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Narcissism is a word that is thrown around these days to help people understand toxic relationships, difficult divorces, and co-parenting arrangements. It can be a useful framework to maintain when trying to understand these difficult patterns, how you got drawn in, why you were so confused while you were in the relationship, and the co-parenting struggles you may be facing.
When we think of the garden-variety person with a narcissistic personality – we think of someone who is egocentric, unempathetic, grandiose, larger than life, arrogant, difficult, entitled, demanding, manipulative, controlling, dysregulated, but may also have prosocial characteristics including charm, charisma, or confidence. This pattern describes the classical grandiose narcissist, however, because there are different subtypes of narcissism – it can sometimes leave you feeling a bit more confused about your situation. For example, perhaps the person you were with wasn’t grandiose, or was actually not that socially skilled or charming. Understanding the subtypes of narcissism may help you with optimal strategies for attempting to co-parent with a person who has a narcissistic personality.
The core of narcissism remains the same for all types. But the ways these things are expressed or experienced can vary.
Grandiose narcissists are the classical narcissists. The larger than life, arrogant, attention seeking, selfish narcissists who care more about how things look than how they are. Parenting for grandiose narcissists is often about “putting on a show”. In public they may try to look like devoted parents, but in private they will not be interested in the day-to-day slog of parenting. They may be the proverbial “Disneyland Parent” – there for the big days and may also push children to an excessive degree to be good at sports, school, or whatever matters to them, and may disconnect from a child when the child is not acting as they want. The grandiose narcissistic parent needs to be liked, and so will do what they need to do to be liked but they also do not tolerate frustration well so they may get quite angry and have a short fuse with the ups and downs of parenting. Because the grandiose narcissistic parent likes to be the favored parent – you may find yourself having to be the taskmaster and the ”bad one”. Grandiose narcissists also need lots of admiration and are novelty seekers so they are likely to quickly enter a new relationship, try to introduce children to a new partner, and may attempt to re-marry quickly. This type of parent is also likely to give extravagant gifts or out-spend their co-parent.
Co-Parenting with a Grandiose Narcissist
When co-parenting with a grandiose narcissist, do not get lost in the competition, or expect they will run their household similarly to yours. Divorcing a narcissistic partner means ratcheting down your expectations and your need to argue at every moment. When your co-parent changes their parenting time or visitation arrangements to suit their needs, go with it because it gives you more time with your children, but make sure you document everything thoroughly. Too often, a lot of exhaustion and time goes into trying to force the grandiose parent to “get it right.” It’s likely causing additional stress for you and your children to try to prove that you are correct or to show the co-parent what they are doing. Consider therapy for your children, especially to cope with inconsistency or the introduction to a new partner.
Malignant narcissists are a bit more menacing because they may also be quite exploitative, more manipulative, prone to deceit, and may be paranoid or even sadistic. These patterns often result in rather unsettling divorces (and unsettling relationships). Malignant narcissists can be quite harsh as parents, and in some cases, children may be anxious with them. These are parents more concerned with power, control, and dominance. In fact, the malignant narcissistic parent may not be that interested in being a parent but may be more apt to attempt to use the courts to punish you by manipulating custody and financial arrangements. Co-parenting can be very challenging because you are quite anxious yourself and trying to keep your wits about you as you fear the next legal maneuver and your children’s anxiety as well. Malignant narcissistic co-parents may drag (or threaten to drag you) back into court at any moment, leaving you constantly on edge.
Co-Parenting with a Malignant Narcissist
With a malignant narcissist, safety is important. These co-parents may be quite menacing because they enjoy power and control. If you can, maintain access to ongoing legal guidance, or work with a local domestic violence program because they often know about low-cost legal resources for these circumstances. Most importantly, document EVERYTHING, and if you are able, consider having cameras outside and inside your home in case you need additional evidence. Use a co-parenting app for communication so that professionals you are working with have access to your communication.
Therapy is very important for your children with a malignant narcissist because it adds another person who is hearing about what your child is experiencing. In addition, ensure you maintain strong alliances with the school and the children’s teachers as they can notice behavioral or academic changes in your child.
Covert narcissists are characterized by a more vulnerable, resentful, brooding, and victimized style. They often present as victims, feeling that life never goes their way, that people are out to get them, and that they deserve so much more from life. As parents, they will often remain sullen victims. They may share this victimhood with children who in turn may struggle with confusion about guilt and how they can help a parent with this kind of personality style “feel better”. Co-parenting with a covert narcissist may feel as much about babysitting your ex-partner’s needs as managing your own children.
Co-Parenting with a Covert Narcissist
This can be very challenging because you are managing multiple aspects of victimhood, anger, and entitlement. A key piece of guidance with a covert narcissist is not to fall into the trap of “rescuing” this person. Keep the communications lean, put things in writing, and be prepared for potential guilt trips. To the degree possible, have mental health services available for your children because this type of parental pattern can result in a lot of guilt and anxiety in the children who may feel that they are to blame for their parent’s self-victimization.
Communal narcissists derive their validation from doing charitable or good deeds. They often want to be viewed as humanitarians or heroes and will strive to be on center stage or get validation via social media for all they do for others. However, that charitable “do-gooder-ness” seems to fade behind closed doors where the real work takes place. They may be enraptured with struggling children on the other side of the globe that they are helping through their charitable endeavors but are disengaged with their own children on a day-to-day basis since fulfilling their responsibilities will not gain them public notoriety. They may want to display their “parent-ness” for a photo-op without really wanting to do the work and will get even more validation by being a publicly involved parent. Co-parenting with a communal narcissist may also entail having to conform to their scheduling demands and manipulations about how your cooperation is essential to ensure they can do their “important work.”
