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  • Writer's pictureJenny Penland

Coparenting with a Toxic Ex ‣ TL/DR: You Can't.

If you’ve stumbled upon this article after Googling some version of, “How can I co-parent with my toxic ex?” and that ex truly happens to be psychopathic, narcissistic, highly contentious or all of the above, allow me to draw on the words of Drake, and provide the Cliff Notes version: If you’re reading this, it’s too late.

You cannot coparent with a narcissist. I repeat, YOU. CANNOT. COPARENT. WITH. A. NARCISSIST.

No matter how flexible or firm you are. No matter how hard you try, every attempt to “be the bigger person” or “kill ‘em with kindness” will ultimately fail. You cannot coparent with a toxic person. The reason why is very simple –

Coparenting requires shared effort and shared intent.

Consider the prefix “co” – it means, “together, mutual, in common.” Narcissists do not share the same goals as you. Narcissists cannot and do not put the child’s best interest before their own. Trying to co-parent with a narcissist is akin to rowing a boat with one oar, while the other person uses theirs to slowly add water. Your boat cannot go straight when you’re only paddling on one side. Try best as you can, your boat will go in circles, stopping only when it sinks.

To be clear, break-ups are hard on everyone. Coparenting is harder. And very nice, well-intended people can be assholes sometimes, too. When I say “narcissist,” I’m not speaking in hyperbole, so it’s important that you pause for a moment, and really consider a few things:

Is your ex controlling? Emotionally abusive? Insensibly difficult? Does s/he minimize, deny or shift the blame? Does s/he try to intimidate or isolate you or the children? And do they exhibit any signs of parental alienation?

If the answer is no, great news! Your ex probably isn’t a narcissist and you probably can find a path to peaceful co-parenting. But if you answered yes to a few of those indicators, it’s likely time to give up the ship.

Sans children, the obvious decision would be to cut all ties and never look back. Unfortunately, that’s not always an option. And in the vast majority of cases, kids are better off having a relationship with both biological parents. So when your ex happens to be toxic or narcissistic, parallel parenting is your only choice.

This isn’t just semantics – this is a total philosophy change. Parallel parenting requires any healthy, cooperative person to consciously unlearn and rewire:

1. Recognize the dynamic and recognize the cycle.

Is there a pattern to your communication? How frequent is the back-and-forth? How reactive are you? What’s making things worse? Do you have anxiety? If so, when and what heightens it? What are you afraid of? That isn’t a rhetorical question: What are you afraid of? Failing as a parent? Losing your children? How has your ex manipulated you into believing you must engage to protect yourself or your kids? And are those fears logical, whatsoever? Cry it out and write it down, and then reduce it to facts. Where are you at, and what must change?

2. Establish new boundaries.

Only communicate via email or a parenting portal.  Sites such as Talking Parents are admissible in court and have read receipts, which prevent your ex from claiming that s/he “didn’t get the message.” Block him/her on social media, increase your privacy settings, and do not text. Establish a set of rules for yourself: How often you will check the messages and how long you will wait to respond? Do not give in to triangulation. Make rules for when you will answer calls to the child.

Be reasonable and be tactful, but do not share these rules with your ex. This is you creating boundaries for you – not creating more ways for him/her to permeate your psyche. Example: Let’s say you decide (and tell your ex) that any calls after 8:00 p.m. will not be answered. Ex intentionally starts calling at 8:01. You answer and that inch turns back into a mile. You don’t, and you get emails saying how unreasonable you’re being. Very few things are truly pressing. Silently set your rules and communicate/facilitate communication when it becomes appropriate. Do not give your ex an opening for engagement or manipulation.

3. If you don’t have a court order, file for one.

Take the time to plan out what you want. If you go before a judge without a plan, you will get a standardized agreement, and those are for parents who can co-parent, not for you two. Look at your state’s typical parenting plan, and modify it to the best interest of your children. At first glance, you may think it “sounds fair” – but that’s because you intend on following it, and are expecting reciprocity. Do not be jaded by false hope.

Go line by line, and consider how your ex could use stipulations to further his/her control. How will he/she communicate with the children when they are in your house? How are the children exchanged, and where? What happens if you’re running late or get sick or have car trouble? What information are you required to communicate about and what is the timeline for turn-around? What decisions, if any, can you reasonably be expected to make together? And remember: you need an order that doesn’t provide your ex with room for interpretation. Gray area is a license to be difficult and a recipe for disaster.

4. If you already have a court order, expect your ex to break it.

Be grateful: s/he’s showing his/her spots in a documentable way. Do not address it with your ex, just quietly take notes. After you’ve built up a case, take your ex back to court. Push for sanctions and fight for sole decision-making rights or custody. Maybe you need a third party to facilitate the exchanges. Maybe it’s not appropriate for your ex to communicate with the children through you. Counseling. Monitored Visits. Psychosocial evaluations. Whatever it takes! Always put their needs first, but remember that kids desperately need to see their parents’ model healthy boundaries. Inter-generational abuse is a very real thing, and should be your primary concern. Do everything you can to break this cycle.

5. Your ex will try to compete with you. Do not engage.

If you haven’t noticed yet, the name of the game is “Do not engage.” If you remember and follow only three words from this Magna Carta: Pick. Those. Three. If you have majority time-sharing, you probably also have the burden of majority disciplining, majority chores, and majority schoolwork. The deck is stacked against you in the fun-parent department. Let it go. Allow your kids to be excited to see your ex. Encourage and support them. Be happy for them. That’s what you ultimately want, after all – for your children to be happy.

Children wish to believe their parents (plural) hung the moon. Let them believe it for as long as they can. Don’t probe your children, or pull the veil from their eyes. You’ll watch it slip down, only for your kids to slide it back up, over and over again. Don’t take offense to this. Consider how long you stayed with that person, or how long you held onto the idea of co-parenting. Learning you were wrong about a loved one is a hard truth to swallow, especially for a child. Comfort them when they’re hurting, but don’t dwell or drag it out. Allow them to recover. The road is long and they need all the help they can get navigating it. Be their compass.

6. Expect to be dragged through the mud.

Calling in abuse reports. Making false allegations. Spreading rumors about you to his/her circle (and yours). And most of these lies will be in the form of accusations directly at you. You’re a bad mother! You’re selfish! You’re insecure! This. Is. Called. Gaslighting. Stand firm in your truth. You do not have to defend yourself or explain your choices. Do not worry about being the “bad guy” and do not make decisions out of fear. Frequently ask yourself, “If my ex wasn’t in the picture, what would be the best way to handle (given situation) for myself and for my children?” Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, that same decision is still the right decision.

7. And last but not least, just live your life.

You are an autonomous human being who deserves happiness, pleasure and fun. You’re allowed to make mistakes along the way. You’re allowed room to grow. And you do not have to be a perfect parent or person. Do not be stifled by the box your ex paints you into, or the version of “you” that you were way back when. You’re permitted to change and, frankly, changing is the whole point. You can’t fix your ex, so stop trying. Instead, shift the focus inward. Take the job, make the move, write the article. Nothing will upset your ex more than you living life on your own terms. So be authentically you, and do it with a smile.

As they say, “Happiness is the best revenge.”


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