So you've decided to leave. Good for you! But now you are worried sick about what to do and how best to protect your children and yourself from continuing abuse and control. Here are some pointers to get started setting up the emotional and legal boundaries you will need in order to parallel parent with a narcissist or high conflict ex. For the sake of convenience, and because most narcissists are statistically male, I've written this article the way I'm living it. I'm a mother whose narcissistic ex is male. Obviously the same principles may apply regardless of gender.
Communication Boundaries for You:
Block your ex on all social media sites and set up an email account just for him. Make that one email address his ONLY means of communicating with you. Put him in an isolated corner of your electronic life and set out to be happy in your real every day life! Part of what is so yummy to a narcissist about FB and other similar instant chat platforms is that they show when you have seen a message. He will enjoy knowing how quickly you've responded to him. Take the fun away by switching to regular email exclusively.
Create boundaries for when the children are available by phone that are reasonable for your household and then follow your boundaries to the letter. Don't tell your ex about them, just make and stick with your phone boundaries for YOUR sanity and for the sake of harmony in your home.
Example phone boundaries:
1. No calls after 7 p.m. will be answered;
2. If we're busy we don't pick up;
3. If we're available, the kids can choose to answer or not;
4. The kids can call him whenever they want to as long as it's reasonable hours;
5. No vicarious phone discussions with your child as the mouthpiece between your ex and you;
6. Phone ringer is turned off at bed time...etc.
Don't force your kids to talk on the phone with him. Simply let them know he is calling/has called and then they can choose to return the call or not. Also, it may be a good idea to have a hard line at home for your kids to call their dad. You can then block your ex's number from texting/calling your personal cell phone. He will abuse you via text message, calling all hours of the night interrupting your life. Letting the landline be his sole means of talking with the kids will effectively limit his access to you.
Don't hesitate to say 'no' to your children about his triangulated requests, as your ex may make presumptive promises/plans that interfere with your own or your children's normal schedule. He may even try to get your goat by sending the the kids to you as messengers. He'll do this in order to force you into either being the 'bad guy' or capitulation. Forcing you into an uncomfortable position makes him feel powerful.
Example Triangulated Messages:
"Daddy said to ask you if he can take me to Party Town tomorrow! He says he's going to fill my socks with chocolate chips and give me a purple pony too!! Can I go?"
"Daddy's going to come over for dinner this weekend! He said so!"
"Dad's going to take me car shopping on Christmas Eve! You HAVE to let me!!"
If you can tell your kids 'no' without guilt when they want to overeat candy, watch too many movies, run outside under lightening, stay out late with Motorcycle Josh, or when they're simply making a bunch of gratuitous noise and driving you nuts, then you can tell them 'no' about doing extras with their dad when it's your time with them.
Good parents have clear boundaries, and we must sometimes disappoint our kids. It's not your job to filter your ex's behavior, nor is it your fault that he thinks nothing of using the children's feelings to manipulate you. What a shame, right? But it's not your deal--don't let him force you into owning his wrongs. That's his game and he's counting on you to buy into the lie that his parenting is your responsibility. Don't play.
You may be used to taking responsibility for others' feelings in classic co-dependent style. Those days are over. Boundaries are healthy, and no means no! Your kids might think you've gone nuts for a while. Let them. You have a right to create your schedule according to what you think is best for your household. Your telling the kids 'no' will not cause them irreparable damage.
It may actually cause your ex to lose credibility when he makes promises that can't come true. And if your children are upset and blame you for their disappointments, just know that it's not a "Who's Cooler" competition. Your job is to raise your children into healthy, happy adults who have clear boundaries and so you must model this for them. They will adjust to this new approach and it'll become the normal soon enough.
The kids should have a right to make plans with their dad when it's his visitation time. Don't try to interfere with this, but do make sure that the children (if they're old enough) have a handle on the visitation schedule. They may need calendars with "Dad days" marked down so that they can plan accordingly.
When your kids are excited about upcoming events with your ex, don't let it rankle you. Their relationship with your ex is going to be whatever it is, and it's good for them to be happy. Be happy for them...or at least refrain from rolling your eyes. Your children deserve to have their emotions accepted by you. This is part of their learning how it feels to have boundaries of their own, and is incredibly important to their emotional and cognitive development.
You may feel like 'small potatoes' compared with the Disneyland Daddy routine. You're not. Be GLAD that the kids can count on you so much that they can just take your presence for granted. That's what you want them to do because it means that they feel safe and secure in your love. Being a conscientious parent means seeing clearly how meeting your children's physical and emotional needs is far more important than any petty competition that your ex is trying to engage in with you.
