'Selfish and controlling': Are you co-parenting with a narcissist?

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images 

Sarah* says she never really knew, or needed to know, what the term 'narcissist' really meant, until she separated from her husband Andrew*.

Although there hasn't been an official diagnosis, Sarah says 'blind Freddy' can see Andrew has all the classic tell-tale signs of a narcissist: a sense of entitlement, a grandiose sense of self-importance, a constant need for praise and admiration, exploiting others without guilt or shame, and frequent demeaning and bullying of others. 

Sarah says when they were married, she and Andrew rarely fought, but when he ended the marriage suddenly, he seemed to flip a switch overnight.

Now, co-parenting has become a nightmare, which has resulted in years of trauma and frustration for Sarah and her two primary school-aged daughters. 

"Andrew lacks empathy," says Sarah. "He struggles to see things from our kids' perspective and will not listen to, or acknowledge their worries, wants or concerns.

"He is selfish, controlling, an expert at gaslighting and twisting facts, and has an inflated ego. I would argue that we do not currently co-parent. Our relationship is fractured to the point that we cannot have a civilised conversation in any form."

Bullying began after separation

Sarah says Andrew, who moved interstate soon after their split, constantly bullies both her and the children to get his way.

On one occasion, early on, he demanded their daughters visit him for several weeks over Christmas, even though they were afraid of flying on their own and they didn't want to be away from their mother – who has been their sole caregiver since he moved away. 

Andrew insisted the girls would have a good time, and proceeded to send abusive text message and emails to Sarah, as well as refusing to take no for an answer from his daughters. 

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Sarah asked Andrew to return to their home town – where he also has family – to spend time with his daughters, but he refused, instead purchasing plane tickets without consultation and sending the flight details to Sarah, telling her he expected the girls to be on the plane. 

"In the end, I caved because I couldn't see any way out," says Sarah.

"Our youngest travelled to see him, but our eldest refused to go. He would not let our eldest spend the festive season with me though. If she couldn't be with him, he wanted her to be with a member of his family. I was not permitted to see my child at all over the festive season. 

"This caused extreme upset for all parties involved, especially my eldest daughter. It was a traumatic experience and I never want to experience that again."

Protecting the children

Sarah says she feels protective of her children with Andrew, like she needs to shield them from his behaviour where she can, because they're not comfortable speaking up for themselves with him.

"I strongly believe my children don't show their true selves to my ex," she says. "They are on their best behaviour and 'super happy' around him because they are desperate to please him. They both suffer from anxiety and appear to walk on eggshells around him for fear of disappointing him.

"He has an inability to listen to the kids' needs and continually insists on activities that he likes to do and that he wants the kids to do to 'push them out of their comfort zones'. The kids have their own personality, voice and opinions, but he is only interested in himself."

Sarah says it can be hard to know when to speak up to Andrew about her daughters, and when to leave it to them, because she can't fight him on everything.

"I choose the battles I fight for the kids," she says. "There are some that I feel I have to let go through to the keeper, which leaves the kids asking – why does Daddy always make the rules?"

Sarah says she worries about what the future holds, with well over a decade of exhausting and demoralising attempts at co-parenting still left to navigate.

"I fear that there is no light at the end of the tunnel, and I will be in constant battle with someone I once loved until our kids leave home," she says. 

"I fear that the kids will suffer from having two parents who can't co-parent effectively."

Are you co-parenting with a narcissist?

Recognising that you're dealing with a narcissist can be challenging, but forensic psychologist Leesa Morris, who often works with separated families in the family court, says your response afterwards to their behaviour can be a tell-tale sign. 

"A close approximation would be the same feeling you get after you've turned off the psycho-thriller/horror movie and are going to bed," she says. "You know there's no-one there logically, but there is still an uneasiness."

Not all narcissist are created equal though, according to Morris.

"Narcissism is on a spectrum, like anything else. We all have the capacity for a bit of this personality trait on any one day."

And Morris disputes the common misconception that most narcissists are men. 

"We all have capacity for narcissism," she says. "It's basically a defence mechanism for insecurity."

A different approach

Morris says that although co-operative co-parenting is the ideal situation for children living between two homes, if you're co-parenting with a narcissist who refuses to work together, there is another way.

"If you can't have a civil conversation with your ex about the children, then 'shared care' will not work," she says. 

"Parallel parenting is going to be your only option. This means accepting that you have no control over what happens when your children are with the other parent. Unless they are at significant risk of harm, the situation is what it is. 

"Your role as a parent is to help your children to verbalise their needs and bolster their self-esteem and emotional health while they are with you. These are important life skills anyway, as much as you'd like to not have to teach your children this, it will help them in the long run."

If you're hoping to find a way to help your narcissist ex see the error of their ways and change, for the sake of the children, Morris has some bad news.

"Don't try to change them and accept that they won't change!" she says. "Whether you're dealing with a narcissist or an angry ex, all of the difficult behaviour comes from fear and vulnerability. Remember that and don't abuse it — just as you do with your children.

There are ways to work with them, but it will take more than reassuring words. 

"They won't necessarily believe your reassuring comments about wanting the children to have a positive relationship with them, so build hard evidence" advises Morris. "Let them see you encouraging the relationship with the children, invite them to be responsible for the child's swimming lessons, etc."

Managing conflict with a narcissist

As for managing conflict, Morris suggests keeping your talk positive if you want an optimum outcome.

"If you need to provide feedback about a certain behaviour, focus on the strengths of the person and the needs of the child; for example, 'I've noticed that Johnny is having some tummy issues when he eats X, do you agree with a trial of us limiting that in his diet for a few weeks to see if it helps? Have you noticed anything else in him you think we should be monitoring/considering?'"

And when it comes to talking about their other parent's behaviour with your children, Morris suggests imagining how you would talk to your kids about anyone else who was behaving inappropriately. 

"You would talk to your child about the values in your family and the kind of person your child is (kind, thoughtful, considerate, etc.), and give them examples from TV programs/characters who embody those values," she says. 

"Then talk them through how they might feel comfortable responding – 'What Would Captain Underpants do?' 

"Give them the words/script to ask for what they need and tell how they feel – 'Mummy, I feel scared when you yell at me, I'm trying my best.'

"In short, focus on building your child's coping strategies and ability to make decisions about other people based on their own/family values."

As for protecting your own peace of mind as you manage the feelings of your ex and your children, Sarah says she's still working on not taking her ex's bait when he criticises or bullies her. 

"I think it's important to note that you shouldn't give narcs any energy," she says. "I keep forgetting this rule. My ex will attack me and twist facts and try to gaslight me. I should just ignore it, but sometimes I can't.

I want to set the record straight, but I'll never be able to set the record straight because he's never wrong and will never admit that he's acting like a total douche."