Navigating High-Conflict Divorce with a Narcissist: Protecting Your Children and Building a Healthy Future

Pathways TeamFamily Coaching, Narcissism, Pathways Through Conflict

Coping with a narcissist in any facet of your daily life can be extremely daunting and even more overwhelming when the connection is closer to home. While few of us venture into the dating pool looking for volatile partners, the unfortunate reality is that it can often be hard to spot specific behaviour patterns and warning sides when in the early stages of entering into a romantic relationship with a narcissist. Exceptionally skilled when it comes to capturing their prey, narcissists use a wide variety of techniques and ploys to reel people in, only dropping their mask once it’s become difficult to escape their grasp.

From love-bombing to gaslighting, intimidation, and everything in between, the coping and manipulation tactics used by narcissists can leave their romantic partners feeling broken and unsure of how to safely remove themselves from a relationship that has become toxic. This dynamic becomes even more difficult to navigate when there are children involved. While you can divorce or separate from your spouse, your child cannot change who their other parent is. 

Knowing how to safely and effectively remove yourself from a romantic relationship while protecting your children in the process is essential to minimizing trauma for all parties involved. Below, we’ll cover some of the most important aspects to keep in mind when divorcing/separating from a narcissist, as well as how to put healthy boundaries in to establish a shared parenting dynamic that is as harmonious as possible for any minors involved. Read on to learn more.

What is Narcissism? 

Narcissism, or as it is clinically known, Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), is a mental health condition belonging to the cluster B group of personality disorders. As with many of the other disorders in this grouping, narcissists tend to display volatile emotionality, and in the case of NPD specifically, is characterized by an excessive sense of self-importance, grandiosity, a need for extensive external admiration, a lack of empathy, manipulative traits, and placing high demand on outside individuals to better the narcissist with no regard for any harm caused. 

While a narcissist may appear extremely confident and self-possessed on the exterior, on the interior, they face extreme issues with self-worth and identity and are easily upset by even the slightest criticism. This can translate into volatile interpersonal relationships, where close family members or romantic partners bear the brunt of narcissistic abuse. 

What Are the Signs of a Narcissistic Partner?

Spotting a narcissist in the early days of a relationship can be difficult, in part because many learn to “mask” behaviours that may have less desirable outcomes for them. Manipulation, gaslighting and constant belittling tend to start subtly, often followed by periods of extreme affection designed to keep their partners complicit and engaged. Over time, however, you’ll likely be able to see a painful pattern that paints a much different picture of the person you love. Common signs and symptoms of a narcissistic relationship or marriage include:

– Always walking on eggshells eggshells due to your partner’s unpredictable outbursts

–  Your partner always needs to be the centre of attention (and resents anyone who may take the spotlight away from them)

–  Possessive and controlling behaviours, especially when claiming that your looks, friendships, spending habits, etc, reflect upon them- Your partner believes that he or she is special and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people or institutions

–  Disregard for normative rules, a sense of inherent entitlement (“It’s different for me”), and  a lack of empathy for others

–  Volatile tendencies with extreme sensitivity to any form of criticism or correction

– Leaving behind a general “wake of destruction”, whether it be previous friendships, family members, relationships, jobs, etc. The common thread in most past situations seems to be your spouse, regardless of the circumstance in question. 

Bear in mind, that while narcissism has become a commonly used term to describe those with selfish tendencies and a general lack of awareness/disregard for others, clinically diagnosed narcissism only makes up approximately 1% of the general population (source). While this low percentile means it’s important to be careful when labelling a spouse or “diagnosing” the source of your problems, it’s also important to remember that it doesn’t necessarily mean your partnerdoesn’t have NPD, especially if they display several, if not all of the traits listed above. 

Narcissism exists along a continuum, with a formal NPD diagnosis requiring the criteria above to be almost certain at all times and across all interactions in normative living circumstances. While your partner may or not be formally diagnosed, if they display several or all of the traits above, it is imperative that you put your health and wellness, as well as that of your children, first. Looking for a deeper dive into the world of a narcissist? Check our NDP Guide here.