Boundaries for Gifts and Possessions:
Your ex will attempt to buy the children's enthusiasm. It will work to a certain extent. So what?! If the kids have a special toy that they really want to take to your ex's with them, send it. It's theirs, isn't it? If they leave it over at their dad's and want it, they will have to remember to bring it home with them next time. If they bring home video games or other items from their dad's that you don't approve of, set up rules about them that fit within your normal parameters. Don't compete with your ex by relaxing household rules. Maintain your normal standards because they are what you believe is best for your kids. Their needs and healthy development must come first.
It is also common for young children in particular to come home wearing ill-fitting, dirty, or damaged clothing when you send them to their dad's wearing nicer clothing. Don't email your ex with complaints or demands that he return the good stuff. Let it go. Dress the children according to their needs, not according to your ex's pathological petty theft. This kind of passive aggressive b.s. is yet another attempt at reeling you in and engaging you in an emotional conflict. Don't take the bait! It'll only feed your ex's fire. It's not worth it, and your children will sense your vindictiveness if you stoop to your ex's tactics and send them in crummy stuff.
Your ex WILL start using the children to get to you as you disengage from him personally. Ignore it. Say NOTHING. Don't send him an impulsive and enraged email: "You shouldn't tell ____that you're going to pick her up on Monday before you even talk to me you stupid jerk!! You're making me the bad guy and hurting her feelings!!" If you respond to his using the children, you've fallen for his tricks and your kids are still sitting ducks. Say nothing. Not only will the eerie silence creep him out, but it will give you a sense of strength and separation that you need to fully disengage from him emotionally.
Let them love their father. Make it safe for them to be happy about him. Don't ask probing questions or give them reciprocal/opposite messages to take back to dad. Just quietly comfort them as-needed and with love in your heart, focusing on how much they mean to you right now. Don't let your relationship to your children devolve into a manifestation of how heartless he is and how angry you are about his abuse.
If you don't have a legal custody agreement, get one. Call a reputable lawyer immediately and file for it right away. Tell your lawyer exactly what you want, and provide all evidentiary documentation that will substantiate your position as primary custodian. Make sure your legal agreement includes as much detail as possible covering every conceivable contingency. This can be scary. Your ex may threaten to take the children, he may call Child Protective Services or go to any length to diminish your reputation as a parent. Be ready. Don't do drugs and keep your house clean.
Stay the course and focus on getting yourself emotionally and financially stable. Use the child support amount as leverage to gain primary custody of the children. The narcissist will usually be highly motivated by greed, so if it means accepting a few hundred bucks less/month but winning primary custody--it's worth it. Trust me. You don't want to be legally beholden unto a narcissistic ex husband through your precious children. You want what is called "Tie Breaker Clause". This basically means that you get to call the shots when you have primary custody.
And keep in mind that civil court Judges have seen it ALL before. They don't care for mud-slinging and most care a great deal about the well-being of children. In civil court, the PREPONDERANCE of documentary evidence wins the day. So let your ex babble on about purported infidelity, undiagnosed mental disorders, unproven allegations of child abuse etc. while you, cool and calm, have your lawyer submit actual documentary evidence of your fitness as primary custodian. Don't wear sexy clothes to court. Dress like you're going to a job interview. Your lawyer will know what kinds of documents are best. Dial down the drama as much as possible!
If you already have a legal custody agreement in place, it may still be important to document his abuses. SAY NOTHING to your ex about his machinations and their negative effects on the kids, but record and/or keep a diary of these abuses and use them in court. You'll thank your lucky stars you did! Don't let the children know that you're keeping tabs on dad, though. Just quietly collect the evidence you'll need to remain firmly established as the primary custodian with Tie-Breaker clause and Final Say, and live life as usual.
Oh--and once you have a legal agreement in place, expect him to push against it. Let him walk all over the judge's decree for 6 months--don't sue him at the first hint that he's stepping out of line. Don't engage in a dispute, and don't tell him that you'll sue him for contempt if he doesn't clean up his act. Allow him to establish a nice, redundant pattern of thumbing his nose at the judge's orders while you gather evidence. Print things out and back up your digital files. This should be easy since every correspondence is going to be in writing. You may want to tell him in writing and when you absolutely must that you don't want to modify visitation in any way; you just want to stick with your custody agreement.
Getting the Narcissist to Leave You Alone:
It is VERY important, however, not to engage in any back-and-forth arguments with your ex. Remember that the only reason he's using the children to manipulate you is because it's a sure thing. It probably used to get a HUGE rise out of you when he'd call your motherhood into question! Expect him to be ruthless and horrid. But keep in mind that the only reason he'll KEEP using the kids is because it keeps working. Since you want him to STOP using the children, you've got to stop giving him the feedback he is after. This takes time. Stay the course and have faith. He'll keep trying the same old tactics, but it'll get easier to spot them for you as you practice giving him zero feedback.
