How Do You Co-parent with a Narcissistic Ex?

Shannon Ashley

You don’t (but that’s not necessarily a bad thing). by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

“I have the best dad in the world,” my daughter told me last week. I smiled at her. “But Bethany and her sister said that they have the best dad,” she added.

“It sounds like they love their dad, just like you love yours,” I replied.

“Yeah,” she agreed. “I love my whole family!”

My soon-to-be six year old daughter doesn’t know that she actually has a pretty crappy and disengaged dad, and it’s not my job to tell her. And while I’m used to her telling me that I’m the best mama in the world or that her Nana is the best one in the world, I was a (just a tad) surprised to hear her say that about her dad.

But then I was glad.

For a long time, I was so scared about my daughter being wounded from the start by her father. In that moment I was grateful to hear that she’s progressing like any other typical kid.

She loves her family, and she feels loved by her family. That is the most age-appropriate outcome right now.

You wouldn’t know it from the “best Dad” statement, but our situation is complicated.

My daughter’s dad is not what you would call engaged. I gave birth in a Catholic midwestern hospital where they “somehow” omitted his name from the birth certificate despite the fact we filled it all out together. So, I wound up giving her her dad’s last name, yet he has no legal paternity since he’s not on the birth certificate.

Despite my previous prodding, he has never filed for paternity to make the correction. He also demanded that I not go through the courts. So, there’s no court order for child support or visitation.

When I write about the challenges with my ex, readers who don’t understand our situation often suggest that I am alienating my daughter from her dad. I suspect they are projecting from their own experiences, which are, of course, valid but different.

When I talk about how she routinely declines to go over to his house because she doesn’t feel at home there, they assume that I’m leading my daughter to feel that way. Or badmouthing her dad.

But my daughter’s thoughts and feelings are her own and I assume that they must not know what it’s like to deal with a narcissist.

Nobody can make a narcissistic parent actually parent.

People say you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink, and that’s how it is with ex-partners who share a child. In the past, I have tried to make my ex care. It was exhausting, however, and it only led to more fighting between us.

As it stands, I make our daughter available to him and do not deprive him of access to her, but I also do not cater to him. And I don’t force our daughter to go to his house against her will.

If she decides on a Thursday that she does want to spend a couple of nights at her dad’s house, I do insist that we don’t cancel on her dad on Friday if she changes her mind. But I also encourage her to be open and honest if she wants to leave so she doesn’t feel stuck.

Emotionally, she needs more than her dad seems able to give. Yet she also needs to learn how to approach her dad and speak up for herself with him.

We’re lucky, I think, because my ex’s narcissism is much more selfish than manipulative. Personally, I find it easier to deal with the disengaged narcissist than the overbearing control freak one. But I also understand that my relationship with my ex has directly influenced his parenting style.

There was a brief period where he did attempt to control everything, and for a moment, it was pretty scary. He changed his tune, however, as soon as I quit trying to coparent with him and firmly took the reins as the legal parent.

I acted upon instinct to get out of a toxic relationship with her dad, but as it turns out, the way I deal with him is also recommended by professionals.

You can’t coparent with a narcissist.

Their selfishness makes such a partnership impossible. The sooner you accept that you can’t coparent together, the sooner you quit believing in harmful fairytales.

Recently, a reader mentioned that they feel bad for my daughter and I realized that I don’t. Not anymore.

Heck, I used to feel bad for my kid, and I used to feel awful about giving her a disengaged dad. It felt bad seeing him consistently put himself first above her needs.

My feelings changed, however, when I realized that coparenting was impossible. I began to take my power back to detach from the toxic relationship that he and I had. See, in those early days, I thought we were supposed to coparent. But I couldn’t figure out how to coparent with such a narcissistic personality. There was no appealing to his kindness or some soft side, obviously. Anytime I tried to explain what our daughter needed from him, it started a fight.

It wasn’t until I quit trying to coparent at all that I finally realized we (my daughter and I) were going to be just fine.

The less contact, the better.

I have found that constant contact with a narcissist typically keeps the toxic dynamic going strong. Constant contact with my ex meant that I was constantly hoping he would suddenly change his ways and be the supportive coparent I needed him to be.

It was naive.

The more contact we had, the more we fought. And the more it felt like he got away with manipulating me. So, at first, I was afraid that having too little contact with my daughter’s dad would hurt her, but I have found the opposite to be true.

Through less contact, I was able to maintain better boundaries. My ex quickly learned that he could no longer manipulate me, and he apparently lost interest in trying.

I have never met a narcissist who likes to lose. If they can’t manipulate or scare you with relative ease, they will eventually quit trying.

Less contact has worked wonders for us. I have learned how to send photos without commentary. He rarely asks to have her over, but when he does, we no longer argue if her answer is no. He’s also learned to ask when her half siblings will be there so she’s more inclined to say yes.

Don’t be baited into a fight.

This is the whole “high road” thing. Raising your voice or telling the narcissist that they are wrong about something will only result in a fight that leads to nowhere good.

Do your best to stay calm and collected no matter how much they get on your nerves. Many narcissists love drama, but you don’t have to give it to them.

