By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW
At its best, co-parenting is a wonderful opportunity for children of divorce to have close to equal access to both parents – to feel it is okay to love both of their parents. Experts agree that the outcomes for children of divorce improve when they have positive bonds with both parents. These include better psychological and behavioral adjustment, and enhanced academic performance. However, few experts discuss the drawbacks of co-parenting when one parent is hands-off, has a high conflict personality; or a personality disorder such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
What is the solution for parents who want to co-parent with an ex who is narcissistic or challenging? According to Dr. Edward Kruk, Ph.D., “Parallel Parenting is an arrangement in which divorced parents are able to co-parent by means of disengaging from each other, and having limited contact, in situations where they have demonstrated that they are unable to communicate with each other in a respectful manner.”
Parallel parenting allows parents to remain disengaged with one another (and have a parenting plan) while they remain close to their children. For instance, they remain committed to making responsible decisions (medical, education, etc.) but decide on the logistics of day-to-day parenting separately.
Here are some strategies for co-parenting with a challenging or high conflict ex:
- Be the parental role model your kids need to thrive. Show compassion toward your children and don’t bad-mouth their other parent in their presence. Children are vulnerable to experiencing loyalty conflicts and shouldn’t be in the middle between their parents. Be aware of your tone and facial expressions during interactions with your ex in front of your kids.
- Keep your eye on the big picture in terms of your children’s future. Although it’s stressful trying to co-parent or even parallel parent with a difficult ex, it’s probably in the best interest of your children. Adopt realistic expectations and pat yourself on the back for working at this challenging relationship for your kids.
- Focus on the only thing you can control – your behavior! You alone are responsible for your reactions to your ex’s comments and behavior. But don’t be persuaded by your ex to do something that you’re uncomfortable with just to keep the peace. Adopt a business-like “Just the facts, ma’am” style of communicating with him/her.
- Minimize contact and set boundaries with your ex. High-conflict personalities thrive on the possibility of combat. Be prepared and write a script to use when talking to him/her and try to stick with it, using as few words as possible. For instance, if he/she tries to persuade you to change the parenting plan, say something like: “I’m not comfortable with this idea. I’m sure you have good intentions but this won’t work for me.”
- Don’t express genuine emotion to your ex or apologize for wrongdoing in the relationship. If your ex is a perilous or abusive narcissist, they might interpret your apology as proof of your incompetence and use it against you, according to Virginia Gilbert, MFT.
- Make sure you have a parenting plan that is structured and highly specific – spelling out schedules, holidays, vacations, etc. to minimize conflict. Using a communication notebook to share important details with your ex can be an essential tool and help you stay detached and business-like. Check out websites and articles on parallel parenting.
- Do accept help from counselors, mediators, or other helping professionals. Make sure you have plenty of support from a lawyer, friends, family, and a therapist. Use a third party mediator when needed. Educate yourself about strategies to deal with a difficult or high-conflict ex. Therapists who utilize cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) are usually the most successful dealing with survivors of a relationship with an ex who has a personality disorder.
It’s crucial that you take an honest look at the impact your ex’s behaviors and the dynamics in your relationship are having on you and your children. Once you accept that you can only control your own behavior – not a person with a difficult or high conflict personality – your life will greatly improve. After all, you and your children deserve to have a life filled with love and happiness!
Follow Terry Gaspard on Twitter, Facebook, and movingpastdivorce.com. Terry is pleased to announce the publication of Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-lasting Relationship (Sourcebooks).