Is Your Ex A Narcissist? Parenting With A High-Conflict Ex

Cowles & Thompson, PC


Since 1978, Cowles Thompson has offered legal representation across a broad spectrum of specialties, locally and nationally. We achieve client goals through the utmost professionalism. To us, professionalism means: character, competence, commitment, and courtesy — to our clients, to our employees, to our opposition, to our judges, and to our community.
Family lawyers sometimes remark that it seems everyone's ex is a narcissist these days, and in high-conflict custody cases, one parent often acts in ways that seem narcissistic.
United States Family and Matrimonial
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Family lawyers sometimes remark that it seems everyone's ex is a narcissist these days, and in high-conflict custody cases, one parent often acts in ways that seem narcissistic. While research indicates only 0.5% to 5% of people actually have Narcissistic Personality Disorder, "high-conflict coparents" share traits with narcissists, and their behavior frequently leads to child custody litigation.

Traits of High-Conflict Coparents

How do you know if your ex is a high-conflict coparent? Here are some common traits:

  1. They lack boundaries. High-conflict coparents do things most people would know are inappropriate or out of line. Many do not accept the new and different relationship they have with their coparent post-separation, and they might demand personal information, make unreasonable requests, call/text every day, or make excuses to go inside their ex's home.
  2. They are vindictive and/or bitter. High-conflict coparents cannot or will not let go of their negative feelings about their former partner and/or the demise of the relationship. They may act spitefully toward their coparent years after the breakup.
  3. They feel superior. High-conflict coparents, like narcissists, can display a problematic combination of arrogance and inability to self-reflect. They see themselves as inherently better parents than their exes, and they cannot see when their behavior is damaging the children.
  4. They are self-centered. Another trait high-conflict coparents share with narcissists is they struggle to differentiate between themselves and others. In their view, what's best for the children is what's best for them. If their ex doesn't do what they want, he or she is a bad parent.
  5. They are attention-seekers. High-conflict coparents often need attention in the same way narcissists need "supply" to feed their ego. They will employ tactics, like those discussed below, to get attention – even if that attention is negative.

Tactics of High Conflict Coparents

Frequent litigation is one thing we often see in cases involving a high-conflict coparent. Other tactics used by high-conflict coparents include:

  1. Control tactics. High-conflict coparents find ways to control their exes and children. They may unilaterally schedule children's appointments/activities during the other parent's time, insist on having exclusive decision-making rights, tell their coparent what to do, or even attempt to control who their ex dates or marries.
  2. Threats of litigation. High-conflict exes frequently threaten litigation both directly ("I'll see you in court.") and indirectly ("I'll have to discuss this with my attorney."). The threat of court is always looming.
  3. Using children as pawns. These coparents use the children against their exes in many different ways. They might:
    • Use children to get what they want: They might make an unreasonable request and, when their coparent declines, say things like, "Don't you care about your child?"
    • Use children to convey messages: Children might say things like, "Mom told me to tell you not to do that," or "Mom says you could call more, but you don't."
    • Use children to obtain information about the other parent.
    • Give children a cell phone or other communication device without conference or warning and unilaterally control the child's access to it. Some parents even text their exes pretending to be the child.
    • Some high-conflict coparents go so far as to make excessive or unnecessary medical/dental or psychological appointments for the children to exert control, exact revenge, or simply cause chaos.
  4. Parental alienation. In a whole host of ways, some of which are discussed above, a high-conflict coparent may try to turn children against their ex. When a child suddenly seems to "hate" a non-abusive, loving parent, that is a red flag for potential alienation issues.
  5. Communication games. High-conflict coparents cause chaos through communication in many different ways, such as:
    • Vacillating between communicating too frequently (for example, sending multiple messages every day, texting and/or calling every day) and not communicating at all.
    • Withholding important information related to the children while communicating shared memories or minutiae such as sports headlines.
    • Overwhelming the other parent with requests and demands through several different mediums all at once (for example, texting, calling, emailing, and sending a message through a coparenting app all in the same day).
    • Swinging between being overly nice and being rude or condescending.
  6. Triangulation. High-conflict coparents are often experts in triangulation, creating false narratives to get people on their side and gain an advantage in the coparenting relationship. They tend to triangulate with fundamental figures in a child's life like therapists, teachers, physicians, and their ex's family members. Some even triangulate by making false reports to Child Protective Services.

Coming Up...

Many parents with high-conflict exes may be wondering, based on the above, if they are doomed to a high-conflict situation until their children are grown. My next article will address strategies for minimizing the harm often caused by high-conflict coparents.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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