facebook-pixel How To Co Parent When Your Ex Is A Narcissist: What You Need to Know
How To Spot A Narcissist
How To Co Parent With a Narcissist

Dr. Ramani teaches you how to effective co parent when your ex-husband is a narcissist.

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How To Spot A Narcissist

One of the most difficult situations that women face is learning how to co parent with a narcissist ex-husband.

The exhaustion, heartbreak, frustration, and even terror that accompanies this reality for many victims is real and severe.

Dr. Ramani Durvasula is on The BTR.ORG Podcast empowering women to identify narcissistic abuse, set safety boundaries, and learn how to effectively co parent with a narcissist. Listen to this interview and read the full transcript below for more.

Co Parenting is a NIGHTMARE! But How do I Know if My Ex-Husband is a Narcissist? 

If your attempts at co parenting feel impossible to navigate no matter how hard you try, you may be attempting to coparent with a narcissistic ex. Dr. Ramani lays out the 7 signs of a narcissistic personality:

7 Signs Of A Narcissist

  • Lack of empathy
  • Entitlement
  • Sense of self-grandiosity
  • Superficial
  • Arrogant
  • Prone to rage
  • Controlling

The Reality of Co Parenting with a Narcissist

Dr. Ramani explains that co parenting with a narcissist is the equivalent of doing the work of three parents:

“What it means is that a good healthy parent now has to do the work of not two parents, but of three parents. Because you have to do the work of you, being a good parent, and then you have to do the work of dodging the bullets of the bad stuff that the unskilled parent is doing, and then step into their role, that’s like a third job here.”

Dr. Ramani Durvasula

How Can I Help My Kids Deal With Their Narcissistic Parent?

If you’re co parenting with a narcissist, try to parent with a specific focus on helping your kids become emotionally healthy. Some of Dr. Ramani’s suggestions include:

  • Teach your child how to tolerate frustration and disappointment.
  • Teach your child empathy.
  • Help your child grow and develop their emotional vocabulary.
  • Teach your child that having feelings are okay and normal.
  • Engage with your child.
  • Be mindful of your child
  • Be present for your child.
  • Don’t gaslight your child.

Full Transcript:

Anne: Welcome, Dr. Durvasula.

Dr. Durvasula: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.

Anne: I found out about you from your, I would say, groundbreaking TEDx talk that I was so impressed with and so excited to have you on to talk about some of the things that you talked about during your talk.

You talked about how a lot of people are labeling people as narcissistic when, really, it’s just bad behavior. At BTR, we’re talking a lot about how sexual addiction is abusive to a spouse.

Sexual Betrayal & Narcissism

My first question for you is, while narcissistic behavior patterns seem to be a hallmark of sexual addiction, those who get into and maintain recovery tend to cease those behavior patterns, indicating lasting change is possible, at least for those who choose to do the hard work required to get into and maintain recovery from their addiction.

Yet, for some, no amount of recovery work seems to bring change on. Maybe they’re not doing it right, I don’t know. Short of investing years to wait and see, are there indicators that wives can look for to determine if their loved one with narcissistic behavior patterns is capable of change?

What Does a Commitment to Change Look Like?

Dr. Durvasula: You know, that’s a great question because what it gets at is that when you have something like sex addiction tangled up with narcissism, just like if it’s sex addiction and substance addiction that’s an entanglement of two patterns.

Now, if you had someone, a sex addict, for example, but not narcissistic, then those are the clients where whether it’s 12-Step, trauma work, or ongoing therapy, that’s going to work well. They’re going to commit to a program. They’re going to commit to whatever they’ve promised you or promised to themselves, in terms of their growth and in terms of distancing themselves from these patterns.

When you have both patterns present, the sex addiction and the narcissism, you’re not going to see as much change. You’ve got to remember that the sex addiction pattern is very much focused on the other patterns.

Narcissism & Entitlement

The lack of empathy, the entitlement that “I have a right to do this, I have a right to five orgasms a day. I need validation, I need lots of people who tell me I’m sexy,” and, in a sense, it’s the spoiled child of it all. I would then argue that the sex addict, who also has significant comorbid symptoms of narcissistic personality is not going to get much better.

What you might be able to do is less time spent on pornography. They may be less likely to engage in another infidelity, especially if the stakes are high, for example an expensive divorce, potential loss of custody of a child, a financial hit, shame in the eyes of their community.

But when you have that narcissism, because that tends to be what’s driving the compulsive sexual behavior and the compulsive need for validation, that’s what is often going to be the reason treatment doesn’t work. I would view narcissism as the barrier to it working because, there is very little evidence, other than in the rarest of cases, that those narcissistic patterns are amenable to significant change in treatment.

