Co-parenting following a separation or divorce is incredibly challenging when dealing with an emotionally stable ex-partner. Trying to do so with an ex who is unstable, volatile, and abusive can seem almost impossible. Understanding whether these characteristics are the result of a troubling personality disorder is essential to determining how you are going to best raise your children and to creating a parenting plan that protects all of you from further emotional harm.
Does my ex have Narcissistic Personality Disorder or are they just acting controlling and self-centered?
There is a qualitative difference between a person with a diagnosable narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) and someone with narcissistic traits. Those challenging traits are what you might witness if your ex’s mood and behavior deteriorate, and they become entitled, 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. Specific diagnostic criteria must be present and must have existed for many years as a long-standing pattern for someone to be truly considered having this disorder.
What is Narcissistic Personality Disorder?
NPD is a mental illness that needs to be diagnosed and treated by a mental health professional. Unfortunately, this rarely happens since the narcissistic partner tends to have little insight into their own problems and rarely seeks help for them. This label often gets applied by the abused and traumatized (ex)partner who has been the brunt of the narcissists’ dysfunctional emotions and behavior. While there is clearly room for error in this “diagnostic process”, it is how it often happens. Given that, having a fuller understanding of the symptoms of NPD seems essential for the narcissist’s (ex)partner so they know exactly what they are dealing with and can plan how to best protect themselves and their children from further abuse.
Dealing with a Narcissist
People with NPD have a rigid, long-standing pattern of thinking and behaving that starts in early adulthood and that interferes with all aspects of their functioning. Someone with NPD has the following characteristics:
- A grandiose and inflated 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
- Need for constant 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
- Lack of empathy, unable to recognize the feelings of others
- Arrogant, conceited, and pretentious
- A belief that others are envious of them
The ABCs of Narcissistic Behavior
The emotional impact of the narcissist’s behavior is pervasive and often devastating. These behaviors fall into the categories of Accusing, Belittling, and Controlling
Accused: 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 responsibility for their behavior and feel that everyone else, especially you, are the problem.
Belittled: Hurtful things will be said to you, and they will appear oblivious to the pain that they are causing you. 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.
Controlled/Confused: 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. They will deny things they did or said, resulting in you wondering if you are going crazy. Your perception of reality will be questioned, a behavior known as gaslighting.
The Narcissistic 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 the narcissistic partner 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.
What is Co-Parenting
Co-parenting is defined as two divorcing parents or separated parents who no longer live together working collaboratively to raise their children. While it can take many forms, with many different parenting plans, the goal is to create a relationship where both parents have significant (but not necessarily equal) parenting time, are playing an active role in their children’s lives, and are making decisions based upon the best interests of those children.
The Challenges of Co-Parenting with a Narcissist
The combination of emotional and behavioral instability results in the narcissist being a very challenging, if not impossible, co-parenting partner. They lack the ability to do many of the things necessary for an effective co-parenting relationship. Those include respectful parenting communication, compromising to resolve differences, putting the children’s needs first, and keeping emotions in check to avoid conflict.
Understanding these unique challenges and creating an appropriate parenting situation, such as a parallel parenting plan, will be the key to minimizing further emotional abuse for both you and your children. If you are interested in learning more about additional resources for co-parenting with a narcissist, click here.