Truth is that you can’t co-parent with a narcissist. But that would be a ridiculously short post so instead we are going to look at some practical steps you can take to make the fact that you have a narcissistic ex a little bit easier for you and the children.
I have chosen to write this post about female narcissists. Mainly because it is a hugely under talked about subject but one that is a very real problem. Almost all my clients have identified that their mothers were narcissistic and that it has had huge implications for them growing up and into adulthood. That means that there are a lot of fathers out there attempting to co-parent with a narcissist.
Whilst I appreciate that there are plenty of narcissistic fathers out there as well, I feel that there is already a plethora of information out there for mums (Scary Mommy and The Good Men Project have great articles on this).
Female narcissists can cause just as much damage to their children but they have the added weight of societal views about mothers and domestic abuse on their side. Although there has been a lot of work done in the past decade about father’s rights and equal parenting, the truth is that most people still assume that mothers are the primary caregivers. Whilst I am not wishing to write off the important role of mothers or deny that many more women than men are primary caregivers, I do think that parenting roles have changed and we now have legislation which reflects that in some measure (parental leave for new fathers for example) so it’s important we also talk about the darker side of females as well.
There is lots spoken about toxic masculinity but toxic femininity and toxic females exist too. I think it is very dangerous to label one sex all good and the other all bad. In fact that kind of black and white thinking is a trait of narcissism. I prefer to believe that we are all capable of good and bad acts, just as we are all capable of being victim or abuser. Without going too much into a nature nurture debate, science has long since demonstrated that our behaviours are as much, if not more, the result of our experiences than our biology. In other words, what we have between our legs does not dictate who we are and how we behave. This is where the importance of nurture, and in particular parenting, becomes even more obvious.
But firstly, let’s get to know what we are dealing with.
Thought Catalog have written a really great piece on female narcissists so I am going to borrow their five characteristics of a female narcissist:
- A sadistic sense of pleasure at someone else’s pain.
Perhaps one of the most understated qualities of the female malignant narcissist is the pleasure and joy she takes in bringing down others. She enjoys making covert jabs and watching gleefully as the formerly confident victim looks crestfallen, shocked and offended. She displays a lack of empathy when the conversation turns to more serious emotional matters, engaging in shallow responses or cruel reprimands that invalidate her victim’s reality.
She is ruthless in her ability to first idealise, then devalue and discard her victims without a second thought. She cannot engage in healthy, emotionally fulfilling relationships, so she enjoys sabotaging the relationships and friendships of others for her own personal entertainment.
- An insatiable sense of competitiveness, due to pathological envy and the need to be the centre of attention.
They have to win. At all costs. They will either be overt and play the hero. Or covert and present as a fragile victim, utilising all her womanly wiles to win over sympathy in order to achieve her goal. Usually of putting someone else down or punishing them.
As psychotherapist Christine Louis de Canonville puts it, “When it comes to envy, there is no one more envious than the narcissistic woman.”
- She sabotages your friendships and relationships, stirring chaos within social groups.
The female narcissist may use her affiliation with her target to gain access to resources or status, but as soon as the idealisation phase is over, the devaluation and discard follows. She then engages in rumour-mongering, smear campaigns and creates ‘triangles’ where she feeds others false or humiliating information about the victim. She may pit her friends against each other by claiming that they are gossiping about one another, when in fact, it is her falsehoods that are actually manufacturing conflict within the group. By subjecting her victims to covert and overt put-downs, she is able to then confirm her own false sense of superiority.
You are probably dealing with a female narcissist or sociopath if:
- You notice an uncomfortable silence, a covert exchange of looks or odd energy when you enter the room.
- You were initially idealised, sweet-talked, admired, praised and shown off at the beginning of the relationship. You might have found yourself sharing your most intimate secrets early on, due to her disarmingly sweet and trustworthy demeanour. Later, you find your deepest secrets being spoken about with derision amongst friends or family or rumours based on vulnerabilities and fears you confided in them about. You also notice a chilling smugness when they talk down to you or as she devalues your accomplishments.
- You bear witness to the narcissist frequently speaking ill of others in an excessively contemptuous tone, while appearing friendly and engaging with them in public. This is evidence of her duplicity and ability to deceive. An authentic person might vent about others occasionally in the event of stress or conflict, but would not engage in excessive gossip or indiscriminate character assassination. He or she would be more likely to cut ties with those they thought were toxic or address it to them directly rather than bashing them unnecessarily. Make no mistake, the way they’re speaking about others is the way they’ll eventually speak about you.