Rather than fighting (which often gives them the attention they crave), practice being firm with your boundaries. My daughter’s dad isn’t moved by requests for empathy or compassion--he sees those things as manipulation. But he is quick to exit a situation when he’s not getting the attention, admiration, or fear he wants.

If he’s upset that his daughter doesn’t want to see him, rather than pointing out to him that he needs to make more of an effort for her (which he’ll perceive as criticism), I try to be kind and encouraging:

“Hey, she had a lot of fun when you took her to the pet shop/mall/etc. Maybe you could offer to do something like that again.”

When he makes an excuse about why he can’t do those things, I let it go.

Never criticize the narcissist in front of your child.

As I’ve said, it’s not my job to inform our child that her dad can be a real jerk. His selfishness always seems to win out, even when he thinks he’s making enormous sacrifices.

Out kid started school this year and hasn’t been to one of her events. He doesn’t pitch in with anything “extra” like soccer or ballet. I plan her birthday parties alone because he’d rather plan his own birthday or an annual vacation without his kids.

None of this stuff needs to be pointed out to our daughter. For now, she’s young enough that it doesn’t really register. I go to her school events. And I often invite her dad’s mom to go with me, since she will actually attend.

Eventually, my kid is going to be old enough to wonder why her dad isn’t more involved. She might have very big feelings about his unwillingness to put himself out for her.

At that point, it will be my job to help her manage her emotions. It’s important that she is allowed to form her own opinions and feel her own feelings.

Forget about reasoning with a narcissist.

Self-preservation remains at the top of my ex’s list. His pleasure above parenting. It turns out that he and I have completely different values about parenthood and life.

I have learned that we will typically not see eye to eye. The best I can hope for is to keep things civil and distant.

Attempting to reason with a narcissist is at best like talking to a brick wall and at worst giving them an inside look at your vulnerabilities. It’s like negotiating with a terrorist--they will hit you wherever it hurts if they have an opening.

Learn how to appreciate your freedom from the narcissist.

It’s amazing what happens once you successfully detach from a narcissist. Sure, it’s not easy. You might have to admit to yourself that you’re much more addicted to this person than you previously thought.

But when you finally disengage from your narcissist and they no longer want to lock horns with you? Phew, the freedom is going to be sweet.

You have to quit mourning for the partnership you think you lost. It was never going to exist. For a narcissist, you and your child(ren) are more pawns than people. But the good news is that you don’t have to play any longer.

Enjoy the freedom of living your own life and making your own choices. The perk of having a largely uninvolved ex for my daughter’s dad is that I now get to make the decisions without a fight.

Let go of the need to be right, or to have the last word.

For an especially manipulative narcissist, it’s fun to see your big reactions. They want to see you squirm like a worm on a hook. Don’t give them that satisfaction.

Life becomes much more simple when you focus on living well and maintaining a healthy state of mind. That means you quit worrying about what everyone else is saying or doing. Especially your narcissistic ex. You focus instead upon your reactions and anything else you can actually control.

You’ve got to come to terms with the reality that your difficult ex is not under your control. You don’t need to prove yourself. You don’t need the last word.

None of this will be easy, but it will be so much easier than fighting.

Nobody likes to admit they were a bad picker when it comes to love. Nobody is happy to admit to themselves that their child’s other parent is never going to be what their kid really needs.

It’s sad and you are allowed to be sad about it. You are allowed to grieve for the relationship you thought you had.

Eventually though, you’ll have to face reality and deal with the relationship you’ve got. Having a lifelong connection to a narcissist because you share a child isn’t fun. Thankfully, it’s also not the end of the world.

The best thing you can do for yourself and your child is to learn how to manage a very unfortunate situation in a healthy way.

I used to feel bad about our situation, but now I feel strong.

In our case, I’ve discovered that my ex’s brand of selfishness is inherently lazy. Narcissists bully people around when they can. They expect you to be an easy mark.

When my ex lost interest in bullying me, he naturally spent less time with our daughter, and I became more confident in my choices as a single mom. I used to be so frightened about parenting alone, pushing him away, or punishing our child.

It took time, but I finally realized that our daughter is going to thrive not because her dad is always around but because I’ve shown her how to manage her challenges in life. In doing so, I get to discover that we’re both much stronger than I knew.

These days, my biggest fear is that I would die prematurely and that my ex would have to raise her. To be honest, I’m contemplating choosing another guardian my daughter in the event of my death, just in case.

Not every parent will have that same luxury. As it turns out, I’m actually lucky because her dad has been so lazy about parenting.

Of course, over the years, his actions are going to tell her who he is. And that laziness and inability to show empathy can bring a lot of pain. But my job is to raise her well and avoid feeding into his drama.

My job is make sure that he and I never engage in a toxic relationship together again. Somehow, that makes me feel strong, not weak. Despite my poor decisions in the past, I have a brighter future because I’ve learned from my mistakes.

And while there’s no way to coparent with a narcissist, I’ve found that it’s still possible to take control and be the type of parent you wish to be.

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Single mama, full-time writer, ex-vangelical. It's not about being flawless, it's about being honest. I cover real-life issues, like family, parenting, relationships, and spiritual abuse.

Cleveland, TN

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