7 Tips for Co-parenting With a Challenging, Narcissistic, or High-Conflict Ex

Once you accept that you can only control your own behavior – not that of a person with a difficult or high conflict personality – your life will greatly improve.

high-conflict ex looking angry

While co-parenting is a great opportunity for children to spend time with both parents – to feel it’s okay to be loved by both of their parents – there are some circumstances that make it problematic. For instance, it can be a challenge if you have a high-conflict ex who thrives on conflict, has a difficult personality, or a personality disorder. Certainly, experts agree that the outcomes for children of divorce improve when they have positive bonds with both parents. The potential benefits of co-parenting include a child or adolescent achieving better psychological and behavioral adjustment, and enhanced academic performance. However, few experts discuss the drawbacks of co-parenting when one parent is challenging, has a high conflict personality, or has a personality disorder such as a Narcissism. For example, Marissa, 45, and Tom, 48, have been co-parenting for three years and they reached a gridlock recently. Tom considers Marissa to be a challenging person who is demanding of his personal time and has little concern for his feelings. While Tom has moved on from his divorce, Marissa continues to ask him to do yardwork and household repairs; and to spend most holidays, birthdays, and special occasions with her and their three children. Meanwhile, Tom announced his engagement to Lillian, 40, and he’s been setting more boundaries on his time, including having separate holidays and celebrations. He also asked Marissa to hire a lawn service and to stop calling him to fix appliances in her home. Unhappy with Tom’s new boundaries, Lillian has been texting him daily with complaints and invited herself to his home on Thanksgiving. Truth be told, moving on from a divorce is hard, but it’s especially hard for someone with a difficult personality or personality disorder. In fact, some disordered people seek to harass their exes long after the breakup, making moving on very challenging. It’s also problematic for children in these homes because they often experience loyalty conflicts or feel stuck in the middle between two hostile parents. When Marissa and Tom agreed to attend co-parenting sessions, I encouraged them to focus on the well being of their children and to attempt to model cooperation rather than exposing them to high conflict. After meeting for eight sessions, both parents were able to compromise and come to some agreements that they could live with and would also benefit their children. Marissa hired a lawn service and was doing better at accepting that she needed to move on from her divorce,  stop harassing Tom, and accept that he would soon be remarried.

Here Are 7 Tips for Co-Parenting with a Challenging or High-Conflict Ex

Do set a positive example for your child.

Show compassion toward your child 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 high-conflict ex in front of your kids.

Do keep your child’s best interests in mind.

Although it’s stressful trying to co-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.

Do remember 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.

Do limit contact and set boundaries with your ex.

Try to avoid responding to his or her provocative comments in a defensive way to prevent disagreements.  For instance, if they criticize your parenting, say something like: “I’m not comfortable with this conversation. I’m sure you have good advice but I need to end it now.” Avoid text unless it’s about your child’s schedule or a place to meet them. Never text emotional content or critical remarks.

Do be careful not to admit wrongdoing, especially in writing, since this might be used against you.

Also, 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.

Do make a parenting plan a top priority.

It should be structured and highly specific – spelling out schedules, holidays, vacations, etc. to minimize conflict. Using a communication notebook or online resource to share important details with your ex can be an essential tool to help you stay detached and business-like.

Do seek support 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-partner by searching for books and websites that offer advice. The good news is that you can learn coping skills to deal with a high-conflict ex and lessen the negative impact on your day-to-day life. If co-parenting is not an option due to your ex having a personality disorder, contact a counselor for advice. Once you accept that you can only control your own behavior – not that of a person with a difficult or high-conflict personality – your life will greatly improve.  

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