‘My Ex is a Narcissist’: Co-Parenting with a Difficult Ex Spouse

Whether it is an ex-spouse or an ex-partner, how does one approach a long-time process of co-parenting?  There is no one size fits all solution.  Many problems exist in parenting couples, some of them pre-existed the couple, others developed in the relationship, and others developed after the relationship.

Robert Kornitzer explains that his principal job is to keep people “out of court” as much as possible.  When people come to him after separation, and after they are divorced, he notices that many people need better skills to solve disputes and co-parent for the long term.  No one teaches us these skills, but they are essential.

We have interviewed a professional psychologist with extensive experience in Divorce, Dr. Nadine Castro, based in New Jersey.  Dr. Castro emphasizes points out that the expression “co-parenting” is difficult to associate with a difficult spouse.  She says that most of her patients indicate that their other spouse is “difficult,” and that the couple broke down because they could not agree on anything.  And yet, following a Divorce or separation, people expect the couple to get along somehow?  Dr. Castro rhetorically asks the question: How is a person expected to work together with someone that they could not work together with for so long in a relationship?

Why does a spouse often accuse the other parent of being a narcissist?

Dr. Castro believes that it is normal after a split to look for reasons why things fell apart, and it is not a long shot for someone to blame the other person and find a diagnosis of the other parent.  One of the worst things to do is to call the other parent “crazy” or to look to find a diagnosis like “narcissism” (unless there is an actual documented personality disorder diagnosis, which is rare).  Dr. Castro shares that it doesn’t help her, as a psychologist, to treat the other parent as a “crazy” person, since the couple still needs to carry on for the children’s sake.  She adds that it can be damaging to the children to hear labels or to believe that one of their parents is “crazy.”

One should also remember that the other parent feels the same way about you.  Once you realize that you are looking for someone to blame, it is important to separate a suspicion or fear from where there is real danger to the children.  In such a case, you need to call social services, go to a lawyer, to the police, etc.  If you are not sure whether you should do something, or what you should do, do not hesitate to call your family lawyer for guidance.

How consistent do the two households need to be?

We can all agree that what is best for the child is consistency and predictability.  Children enjoy when things repeat themselves and are predictable.  Keep a respectful attitude towards the child, so the child learns to be respectful to others (including the other parent).

According to Dr. Castro, children need consistency within each household.  As between the two households, consistency does not matter.  The kids understand that things are done one way at mommy’s house, and another way at daddy’s house. If you can keep consistent in your own household, that’s what is important.  Even a six- to 8-month-old baby knows how to cry differently with a mommy than with a daddy.  Children are observant, are very smart, and learn from their first-hand experience.  And they adapt.  They do try to push boundaries and test, but remind them in a loving, firm, kind way that this may happen in one house, “but in our house, this is what matters.”

If the child starts showing medical signs that he or she is not getting enough sleep, that he is not being fed properly, when the school staff begins to complain that the child is falling asleep, not performing properly, then there is a problem.  But unless you know that a child is being harmed, then let it go.  It’s not worth it.  Focus on the time you are 100% responsible for what happens with the child, when s/he is with you; focus on your parenting skills when children are with you.

Children never learn from lessons, they learn from example.  If a parent does not have the ability to teach by example, then they can seek help and learn the skills they need by seeing a psychologist, for instance.

What do you do if there are huge religious differences between one spouse or the other?

According to Dr. Castro, there is no easy way to address this issue.  Sometimes people drift apart after the marriage, other times the differences came up in the marriage.  Trying to be extremely consistent, respectful and explain to the children at a level they can understand how and why we do things a certain way in one household, and how and why it is done differently outside of our house, is always key. To force a child to observe something could actually push them to hate the observance.

According to Bob Kornitzer, conflict in between two households occur often, whether it in different religions, or when it involves a different level of practice (observance) in the same religion. There is developing caselaw in New Jersey on this point (2023).  A lot of leeway is now given by the court to each parent to teach their child their own level of observance.  The courts used to be a lot stricter on these parameters, i.e. if the child was raised orthodox, they had to stay orthodox.  The focus now is now more on avoiding that the child be torn apart between the two households, and on not forcing the child to do things differently.  We want to let the child learn the difference between the two households, respecting both.

What happens when a parent does not respect an agreement or parenting schedule?

There is always a possibility to return to a decision-maker.  If the child is being harmed, then the other parent needs to know that this will go back to court or the mediator.  That threat needs to be there, like any law that has a penalty, so that parties are forced to honor the agreement.

Always look at yourself as well.  Is there something that you might be doing that is contributing to the fall-out or failure to cooperate?  Keep in mind that you can always change yourself, whereas you cannot change the other parent.  A complete lack of respect for the other parent is terrible for the children.  Children learn to respect people by seeing respect being practiced and by being respected themselves.  When a parent disrespects the other parent, they are teaching their child to disrespect people as well from a psychological perspective.

When a parent alienates the children from the other parent, what can you do?

Truth checking or reality testing with the child is important in such cases.  Ask the child, “is this something that you believe I could do?” If the child says, “no, but that’s what dad (or mom) says you are doing.”  Or if the child agrees, you can say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t notice I was doing that and will try to be more careful.”

Teaching the child to live and feel what he or she is experiencing is more important than believing what they are being told.

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