Coparenting or parallel parenting with a toxic, narcissist ex? Here’s what to do

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If the usual co-parenting advice does not apply to your high-conflict situation, this post is for you. Keep reading on information on how to successfully co-parent and parallel parent with a narcissistic or toxic ex — as well as how to navigate common co-parenting problems.

Common coparenting problems — and how to deal with a bad coparent

Read this post if you are looking for basic co-parenting rules and tips.

If you and your ex are still working on co-parenting communication and tend to fight a lot, keep reading. We will address issues including:

1. “My ex cancels all the time.”

2. “My ex is trying to prevent me from introducing my boyfriend to the kids.” or “I’m upset my kids’ dad introduced them to his new girlfriend right away.” Here are the rules.

3. “My kids’ stepparent is overstepping boundaries.”

4. Fighting with your kids’ dad about holiday schedules? Do this…

5. “My ex is a narcissist.”

Co-parenting with a toxic or narcissist ex: When co-parenting doesn’t work?

Here is the good and bad news: It is possible to co-parent with a narcissist.

The good news is that there are tools you can use to ensure your kid has a relationship with both parents, equally, which is what research finds is what is best for kids — and moms and dads.

The negative side of this is that you have to co-parent with a narcissist. This is hard, frustrating and seemingly impossible — yet it can be done.

How to coparent with a narcissist ex

Maybe he or she has been diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder, or perhaps they have a more-than-normal dose of narcissism. Either way, you are stuck co-parenting with your kids’ other parent, and it is possible.

Perhaps you have to resign yourself to parallel parenting, in which you do not interact much at all, but instead allow each other to parent as you see fit when the child is in each of your care.

Or you learn to ‘grey rock’ your ex — not react to any inflammatory texts, calls or messages sent through the kids. Co-parenting couples therapy can help. So can co-parenting classes.

Can you co-parent with a narcissist?

Yes, people co-parent with narcissists every day! However, many parents who share parenting with a narcissist find that parallel parenting works best. Parallel parenting is a brand of co-parenting in which each parent more or less parents how they prefer during their parenting time, with minimum collaboration between mom and dad. In fact, all parenting has some element of parallel parenting, as each parent has their own style, rules and personality.

How do you survive co-parenting with a narcissist?

  • Self-care
  • Focus on what you can control
  • Try to stay unemotional

How do I protect my child from a narcissistic father?

Divorce attorney and expert on narcissism Rebecca Zung gives this advice on how to protect your kid from a narcissistic parent:

  • Educate yourself about parental alienation
  • Accept that you can’t change the narcissist
  • Try to stay unemotional!
  • Consider a custody evaluation
  • Document all egregious behavior
  • Don’t seek a restraining order frivolously
  • Use a co-parenting app
  • Write a binding non-disclosure clause — no bad-talking — written into the parenting agreement
  • Seek out therapy for your children

How to negotiate with a narcissist — and win

Parallel parenting: Alternative to coparenting?

For parents who just cannot figure out how to communicate and collaborate on parenting, experts recommend parallel parenting. This means you disengage from one another, and each of you parents as you see fit.

Be warned: You will still need to communicate and collaborate in many ways. But parallel parenting removes the pressure to be on the same page about all parenting tactics and attitudes, and you don’t have to communicate as often. Essentially, both of you have to let go of a lot of control and respect that the other parent is competent — which is a great foundation for successful co-parenting!

What parallel parenting looks like:

  • You are both on the hook to collaborate for big decisions like medical care and education.
  • As for the day-to-day decisions of child care, you each make your own routines and decision.
  • No need to try to chit chat at pick-ups or be friendly at school events — let that go (for now).
  • You have a strict parenting plan, and both you adhere to it respectfully — perhaps with the help of a mediator or other third-party.

Here is a free parenting plan template.

