By Kelsey Kuehn, LPC
If you’re familiar with Greek mythology, you probably know the story of Narcissus, an extremely handsome man who cruelly rejected all of his romantic advances. One day he discovered the reflection of his face while gazing into a pool of water and fell instantly in love. He died by the pool of water, debilitated by self-absorption.
A narcissist is calculated and manipulative. They give you love and affection only to take it away, leaving you in a state of anxiety and self-doubt. The world seems to revolve around them as they are in constant need of attention and validation. They frequently lie in an attempt to make themselves look good and others bad. They disregard other peoples’ feelings and repeatedly violate boundaries.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder
It’s vital to distinguish between someone suffering from a diagnosable personality disorder and someone who displays traits of narcissism. Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental illness that consists of pervasive, inflexible behaviors. These are the symptoms, as listed in the DSM-5 (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders):
- an inflated sense of self-importance
- solely focused on unlimited success, power, and beauty
- believes they are special and only associate with high-status people
entitled and arrogant
- takes advantage of others for their own personal gain
- lacks empathy
- displays envy toward others
Many people have narcissistic tendencies, like self-centeredness, without having a mental illness. Perhaps you or someone you know have some of these characteristics or have displayed some of these qualities during your life. That means you’re human! It’s only when you greatly lack empathy, have the belief you are better than or worth more than others, and experience distress and impairment in your functioning that narcissism becomes pathological. When I use the term narcissism here, I am referring to insidious narcissism, the type that devalues others for personal gain.
Being in a Relationship with a Narcissist
You may be wondering how people develop a relationship with a narcissist since they are so conniving. Let’s think about a narcissist on paper: good credentials, financially stable, attractive, successful. Since narcissists value these things so much, they can often attain the high status they’re desperately seeking. They may look to the external world like they are suitable partners.
At first, they may even be charming and appear to be loving. But, as we know, this is a manipulation tactic since they are only focused on what can benefit them, oftentimes at the demise of others.
A genuine, loving connection is unthinkable with someone who lacks respect and empathy for you. Typically, when someone is in a relationship with a narcissist, they are victims of psychological and emotional abuse. If you think you may be in a relationship with a narcissist, it’s a good idea to seek counseling.
Parenting with a Narcissist
If you’ve left a relationship with a narcissist but have children together, you’ve already done quite a bit of work. You’ve identified the narcissistic traits that have wreaked havoc on your life. You’ve taken the steps to leave your relationship, but you remain hooked because you share something special: a child. How do you share something that can be so sacred and vulnerable, like parenting, with a narcissistic ex-partner?
Take a moment and think about your ex-partner’s behavior. Are they controlling? Do they blame or gaslight you? Try to intimate you or your child? Attempt to isolate your child? Talk poorly about you in front of your child? Are they emotionally abusive or emotionally neglectful?
If you’re answering yes, the narcissistic and abusive signs are there. Oftentimes, people need to go through a grieving process. Their child doesn’t have a loving, compassionate parent. That’s a hard pill to swallow.
Co-Parenting vs. Parallel Parenting
Co-parenting is when you and your ex-partner work together to raise your child. This involves communicating regularly; discussing parenting tactics and agreeing on consequences and rules between households; and both parties actively engaging in their child’s activities. This takes two people who are on the same page, openly communicative, and gracious.
Co-parenting is impossible when you’re dealing with a narcissist. You should no longer attempt to get your ex-partner to change or finally see the light. I know this is hard, but it’s the sad truth.
What is possible is something called parallel parenting. This is when both parties parent by their own approach with minimal communication. This approach is businesslike and reduces the opportunity for conflict. Here are some important parallel parenting moves:
- Created a detailed parenting plan. If your ex-partner fails to comply with the rules, you have established clear, enforceable consequences in a written agreement. It’s a great idea to get the courts or law enforcement involved for this.
- Use a lawyer to come to written agreements on education, medical decisions, visitation (times, pick-up/drop-off locations), holidays, finances, and religion.
- Use only written communication when it’s absolutely necessary to communicate. This way you have a paper trail for legal purposes, and you avoid manipulative in-person interactions.
- Set firm boundaries. This one is important because it can be easy to fall victim to a narcissist’s manipulation tactics. If they’re being nice and you’re feeling empathetic, still don’t budge on your agreed upon rules.
- Don’t share any personal information. Remember, narcissists use any information for their personal gain. You don’t want to give them ammunition.
- Protect your children. While a lot may seem out of your control when it comes to parenting with a narcissist, remember that much of your control comes from how you treat yourself and your child. Your child may be subjected to negativity from your ex, so it’s important to monitor what you say in front of your child. Parent from a place of empathy and love, something they don’t get from their other parent. What’s in your control is creating a safe environment within your household. Make it a place that is filled with understanding and compassion. Allow space for your child to have feelings: validate them and model healthy coping skills.
- Go to counseling for support. It’s clear how challenging parenting with a narcissist can be; it may even feel like a full-time job. It is vital to have professional support.
In the story of Narcissus, a young and love-struck character named Echo falls deeply in love with him. She is brutally rejected, but her longing ensues. After Narcissus dies, Echo also deteriorates. She cannot care for herself because she is so preoccupied with Narcissus.
A critical lesson can be learned from Echo. The more you are preoccupied with a narcissist, the less you are focused on living a fulfilling life of your own.
But if one thing’s for sure… you have the power to break free.