Ex-etiquette: Your ex is a narcissist? Probably not

Q. My co-parent is a lost cause. They are a narcissist! I looked it up on the internet and they check all the boxes. They think they are perfect, always right, and try to manipulate me and the kids to get their own way. They act like they care, but they obviously don’t. They can’t be a good influence. What’s good ex-etiquette?

A. I can’t tell you how many of my clients tell me their co-parent is a narcissist. It seems to be the current buzzword to explain an ex’s manipulative, grandiose, conceited behavior. But, just about everyone’s ex is difficult at the time of the breakup. Your ex probably feels the same way about you.

Because you find a former partner unpredictable, angry, manipulative and only seeing their point of view is not enough to pin a narcissistic diagnosis on them. Truth be told, according to recent studies only 1 or 2% of the U.S. population actually falls into that category. That’s one or two people out of 100. It’s more likely that they are manifesting narcissistic tendencies — and unfortunately, quite a few of our exes seem to fall into that category. The good news, if that is the case, is that when the breakup dust settles, both of you may calm down and settle into a cohesive co-parenting partnership. Co-parenting counseling will help.

If your children’s other parent is truly a narcissist, you may have to adopt what is called parallel parenting. Parallel parenting is where each parent has their own parenting approach and responsibilities when their children are with them. The children have two homes, two existences and they travel between their parents following a parenting plan that does not require the parents to consult each other when decisions are made.

You can imagine how difficult this is on children.

Although parallel parenting is adopted to prevent the children from witnessing ongoing conflict, they still know what’s going on and it weighs heavily on their shoulders. I have never worked with a child who liked this parenting approach. Unfortunately, many ended up being “the messenger” for their battling parents and were asked to pass on information because their parents refused to talk to each other. It actually perpetuated the children’s trauma associated with the split. The children felt as if they had to pick a side.

Ultimately, what is best for your children is to put your own issues aside and come together in their name. Until that becomes a possibility, it’s all in the approach:

Be clear about your parenting expectations. A narcissist will push the limits you set.

Limit communication to only what is necessary. Avoid emotional arguments.

Don’t let conversations spiral. You will never “prove your point” with a narcissist. Don’t try.

Document everything. It may be helpful to use a co-parenting app that records conversations and allows professionals to oversee your communication.

Never badmouth your co-parent. No matter how frustrated you are. It won’t help you and it will hurt your children.

Parent with empathy. Although a true narcissist is unable to feel empathy, that doesn’t mean you can’t. Be the bigger person. For your kids. That’s good ex-etiquette.

Dr. Jann Blackstone is the author of “Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation,” and the founder of Bonus Families, www.bonusfamilies.com.