectful and thoughtful
- Teach and model appropriate emotional responses by being calm and non-reactive
- Provide unconditional love that is not contingent on their behavior or moods
- Nurture your children’s unique qualities and foster their independence
- Parent with empathy and acknowledge their feelings
- Help children recognize and express their feelings
- Find a qualified child psychologist to provide emotional support and healing for your children
- Have a Guardian Ad Litem (law guardian) appointed by the court to represent and protect their interests
- If there is abuse, take all steps necessary to protect their safety
Parenting with a narcissist poses many unique challenges. All these strategies will empower you to rise above your former wife’s pathological behaviors and be the positive role model that your children so desperately need.