When you end a relationship with a narcissist, the ideal healing environment is one in which all contact is severed. Unfortunately, when you have children with a narcissist, eliminating all communication is not an option. Whether you like it or not, you must find a way to effectively co-parent with your toxic ex for the children’s best interest.
Anyone who has been in a relationship with a narcissist understands that relying on them to come to the table and rationally cooperate to make decisions for the children is usually not possible. Especially if you initiated the divorce or breakup, the narcissist would take any need to communicate with you as an opportunity to punish, bully, and manipulate you. It may feel like you’re facing two equally unattractive options; either continue to let your toxic ex use your child as a conduit to maintain control over you (what’s the point in even being divorced?), or refuse to communicate at all which will land you in hot water with the courts.
But there is a way to set healthy boundaries, maintain them in a responsive–as opposed to a reactive–manner, and create accountability to not only hold the narcissist responsible for toxic behavior but to prevent it altogether.
As your relationship with a narcissist progressed, your mental and emotional state was gradually altered. The process was so imperceptible that it’s possible that you woke up one day and didn’t realize who you were anymore.
The starting point, therefore, is evaluating your own mental and emotional transformation that took place throughout your relationship with the narcissist. As life with a narcissist becomes more difficult and confusing, you adapt to the abuse in ways that make it easier to function in your daily life. This was actually a preservation mechanism to fool yourself into believing that you had some control. While you needed these adaptations to keep your head above water, those coping skills consequently served to justify, minimize, and excuse the narcissist’s behavior.
In my own experience surviving a marriage with a narcissist, I used to tell myself that I was simply taking the path of least resistance in an effort to keep the peace for myself and the children. In hindsight, I was sinking lower and lower into a manipulative and emotionally abusive relationship until, one day, I woke up and couldn’t even make simple decisions for myself anymore.
As such, the same defenses that helped you survive may have contributed to you staying trapped in a toxic relationship. Essentially, the narcissist has conditioned you to react, and you now have to go through the process of retraining your brain and habits.
You can never control a narcissist, and you will never be able to change their behavior with love, compassion, or empathy, as they have no value to the narcissist. You can never make them be reasonable. You can never make them empathize with you or have compassion for you. You can only control yourself, and by learning what triggers a negative reaction in you and why, you can alter how you respond. By doing this, you will begin to show the narcissist that they cannot control you.
Co-Parenting with a Narcissist
If you can identify and neutralize your triggers, the narcissist will soon realize that he or she no longer has power over you when those buttons are pushed. So how do you assess how your emotional state has changed and determine your triggers?
Educate yourself about narcissism, the abuse cycle, narcissistic relationships, and healing from narcissistic trauma. Once you more clearly understand what you are dealing with, you will be much better at dealing with your emotions and controlling your actions, responding versus reacting.
In short, a narcissist is looking for their “supply.” Whereas a reasonably well-adapted person seeks to give and receive love and affection, a narcissist has such a low opinion of themselves that they seek constant praise and admiration to bolster their deficient sense of self. When the admiration wanes, the narcissist turns to bullying and nasty behavior because putting you down gives them gives the sense of superiority that they crave. If you are in the midst of a divorce, or navigating post-divorce issues, you are likely experiencing the latter version. Dismantling your vulnerabilities so they have no power over you when triggered is the first step.
ACCEPT IT AND EXPECT IT
“Accept it as if you chose it.” You can’t expect a toxic person to behave reasonably. When you accept that this is how they communicate, it will mitigate your frustration and disappointment. Once you accept that a narcissist’s behavior is a defect in their personality, you will understand that narcissists behave as they do to elicit a reaction in you. They know what strings to pull to get you to dance the way they want as if you’re a marionette. Accept and expect that this behavior will be something that you will have to deal with. The key is to be neutral, no positive or negative reactions. The more you are able to keep calm and not react to their triggers, the less power they have over you. So how do you do that?
IDENTIFY YOUR VULNERABILITIES
If you think back to when you entered the relationship, there’s a good chance you were in some kind of vulnerable state. This could be a specific life event, such as a breakup or job loss, or perhaps you’re part of a marginalized group. Being dependent on another person’s emotional state causes you to be prone to be controlled or manipulated. Quite often, our vulnerabilities trace back to childhood events or trauma. This was actually the thing that likely attracted the narcissist to you in the first place. They can see your vulnerability, and press on that soft spot to keep you in the cycle of control and abuse. By identifying your vulnerabilities, you can start to break them down so that it no longer elicits an emotional response.
NEUTRALIZE YOUR TRIGGERS
So what exactly is a trigger? It’s some form of external stimulation that brings up intense feelings of anger, anxiety, frustration, or sadness, often stemming from a prior trauma. Any rational person would be triggered by physical violence, for example, but quite often, the trigger is something neutral or innocuous. Once triggered, our limbic brains take over (this is what causes the fight, flight, freeze, or appease response). When the limbic system kicks in, our higher cognitive functions shut down because, our brains act as if there is an actual physical threat to which we will must physically respond. Interestingly, even a threat that we know does not put us in physical danger still triggers the part of our brains that respond to physical danger, and it reduces the higher cognitive functions so that we’re able to fight, flight, freeze, or appease without much thought. In other words, when facing a threat, we’re not going to escape that threat by doing algebra, we escape it by out-running or out-fighting the threat.
