In order to extricate yourself from the narcissistic dynamic, it is necessary to be aware of the fact that you’re in a relationship with someone who lives in a reality very different from your own. True narcissism is a mental disorder that causes a pattern of painful disruption in the lives of both the narcissist and the people around them—particularly their partners and children. Moreover, the narcissist is usually unaware of their pathology and is most apt to blame others for the discord in their lives.
Firstly, I can’t stress enough how important it is to get informed on exactly what narcissism is and how it manifests within relationships. If you understand what their underlying motives are, then their abuse becomes a lot less painful. Freeing yourself from the dynamic is a big undertaking and it can seem scary when you’re left down-trodden and emotionally depleted by the abuse. But it’s a meaningful journey that you can make at your own pace. Here are some fast points of reference that may help you to get started piecing together what is happening to you: Co Parenting with a Narcissist Part 1: What is Narcissism
Once you’ve gotten yourself clear about what your narcissist’s motives and methods are, you’re ready to extricate yourself from the old dynamic. You’ll begin to see through their gas-lighting, flattery, and other abusive tactics ever more clearly as you field each incident with new awareness. The narcissist will most likely persist in engaging you in emotional conflicts because they will continue to see you as a hostile enemy, a threat to their self-construct, or a potential source of narcissistic supply. Your knowledge of their real selves, the one beneath the fragile false self, is very threatening to them. They will relentlessly find fault with you at every turn! Be ready.
At this stage of your emotional extrication, it is incredibly helpful for you to have a special person to talk to honestly about your observations. You will feel SO good to finally have someone you trust validate your perceptions of the abuse you’ve been suffering. Your confidante will help to keep you grounded in your own perceptions, greatly lessening the impact of the narcissist’s continuing emotional abuse. After all, the narcissist has the inside scoop on what hurts our feelings most because we’ve probably shared with them our deepest insecurities.
Even though you may not be in a partnership with them anymore, you will still probably be triggered (though to an increasingly lesser degree as you learn and practice at disengaging) when they try to draw you back into the fray. If you’re off-balance, tired, are feeling insecure or overwhelmed it will be harder to resist the old habit of buying into what the narcissist tells you about yourself. But if you take a step back and remember what’s really happening to you, you’ll find it starts to require less and less of your time to process the feelings and go on with your day. The abuse becomes an annoyance where it used to feel like a huge earth-shattering disaster.
1. When a problem presents, clearly identify it. By staying focused on what the problem is as you see it, you render the manipulative distraction of gas-lighting ineffective.
2. Affirm your handle on the real problem by journaling or talking it through with your special person. “I know that the issue isn’t that I’m childish or that I’m misappropriating the child support, the real problem is etc…”
3. Determine whether you can let the problem go in order to minimize your interactions with the narcissist. Less is more when it comes to having to deal with this person! Example: Even though I know it’s not true, I don’t correct the children when they say things like, “Daddy can’t come see us today because he’s working.” My ex husband lying to them about an afternoon visit is not a problem I want to address with them because it might cause the children more harm than good, and even if I confront their father with a passionate bid for parental honesty I can’t stop my ex from deceiving the kids when it suits him. His deception is something they’re going to have to hash out together, and when that day comes I’ll be standing by with a whole lot of understanding to share!
4. If you’ve thought it over and can’t let the problem go, stop asking the narcissist for help with it. Even if you’re using polite words or air-tight documentary proof to back it up that your complaint is justified, it will not matter to them. They will only get nastier even if you’re really nice about it because your complaints are justified.
5. Devise a plan of assertive action to solve the problem that does not necessarily require their cooperation. For me, I filed a lawsuit.
6. Have a legally binding custody and child support agreement in place. Even if you find legalities and state authority distasteful, a binding agreement is empowering if it serves to regulate the abusive behavior of the narcissist, and can ultimately serve the best interest of your children—which is, along with your own recovery, the most important aspect of “Project Emotional Disengagement.” Having an actual written contract to refer to feels very grounding compared with being jerked around according to your ex’s mood!
7. You should also look up the “Tie-Breaker Clause” for your state and move heaven and earth to obtain it in your legal custody document. If you are awarded the “Tie-Breaker Clause”, it will save you a WORLD of frustration because it would mean that after discussing major decisions with the other parent, you have the final say. This is probably wise both because it will help you to extricate yourself from the narcissistic power struggle and because you’re more motivated to make empathetic choices for your children than your ex. The narcissist parent will tend not to do the right thing just because it’s good for the kids unless there’s some personal gain involved. You’re probably very nurturing and will go to any amount of trouble to give your kids a better shot at being whole and happy adults, so you would be the better choice for having final say.