- She has an obsession with her appearance as well as a high level of materialism and superficiality.
Female narcissists fit the ‘femme fatale’ stereotype quite well. Many of them are conventionally attractive and use their sexuality to their advantage. Since females in our society are also socialised to objectify themselves, the female narcissist follows this social norm to use whatever physical assets she has to assert her power.
Hammond (2015) also observes female narcissists tend to excessively spend money. This may result in a highly materialistic female narcissist who enjoys adorning herself with the best designer clothing, indulging in luxuries at the expense of her loved ones or allowing herself to be excessively catered to by a wealthy significant other. Female narcissists can also accumulate their own wealth and use it as an indication of her superiority as well.
- A blatant disregard for the boundaries of intimate relationships, including her own.
In keeping with typical narcissistic behavior regardless of gender, the female narcissist is likely to have a harem of admirers – consisting of exes that never seem to go away, admirers who always seem to lurk in the background and complete strangers she ensnares into her web to evoke jealousy in her romantic partner. She frequently creates love triangles with her significant other and other males (or females, depending on her sexual orientation). She rejoices in male attention and boasts about being the object of desire. She engages in emotional and/or physical infidelity, usually without remorse and with plenty of gaslighting and deception directed at her partner, who usually dotes on her and spoils her, unaware of the extent of her disloyalty.
Delightful folks aren’t they!
If you are having to co-parent with one though, you have experienced all of this. You understand their manipulative ways and have seen first hand how they can cut people off in a truly heartless manner. You got out of that drama. But your kids can’t do that. And so you have to find a way to deal with them.
13 Ways To Co-Parent With A Narcissist
- Accept that you can’t co-parent with them
Co-parenting implies co-operation, communication and collaboration. Not going to happen. They have to be seen as superior so they will make all decisions, withhold information and keep you shut out. Parents evenings will be separate, and no doubt she will have told the school that she doesn’t feel safe being around you. You won’t find out if they are ill unless of course it is as an excuse to stop contact.
We were regularly told the children were ill so couldn’t come. In fact it happened so often I questioned whether she was poisoning them!
It also requires both parties to see the other as valid and relevant. The narcissist does not see you as valid or relevant. You are the proverbial shit on their shoe that they want to get rid of. Your opinion doesn’t count as you don’t count.
The narcissist went out and pierced the baby’s (and I do mean baby, they were only about a year old) despite the dad voicing that he didn’t want them to have their ears pierced because it was cruel. Didn’t matter. It was what she wanted.
- Be realistic with your expectations
Your ex is not going to change. She has developed a very sophisticated system for how she deals with people and in particular people who she deems below her or of no use to her. She simply cuts them off. This works for her so she has no motivation to change.
The frustration at wanting her to be different lead to arguments between me and my partner and actually, in hindsight cost us our relationship because I was so fixated on her.
However, this does not mean that your situation cannot change. You have full control over yourself and how you respond to what is going on. When she attempts to bait you into an argument in front of witnesses so she can “prove” what a monster you are, you can choose whether or not to bite. Learning how to manage your own responses takes time and awareness of what your triggers are though so you must be prepared to do the work. Once you grasp it though, your ex has no power over you which right royally pisses them off.
Whenever she would confront me to try to intimidate me, I would always be super kind and smile. I wanted to growl really but being able to control my own response really irritated her. And that, in all honesty, bought me some joy.
- Understand that everything is about control and punishment
You are child focused. You always have been. You didn’t want to argue in front of the kids and so you let things slide. You let her get her own way so as not to cause distress to the children. She on the other hand used that to control you and things are no different now. She may act like she is mother of the year but the truth is everything is about her agenda.
Again, you need to accept that this is who she is. No amount of reason or logic or pulling at her heart strings is going to get her to put the children first. She knows full well that controlling your access and therefore your relationship with your children is the best way to punish you for whatever wrong she believes you have committed. When you stop wasting your energy on trying to get her to understand, you can begin to make decisions and take action on getting what you want.
- Go direct to the source
The ex won’t share any information with you about your children and if you ask her, you may find yourself slapped with a non-molestation order. Who knew that wanting to find out about your own children (which you have a legal right to) was a crime? Ironic right. They are breaking the law in preventing you from having your parental rights but you get labelled the criminal for wanting to exercise them.
