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Is my co-parent a narcissist?

As separated parents, we need to understand that the person who left the relationship may no longer ‘care’ about us anymore as they have accepted the relationship is over and are breaking the emotional connection with us. Their focus now is more about their own needs rather than yours which can be devastating for the partner being left as they can’t understand how their partner could be so cold, distant and uncaring of the impact of the separation on you. This could lead you to think “my ex is a narcissist” but are they really? Could it be they are just selfish or self-centred?

According to psychologist Dr. Lindsay Henderson, PsyD, advises that "True pathological narcissism is quite rare, affects less than 1 percent of the population, and can only be diagnosed by a qualified clinician." Henderson says some experts believe that narcissism exists on a spectrum that many of us can fall into. At the healthy end of the spectrum, narcissism can be the confidence and assertiveness enabling us to take risks and accept challenges. Whereas at the high end of the spectrum we can be arrogant, entitled or grandiose which affects our daily life and ability to maintain relationships. Being selfish or self-centred can fall within this spectrum but doesn’t necessarily mean they are a narcissist.

The Mayo Clinic defines narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) as, “a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others.”

The Mayo Clinic suggests narcissists often:

  • Have a heightened sense of self-importance, entitlement and require excessive admiration

  • Expect to be seen as superior even if they don’t possess achievements that warrant it

  • Exaggerate achievements, skills and talents

  • Consumed with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate

  • Believe they are superior only associating with equally special people

  • Dominate conversations and look down on people they perceive as inferior

  • Expect special favours and compliance with their expectations

  • Get what they want by taking advantage of others

  • Are unwilling or unable to recognise the needs and feelings of others

  • Envy others and believe others envy them

  • Are arrogant, conceited, boastful and pretentious

  • Insist on having the best of everything – car, house, office

Mayo Clinic explains: “Behind this mask of extreme confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.”

While a narcissist may appear to be successful and confident, that façade will start to crumble. They desperately try to hide their shortcomings, by lashing out at you, destroying your self-esteem and self-worth to elevate their own.

Narcissists don’t like to be criticised and may react by;

  • Becoming angry or impatient when they don’t receive special treatment

  • Have significant interpersonal problems and easily feel slighted

  • React with rage and try to belittle the other person to make themselves appear superior

  • Find it hard to regulate emotions and behaviour

  • Experience major problems adapting to change and dealing with stress

  • Feel depressed because they fall short of perfection

  • Have undisclosed feelings of shame, insecurity, vulnerability and humiliation

Often it is hard to differentiate between someone being a narcissist and someone who is selfish or self-centred, who is excessively more interested in their own needs rather than others.

Key differences are;


So, if you have determined your ex’s behaviour is narcistic, how can you possibly co-parent with them?

Key tips include;

1. It’s important to set the ground rules by having a co-parenting plan in place that you can get formalised into court orders to ensure it is legally binding.

2. Treat the relationship as a “business” relationship void of emotion

3. Don’t buy into drama, as you will just be feeding the beast! They thrive on it!

4. Set boundaries so that you are in control to be able to have time to respond rather than react such as using email or a coparenting app to document communication

5. Parent with empathy, ensuring you are putting your child’s needs before your own

6. Avoid bad mouthing your ex, especially in front of the children. Your ex will react badly to being criticised but you will look mean in the eyes of your child.

7. Don’t show you are upset or emotional in front of your ex as this gives them satisfaction that they have the power over you

8. Document everything so you have an artefact if needed, conversely ensure any written communication you send is not supplying ammunition to your ex. Keep in draft until you feel calm and re-read it before sending.

9. Consider counselling if it becomes really difficult to co-parent

10. Try parallel parenting where you don’t have to see the ex at all by doing custody pickups directly from school

Author Cheryl Duffy

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