How to co-parent with an abuser

If there is a history of domestic violence, you likely have an order of protection, drop-offs and pickups at public places, as well as supervised visits for the children. This is a difficult situation, and it may not get better. Using a co-parenting app can help (especially if it is court-mandated) because any text communication is documented and can be submitted to the court or authorities.

Parallel parenting is likely the best strategy when co-parenting with an abuser.

Try OurFamilyWizard co-parenting app for free for 30 days >>

How to co-parent with a passive-aggressive, toxic, controlling ex

If your child’s mother or father is very difficult, uncooperative, or otherwise a pain in the ass, stick to the advice above, and keep in mind on how to co-parent with a controlling or toxic ex:

  • They likely won’t change
  • Accept your part of the relationship. How do you respond to nasty messages or manipulative behavior?
  • Practice the “grey rock” method, and do not respond to any aggressive behavior. Do not give your coparent the satisfaction of seeing you get mad or defensive. Do a lot of ignoring.
  • Heal yourself. The relationship was likely hurtful. Heal from that hurt. Forgive (hard as it is!). Surround yourself and your kids with positive, healthy people. Recondition yourself to expect and express joy and cooperation.

Learn more about online therapy leader BetterHelp, for $65/week >>

How to co-parent with a manipulative ex

Stick to your instincts about what is right and wrong.

When they go low, you go high.

Focus on the facts, and get all agreements in writing.

How to coparent with an alcoholic

Millions of parents are addicts, and it is very hard to trust that a parent who abuses alcohol, illegal drugs, marijuana, prescription drugs — not to mention sex, food, gambling, and drama!

If your ex is actively using, you likely have supervised visits. If you do not, and you have not been successful in securing a limited visitation schedule through the courts, is there a way to coordinate visits with a family member, friend or leader in your religious community to keep the kids safe?

Seek professional support, but keep this advice in mind:

  • Support their recovery efforts.
  • Recognize and work on any codependency on your part. Al-anon.

If you have an amicable relationship, create an agreement that addresses restrictions on driving, increased communication between you and the addicted parent, and repercussions if they use when they are with the children. This Psychology Today article gives good advice on co-parenting with an addict.

How to co-parent with someone you hate

My post-divorce road with my ex has been rocky. We’re six years into this co-parenting business, and we’re far from hitting a permanent groove. In the early days, aside from screaming matches in front of the kids and neighbors alike, there were in fact calls to police and a restraining order. Weeks would go by without seeing him, and last-minute cancellations were commonplace.

Whatever nasty thing you can imagine saying to another person were in fact said. I’m guilty.

It seems inconceivable that our relationship would be anything other than an East Coast version of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee, minus the fake tits, drugs and millions of dollars.

Every day I hear from people in the midst of coparenting hell: Dads who check out, moms who block visitation, parents who cancel visits while the kids are waiting by the door, parents who call police when the other is one minute past the court-ordered time, screaming matches and one or the other spending nights in jail — for no good reason.

Fast-forward to today, and my ex and I hardly have it figured all out, and ups-and-downs ensue. What I could not have imagined has come to pass: More or less regular visits and smooth communication. Spontaneous meals together with the kids, whether at my place or restaurants. Rides shared in one or the other’s Subaru to soccer games. Gifts exchanged on behalf of the kids to the other parent on birthdays and holidays. Chit chats and the occasional hug after a big argument or birthday party co-hosted successfully at the local bowling alley.

As I told him recently in a co-parenting counseling session: I love him. I’ve known him for more than 15 years and have two kids with him. He’s a good person. I’m a good person. We both love the kids. At some point everything more or less calmed down, the divorce was finalized and life moved forward. Battles picked. The immediate trauma of divorce subsided.

I wish I could say we are perfectly civilized like the lovely Brandie Weikle, my friend who heads the excellent blog and podcast TheNewFamily.com, and who lives next door to her ex and his new wife, and are the shining model for what a healthy coparenting relationship can look like — but that would be a lie (though we did discuss vacationing together — until we got into a fight about it, but nevermind.)