I strongly suggest you speak direct to the source (GP, school, nursery etc) and ask them to copy you in on all correspondence. Take a copy of the court order if you have one which will show there are no restrictions in you having access to this information. I also recommend communicating by email in the first instance so that you have a paper trail and you can’t get accused of being a bully. Most of the people involved in your children’s lives have been fed the same lines about you being controlling, aggressive, abusive and unsafe. I have seen it happen time and time again when father’s go into the school to ask for up to date records for their children, they are stonewalled by people who have believed the lies which is frustrating and so they exert their rights a bit more forcefully and before you know it, you have another person and a professional backing up mum’s side of the story. Email or old fashioned snail mail is the best way to avoid this.
- Everything you say, can and will be used as evidence against you
This is one of the hardest truths to accept but nevertheless it is true. You are not an equal parent. The ex has successfully managed to completely distort your relationship with your children. In two ways. Firstly, she will rule by fear and so they know who to obey and who is in charge. Just as you did in the relationship. They have seen the consequences of disagreeing with her and so they go along with everything she says. This means they have to treat you with the same disrespect and contempt as she does. They don’t believe it but when you practice something enough times it becomes a habit. This leads to the second way she distorts the relationship which is by taking away any parental power you have to discipline your child. So when they are being disrespectful to you, you have every right to tell them they are not allowed to talk to you that way. You wouldn’t accept it from anyone else so why from your children. What your ex then does is illicit that criticism from the children and convince them that you are abusive because of how you spoke to them. “He used to speak to me the same way, you poor thing. What a monster he is!” It makes it almost impossible for you to parent at all. If you want to understand more about this dynamic I recommend grabbing a copy of our free ebook The Painful Truth About Narcissistic Families.
However, the important thing to remember is that a parent is many things. The most important being the one person who unconditionally loves their children, no matter what they do and so even if they do disrespect you and reject you, you will always love them. And deep down they know that. It’s part of why they know they can do it. They feel secure in your love for them. So although it is painful, try to remember that your love for them and theirs for you is strong. Hold onto that, despite all that might happen.
- Develop some family rules
Another way to deal with the disrespect is to share the responsibility for how you want your relationship to look like with the children. Family meetings and rules decided by everyone in the family can be a really good way for you to manage behaviour. All children know right from wrong. They feel guilty when they are naughty. And being unkind to you makes them feel very uncomfortable, even if it doesn’t seem like it.
Create a vision together of family life and ask them how they can contribute to it looking like that. Obviously they may exhibit some resistance to this and say things like “I wish I didn’t have to come here” or “I want to be with mum” but try to persevere. Ask them why they don’t want to come here, what could you do to help make it better.
- Lashings of praise
Your ex will rule with extremes – severe punishment (rage or the silent treatment) or extravagant rewards (puppies or favourite toys) which can be really powerful in getting children to do exactly what they want. I have heard a story where a mother, the day before a child was due to go to contact with their father, bought a brand new puppy. I mean who would want to leave a new puppy? Whilst this looks amazing to the child on the surface, what all children really want is love, affection and attention and narcissists simply aren’t capable of providing any of those things. You know that. You have felt the coldness.
Positive reinforcement (also known as positive stokes) in the form of praise, hugs and pride is however, much more powerful. You know the look of joy on your child’s face when you tell them they have done really well and you are proud of them, and then you tell them to ring grandma and tell her. They are beaming! And children want more of that so giving lots of praise for all the good stuff you see not only boosts their self esteem but it also helps nurture your bond with your child.
I do recognise that narcissists will give praise when the children do what they want and they use that to encourage them to reject you. However, narcissists are inconsistent and so children never really know where they stand with them. What pleased them one day isn’t good enough the next. Being consistent with your praise provides the child with the security they need.
- Teach rather than tell
You are your children’s role model. They learn from all that they see, hear and watch you do. This is probably why you ended the relationship, because you didn’t want your children to grow up thinking it was normal. You can use this to help them develop the characteristics and skills you want them to have growing up. It will also help them to manage their own relationship with the narcissist.
Think about what you want for your child. Most parents want their children to be kind, happy, loved and successful. Are you all of those things? How are you able to model them? When they misbehave, show them the behaviour you want rather than point out what they have done wrong.
I always remember the scene in Jaws when Brody’s son is mirroring all his actions back to him. Think about what your child is mirroring to you and vice versa.
