How to support your partner when they’re co-parenting with a narcissist ex

One of my favorite quotes about co-parenting with a narcissist is that narcissists don’t co-parent—they counter-parent. A narc co-parent has their own agenda and they view anything outside that agenda as a threat… including your attempts to co-parent amicably. A high-conflict ex doesn’t care about the collateral damage they cause along the way, including the damage they cause to their own kids.

I’m not here to armchair diagnose anyone or water down the word ‘narcissist’—which is a valid, diagnosable mental disorder that’s listed in the DSM—but I do want stepparents and pre-stepparents to be aware when they’re entering a situation that’s way beyond the realm of standard post-divorce stuff.

While few divorces are amicable, some cross the line over into high-conflict. And if our partners are stuck on the receiving end of a Chernobyl-level meltdown dealing with a manipulative, controlling, or narcissistic co-parent hell-bent on destroying their lives, we stepparents are standing right there next to them… right smack in the red zone. We need to know the best way to support our partners and our stepkids while also protecting ourselves.

To answer this question, I interviewed Tanya-Marie Dubé, host of the Thriving After Divorce podcast. Tanya-Marie focuses particularly on helping women protect themselves and heal after (or while) divorcing a narcissist.

Some signs you’re probably co-parenting with a narcissist

What are some signs that our partners might be co-parenting with a narcissist ex? Tanya-Marie shared several red flags to watch for:

  • Narcissists don’t admit fault. Nothing is ever their fault; things are always happening to them, like they have chronically bad luck.

  • Narcissists also get really good at knowing what’s acceptable and not acceptable by society at large, so they’ll say just enough to make their victim think they’re accepting partial blame. But really everything they do is about control.

  • Narcissists are deeply competitive and are always looking for ways to save face. They don’t like being told what to do.

  • Narcs do things to get a rise out of the other partner, including using their kids as weapons and smack-talking the other parent. (“If your mother/father didn’t take all my money, then I could get you that toy” etc.)

  • Lastly, narcissists are concerned with themselves first before anyone else, if they think of anyone else at all. Everything is about them: their schedule, their money, their time. If a narcissist doesn’t see a purpose that serves them on a personal level, they don’t see the point in participating. They’ll go great lengths to avoid doing anything for anyone else.

What causes someone to become a narcissist?

Narcissism doesn’t come out of nowhere, right? How do narcissistic traits even develop? Tanya-Marie explains: “The underlying thought of a narcissist is that they are not good enough, which means that how others view them is of the utmost importance. So if they can’t keep a job it will always be because the people they worked with were ‘idiots’ or couldn’t manage their business, or they have higher powered positions that are looked up to and they will do everything in their power to maintain the image that they’ve constructed for the world to see.”

Narcissists think they’re special, unique, and misunderstood. More than that, maintaining this illusion to everyone around them is of utmost importance, so it’s common for narcissists to smear the name of their victim constantly to other people.

“This is one of the reasons the victims of narcissism have a hard time dealing with family members of the narcissist,” says Tanya-Marie. A narc co-parent will tell mutual friends and acquaintances that they were the victims. The narc will imply that the actual victim is the crazy one. And, because narcissists can come across as quite charming, people believe them.

“This is extremely difficult for the victim to deal with,” explains Tanya-Marie, “as they have already been severely wounded and shattered by their ex.”

Talk about adding insult to injury.

Are there different types of narcissists?

While each individual narcissist is different, most will fall under the two primary types of narcissistic personality disorder: covert narcissists or overt narcissists.

Covert narcissists are shy yet underhanded. They’re the victim of everything imaginable: nothing is never their fault; they’ve tried everything and look for every way possible to get people to feel sorry for them. Covert narcs are the co-workers we all dread, who skate by on the bare minimum but make everyone around them (especially their bosses) think they worked oh so very hard.

“[Covert narcissists] take and take and give nothing (or very little) in return,” says Tanya-Marie. They’re basically a Poor Me on steroids.

By contrast, overt narcissists are grandiose, loud-mouthed, and obnoxious. “They need everyone to think they’re the best human, the most generous, and the most giving,” says Tanya-Marie.  “They systematically dismantle their victim until they are a shell of a human suffering from severe lack of self-esteem and confidence. They often get out before they are caught, moving quickly to their next victim.”

While there are some clear differences between covert vs. overt narcissists, both share the same core traits of a superiority complex combined with a total disregard for others.

What impact can narcissistic abuse have on our partners?

If you’re dating (or married to) someone who’s recovering from narcissistic abuse, your partner is likely hauling around some baggage you might not realize exists. Narc abuse causes significant damage, including PTSD and C-PTSD.

Yet despite these very real effects, narc victims often use denial of any abuse as a defense mechanism to help them cope. For example, they may convince themselves (and insist to those around them) that their narc abuser has the best intentions and shows many positive traits, even when the narcissist’s actions repeatedly demonstrate otherwise.

Like any victim of domestic abuse, a victim of narcissistic personality disorder is constantly looking for all the ways they can’t trust themselves to choose a healthy partner. They’re guarding themselves against a partner who might abandon them, use their children to hurt them, say things to take down their self-esteem, and gaslight them by undermining their intelligence and ability to take care of themselves.

“I think that one of the hardest things to adjust to is dealing with a healthy partner, someone who isn’t prone to playing games and who is just a happy person is that they are there to build a life and not looking to take from you,” explains Tanya-Marie, who was married for 18 years to her narcissist husband.  “That’s the hardest thing for the victim, so it may take some real time for the new partner to get used to the victim of a narcissistic relationship to adjust and just calm down.

“Victims of narcissistic personality disorder have been tormented to no end, played games with, suffered mental, emotional and sometimes physical abuse. The victims have said and done things to protect themselves that they would never have otherwise done, so there is a lot of self-loathing and ultimate forgiveness that needs to take place. It just takes patience and a lot of love and understanding.”