Breaking the Narcissistic Family Bonds Safely

Narcissistic family bonds can be particularly tricky to break and restructure due largely in part to the fact that narcissists often use children as tools for manipulation. In many cases, the narcissist sees their children as extensions of themselves (and thus can be extremely possessive and controlling of who has access and when), and isn’t afraid to cross normal boundaries during a divorce or legal separation to ensure they get what they want. 

While parents undergoing other high-conflict breakups may be able to maintain a certain level of decorum between parties for the sake of the kids, this is highly unlikely in the case when separating from a narcissist. The other parent needs to be aware that specific measures will need to be put in place to keep everyone as safe as possible and to minimize the disruption to their children. 

To protect yourself and your kids moving forward, it’s integral to: 

Document everything 

Documentation is always a best practice during any legal separation, but when it comes to divorcing a narcissist, it can be a lifeline that keeps you and your children protected. Keep detailed records of all interactions, such as texts, emails, in-person encounters, and any other forms of contact, including encounters with others reaching out on behalf of your ex (narcissists frequently manipulate those around them when they feel threatened or slighted). 

Try to keep core interactions on a text or (legally) recordable platform to minimize any discrepancies, and take thorough notes of any concerning behaviours, threats, implications, or occurrences that may affect your well-being or the well-being of your children. While it can feel exhausting, this level of documentation is one of the best ways to establish a pattern of behaviour during legal proceedings and can be essential when it comes to deciding key matters like custody agreements, protective orders, and more. 

Establish Clear Boundaries

Narcissists do not like rules or boundaries, but in order to maintain balance and minimal upset for your children, it is essential to set and communicate clear boundaries with regard to everything from visiting schedules to communication guidelines, co/parallel parenting guidelines, and more. It is essential that you keep your communication and conduct civil, concise, and in alignment with any court-mandated stipulations. A narcissistic ex will likely try to get a rise out of you and get you to break your own boundaries in order to frame the situation so the stronger and more consistent you are, the better your results will be. Remember: Healthy boundaries protect both parents and their children

Put the Kids First

It can be easy for any separated couple to get caught up in the emotions surrounding their break up, and this is especially true when dealing with a narcissist. For everyone’s benefit, it is crucial to stay focused on the needs of your children first and foremost and to prioritize creating a stable, comfortable environment for them. While narcissistic co-parent will likely do their best to self-insert and divert plans for their own means, it is crucial to try your best to establish consistent daily routines and schedules that provide a sense of regularity for kids. This not only provides a sense of security for them but can also help them stay grounded during such a turbulent period. 

Seek Professional Support

Divorce is hard, and high-conflict separations can be incredibly challenging to navigate. For your own benefit, as well as the continued protection of your children, it is essential to lean on highly-skilled professionals to learn how to best handle your situation. Family coaches, mediators, and your personal council all play a vital role in helping to create a new sense of normal and security for all parties involved in a familial breakup. 

Family Coaching and More with Pathways Family Coaching

At Pathways Family Coaching, we know how difficult and overwhelming it can be to separate from a former spouse with NPD. Our team offers a comprehensive library of online courses and one-on-one professional coaching to help manage all aspects of high-conflict family restructuring. Our expert coaches are ready to integrate with your existing legal and therapeutic teams, helping you develop a healthy parenting arrangement for you and your children.

Pathways Through Conflict is our flagship online course, focused on building the skills to navigate any high-conflict co-parenting relationship. Consisting of an eight-module online course, 12 one-on-one coaching sessions, and access to the Ultimate Co-Parenting Plan, Pathways Through Conflict gives you all the tools to manage conflict while providing a nurturing environment for your children.

For those concerned that legal involvement may become necessary to minimize the damage done by a narcissistic ex, our Behavioral Pattern Finder can help by providing a valuable foundation to identify and evaluate behavioural patterns in order to demonstrate a narcissist’s behaviour.

Learn more about how we can help support your family through high-conflict separations by contacting us today!

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