How to co-parent with a narcissist? 10 rules to understand and make it work

Dernière mise à jour : 21 nov. 2021

We don’t choose to be in a relationship with a narcissist. We discover we are in this type of relationship with time. Narcissism is experience-based and only when reading, discussing with others, and relating to our own story do we understand the particularity of our relationship.

Very often we have our part of responsibility in having chosen a partner with unhealthy behaviour - being more in giving than receiving, being too caring, lacking experience and knowledge about relationships, replaying patterns from childhood.

When it happens and you find yourself in a relationship with a narcissist, you always have a choice to leave the relationship. Except when you co-parent together, you cannot simply leave and cut contact with the person. When children are involved there will be a sort of relationship forever. Co-parenting is a long-term commitment that basically never ends. That applies to any couple.

When it comes to the relationship with a narcissist, we don’t speak about co-parenting, we speak about parallel parenting. It is not an easy task but sometimes it is important to do the difficult things in life. And this is one of those.

"You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

Eleanor Roosevelt

In this article, I have put together 10 rules inspired by the psychological background of relationships, communication, attachment, parenting theories. Rules that worked for me and I hope will help you as well to understand this type of co-parenting, to choose and apply efficient strategies, soothe your pain, make sense of this experience, protect yourself and your children, learn from this experience and accept it.

Rule No 1: The narcissist co-parent doesn’t change.

Narcissism can take many forms, but there are main traits and those will have an impact on both your couple and parenting relationship. Most of the time this is a lack of

  • respect;

  • trust;

  • responsibility.

Three very essential values for a functional relationship, especially when children are involved.

Obviously, all the lacking qualities will come to your account. A narcissist doesn’t have the ability to introspect. That’s why you might experience co-parenting a very hard and lonely experience. And sometimes the only solution is to get control over the whole situation by yourself.

Nela was dating Tim for 2 years before they decided to have children and add a new dimension to their relationship. He looked like a serious person, with a decent background, a stable income, many values, the same religion, same political opinions, ready to settle down. She was also ready to settle down with a desire to create a home and care. When children came, she felt fulfilled, providing for the whole family, while her partner started turning attention towards his original family, raising his standards for service; nothing was good enough.

By the time she understood, it wasn’t her fault, they had 3 children together. As she didn’t have any experience with projection, gaslighting, and manipulation she sought professional help.

She understood the relationship with her husband wasn’t healthy. While facing the disappointment and engaging in the healing process, she had to also take control over the whole situation as there was a potential impact on children’s well-being.

The intervention of a 3rd person (mediator, coach, ...) helps to establish a respectful relationship, communicate and find a compromise. It can also help to protect you if you don’t feel safe.

Rule No 2: The narcissist co-parent is still a parent.

Now, no matter the unacceptable behaviour of the narcissistic co-parent, it is still a parent of your children. Today, we know how important it is for children to know their origins. When it comes to adoption, anonymous donor, children look for their biological family by taking a DNA test for example. Trying to separate or alienate them from their biological parents could be an easier solution at the beginning, but in the long term, it can turn against you.

Sometimes, it is tough to accept and give your narcissistic co-parent the role of a parent and the great opportunity of having a relationship with the children, the biggest gift you can offer to anyone; but for children, it is important to get to know their parents. Otherwise, the opposite might happen and they would idealize them.

Rule No 3: It is your responsibility to protect your children.

Following rule number 2, while encouraging contact with the narcissistic parent there is an immediate question of protecting your children. When it comes to any sort of abuse, physical, emotional, or psychological, children cannot protect themselves and it is an adult's role to protect them. Even if the abuse goes towards the non-narcissistic parent and not directly to children; children shouldn’t be witnessing any violence and get used to the idea that it is normal.

There is a certain dynamic in the families where a narcissist is present. If you are not aware of it you might fall into a trap by becoming an “enabler”. By feeling like a victim, by acting on your fears (of abandonment above all), or, just by loyalty, you might take the narcissist side when it comes to children and become the “enabler.”

According to my experience, the time the narcissist co-parent spends with the children has to

be clearly structured and sometimes supervised.

Rule No 4: You will be the only parent to love your children.

Very sadly, a narcissist is not able to put their children’s needs in front of theirs. This is one of the reasons a narcissist is not able to love. That’s unfortunately true for both mothers and fathers. Many aspects of maternal instinct are a myth.

Sometimes, it is difficult to get tuned to the children's needs, but with time spent with the children, by observing and connecting, we understand what is expected from us to contribute to healthy children’s development.

