Walk With Me (#37): Co-Parenting With A Narcissist

An advice column for folks who don’t like to be told what to do

Dear Asha,

I’ve been divorced from my first husband for seven and a half years. He remarried almost immediately after we divorced. For years, he and his new wife harassed me, had me watched, and attempted to alienate me from my children. They are both lawyers and in every legal fight, they had the upper hand.

Co-parenting was a hill we could never climb. The wife never had any interest in raising my son; however, she wanted to be my daughter’s only mother, and eventually, through gaslighting, manipulation, and legal maneuvering, they managed to get primary custody of my daughter.

During this time, while I struggled deeply as a single mother, I eventually rebuilt my life and even remarried. Then one day, my son hit me with a bomb: his father was getting divorced. At first, I was pleased. But then, I began worrying about my daughter’s well-being and how she was going to navigate life without her stepmother. Then, things got weird.

My ex-husband, who never co-parented with me a day in his life, started texting me. At first, it was things about our kids, but then the texts turned into him hitting on me. I was floored. He continued to text me, feeding me the information I’ve always wanted in terms of properly co-parenting our children while telling me how much he wanted me. I don’t want him. I don’t want my new life ruined. However, I’m finally truly co-parenting with him. I’m scared that if I tell him to stop that he’ll use it against me and stop everything.

How do I continue this relationship without being used in the process and without losing the chance to co-parent?

TL

Dear TL,

Whether or not a licensed professional would offer your ex-husband a formal diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), I’m going to advise you to proceed as if that is what you are dealing with in a co-parenting relationship with him, and plan accordingly. The four aspects of NPD are:

  • A strong need for admiration,
  • Lacking empathy for others,
  • Having a grandiose sense of self-importance, selfishness, and entitlement; and the
  • Ability to take advantage of others for personal benefit.

Another aspect of narcissism that is coming into play in your ex’s current behavior is the classic inability of narcissists to display whole object relations. Whole object relations is the capacity to simultaneously see both the good and bad qualities of a person and accept that both exist. In contrast, narcissists tend to vacillate between two extreme, mutually-exclusive poles of categorization of themselves and other people — special, perfect, omnipotent and entitled (all-good), or unworthy, flawed, defective garbage (all-bad).

The Jekyll and Hyde contrast between your ex’s targeting of you while he was still in a relationship with his next wife, and the attention he is giving you now is a symptom of this disordered, dichotomous thinking. In order to separate from you, he had to vilify you and sanctify his next wife, and now that he’s separating from her he has to flip the script. None of this, of course, has anything to do with either of you (even though it does sound like she is something of a garbage human), because neither of you is a real, whole, subjective person to him. You are simply screens to project his story upon, toys to move around and manipulate in order to maintain control over his world.

The unfortunate and heartbreaking reality is that if, or when, he finds another woman to attach his grandiosity to he will back away from all of the co-parenting that he is currently offering because you will no longer be the necessary source of ego food for him. If you accept that the openness to you that he’s currently displaying is inevitably temporary then you can think strategically about how to use it to your advantage, rather than being used by him.

If I were you, the primary focus for me during this time would be altering your formal custody agreement to, at the very least, shared custody. If you have to stroke his ego in order to pull this off, so be it. I’m not, to be clear, saying you should indulge his sexual advances. That is a hard no. Be clear and consistent in your communication that you are remarried, you love your husband, and you all will not be rekindling those aspects of your relationship. Don’t get into any discussion of why he is absolutely untrustworthy, or any of your history together as a romantic couple. Just focus on the reality of your life right now. Once you’ve clearly set that boundary, refuse to take the bait when he tosses you a line. If he hits on you, ignore it. Be totally emotionally neutral. He is trying to stimulate strong emotions in you for his own benefit, which is twisted and manipulative. Your emotions are a resource, but they are not his resource anymore.

But, while keeping your emotions to yourself, you can absolutely acknowledge the effort that he is making to co-parent right now, and how good it is to be working together for the benefit of the children. That you know he’s doing it largely to manipulate you and feed his own psychoses never needs to enter the discussion. If it helps to use “we” statements in order to implicate yourself as having work to do in this seemingly amazing transformation of your relationship, do it. It may bypass his tendency to experience any hint of pushback as telling him he’s swung over to the all-bad side of the equation, which will cause him to act out.

“We have both been through a lot and I’m glad that we have found a way to work so well together as parents.”

“ I know that we both really love the kids and want this positive co-parenting relationship to continue moving forward by working on our respective issues.”

“The kids are benefiting so much from our co-parenting. I know that we both would like to build on this. Let’s work together to create a formal structure we can all feel good about.”

Don’t accept “someday” promises around how he will behave in the future. His actions will always be dictated by getting what he wants, and when what he wants changes, anything and everything he has ever promised will disappear unless it is codified by law.

However, if working towards formally altering your custody agreement feels like too much to contemplate right now, that’s okay. Just document the hell out of everything — all the texts, any emails, take notes on conversations with dates and times. If someday he decides to go on the attack again, you will need every bit of it.

I know this is exhausting, mama. I know it is heartbreaking. Not because you want to be with him again now, but because you loved him in the past. You got close enough to see the incredibly damaged little boy that lives inside of him, the boy that he is working so hard to protect through all of his lies and manipulations and acting out. You stayed with him as long as you did because you hoped he would take constructive, healthy steps to love that little boy, and love you and your kids. To have him acting the way he is now dredges up all of your past love, and longing, and effort.

But you also know who he is as an adult, and that is a man who will play on your sympathy for his own aggrandizement with absolutely no remorse. Protect yourself and your current life. Be totally transparent with your current husband about what is happening. Let him reassure you that you are whole, powerful, and not crazy to think that this entire situation is completely fucked up. He doesn’t need to “defend you” directly to your ex-husband, but he can protect you by reminding you what it is to be truly loved, seen, and supported.

No matter what happens with your ex, you need and deserve the life you’ve worked so hard to build for yourself, so make sure you don’t let your ex undermine it.

I feel for you, mama. I have no desire to be with my ex-husband ever, ever again, and yet, if he were to ever split with his current wife and make any kind of effort to acknowledge me as a good person, a good mother, it would be both heartbreaking and totally disorienting. I spent so long while with him learning to doubt my perception of reality and myself, and I’ve spent so long since we split building myself up and learning to trust my instincts. If he came to me now with collaboration and, god forbid, kisses, it would be hard not to fall right back into thinking exactly what he wanted me to for so long — that every private manipulation, every broken promise, every rage-fit never, ever happened.

But they did happen, just like every bit of your history with your ex happened. He is who he is. Do what you have to do to protect yourself and your interests. Treat him like a snake in a basket — alluring, but dangerous and constantly in need of containment. Eventually, your kids will be grown and you will be released from this burdensome dance, but for now, the best you can do is be clear-eyed, boundaried, strategic, and careful.

Thank you for walking this journey with me. Love to you and yours.

XO, Asha

Do you have a question about relationships, sex, parenting, politics, spirituality, community? Send them to me at ashasanaker@gmail.com with the subject line “Walk With Me”. Let’s walk each other home.

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