The consequences of unknowingly co-parenting with a narcissist are unfathomable. You could watch your children grow up to be narcissistic themselves or your children could have so much neglected trauma that they’re unable to live life to the fullest because they’re constantly finding themselves in abusive environments. The list of horrifying consequences is longer than train smoke which is the reason that learning how to tell if you’re co-parenting with a narcissist is so important.
Learning about narcissistic abuse is the most reliable method that non-narcissistic parents can use to identify a narcissistic co-parent. The information they learn will allow them to accurately detect narcissistic behavior patterns in the relationship they have with the suspected narcissistic co-parent.
Even though society is becoming more and more aware of narcissistic abuse, narcissists are still really good at lurking in the shadows, flying under the radar, and evading detection, especially when it comes to co-parenting situations. Having an awareness of narcissistic abuse in all of its forms will allow you to protect your children from the suspected narcissist and guide you through the complexity of it all.
8 Signs That You’re Co-parenting With a Narcissist
It’s really important that you have a comprehensive grasp of a narcissist’s origin story before learning about the eight signs that you’re co-parenting with a narcissist because many of the warning signs originate from a narcissist’s origin story.
It’s widely believed that narcissists are created by an unhealthy/abusive upbringing with primary caregivers who are consistently unresponsive, unavailable, and inconsistent. This upbringing causes the narcissist to develop a deeply rooted hatred for their true identity which happens to be vulnerable and insecure.
Children who are forced to grow up with unavailable, unresponsive, and inconsistent parents often begin to search their external environment for the validation, admiration, and reassurance they can’t get from their parents.
Depending on the child’s age, this could be anything from crying and having temper tantrums to winning awards, looking good, and overachieving. In the process of this insecure need for validation, admiration, and reassurance, the abusive parent’s behavior teaches the child on a subconscious level that they aren’t good enough.
As the child gets older, this belief transforms into a self-hate because they truly believe that their true identity is unloveable, rejectable, and undesirable. What ends up happening is that the child moves into adulthood with the same beliefs and self-hate, only this time they’re seeking society’s acknowledgement, not their parents.
It’s for this reason that narcissists spend their entire lives building a falsified identity that they believe will be validated, admired, and reassured by society.
But there’s a catch…
The narcissist’s unhealthy/abusive upbringing has left them incredibly emotionally immature. So much so that they’re incapable of regulating all of the negative emotions they have from the self-hate and abusive upbringing.
But because they despise characteristics they view as weak, unloveable, and rejectable, they’re incapable of seeking out therapeutic guidance like a non-narcissistic person would. Instead, they hide behind a falsified identity to keep the negative emotions at bay.
This information is REALLY important to have when learning about narcissistic abuse because even though it is not an excuse for their behavior, it explains why they’re so vicious when it comes to defending their falsified identity and distorted version of reality.
Suggested Reading: How Are Narcissists Made?
Narcissistic Co-parents Will Be Constantly Undermining You
The emotional immaturity of a narcissist causes them to place more value on extremely materialistic, one-dimensional, trivial, and superficial aspects of life than they do on things like emotional stability and healthy relationships.
Appearances are something that narcissists value very much. They feel entitled to being the center of everyone’s attention and admiration at all times. In co-parenting situations this will manifest in the form of the narcissist constantly undermining you and your parenting in an attempt to portray themselves as the better parent.
When my narcissistic ex-husband and I got divorced, our son’s grades plummeted. It was not an easy time for him at all but I still had to be his mother. Before the divorce, he would be allowed to play video games for one hour when he got home from school. But because his grades were so bad, I told him that he could only play once he finished his homework and we reviewed it together. He didn’t push back on this rule at all for the first few weeks of it being in place. But then his father found out about the rule I set and he undermined it every chance he could get. Before I could do anything he had my son convinced that my rule was unhealthy, irrational, and selfish. -Katy, a Survivor of 17 Years of Narcissistic Abuse
Narcissistic Co-parents Will Criticize Every Step You Take
To maintain their falsified identity and support their distorted version of reality, narcissists need a tangible representation of the destruction and chaos that they cause. A popular approach that narcissists have for satisfying this need is by putting down, devaluing, discrediting, and criticizing others.
The emotional stability of a narcissist is heavily dependent on their ability to satisfy this need because in a twisted way, having a tangible representation of the destruction and chaos that they cause is therapeutic because it allows them to project all of their suppressed negative emotions onto their victim.
In co-parenting situations this will often manifest in the form of the narcissist projecting all of his/her insecurities about parenting/the relationship they have with their children onto you.
My narcissistic ex-wife was a raging alcoholic. I mean it was out of control. When we got divorced she would leave these hour long drunken rants about how wrong my life was. She would criticize every single thing you could imagine. Her most consistent critique was about my parenting style. She knew how absent my father was throughout my childhood and she would find ways to weaponize that against me whenever she could. I remember this one time where I was half and hour late for pickup for personal reasons and later that night she left a drunken message basically telling me how horrifying my behavior was and how disappointed our daughter was in me because of it. -Ian, a Survivor of 22 Years of Narcissistic Abuse
Narcissistic Co-parents Have Very Poor Boundaries
A sense of entitlement, specialness, and uniqueness are hallmarks of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). It causes narcissists to feel as if they deserve whatever they want, whenever they want, however they want it.
