I have a stalker. He doesn’t lurk in the bushes by my house with binoculars. He doesn’t follow me to work or spy on me while I run errands. But he still inserts himself into my life, and the effects of his actions are present in my home. He is the father of my child.
Before I got pregnant, I thought of narcissism as more of an annoying personality trait, like being self-absorbed or selfish, which everyone can be from time to time.
Fast forward 12 years after the birth of our daughter in 2007, and I am now a walking textbook on Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I learned the grueling way about this cluster B personality disorder.
For several years, the only label I could give him was jerk. Well, in my mind I selected a stronger word than jerk, but for the purposes of this article I’ll stick to jerk. When my daughter was about ten years old in 2017, I thought about some of his characteristics: lack of empathy, sense of entitlement and superiority, being a bully, angry, and anger issues, to name a few. I typed them into the Google search bar. Voila! Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) popped up.
I was almost relieved to see a psychological diagnosis that encompassed all of these traits… but then I was horrified and devastated. This would not get better. He intimidated me, bullied me, and threatened me.
Twelve wonderful years with my daughter. Twelve excruciating years trying to co-parent with a narcissist. I’ve read all of the articles that say instead of co-parenting, try parallel parenting. The authors of these articles tell those of us who have children with a narcissist to disengage from the other parent, run our households without interfering with the rules of the other parent’s home, and eventually the dust will settle. Then we’ll be able to co-parent successfully and get along.
But that’s not always reality. These authors never tell you how to handle schedule changes, obstruction of medical treatments, manipulation of your child, and a host of other devious and deviant behaviors when the other parent is a narcissist.
My daughter’s father and I are not co-parenting. He is counter-parenting while I do my best to navigate the chaos that he creates and raise our daughter. But isn’t that the point of the narcissist’s onslaught? Once you are a target, the harassment, the manipulation, and the litigation may be relentless.
Even though I now know what I’m dealing with, this doesn’t make it easier for me emotionally. E-mails from him read like cyber attacks. When I see a message from him in my inbox, my heart races and my fingers shake. Will it be a threat of a contempt charge or a broken agreement that leaves me scrounging for a backup plan? Will it be blame games or a name-calling session that I can ignore, or will I need to defend myself with a brief e-mail response in case the e-mail is used in family court? On any day that I don’t see an email from him in my inbox, my pulse is normal, there is no tension, and I get to relax for a short period of time.
The holy writ of narcissism is that it is an addiction to power and control. Yes, it’s an addiction. My mind was blown when I first learned this. Like a drug addict needs his fix of heroin, a narcissist needs to manipulate, control, and, in some cases, terrorize.
Framing it this way helped me discern why my attempts to reason with my child’s father, present a logical explanation, appeal to his sense of humanity did not work for all those years. There is no reasoning, there is no logic, and there is no humanity. Her father is compelled to “win” at all costs. And when he finally wins, it feels empty to him because he is an addict. He needs to win even more.
While I am still learning how to create a healthier emotional space for myself and maybe even get some leverage, I am at least armed with techniques to diffuse some situations. Based upon my own research and experience, I have found some strategies that can mitigate narcissistic abuse. I will also explain some ways to conduct yourself and things to consider if you are in the middle of a court battle with a narcissist.
In terms of communication, less is more.
If you are court ordered to tell him medical information, for example, do so briefly. I typically tell my daughter’s father that I took her to the doctor, that she was diagnosed with X and that the treatment is Y. I then add that if he wants more information, he may follow up with her doctor if he wishes. I stick to the facts.
If he accuses me of something, I do not respond. He usually accuses me of doing something that he himself is doing. Narcissists often project their behavior onto their target. When I receive the baseless emails accusing me of wrongdoing, it’s really his confession. He is actually telling on himself. This is projection at its finest.
Canned Responses and The Grey/Yellow Rock Methods
If you do feel the need to respond, a good canned response I’ve learned comes from Tina Swithin, a mother warrior, child advocate, and founder of One Mom’s Battle: “Your attempt to portray me in a negative light is noted, and I disagree with your interpretation of events.” If he bombards you with more emails, copy and paste the canned response.
Taking all of the emotion out of your reply and keeping it brief and to the point are the tenets of what is called the gray rock method of communication. Its name originated from the idea that people dealing with narcissists become like nondescript rocks and pebbles that we don’t notice while walking down the road. Since narcissists crave drama, the goal is to become as boring as a gray rock.
When he sends a crazy rant, curse at the computer, call your friend to commiserate or punch a pillow. Do whatever you need to do to release your anger or grief. But do not return his insane rant with an emotionally charged rant of your own. This is what the narcissist hopes you will do. Triggering you is his hobby. To him, you and your child are like two-dimensional video game characters that he expects to jump when he pushes your buttons.
Many narcissists are litigious because one way they can control you after you leave them is through the courts. If they file a motion, you must respond. If they file a contempt charge, you must defend yourself. This means that your e-mails might end up as exhibits before a judge.
