Realistic Expectations About Co-Parenting with a Narcissist
Here are some realistic expectations to keep in mind when co-parenting with a narcissist.
Dr. Ramani Durvasula
After a painful and expensive 2 year divorce, Yasmin and Craig finalized their divorce and parenting agreement. Yasmin felt that they had accounted for every possibility that could arise with their children. Yet, Craig, after spending thousands more in legal fees to fight for Thanksgiving and promising the children a ski trip, decided at the last minute that he wanted to take a vacation with his new partner instead and asked if she would swap Thanksgiving for winter break. She had already planned a family get-together, her extended family was coming, so she said no. He then called her rigid, ridiculous, jealous and unyielding. Her children were disappointed as they had been talking about the ski trips for months, Yasmin was devastated, she couldn’t believe after he fought so hard for the holidays the way he wanted, and she planned around that, that he was pulling the rug out from under her (again). She was angry at herself for being so surprised as well. She felt that each time, it couldn’t get worse, and it would get worse...
Co-parenting with a narcissistic ex-partner can mean having to repeatedly recalibrate your expectations
For many people, co-parenting with a narcissist can mean having to keep dropping your expectations until you feel you can’t lower them anymore. Two core tenets of coping with any narcissistic relationship (whether it is an ex-partner, a family member, or a co-worker) are realistic expectations and radical acceptance. Radical acceptance is the painful realization that this is not going to change, and that’s where the realistic expectations come in, to maintain expectations that are in line with that acceptance.
Narcissistic relationships are kept in place by hope. The hope that it will get better and change. That hope accompanied by the future faking (the false promises about the future that were made) may have gotten you into the relationship, kept you in the relationship, and is very likely to complicate co-parenting.
So how are you supposed to maintain realistic expectations while co-parenting with a narcissist?
Write stuff down. When co-parenting with a narcissist, sometimes you need to be reminded of the things that have happened repeatedly, so you can see that it is a pattern. This can really help fortify expectations, especially when it is in writing. This is where the TalkingParents app can be a useful tool — just seeing the patterns manifested in the messages are a stark reminder that this is not going to change. You can also write stuff down in the Personal Journal. This TalkingParents tool allows you to make notes and keep track of interactions without sharing them with your co-parent.
Don’t set your children up for disappointment. Just as you hoped your co-parent would make changes to be a better partner, there is a danger to falling into the same hope trap for them as parents. Sometimes people will take the stance that the parenting agreement stipulated something, they expect the co-parent to follow it, and they do not make a plan B. When you rely too heavily on the co-parent and they drop the ball, and you do not have a plan B, the biggest losses are incurred by your child. Your kids may end up missing an important opportunity or missing out on doing something that matters to them because you relied on the narcissistic co-parent to come through for them. Expect that the narcissist will drop the ball. Have contingencies in place. It is more work for you, but it is far better than scrambling at the last minute or getting into it with your narcissistic co-parent (and still having to scramble). Protect your children however you can.
Be realistic about the limitations of family court. Showing up to any ongoing court dates with “My ex is a narcissist” is not going to result in more custody or a shift to the parenting agreement. Maintaining careful records, missed custody days, and noting other observable and documentable issues may help, but holding out hope that a family court judge will smile and say “oh, your co-parent is a narcissist, here is more time” is not likely to happen. Again, this is where a co-parenting communication service like TalkingParents can help. Every communication you and your co-parent have within the service is on the Record, keeping both parents accountable.
Be prepared. What does that mean? It means that you know your co-parent's narcissism makes them egocentric, unempathetic, grandiose, arrogant, and validation seeking — that is not going to change. So, it may mean that the narcissistic co-parent doesn't show up to birthday parties, will purchase gifts you didn’t agree to or won’t enforce screen time restrictions you have. Or, if they do show up to the birthday party, they show up with their new partner whom none of you have met. Being prepared means being realistic about what can happen, so you are not blindsided by your co-parent's decisions or actions.
Understand that this is a lifetime process. While the court mandated aspects of custody and co-parenting may fade at the age of 18 or thereabouts, you are still co-parents, and there are still graduations, weddings, and holidays. And sometimes as your children enter into adulthood, some of these patterns may even become worse. Holidays may become a time when your narcissistic co-parent leans even more into the manipulation. Weddings may become a time of triangulation and grandstanding. Some people exhale when the children hit adulthood and are surprised to see their children are still getting hurt and torn apart by the manipulations and machinations of their narcissistic co-parent. Coming into your co-parenting relationship with the understanding that this is a long-term situation will help you set realistic expectations for the future.
Remember the DEEP technique. Don’t Defend, Don’t Engage, Don’t Explain, Don’t Personalize. This means not taking the bait or getting into circular conversations with your co-parent that go nowhere. It means not falling into the gaslighted cycles. But when the fighting or baiting is about your children it is so much more challenging. You want to take the fight for your children. If you attempt to have a conversation with them about why it is not right for them to ignore bedtimes, or have no limits on devices, or get them to school late, make it declarative. Say it straight, not as a conversation. “Bedtime is 8 PM, please abide by it.” And when they call you rigid, and obsessive, and controlling, don’t take the bait. Having realistic expectations means that the narcissistic co-parent may not honor that bedtime anyhow, but at a minimum, you made it known.
Always show up for your children. One thing that can help with managing realistic expectations is feeling in control of what you can. Always following through with your children, being there when you say you will, and having routines is crucial. At least on your watch, expectations are honored. It can help give you the bandwidth to manage the myriad times that your narcissistic co-parent may disappoint your children and you.
This is the hardest part of all to write, but it is also honest
Sometimes the narcissistic parent succeeds in their ability to win over the children. Common ploys can be telling distorted stories and outright lies about you or using money (paying for the latest toys, the best vacations, and then later on covering rent, buying cars, or seeding startup money for a business) to purchase their children’s alliance. Sometimes it works, which can result in some of the most profound grief a parent can experience. It is where realistic expectations can cross over into heartbreak. While this is not common, it can happen, especially with children who have been in a golden child role, or who even in early adolescence were leaning into entitlement, arrogance, and dysregulation. It may not always be possible to get ahead of this. Be an empathic, present, consistent, loving parent, and in most cases, this will get you to a good place. But in parenting, as in so much of life, there are no guarantees.
Managing realistic expectations requires tremendous bandwidth when co-parenting with a narcissist
It also entails support, therapy, friends who understand it, and support groups comprised of people going through similar co-parenting experiences. You understand how painful narcissism can be in a relationship, however, having to navigate these treacherous waters with and for your children requires a different level of stamina. As an adult in this relationship, you experienced the hurt of canceled dinners, dismissiveness, and invalidation. But to watch your children grapple with these disappointments is another beast altogether.
Realistic expectations are also about self-compassion. Often people will be disappointed with themselves for not being able to see the next bad behavior coming (that self-blame again). It’s never pleasant to have to prepare for disappointment, especially your children’s disappointment. Having realistic expectations means installing plan B, C, and D in place, so you are ready and can protect your children when your narcissistic co-parent does it again. This not only protects your children, but helps you feel more prepared and in control.