Instead, I am here to tell you that it can get better. That one day while you’re both at the soccer game expecting the usual arctic glacier to stand between you on either side of the sidelines, you will find that you need help passing out rice crispy treats for the team in order to make it to the team manager meeting for  your other kid across the park. And you will say, ‘Hey, can you handle this for me?’ and he will be so glad to thaw the boreal tension that he will chirp, ‘Sure!’ and suddenly there is a bit of a rapport, a hint of cozy relations that suggest the potential for more of good vibes and less of teeth-grinding hostility, and it feels good.

It feels good to you, and it feels good to him, too. And after a while you forget why you were so freaking angry at him all the time, because being angry just sucks and being nice and getting along is so much better. Even if it isn’t fair or logical, you let go. You forgive. He forgives. You see this has been hard for him, too. You see that he does love the kids, and that is a lot. You offer him a ride home. He offers to help you replace your windshield wiper blade.

You get on with it. Steel yourself not for friendship or even a sense of family. At least not yet. Instead, you open yourself to a relationship that you have not yet defined, but will explore. And everything is better.

That, I want you to know — need you to know — is possible.

Co-parent counseling

Co-parent counseling can be helful for all separated families, whether you get along or not. This is just what it sounds like: a neutral, trained therapist helps the two of you (as well as any step-parents if you choose) work together to resolve disagreements, set rules and boundaries for your relationship, and establishe communication tools and guidelines for day-to-day coparentng, as well as the inevitable challenges of raising children.

Technology can save you here, too. Counseling via phone, video, e-mail or text is much less expensive than in-person therapy, which might be a great fit for your single-mom budget.

Bonus: If you can’t stand to be in the same room with your ex for more than five minutes without wanting to cry (or scream), you don’t have to be.

What happens in coparent counseling?

What happens in co-parenting counseling depends on each family. Sometimes there is a major conflict that needs to be resolved before the parents can move forward, but more typically the therapist will focus on practical issues of communicating, setting rules and disciplining the kids, negotiating schedule changes, and managing big and small decisions of parenting together as a united front.

Coparent counseling goals

You and your child’s other parent can establish your own goals, though here are some to consider:

  • Establish ground rules for how you will communicate with one another, in terms of tone, subject matter, timelines.
  • Determine which issues you will decide together, and which you are allowed to make separately for your own household.
  • Resolve issues between the two of you regarding scheduling, money, parenting styles, integrating new significant others into your families, or other disagreements.
  • Check in regularly about the wellbeing of the children, and address any developmental, discipline, academic or other issues.
  • Find ways to celebrate your success as co-parents and your kids
  • Learn to see each other as partners and support in parenting.

What to expect in coparent counseling online

Typically, online counseling for three people, including co-parents, includes sessions with the three of you on one call. Some co-parenting apps only allow for two screens at a time, so you and your co-parent may have to be in the same room for the session. Sometimes the therapist may ask to meet you separately, as well as together. You can also communicate by email with the therapist directly to share your ideas and thoughts.

Is co-parent counseling covered by insurance?

More and more often, behavioral health therapy is not covered by health insurance, but it is worth inquiring with your insurer about what they offer. When therapy is covered, it is typically possible to apply that coverage to co-parenting sessions.

Fortunately, online therapy sites and apps make counseling of all types more affordable and accessible.

A popular online therapy platform BetterHelp can set you and your ex up with one of the thousands of listed certified and licensed therapists. BetterHelp has an A+ rating from the Better Business Bureau, and prices start at $65/week for unlimited messaging and weekly live sessions. Financial assistance available. Use this link to get 10% off and get connected with a therapist immediately >>

Wealthysinglemommy.com founder Emma Johnson is an award-winning business journalist, activist and author. A former Associated Press reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has appeared on CNBC, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, NPR, TIME, The Doctors, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine. Winner of Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web” and a New York Observer “Most Eligible New Yorker," her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was a New York Post Must Read. A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Emma's Top Single Mom Resources.

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