According to Swithin, if women trying to co-parent with narcissists use the strict grey rock method, they look cold. The sad irony is that we are expected to be friendly to our abuser. She promotes an alternative to the gray rock method that she calls the yellow rock method. It’s the gray rock method with politeness scattered throughout. Using the phrases please, thank you and have a nice day allows you to be boring but with a dash of kindness thrown in.
I always must consider how I’ll be perceived by a judge in my emails, while still trying to protect myself.
Narcissists will not follow the court order, but they are afraid of being exposed in court.
He made getting my daughter’s braces an impediment to my living the quiet life I desired. The court order states he pays 79% of any out-of-pocket medical expenses and he provides her medical and dental insurance. In addition, because he ended up going on disability for a medical condition, he no longer had to pay child support since the Social Security Administration effectively took over those payments. He filed a motion to modify child support to zero and change the court order to make me the payor for her health and dental insurance. In an email to me, he stated he wanted a “satisfactory court settlement,” which meant one that was in his best interests, and then called the orthodontist, telling him not to treat her.
I would imagine a parent who deprived his or her child of a medically necessary treatment (her braces were not solely for cosmetic purposes) would feel ashamed. I wanted him to feel ashamed. He should have felt ashamed. But I knew that he didn’t.
When my lawyer and I were on the cusp of attending the hearing at which a judge would learn of his decision to not let our daughter get braces, he became more amenable to negotiating an agreement. The concern now was being exposed. While he personally believed that his actions were reasonable, he knew intellectually that preventing our daughter from getting braces wouldn’t be acceptable to a judge. The fear wasn’t about hurting his child, it was about being exposed.
#MeToo to Unmask the Narcissistic Parent
If a protective mother attempts to expose an abusive ex to a judge, she runs the risk of being labeled a parental alienator and ultimately losing her children.
Similar to when women are sexually harassed on the street, we often pretend to ignore it and do nothing, letting strange men continue to shout catcalls at us and grope us. Women feel shame when really the men should.
Exposing men’s bad behavior is the key to change, and it’s no different with a narcissistic parent. I believe that one of the biggest fears of the narcissist is exposure. The #MeToo movement for sexual predators should be applied to unmasking the narcissistic parent as well.
Dealing with Court Professionals
If you’re going to court or have a guardian ad litem (GAL) or a child and family investigator (CFI), never say outright that your ex has Narcissistic Personality Disorder. That may blow up in your face. Even if you’re a psychologist, don’t say it. Without a diagnosis from a mental health professional, you will sound like you are badmouthing your ex which will be a red flag to the court. Don’t even recommend your ex get psychological testing.
While you can’t say he has Narcissistic Personality Disorder, you can show it. Narcissistic rage makes people with NPD impulsive and stupid. I don’t recommend creating conflict on purpose to wind up the narcissist, as that can backfire on you. Allow him to dig his own hole. Underneath the calm demeanor is a psyche filled with chaos, self-hatred, and extreme insecurity.
When you don’t follow his “rules” or “behave” according to his specifications, you are reminding him of his lack of control. Narcissists lash out without thinking about the consequences. Their lack of control may be used against them. Present the CFI or GAL with his scathing emails and incriminating text messages.
Until family court judges become more educated about NPD, be careful with recordings, and ask a lawyer about using them in court. However, you may be able to play them for the GAL or CFI.
The Narc Decoder
In her book, “The Narc Decoder: Understanding the Language of the Narcissist,” Tina Swithin from One Mom’s Battle presents the reader with tools to decipher the hidden messages in vitriolic emails from the narcissist. Narcissists speak a language of distorted reality, lies, and projections of their shortcomings. The Narc Decoder translates the language of narc-ish so you can find peace and clarity.
I had taken my daughter for several sessions with a psychotherapist for issues regarding school, friends, and other typical pre-teen angst (her father had approved of it). After her father began filming me at exchanges, my daughter wanted to see her therapist again. I notified him of the upcoming session. The next day, I received the following email from him: You are not to take my daughter to see her therapist or any other therapist. Further, I have spoken with her therapist to discuss this matter and informed her that she is not to see my daughter. You have refused to speak with me or behave as a responsible co-parent since October. Your behavior has placed a great deal of stress on our daughter and sending her to a therapist is not the solution. Correcting your behavior is the solution.
Using the Narc Decoder, here is the real meaning behind those words: I own my daughter and she is only my child. I am scared that if you take my daughter to see the therapist, she will tell her how manipulative I am and that I harass and film you when you pick her up. I am the only one who can make decisions for her and I will exert my control by calling the health care provider to veto your decision.
I will not acknowledge that you have communicated with me and instead will lie in an email so the judge thinks you are not a good co-parent. I know that you have sent many emails communicating pertinent information about my daughter but I will still try to persuade the judge otherwise. I will place the blame on you for any stress that my daughter is feeling because I cannot take responsibility for my actions that put my need to punish you above her best interests.
Sending her to a therapist makes me nervous because then my manipulative behavior will be exposed. I again place all blame on you so the court thinks that you are in the wrong and I may continue to feel superior to you. I have no intention of putting my anger towards you aside and changing my behavior so that we may co-parent.