How can stepparents help our partners realize their ex is a narcissist?

Dan’s lack of boundaries with his toxic, verbally abusive ex was a huge problem in our relationship, especially in the early years. This was not helped by Dan’s total denial that there was any kind of problem at all. And yet, nearly every interaction with HCBM would become this massive time and energy suck, leaving him drained and wrecked.

But even once he admitted that perhaps this wasn’t the best way for them to communicate, he had no alternative ideas for how to approach her. He was already trying his best to compromise. He was already attempting to defuse the situation as best he could. Without understanding that you can’t truly co-parent with someone who’s high-conflict, all he could do was keep getting dragged into angry, circular arguments with his ex.

“If your partner is struggling to have a conversation with their narcissist ex, you can suggest making a plan about how to stay on topic when they do have to have a conversation,” advised Tanya-Marie. “For the most part, I teach my clients to limit their voice conversations with their ex, or try to have none at all.”

She also shared a list of tips for communicating with a narcissist co-parent:

  • Never respond to text messages or emails right when they arrive. Give yourself time to reflect and calm down.

  • ‘Twitter-down’ your response to just a few words, and always stick to the topic of the email, no matter what they accuse you of, no matter what they say to hurt your confidence or self-esteem.

  • If things get out of hand in an actual voice or face-to-face conversation, simple distraction techniques work (like quickly changing the subject).

So basically, follow Bill Eddy’s BIFF® Response method to the letter, keeping all communication brief, informative, friendly, and firm.

“We often get so caught up in the chaotic web of the narcissist that when we finally leave (or are left by them), we are still carry on with the same behavior patterns and actions,” says Tanya-Marie, “because we were in a constant state of survival and don’t know how to get off the ride.”

Grey-rocking a narcissistic co-parent: does it work?

If you’ve spent any amount of time researching how to deal with a toxic or high-conflict co-parent, you’ve probably heard of the gray rock method. This approach, in short, involves making yourself as boring as a grey rock.

Narcissists thrive on antagonizing their victims. They push buttons, they cause conflict and drama, they get off on others’ reactionary emotional response. A narc co-parent will try to turn their kids against anyone they can’t control, including stepparents as well as parents. Their goal is chaos, because only through causing chaos can they achieve complete control.

Don’t give them what they want. Instead, respond like you’re a little ol’ grey rock. Refuse to take their bait and decline to participate in drama. No matter what the narc co-parent throws in your direction, remain neutral.

At first, the narcissist might double down; they’ll panic because their usual tricks don’t seem to be working. Over time, though, going grey rock trains these emotional vampires that you’re no longer a viable food source for them. Eventually they move on to a new victim.

As Tanya-Marie reminds us, “Narcissists have a mental health issue. They’re not dealing with a full deck. You are. Come at this with compassion and empathy, even though they are trying to make your life hell, and you’ll find that when you put your ego aside, you are able to see the broken human. At the end of the day, this person is a child in adult shoes, trying to navigate their world through the use of control.

“Just like we would deal with a four year old child who is belligerent, we need to look at the narcissist in the same way. Unless they are physically abusive, there is no need to yell and scream at a narcissist, even though you want to. Logic and reason don’t apply here, because the narcissist doesn’t understand logic and reasoning.”

Is there any way we can help protect our kids/stepkids from a narcissistic co-parent?

Just like in cases of parental alienation, being raised by a narcissistic parent can tremendously impact a child’s emotional development. If the narc co-parent slanders us or our partners, our instincts tell us to defend ourselves… but how can we do that without badmouthing the other parent?

Tanya-Marie says, “It’s important for kids to know that the reliable and dependable parent is not the narcissistic one. They need to know who to go to for the things they need and what they can expect from the parent who is lacking in the ability to love without keeping score or without conditions.

“If you can teach the children what NPD is without slagging their parent, then the most important thing is in keeping your home the safe place. Keep up the love, support, and encouragement. Push them toward a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset (see Carol S. Dweck’s book Mindset, The New Psychology of Success).

“Make sure you’re doing everything you can to give them a great childhood, and this means first and foremost, dealing with the strain and anxiety that your ex is putting you through. Know that this is not forever but just for now, and their childhood is fleeting - it goes fast. The narcissistic partner doesn’t care about that, so make sure you are there for them.

“Lastly, make sure you’re not spoiling them. The idea is that we are raising adults, not children. So lots of love and discipline, a perfect balance, but it starts with you and your mindset around what you’re dealing with.”

Most narcissists come from a family with a narcissistic parent themselves; focus on stopping the cycle. Give the kids lots of love and healthy connection. A narcissist can’t truly love because they don’t know how to love themselves. The interest they show in their child’s live isn’t genuine—they’re more interested in how their child’s life appears to the outside world. With time, age, and maturity, kids will grow up to recognize the difference between true emotional support vs. the empty showcasing a narc parent pretends is love.

And above all, understand what you’re dealing with. Focusing on personal development that takes you over and above the narcissistic abuse arms you with strength through knowledge.

 “I firmly believe that knowledge is power and if we are in the clutches of someone who isn’t well, we don’t want to respond through desperation and/or fear,” says Tanya-Marie. “We want to empower ourselves so that we rise above and set an impeccable standard for our children and set an example for the poorly behaved narc parent.

“Hands down, the only person who can help you is someone who has gone through this. Nobody in their right mind has a clue about the torment a narcissistic relationship puts you through, no matter how much they’ve studied it. They don’t know the trauma this causes, and they don’t know the mental stages of recovery. Always find someone who has gone through this themselves - you’ll notice a world of difference in the advice and direction you get.”

More resources for co-parenting with a narcissist