8. Conduct all correspondence with the other parent in writing. It may trigger you less than their voice and/or facial expressions to deal with them via email. Text is also easier to share with your special support person when you’re dealing with gas-lighting. Moreover, having things written out helps you to identify logical inconsistencies and abuse when you can reread correspondences an digest them at your own pace. This allows your mind to regulate your emotional responses and it keeps your head above the drama. Written correspondence is also admissible as evidence in court and you’ll be glad to have it if you ever need it. And last but not least: the children will not overhear an email.
9. Ignore thinly-veiled criticisms, accusations, and deflections on the part of the narcissist. Don’t bother trying to defend your opinions, your character, perceptions, or position to the narcissist. Their accusations and insults are meaningless garbage that the narcissist makes up to manipulate you emotionally. Engaging a narcissist in a back-and-forth dialogue about who’s right or wrong is an exercise in tortuous futility, and it will keep you functioning under the umbrella of the old dynamic. The narcissist’s opinion of you is irrelevant. Ignore personal opinions and only address practical co-parenting issues like financial support, scheduling visitation, vacations, illnesses, education, etc.
10. Don’t waste too much time trying to recruit mutual friends or family members to turn against the narcissist and side with you. Share mindfully, and your real friends will see what’s really going on and will naturally be there for you. It’s easier just to go for no contact with the folks who defend the narcissist’s abuse or who buy into the narcissist’s smear campaign against you. What you need is support from people who understand and distance from the trappings of abuse, not the added stress of trying to convince others of your innocence. It may be really upsetting to let other peoples’ misinformed opinions go, but it’s not worth the effort. Some friends will probably be lost…but how good for you were they really if they’d turn against you based on gossip?
11. Take regular breaks from working on the problem. Take a walk with the children, make veggie soup, macramé a new anklet. Breathe deeply and try to stay connected with your own core self! When you’re in the throes of getting out of the old and into the new dynamic, you can lose balance pretty easily. It’s up to you to make sure that your children’s main squeeze (yup, that would be you) stays healthy. Love that beautiful self of yours!
Figuring out when to act and when to let go out of love and let the children have their own unique experience with the other parent is TOUGH! It may be that having the contrast of narcissism (really icky vibes) and loving respect (warm and safe yummy fuzzies) serves to inspire insight beyond the norm for your kids. For all we know, the challenge will give them an emotional vocabulary so fluent and wise that they are able to help others in a big way!
So some of the crap they may have to deal with from the other parent could be a vital point of comparison for them. Just try to remember that your relationship with your children is like a lifeline to reality for them. You’re the nearest and dearest—a major player in their life-stories—and your influence is strong. You may, in fact, be one of the only adults they spend time with who are able to model for them a healthy emotional attachment. You teach them every day to respond empathetically to others by having clear boundaries of your own and consistently respecting theirs.
If you’re overly focused on protecting them from potential psychological damage due to the influence of the other parent, if you’re worriedly monitoring their behavior for signs that they’re turning into narcissists too and overcompensating, or any number of understandable anxieties we slip into as parents, you’ll be less effective as a positive force in your own right. I call it getting out of someone else’s plate…and our kids are ‘someone’ too. I believe that having a loving, mutually respectful, healthily attached relationship with your children where boundaries are taken seriously is FAR more protective in the long run than short-term interventions or preventive measures.
You’re there for them, and that matters big. The other parent also matters to them, but children grow up and will soon enough outstrip the emotional capacity of their narcissistic parent. They will eventually be able to understand their parents' limitations. You will observe that if a parenting duty is not fun, affords no supply, or is inconvenient for the narcissist, they will usually try to avoid it when there’s no audience to praise them for their forbearance.
This reality is hard on the children and it can be really tough for you to sit by and just watch. You will probably feel protective and wonder whether it’s right to intervene. You might (for example) want to grab the phone away from them when you know they’re being lectured by the other parent and you can see them kind of deflating…and sometimes you very well should—but other times you probably shouldn’t!
***This is a common sense caveat: certainly intervene when necessary to protect your children from actual abuse—just be sure that you’re respecting your child’s right to love the other parent. You’re really giving the children a gift when you lay off a little to let them gather their own experiences without you. They’ll probably figure things about you too that you didn’t realize just like we’ve done with our own mothers. We’re only human after all! Yet you’ll have created a safe place for them while they’re growing up if you respect your child’s emotional rights as an individual—the space of respect you create may even be the only safety they have!
But the truth is, when it comes to safe places, one is enough. Parenting is intricate and challenging even without narcissism in the mix. So try your best and don’t be too hard on yourself when you get partially sucked in, just get back on track as soon as possible.
And lastly, remember that if you’re doing it right, you’re definitely going to regularly wonder whether you’re doing it right.