This naturally causes them to have very poor boundaries. In fact, their sense of superiority actually finds boundaries incredibly offensive because it contradicts their falsified identity and convoluted reality that portrays them as special and unique.
In co-parenting scenarios with a narcissist, poor boundaries can manifest in the form of calling at inappropriate times, showing up early/late to pick ups/drop offs, or a blatant refusal to use court issued communication procedures.
When my ex-husband and I got divorced, I just thought it was bad luck. I hadn’t figured out that he was narcissistic, I just thought we were polar opposites and that was the reason things weren’t working. We had a son and I made sure that my ex-husband was still a big part of his life. I grew up without a father and I didn’t want him to know what that felt like. A few years after our divorce, I remarried and had a child with my current husband. I didn’t really know then but this triggered my narcissistic ex severely. He started calling me in the middle of the night, showing up unannounced, honking his car horn outside our house to wake my infant daughter up, and he even invited himself to my family’s Thanksgiving dinner after I told him that I didn’t want him to come. -Tracy, a Survivor of 33 Years of Narcissistic Abuse
Narcissistic Co-parents Are Two-Faced
The theatrical ability of a narcissist should not be underestimated. It’s important to remember how dependent narcissists are on their falsified identity. They spend their entire lives building, maintaining, and coddling their falsified identity out of a deeply rooted fear of rejection and abandonment.
You could go as far as saying that their falsified identity is more of an act of survival than an act of manipulation. This makes life incredibly difficult for victims and survivors because they’re often the only people who know just how abusive the narcissist really is.
This often creates a numerous number of problems in co-parenting situations because the non-narcissistic co-parent will have to deal with flying monkeys, people the narcissist manipulates into believing that the narcissist is the victim and the victim is the abuser, and narcissist enablers, people who don’t understand narcissistic abuse so they approach the situation as they would a healthy relationship, on the regular.
My narcissistic ex-husband is as charming and charismatic as they come. Everyone on the outside of our marriage adored him. He was very involved in our community, volunteered for food drives and shifts at the local homeless shelter, he was even the coach of our daughter’s traveling soccer team for a few years. When we got divorced, he didn’t even have to try to get flying monkeys or enablers. I was automatically labeled as the bad guy because of how much everyone loved him. I remember questioning myself so much because of it. I felt like there was no way that I made the right decision if everyone adored him even after I confided in others about the abuse. -Jenny, a Survivor of 15 Years of Narcissistic Abuse
Narcissistic Co-parents Use Gaslighting
When someone doubts and/or manipulates your reality it is called gaslighting. Over an extended period of time gaslighting can cause people to question their own sanity so severely that they’re unable to conceptualize their own version of reality.
Gaslighting is by far the most powerful and common form of manipulation in narcissistic relationships. Our article 6 Powerful Examples of Gaslighting In Narcissistic Relationships is a must read to accurately identify gaslighting in co-parenting situations with a suspected narcissist.
Unpacking the relationship a narcissist has with gaslighting is astonishing. Narcissists are so emotionally immature and inadequate that they need to believe in their falsified identity to keep their suppressed negative emotions at bay. Gaslighting is such a core part of narcissistic abuse because the mere existence of authenticity contradicts their reality one way or another so they are constantly using gaslighting to keep their own version of reality alive.
When my ex-wife and I got divorced, I had nobody to support me. 19 years of narcissistic abuse had left me broken, isolated, and lost. She gaslighted me into believing that I was a narcissist when we got divorced. She would point out specific things about my parenting and gaslight me into believing she was right by getting our daughter to chime in. I remember the day my daughter came home and asked for me to go to therapy. I felt so horrible and I even apologized to my narcissistic ex-wife for ruining everything. I was thinking about giving up custody of our daughter for a while but thankfully I did start going to therapy because it showed me the truth. -Patrick, a Survivor of 16 Years of Narcissistic Abuse
Narcissistic Co-parents Use Triangulation
Yet another product of a narcissist’s suppressed negative emotions is an insecure need for power and control. This need originates from their need of a tangible representation of the destruction they cause and the way they build their falsified identity.
A narcissist builds their falsified identity off of their perception of what society values. Unfortunately, their emotional immaturity makes them incapable of looking past society’s superficial exterior which is why they gravitate towards very superficial, one-dimensional, trivial, and materialistic aspects of life.
The most reliable and common way that narcissists fulfill their need for power and control is through triangulation. Triangulation is all about making one-on-one situations into two or more-on one situations. It turns people against each other and puts the narcissist in a position from which they can remain in power and control of everything.
Our article 6 Insightful Examples of Triangulation In Narcissistic Relationships is a really good resource for understanding triangulation on a deeper level but it’s important to know that triangulation in co-parenting situations is a very dangerous form of manipulation because it’s a manifestation of how little narcissists care about their children.