Which is why identifying your triggers early, before your brain triggers a cascade of hormones and neurotransmitters that reduces your ability to think rationally is key in being able to keep your calm when the narcissist triggers you.
First you have to build the muscle of listening to your body. Modern life has provided us with an almost unlimited menu of ways to avoid uncomfortable feelings. We start scrolling, shopping, eating when not hungry, smoking, or drinking. But avoided feelings live in your body until they are processed. When your toxic ex triggers you and you feel the discomfort arise, identify where it is in your body. Is your stomach in knots? Heart racing? Palms sweaty? Feel it and just observe it in your body without judgment. This means that you’re not trying to analyze why you’re feeling the way you are, but you’re simply and factually listing the physiological symptoms that are happening with your body.
Then, write down what stimuli preceded your physiological response. Was it a smell? A song? In our case, what did the narcissist say or do? Write it down in the most factual way possible, and then dig deep as to why this bothers you. What happened in your past that gives this stimuli power to cause you hurt, fear, or frustration? If you’re having trouble, a professional therapist or counselor will be of assistance. Whatever it is, you have to work on your healing and releasing the past trauma so that you can no longer be triggered.
BE PREPARED FOR A SURGE
Once the narcissist notices your lack of response to the normal triggers, they will up the ante. They will work harder to get a response from you, they will be crueler, make up more lies, involve more people, and make it even more personal to you. They hate being ignored and not getting the fix they need, they also hate losing and consider it a loss when you don’t uncomfortably react to them prodding you.
Sometimes I refer to this as “scorching the earth.” Scorching the earth refers to a warfare tactic whereby one side destroys any usable land, food, shelter, or other resources relied upon by the other side. Once a narcissist realizes that you will no longer be a source of their supply, it’s conceivable that they will engage in heinous and vile acts because they think it will destroy you. I’ve seen toxic people send emails exposing details about the parties’ private intimate life to friends and family members. I have also seen narcissists set up fake social media or dating app accounts where they portray the empath in a defamatory and false light. Many years ago, I had a client come to me with a fake Craigslist ad that contained her photo, phone number, and address (the two children were with her at the time). The ad purported to offer prostitution services. After several calls and texts, my client received the link to the fake ad. This toxic person’s children were at this home that he dangerously displayed online, but that had no bearing to him; he was out to destroy.
The silver lining, however, is that the “scorch the earth” method is often a last-ditch effort and a sign that the abuse will soon wane. This is when you can start to feel better within yourself, you are doing a good job if they are upping their game. You should feel pride within yourself that you have been able to free yourself from their influences.
STAY STRONG, AND KEEP GOING!
Consistency is key! There may be times when you’re at a low and want to react. Don’t. It will send a message that you can be triggered again and provide the narcissist with a refreshed sense of how hard they will have to go the next time in order to get their fix. By not reacting, the narcissist will eventually learn that you can’t be triggered, and they will seek their supply elsewhere.
So how do you actually respond when they say hateful, hurtful things?
Below is a list of 30 ways you can respond to the narcissist in a completely neutral manner. Some are assertive but again, neutral.
- I can see you feel very strongly about this
- You’re entitled to your opinion
- That could be; however,
- We see things differently
- I wonder how we can do this better
- I’m troubled by
- I’m concerned with
- I’m disappointed
- I’m uncomfortable
- We seem to have an issue
- I really love our children, so I hope we can communicate in a way that allows us to continue to work together for their sake
- I’m willing to work this out, but I’m not willing to be insulted
- I’d like to maintain a respectful relationship with you
- You may not be aware of how damaging your behavior has been
- Yelling doesn’t resolve anything, and it doesn’t work for me.
- Let’s talk when you’re feeling calmer
- I want you to know that I find your behavior unpleasant
- I’m not sure why you feel a need to speak to me so disrespectfully
- If this behavior continues, I will have to take action
- I have no idea why you feel a need to try to intimidate me but it’s unacceptable and I will not tolerate it
- I’m happy to consider your wishes and preferences, and I would like the same courtesy from you
- In order for this relationship to work, we both need to feel like we matter, like our feelings and opinions are heard and honored.
- It sometimes feels like there are different ruels for each of us, and that doesn’t work for me
- I’d like to discuss a solution that satisfies both of our needs
- I understand that you’re upset and disappointed and I’m willing to listen to your thoughts and feelings, but I can’t hear what you’re saying when you’re being hurtful
- While I don’t think you intend to hurt me, you sometimes come across as overly critical. It upsets me and it doesn’t help the situation.
- I know you are used to taking charge, and that you take pride in that. But it’s not okay for you to dismiss my opinions or feelings
- I know you may be too upset to talk about this right now. I suggest we postpone our conversation until you’ve had a chance to calm down
- I understand you are feeling hurt and angry and a lot of other powerful emotions right now.
- Perhaps I haven’t clearly communicated my boundaries, so I will do so again because you are crossing them.
Co-parenting with a narcissist is not easy. But it is possible to do so with the right mindset shift and planning ahead. The narcissist trained you over time to act and react in a manner that satisfies their need to feel adored and superior. But with some self-reflection and a mindset shift, you can undo any maladaptive behaviors you’ve established and set up boundaries that will protect your peace.