There is experience too, temperament, motivation and attachment. And that’s very often the core of the problem. If we were not loved as children unconditionally; we missed the loving attention, presence, and warmth; we have two options:

- either we start a self-development process and learn to love; very often a lifetime process (definitely worth it); or,

- we repeat what we have experienced.

It is a very painful experience, but remind yourself that one loving parent is better than none.

Rule No 5: You will be the only parent to educate your children.

Though I am not fond of any authoritative education style, I believe that children need to understand some limits to feel safe and to develop healthy self-esteem (Jasper Juul). Narcissists do not show their children what these limits are. Even though they are not able to love them, they don’t want to lose them. They are basically not ready to have a conflict with them. So you will have to do that, sooner or later.

Coaching, guiding, and teaching your children is part of parenting; not only providing material support, service, and entertainment. There is a question of values, competences development, and autonomy. As a non-narcissistic parent, you will have a lead on it.

According to the feedback I regularly receive from my clients, a narcissistic co-parent doesn’t feel accountable for children's education and rather takes the position of a friend and playmate; but,

Your children need to have a parent, not another friend.

Rule No 6: Going “gray rock” can prevent conflicts.

There is a technique when it comes to dealing with difficult people, it is called “gray rock”. It consists of going numb, or flat. In practice, it means not showing vulnerabilities, not explaining yourself and especially not showing and acting on your emotions while there are SO MANY EMOTIONS.

It is not easy to practice this strategy as it requires being able to connect to your emotions first.

When you have to confront someone in a difficult conversation and you feel like being overwhelmed, it might be helpful to start breathing into your belly first or take micro breaks during this conversation (drink water, walk, ,...). And you deal with unprocessed emotions (anger, fears, sadness,...) later on when it feels safe, or, with someone who receives you with empathy.

It is basically the opposite of what we usually do in a healthy relationship. That's why I don't recommend it in the long term as it could have an impact on your health. Occasionally, in specific situations, it helps when practiced with consciousness.

Rule No 7: Focus on the relationship with your children.

With the children, it works like any other relationship. It is about getting to know them and connecting with them. Childhood is a period and experience that will never happen again. It is quite challenging taking a role in an experience we were not prepared for. But if you want to learn you will always find help.

First of all, try to get to know your children. Spend the time with them; together, separately with each of them. Allow them to experience themselves. To discover their competences, to allow them to live success, make mistakes, develop relationships, and have fun.

Then, connect with them! When I work with couples who need to connect and reconnect I advise the 5 Love Languages of Gary Chapman. It works for family, friends and children too. You would be probably surprised to see the benefit of showing love to your children the way they understand.

Rule No 8: Turn attention to yourself.

Because you ended up in a relationship with a narcissist, most probably you are a caring, giving, and empathetic person.

Be that person for yourself !

It might be healthy to focus on yourself for once; to understand your emotions, needs, boundaries. To care and love yourself with compassion.

To improve your well-being, to relax and re-center you can practice MINDFULNESS.

You might feel very lonely in this experience, therefore, it is very important to create your social structure. While the social structure has an important role, your friends and family do not necessarily need to understand your situation. People not professionally trained, even though they have a good intention, have a tendency to compare, judge, advise, project, etc.

Family and friends who have not been through a similar experience will not necessarily understand you.

That’s why my clients reach me to feel to be understood, to validate their feelings, to receive encouragement, hope, and know-how which can be very specific to each personal situation.

Rule No 9: Learn from the experience.

I would put the equivalent of "learning" to "look forward". Think of your future. Have dreams, plans; places you want to go, activities you want to do, people you want to meet. Look forward to something! Living for your dreams will allow you to go from one day to another. It will allow you to connect with your inner self and plan for the future.

Rule No 10: Let go.

Finally and the most difficult - LET GO.

Being in a relationship with a narcissist will always get to you. In the end, the most important thing is not that this happened to you, but what you do with that. And if there is one thing you can do for you to move forward is to "let go."

“Time makes you forget but letting go makes you heal.”

Not everyone knows that but letting go is a conscious process that consists of

  • denial;

  • anger;

  • bargaining;

  • depression;

  • acceptance.

The "letting go" allows you to process your emotions, integrate your co-parenting experience into your story and accept it.

It sounds quite easy, but there is some know-how behind it; I offer specific tools to my clients to process grief and let go. And I work with them until they recover and open up to love again.

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