Your ex is a narcissist and can't empathize. He'll use the children BECAUSE they're the most important thing in the world to you. He'll hurt them and disappoint them and then he'll blame you for it. Ignore that. Don't let his efforts of triangulating through the children pay off by reacting. It'll sting horribly and feel awful at first. You'll want to let your ex have a piece of your mind! Don't do it. Don't feed him and keep him focused on using the children to bait you.
You can't protect the kids from the fact that their father is a narcissist. Eventually they'll realize that he's full of it and they'll make their own way down their own paths of recovery and healing. You can help them with your love, but you shouldn't perpetuate his painful manipulations by relaxing your boundaries. Saying 'yes' to spare the kids in the short run will be tempting. Don't give in.
You may say to yourself, "Well, it really isn't THAT big of a deal to drive both ways...maybe I'm being unreasonable..." You're not being unreasonable! You were probably taught as a child that having a boundary was selfish. It's not selfish, it's not mean. Stick to your guns! because in the long run, it'll only make things worse and deepen his hold over you all if your boundaries remain permeable.
Comfort your children normally when your ex abuses/disappoints them and then let the subject change ASAP. Think of it like a scrape on the knee. We hug them and kiss them, but we don't keep the focus on the injury any longer than we know it's really hurting them. We encourage them to get back to playing as soon as they can. This is the same principal.
The kids' feelings will get hurt, and then they'll feel better. Get them back to feeling better as quickly as possible and without judgement or irritation. Take one day at a time with them, and do the best you can in the moment.
*Don't take responsibility for the narcissist's relationship with his children.* That is what we did when we were married--we took responsibility for EVERYTHING. It was toxic and draining and that is why we left. Stop participating in that painful dynamic right away. Your ex will try to make his relationship w/ the kids about you--he'll claim it's your responsibility to 'facilitate' (filter) his relationship with the children, to change your schedule to work with his more important one, to do extra driving for the kids' sake, to communicate with him more than you wish for the purpose of maintaining 'amicable parental relations' etc. etc..
All are attempts to suck you in. See through it and don't do it! His relationship with his children is NOT yours to care for. It's his job to nurture them as a father and, whether you like the way he does it or not, it always will be. Here's a quick list of what is his:
1. It's HIS job to make the children WANT to talk with him on the phone, not yours;
2. It's HIS job to honor his agreements to the children, and HIS fault when he doesn't...EVEN IF YOU HAD TO BE THE ONE TO TELL THE KIDS 'NO';
3. It's HIS problem if he doesn't like the way you run your household--you don't have to explain or defend yourself to him for any reason;
4. It's HIS responsibility to provide whatever financial support he's required to for the children, even if you're better off than he is;
5. It's HIS loss that you've left! It's not your job to comfort him--even if he threatens to harm himself. Call the police if any sort of violence or self-harm is threatened by your ex and let HIM sort it out.
Step away from the old dynamic and keep calm. Adhere to your boundaries, continuing to insist on written correspondence only. Respond to his emails when you feel like it, waiting as long as you can before sending your responses in order to slow the pace of exchanges--days if possible. This will go far in starving him out of your energy. He will sling mud, send words of undying love, syrupy sweet apologies, lies, accusations, woes and worries, pictures of his dick, whatever!! Ignore it all. See it for what it is: just another weird attempt to keep you under his thumb emotionally.
When you absolutely must see him in person, consider dressing boringly without make up--don't give in to the vengeful temptation to taunt him with your beauty. Make yourself boring snoring boring for the kids sake. If he loses interest in you, he's unlikely to use them to get to you.
Don't look him in the eye--let your attention seem to drift as though he's not important--check your watch, track a bird in the sky.. Don't smile, don't cry. GIVE HIM NOTHING. And don't let him inside your house! Boundaries boundaries boundaries. Lock your car, your doors and windows at night. This is what I've had to do--it took a LONG time to learn and implement all of this!
Allow for at least 6 months of his abusive and disruptive behaviors to transpire. Assuming that he hasn't lost interest in you and the children by that point, you may sue him for contempt and win. Make sure he pays your legal fees! Seek to make the punishment for going against the divorce/custody decree sting FINANCIALLY. This most unsavory of consequences for trampling your boundaries, combined with how UNIFORMLY BORING you've become, will make you and your children very unattractive targets. He may not disappear entirely from your life, but if it's no longer any fun at all, he will eventually leave you alone for the most part.