Co-Parenting with a Communal Narcissist
“Fluffing” can buy some peace with this kind of co-parent, they just love to hear how great they are and how amazing the things they do for the world are. Tossing them those bones from time to time can sometimes keep their egos propped up and leave them less antagonistic. Do not attempt to draw parallels between how they give so much to others and little to their children, because you will be stepping into a swamp of rage. Setting ground rules through attorneys and mediation on how much they can put your children on display over social media or other public platforms is important for both privacy and safety reasons.
Neglectful narcissists are those who literally do not engage with people in their world unless they need something from them. In that way, neglectful narcissists view people as conveniences of a sort – and only access people when it works for them. This style will often view children as a major inconvenience, and as such may be very disengaged, disinterested, and remote. This can be very challenging for a child who is often trying to garner the parent’s attention and may impact the children’s sense of worth as they may feel as though they are not worthy of their parent’s attention. Co-parenting with a neglectful narcissist may be more about managing your child’s concerns and expectations regarding their parent’s disengagement.
Co-Parenting with a Neglectful Narcissist
A neglectful narcissistic co-parent may disengage or choose to have little time with your children, which can foster a sense of abandonment. It becomes the balancing act of letting your child know that their parent’s disinterest is not about them, without speaking disparagingly of the other parent.
With a neglectful narcissist co-parent, therapy for your children is essential, because the child may feel a diminished sense of self-esteem and anxiety over not garnering the attention of their other parent. They may blame themselves for their other parent’s lack of interest and may also resist wanting to spend time with that parent. A parent in this kind of co-parenting situation may also want to be in therapy to gain tools to best support their child. It becomes critical in this kind of situation to ensure you provide consistency, warmth, and empathy in your household as an offset.
Self-righteous narcissists are those who derive their narcissistic validation and supply by maintaining themselves as a sort of a morally superior person – and will be more focused on doing things just so and having control, rather than from a more flexible place of heart. Self-righteous narcissists can be a bit confusing because they often look quite loyal, may closely adhere to rigid rules, but have a clear sense of right and wrong. This type of narcissist can also be quite judgmental and critical of other people. There is a tremendous rigidity to them, and even adults will feel like a child in the face of their scold-y and disapproving style.
For a child this can be a very strict, limiting childhood. Self-righteous parents are often quite rigid, punitive, judgmental, and the child may experience a strong sense of conditionality – a sense of “follow the rules to be loved.” Co-parenting with a self-righteous narcissist is more about details and control and less about the children. This style of narcissism may also accompany a miserly impecunious style requiring all kinds of hoop-jumping and uncomfortable conversations to merely come to a consensus on small expenditures for your children. These divorces may very well have come down to arguing about minor household items, and a few dollars here and there on various support payments.
Co-Parenting with a Self-Righteous Narcissist
Your household may need to be an offset – more relaxed, less harsh, and less obsessive. Your children will want a place where socks on the floor, or whatever over-the-top behavioral standard their self-righteous co-parent may demand, isn’t a big deal. These parents can be extremely punitive, and your child may be dealing with phones being taken away, isolation from peers, and other extreme consequences that are disproportionate to the offense. These consequences can result in negative mood swings in your child. Monitor your children for anxiety, because with a co-parent like this, they often tower over the children them in a chronic sense of disapproval which feels uncomfortable and can often presage rebellion or other forms of acting out the children.
Creating safe spaces for your children to talk, or share their feelings and frustrations becomes very important. As always, find resources and therapy for your children to talk this out.
In addition, make sure you have your finances set up in a way that you can be flexible and realistic. This type of co-parent will often pull the rug out from under you financially, leaving you hanging for tuition, medical expenses, or other costs. While you may be able to pursue reimbursements under the stipulations of your divorce, it may mean more court time, more lawyer money, and a large emotional cost. Having some funds set aside to ensure that classes do not get cancelled and your child can keep moving forward is important. Many people run the risk of grinding in their heels and saying that this kind of co-parent “has to pay, this isn’t my problem” – but alas, it is in your child’s interest, and being prepared for it is an important defense.
Co-Parenting with a Narcissistic Family
When considering all these patterns in a co-parenting situation you may also have to consider cultural and generational factors such as the role that some extended families play. This includes in-laws that can carry the intergenerational narcissistic mantle and may triangulate or manipulate your children as pawns in their own family dramas. These families may manifest a sense of entitlement regarding access to the children and grandchildren in their midst. These cycles are likely to get worse after a divorce, especially for those from cultures in which divorce carries more social stigma.
It is important to keep in mind that these types of narcissism can overlap – and many of you are thinking – I have someone who is sometimes grandiose and sometimes covert – yep, that can happen, and then you will experience both sets of challenges.
Co-parenting with a narcissist is not easy. Keep your expectations realistic, your acceptance radical, and your social networks as healthy as possible so you can get the support you need. You may need ongoing legal counsel even after the divorce is finalized. Seeking therapy with a licensed mental health practitioner who understands these high conflict relationships is critical to taking care of you and being the best advocate and parent to your children.
TalkingParents blogs are for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. Always consult with a qualified attorney regarding legal matters.