My narcissistic ex-fiancée used our child as a flying monkey. He had our daughter convinced that I was lying about the abuse, that I cheated on him, that I didn’t want her to be happy, and that I had a drug problem. It was just absurd but she was only 13, caught between a broken mother and an abusive father. It was a really hard time for us and we are still working to repair our relationship. -Regan, a Survivor of 15 Years of Narcissistic Abuse
Narcissistic Co-parents are Financially Abusive
Narcissists LOVE to use money to abuse others. We live in a society where money makes the world spin. It is the ultimate form of power and control. There are a few different types of financial abuse that narcissists use: economic exploitation, employment sabotage, and the abuser “takes care” of the finances.
Suggested Reading: The Three Types of Financial Abuse that Abusers Use to Control Others
Co-parenting situations with a narcissist are PLAGUED with financial abuse.
8 Examples of Financial Abuse One May Face When Co-Parenting With a Narcissist
- The abuser uses funds from their own child’s savings account without consulting their partner first.
- The abuser prevents the victim from attending job training, pursuing a higher education, or other advances in one’s career/education.
- The abuser forces the victim to “pay them back” for gifts.
- The abuser refuses to pay child support or threatens not to pay it.
- The abuser is “late” to pay child support, especially around the holidays.
- The abuser drags a divorce case out to cause financial suffering.
- The abuser uses money to “win over” the children.
- The abuser purposely loses his/her job to avoid financial responsibility he/she has to their children and/or non-narcissistic co-parent.
I still have 132k worth of debt to pay off because of the financial abuse my narcissistic ex-husband put me through. I could go on and on about what he did to me but what hurt the most was how he used money to turn our daughter into a weapon. When we got divorced, my daughter was going through the dreaded teenager phase. My ex-husband would buy her these AMAZING gifts, knowing that I couldn’t even come close to match it. It was so sad to watch because my daughter mistook his grandiosity for love and was just so confused for years. She wouldn’t let me explain anything either. I was just the mom who could only afford a mediocre dinner together or a quirky gift for her birthday. -Iris, a Survivor of 16 Years of Narcissistic Abuse
Narcissistic Co-parents Use A Lot of Projection
A narcissist’s inability to regulate their own emotions causes them to be over reliant on projection, a defense mechanism that all human beings use. Projection occurs when someone takes unwanted aspects of themselves and places them on another person, animal, or object.
A simple example of this in a narcissistic relationship would be a narcissist cheating on his/her partner but instead of taking responsibility for his/her betrayal, they accuse their partner of cheating instead.
Projection is really common to see in co-parenting situations because of what co-parenting represents for a narcissist. For non-narcissistic couples, co-parenting usually means that the relationship didn’t work out but there’s enough respect between the two people that they’re able to work together to raise their children in a healthy way.
For a narcissist, co-parenting is an embarrassment, especially when their victim is aware of their narcissistic behavior and acting accordingly. You see, narcissists have an obscured awareness. They can sense when people have them figured out.
Meaning that projection is really just an insecure, immature, and inadequate way a narcissist tries to regulate their own emotions. It is exactly where a narcissist’s tendency to undermine and criticize their non-narcissistic co-parent originates.
They want to make someone else feel as bad as they do on the inside so they have a tangible representation of the destruction they cause that serves as a reminder that they’re as special as they think they are because by putting others down, they feel better about themselves.
Suggested Reading: Why Do Narcissists Use Projection?
My ex-wife and I got divorced because she had an affair. I promised not to tell anyone, including the kids, about the affair because I didn’t want our children to be confused. I thought we would be able to live separate lives and be there for our children but I was insanely wrong. I found out one day that she had told our kids that I was the one who cheated, not her. When I confronted her about it, she honestly believed that I was the one who cheated. It was so terrifying to see how delusional she was. -Ron, a Survivor of 20 Years of Narcissistic Abuse
What Should You Take Away From This Article?
These were eight really reliable and trustworthy signs that you can use to determine whether or not you’re co-parenting with a narcissist. However, navigating the narcissistic realm should always be done with the guidance of medical professionals and the support of supporters who understand narcissistic abuse.
If you’re in a situation where you’re questioning whether or not you’re co-parenting with a narcissist, it is far better to be safe than sorry. Accurately identifying a narcissist is really hard! The presence of any one of these signs should encourage you to set boundaries with your co-parent to protect your children.
Your focus should be being an available, responsive, and consistent parent for your children while remaining a healthy emotional mirror for them.
Protecting you and your children from narcissistic abuse takes a lot of knowledge to pull off. Don’t lose yourself in the narcissistic realm searching for the finish line, just put your head down and take it one step at a time!
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This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for clinical care. Please consult a health care provider for guidance specific to your case.
Crockatt, Philip. “Freud’s ‘On narcissism: an introduction’.” Journal of child psychotherapy 32.1 (2006): 4-20.
Hardesty JL, Ganong LH. How women make custody decisions and manage co-parenting with abusive former husbands. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. 2006;23(4):543-563.