The Narc Decorder won’t change the narcissist. Nothing will change the narcissist unless he decides to change, which would mean admitting that the narcissist has a personality disorder. The Narc Decoder makes communicating with the narcissist easier because you’ll end the effort to find any logic in his words.
Interpreting his email to uncover the true meaning takes the sting out of his lies, accusations and blame. You’ll soon discover that it’s a frightened, insecure shell of a person who is barraging you with emails, texts and phone calls. If you can picture him as a toddler having a hissy fit while typing his nonsense, you might even laugh about it.
When your child was a preschooler, the best way to get him to eat his vegetables was to give him a choice. Would you like broccoli or carrots? If you need something from a narcissist, offer him a choice of two things that are acceptable to you. You get something you want and he feels in control. Not providing a choice may make him feel like a threatened animal backed into a corner. He may stonewall you or lash out like a tiger.
Always remember: narcissists lack empathy.
Because my child’s father is on disability, my daughter receives a portion of his monetary benefit which substitutes for his child support. As the custodial parent, I am the representative payee and manage her money. He has told her many times that I am stealing her money and called the Social Security Administration to have me investigated.
Of course, his allegations were unfounded, but even in the midst of the turmoil that I was going through, I thought perhaps he believed I was stealing the money and he was trying to protect her. However, I realized that would be granting him the attribute of being able to feel empathy. It was simply a tactic to create more havoc.
Never accept any “favors.”
Be wary anytime a narcissist is giving or helpful. If my daughter’s father offered me $100, I would say no. Literally, if he handed me a $100 dollar bill with no strings attached, I would say hell no. Narcissists don’t have one altruistic bone in their bodies. There are always strings attached. And if I took that $100, he would eventually use it against me and string me up.
Quid Pro Quo
Quid pro quo. Something for something is absolutely essential when co-parenting with a narcissist. Maybe he wants to deviate from the schedule. Maybe he wants to switch holidays with you.
Before realizing that my daughter’s father had NPD, I gave him extra time with her when he asked without requesting to make up that time. For me, doing someone a favor was never an expectation of getting one in return.
It wasn’t until the an employee with the Social Security Administration (SSA) informed me that he told the representative that we have 50/50 parenting time because of the extra overnights he got (you know, my acts of kindness) that I changed my tune. He told the SSA rep that he should receive her monetary portion of disability because we share parenting time equally.
The only thing is, we don’t have 50/50 parenting time. It’s 65/35. He used my generosity to stab me in the back. Now, if he asks for even two extra hours with her, I make sure to get those two hours back. This may seem petty but you never know how a narcissist will twist your good deeds.
The other reason that a quid pro quo is imperative is that just because you do something nice for a narcissist, does not mean he’ll return the favor down the road.
Never extend credit to, or accept promises from, a narcissist. As soon as they get what they want, they will be on to the next thing, forgetting whatever they said they would do for you. Sometimes they make promises they don’t intend to keep, but just as often, they merely forget. Either way, you should keep a ledger in your mind and make sure you get what they dangle in front of you before you give them what they want. With other people, this mercenary approach might seem insulting. Narcissists will respect you for it. Everything in their world is quid pro quo. They will rarely be offended by people looking out for themselves.
At this time, the courts don’t much care about emotional abuse, and even with a confirmed diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, narcissists may still get 50% parenting time.
One of the most disturbing things my daughter has told me is that she feels like she has to make him happy. I know that feeling and the fear behind it. When you cross a narcissist, he will make you pay. In my case, this includes mentally, financially, and physically. My daughter has internalized the message that she needs to appease him or face his wrath.
The good news is that as long as you are an empathetic role model, your child will grow up to be a loving and emotionally healthy adult. Children need one stable parent and you must be it. One of my friends whose ex is a narcissist reads books with her young children and asks them how they think the characters are feeling. She instills empathy in them because their father can’t.
On the days when the narcissist’s crazy-making is blasting at full speed, you still need to be composed and supportive to your child. I know those days when I’ve wanted to pull my hair out. I’m fortunate to have a loving husband and friends to hold me up when I want to crash. Therapy and meditation help too. Self-care is critical.
I’m also now an advocate for educating judges and other legal professionals about Cluster B personality disorders and family court reform. Activism provides an outlet for my frustration and anger. Yes, I’m angry.
I recently watched the movie Late Night. Emma Thompson’s character, the arrogant snide late show host, says, “When you hate yourself, the only thing that makes you feel better is to get other people to feel the same way you do.”
Because the father of my child is miserable and I have become his target, his goal is to make me miserable too. I sometimes wonder how obsessed a person must be to come up with such devious and cruel actions.
When my daughter turns 18 in a few years and I am no longer legally bound to her narcissistic father, I may even find sympathy for him. As difficult as some of my days are because of him, at least I’m not him. I can find solace in that and knowing that when my daughter is with me, she is in a loving and emotionally healthy home.