My ex and I have shared custody of our two boys. We endured a custody assessment, which was grueling, but I’m glad that we did it as we now have clear guidelines. We have a co-parenting coordinator who works with us and it is useful to have an outsider help us work through the many issues/battles to ensure the boys are getting the best out of both of us.
Unfortunately, my ex is a narcissist and that makes it very hard to co-parent with him. He is not so much interested in co-parenting as he is in control-parenting. It seemed an impossible task, but after several months of fairly successful co-parenting I think I have found some ways to make it work.
My tips on how to co-parent with a narcissist:
Pick your battles
There will be battles, lots of them. So choose carefully before you get into one. If it’s not something you really care about, then concede. My ex insists that the boys are dressed before they have breakfast – I don’t care, so they get dressed before breakfast. Would this be my preference? No. But is it worth fighting over? No.
But I do care very deeply about food being used as a reward/punishment. I think we must have had over 20 hours of discussions about whether or not my youngest (a very picky eater) should be given a treat in his lunch each day. He said no, I said yes. I called it the ‘lunch box wars’. He wanted to make sure that my son had a ‘healthy’ lunch each day, and I wanted him to have a lunch that he would eat – I did not want junk food at lunch, just a toasted bagel, and a treat as I knew he would eat that. The battle went on for weeks. I insisted that my son had a healthy diet and he was convinced my son was malnourished. Which took us to the next point.
Call in the experts
In the end, we took our son to the pediatrician on the advice of the parenting coordinator. Our son is small (1% for height and weight) and so they did a blood test to see if he was getting enough nutrients from the things he does eat. The results came back and they showed he is getting all he needs. A victory for me! But my ex would have never accepted this unless he had the doctor’s word for it. But the key was, I let him make the appointment and take the lead. He needs to pick the experts.
Although I have a say in who our children see in terms of doctors, therapists, etc. I also know that my ex needs to take the lead. Anyone who I recommend is automatically tainted. And after over a year of many therapists, mediators, doctors being involved, I know that they are all professionals and therefore, although the ones we have worked with may not have been my first choice, they will do the job well enough and if he feels that they are his choice, they have a lot more sway over him than I ever will.
Put everything in writing
I mean everything. I communicate by email as texts are easily ignored. I CC my lawyer and the parent coordinator on all important matters so everything is on the record. My ex is notorious for not really reading emails and will constantly complain that I am not communicating enough. I send a weekly email with the schedule for that week as well as important dates coming up. I also ensure that I respond to his emails quickly and directly.
I never ask for anything (as the answer will invariably be no), but keep straight to point. I state things as fact – i.e. the field trip on Friday will be $25, the boys will need to be picked up from the birthday party at 3 pm, etc. I keep it short and sweet so there will be no confusion.
Keep to the schedule
There have been a few times where it would have been a lot easier to switch nights/weekends and I have tried to be flexible on this front, but I have found that this doesn’t work out well for me. Therefore I now stick religiously to the custody schedule. I will rearrange appointments or turn down invitations on my days with the boys rather than ask their Dad to have them. It’s not that he’s unwilling to have the boys, it’s just much less hassle to stick to the schedule than to negotiate a different schedule with him.
Establish clear boundaries
My ex is not allowed into my house unless he has clear written permission from me. I have agreed to the same – although I co-own the house he lives in. He does have a key to my house, but if he entered my house without my permission I would call the police.
At one point we were meeting with the parent coordinator in each other's homes, but I realized that he was using it as an opportunity to check up on me – looking for new purchases, letters of interest, what was in my garbage (I kid you not). I need my house to be my safe place, so I decided all future meetings were to take place in a neutral environment outside our homes.
Know your strengths and use them
A narcissist will do everything to beat you down and make you feel worthless, and it may take a long while for you to get your confidence back, but know this: You are better at some things than they are – and they know it.
I am particularly good at planning kids’ birthday parties. He knows this, but wanting control refuses to concede this. So instead of trying to convince him to do it my way, I just do it my way. I have custody of the boys for the weekend of my youngest‘s birthday so I’ve planned the party – their Dad is invited and encouraged to join in, but has no say in the party itself.
Give thoughtful gifts
Regardless of how much I hate my ex, he is still the father of my children and I think it is very important for them to appreciate him and love him unconditionally. So for Father’s Day or his birthday, I will ensure that they have thoughtful gifts for him – usually something bought on a special shopping trip and something homemade. Although I’m not personally giving him the gifts, I do want him to know that I also appreciate his love and affection for his children, regardless of our relationship.
Expect no returns
This is the bad news. Co-parenting with a narcissist is a thankless task. You will get nothing in return. Last Mother’s Day he took the boys to CVS and my youngest gave me pantyhose. But I look at it this way - I have the great fortune of sharing my life with two wonderful boys who bring me much joy and happiness. A pair of pantyhose is a welcome gift as they were picked out especially for me. As they say: It’s the thought that counts.