- Accept them for all that they are
The reality is that your child will mirror back to you parts of your ex and this can be really hard to witness. You may find yourself retriggered and taken back to a situation with your ex. Having her there, in your house, but in a smaller version, can be very upsetting. And can have an impact on not only how you respond to your child but also how you feel about them. I have heard many parents honestly admit that sometimes, when their child reminds them of their ex, in that moment, they don’t like them. That might feel really uncomfortable but it’s quite normal and natural. Your child will take after your ex. They may even look like her. No-one expects you to just forget about all the shit they put you through.
However, it is important that you learn to accept those parts of your child. Being aware when they remind you of your ex can help you to manage your feelings. And remember that your child is not your ex.
My step-daughter reminded me so much of the narcissist. She had the same look sometimes and I felt my stomach go but just that awareness of that feeling was enough to pull me back into the room and stay with this innocent little girl sat in front of me who was so much more than her DNA.
- Get to grips with your ex
Something else it is important for you to model to your children, is how to deal with the ex. You no longer live with her so you have the space to recover but your children don’t have that opportunity except when they are with you. They are immersed in her world. The time with you is your chance to teach them the skills which got you through it. You needed resilience, self love, self control, a strong self image, support, determination and courage. When your ex tries to push your buttons, you have an opportunity to show your children how to use self control and be strong in knowing who you are and how you behave. They will learn so much from that. They are looking to you all the time for help with this.
If you don’t yet feel confident in managing your ex and yourself around them, I strongly recommend getting some support to bolster up those skills.
- Remove the drama
Your life with the narcissist was full of drama and chaos because that is the environment the narcissist loves to create. They can control others when they are disorientated by the chaos. Now you are away from that, you can focus on creating a peaceful environment, not just for you but for the children as well. Children get carried away and lost in drama, it impacts their development, self esteem and academic achievement. On the opposite side of that, they thrive in a loving, nurturing, safe and calm environment.
Take a good look at your life and your friends and family. Are they always caught up in the next drama or do they live a quiet and happy life? Remove as much of the drama as you can. It will help with your recovery and create a safe haven for your children. Like a lighthouse in the storm.
- If you have to go to court, be prepared
The reality is, if you have children with a narcissist you WILL have to go to court. They want to punish you and what better way that by using the children. They will start by gatekeeping the contact, dictating the rules as to when and where you can see them. They will begin to cut you out of all areas of their lives: school, after school clubs, your family. Finally they will manipulate the children to reject you (check out our comprehensive guide to How Parental Alienation Is Hurting Your Children to find out more about how this happens).
It means if you want a relationship with your child, you have to go through Family Court which can perpetuate the abuse. Every man and his dog will be drawn into the drama, claiming they saw you do x, y and z. Lies will become facts and those trained to protect children, will assist your ex is abusing them. Narcissists love court because they have developed a false self designed to dupe and manipulate others. They love the performance in the court arena. You on the other hand just want to get on with your life and have a loving relationship with your children. Claims of domestic abuse will appear and they will be granted legal aid so that they can use as many delay tactics as they like to keep up this charade. All in the hope of wearing you down so you just disappear. The fact they get to slander your character and destroy you in the process is a bonus to them.
Going to court against a narcissist isn’t about the law or the facts. It is about who is best at telling the story and being believed. Now I am not for one second suggesting you become an Oscar winning actor. But it is important you learn how to put in your best performance. Which is why we developed our Get Court Ready course, designed to give you all the skills, tools and mindset to win this battle.
- Recognise you may have PTSD
A relationship with a narcissist is traumatic and stressful and when you have been exposed to it for a lengthy period of time, you can develop PTSD (and complex PTSD). Symptoms of PTSD are:
- regularly reliving painful memories, to the extent that you feel as if you are going through it again
- losing all confidence in yourself and are finding it difficult to adapt to different and new situations
- developing a chronic illness, anxiety or depression following your relationship with a narcissist
- feeling numb and unsure of who you really are avoiding people and situations
PTSD can impact your relationship with those you love, including your children and leave you vulnerable to being retriggered by your ex. Check out our guide to All You Need To Know About PTSD After Narcissistic Abuse.
Female narcissists are dangerous and highly abusive. Like their male counterparts, they take no prisoners and are hell bent on destroying you. If they have to take down others, including their own children, so be it. As far as they are concerned the end justifies the means. Everyone is collateral damage for them retaining their public persona.
It’s important we speak out about this. Men can be victims and women can be abusers. Awareness is paramount is helping our children to recover and not repeat these cycles.
If you have experienced abuse at the hands of a narcissist and feel comfortable, please do share your thoughts. Or maybe you know someone who is a female narcissist. Is what I have said accurate in your opinion? Get involved.
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