There is conflict in every relationship. In even the most like-minded and egalitarian households there will be disagreement about things. You let them jump on the furniture, he doesn’t. He believes in paying allowance for chores, you don’t think your kids should get paid for contributing to the household. Whether big issues or small, there is always something. In a healthy relationship there is discussion, compromise, and eventually agreement. When you’re dealing with a person who is a narcissist, every issue is a big issue, and the solution is their way or the highway.
Narcissism stems from a deep lack of self-esteem and it is valid to worry that your narcissistic partner will trample his children’s confidence, just like he has trampled yours. Everything a narcissist does is, in their eyes, a reflection of themselves. It is no different with their children. Narcissistic parents do not view their children as individual people, but as a way to feed their own egos. The child’s success is the parent’s success. The child’s failure is the parent’s failure. This is a huge pressure on the child. Not only will the narcissistic parent push the child to succeed, but if the child becomes too successful, the narcissistic parent can view that child’s success as a blow to his own fragile ego.
Manage Your Expectations
When dealing with a high-conflict personality such as a narcissistic partner, you may fear that your ex is trying to turn your kids against you. You may also worry that your children are picking up some pretty bad character traits. Those are valid concerns. Narcissists see their families as a source of narcissistic supply. When that source of narcissistic supply goes away - whether it is as a result of divorce or just the natural movement of growth - the narcissist will fight back. Just knowing what you’re dealing with can help you maintain your composure and limit escalation. Recognize that the narcissist in your life won’t accept blame for anything. Chances are, the narcissist will shift the blame onto anyone and everyone, rather than take it on himself.
Model Good Behavior
If you’re dealing with children, the conflict that a narcissistic partner causes can be very damaging to them. Children need role models who exhibit healthy behavior. If your kids see you giving in to your ex whenever he throws a tantrum - well, is that a lesson you want them to learn? Showing your children by example how to communicate with their high-conflict parent will come in handy when they grow older and start to have dealings with him themselves. Even in the best of circumstances, children learn behavior from watching their parents. Showing your kids that you can maintain your control when dealing with your ex, that you won’t back down in the face of threats and manipulation, will help them thrive and excel when they go out in the world and have to deal with their narcissistic boss or co-workers, or to recognize those characteristics in their potential mates.
Don’t speak ill of your ex in front of or to your kids. Kids repeat things, as I found out once when talking to a friend about my ex in front of my, then, three-year-old daughter. Later on, she repeated what I said about my ex to my husband as if I said it about him. So if you don’t want things to blow up when you’re not expecting them to, remember that grandma taught you not to say anything unless you can say something nice or, in this case, neutral at the worst.
In many cases limiting communications to email can be helpful. It gives you time to respond without emotion and doesn’t afford an opportunity for conflict. Tools like Our Family Wizard can be helpful in this respect. If seeing your ex’s name in your inbox makes you itch, enlist a level-headed friend to help you read them. Often times an objective set of eyes can read through the BS and aid in forming a cogent response. If you need to, wait 24 hours before hitting the send button so you can carefully review what you’ve written.
When you do respond, do so courteously and appropriately. Do not respond to accusations and vitriol. Be assertive, but not aggressive. There is a difference. Being assertive means setting appropriate, realistic personal boundaries and maintaining those boundaries. Being aggressive will only create more conflict. Remember, your narcissistic ex thrives on conflict. Where there is none, he will create some. If you try to reason with him, he will twist your words and your actions and use them against you. He is not above using your children as weapons in his arsenal. Whatever he lobs at you, do your best not to return it. It is important to maintain emotional distance. In many cases, simply not engaging is the best strategy. Not engaging conveys that you will not allow yourself or your children to be bullied.
Image Courtesy of FlexibleDreams.com
It’s important to know, whether your STB-ex is a narcissist or not, that you’re not alone. There is absolutely strength in numbers. There are support groups and 12-step groups such as Codependents Anonymous that can provide support and link you with other people who’ve been through and are going through what you are going through.
There is also strength within your own family unit, minus your ex. Nurture that strength. Make sure your children have the same types of support that you need for yourself. Find them a therapy group, if you feel it’s necessary. Sometimes children can’t discuss their parents with their parents and putting them in a room with an objective trusted adult can help them work through their more private issues. Validate their feelings. You know exactly how they feel, so why not show them that you’re all united? Show that you’re interested in them as people and that they are not merely extensions of you. Help them develop their passions and strengths. Teach them to be compassionate and respectful individuals. These traits will carry them far and help them form healthy relationships.
Dealing with your narcissistic ex isn’t always going to be pretty or easy. In fact, likely it will be the opposite. But if you can choose your battles, maintain your composure, surround yourself with a good support network, and remember that ,no matter what he says, you’re not the one at fault, you will be able to swim in the shark-infested waters safely.
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*lead image courtesy of Lily Atherton