“Okay, the sex addiction part is gone, but this is still a really not nice person.”

Please note the use of my word “significant.” What you might get is a partner who actually stops cheating or stops going to sex workers or stops going to massage parlors or stops watching porn, but they are still un-empathic, they are still entitled, they are still rageful. So, it’s sort of like choose your poison. Some people might say, “Okay, the sex addiction part is gone, but this is still a really not nice person.” That’s where it starts to get complicated.

Anne: Was that from Epstein? That quote, “the five orgasms a day”?

Dr. Durvasula: Now that you’re saying that, yeah, I guess I read something and he said,” I’m a great guy, I’m a hard-working guy, king of the world, I have the right to five orgasms a day.” I’ve heard that before.

How Can You Spot A Narcissist?

Anne: Exactly. Yeah, that entitlement to sex is interesting. Is there any way that a woman can tell if he has those narcissistic traits while he’s using porn? Or does he need to stop using porn for a little while and then see if it’s related to the porn? Do you see what I mean? How can you separate that out?

Dr. Durvasula: If you’re going to try to determine whether somebody’s narcissistic then you’re looking for things like are they empathic? Are they entitled? or are they not empathic? Are they un-empathic? Are they grandiose? Are they superficial? Are they arrogant? Are they prone to rage? Are they controlling? That’s what you’re looking for.

Understanding the Narcissist’s “Kindness”

Anne: What they’re looking for is do they have the ability to empathize with me? Now, when women are looking for that, how can they separate grooming from actual real true empathy? So many of these men, they seem like they’re very empathic and they can say the right things and do the right things, but that’s just part of the honeymoon cycle or the grooming cycle of the abuse cycle. What would you say to women who are like, “Man, he really is empathic and kind and generous”?

Like my ex, for example, he did the dishes and he helped out with the kids and he was, what I would say, an amazing person and then he’d fly off the handle and rage and we’d go through the abuse cycle over and over again. What would you say to women who are like, “Well, there is this part of him that is so empathetic”?

“I do judge people on their abuses and not on their virtues.”

Dr. Durvasula: We don’t cut people into parts. It’s holistic. What I’m about to say is going to sound incredibly cynical and I apologize for it. But, sadly, I do judge people on their abuses and not on their virtues, because you’ve now shown me what’s in your wheelhouse. I’ve heard the saying hurt people hurt people and all of that, and it is true.

It may very well be somebody has a story of trauma in their backstory, but that doesn’t qualify me, or anyone else, to be your punching bag. The first time somebody goes off into a rage, it’s time to go. I mean it’s that simple and yet it’s that complicated.

So, no, doing the dishes doesn’t obviate going into a rage. The rage always will trump—be more important than emptying the dishwasher. Where 10 years from now a robot is emptying the dishwasher.

Confusing Generosity with Genuine Goodness

The other thing a lot of people confuse is generosity. They’ll say, “Oh, but he took me to so many nice dinners and he bought me an airplane ticket and he took me on a vacation.” Any fool can do that. Anyone who has enough money in a bank account, that’s just pulling out money, that’s easy. It’s the heavy lifting. It’s how does this person cope under conditions of stress or frustration?

Something at work doesn’t go the way they want. You’re running late somewhere. You take a trip with them and things aren’t going great. How does this person handle themselves under those conditions?

That kind of stuff shows up in the first four to six weeks of a relationship. If you find yourself writing excuses for this person, be very careful because the excuses you’re writing at 4-6 weeks are the excuses you’ll be writing in 40 years.

Anne: Uh-huh. I love how you said a robot will be doing the dishes in 10 years. When things were really devolving in my relationship right before my ex’s arrest, he said I just want to connect with you or he was making excuses for some of his behavior, and I said: well, what do you do to connect with me? He said, “I mow the lawn.”

Dr. Durvasula: See, and I think that, again, there’s all those books out there. The Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus and The Five Love Languages and all of that. I’m not a fan. Because what those books run the danger of doing is writing off as an excuse, like, “Well, his love language is doing the lawn.”

I think doing the lawn is perfectly fine, but only if it’s embedded in a larger framework of empathy, kindness, compassion, respect, mutuality, patience, serenity, and compromise. You know what, I’ll cut my own lawn if I can have all that other stuff.

How Do You Parent With A Narcissist?

Anne: Yeah, totally. Talking about co-parenting, let’s go that direction for a minute. When co-parenting with a narcissistic individual, what measures can a healthy parent take to reduce the risk of the behavior traits being passed on to the next generation?

Dr. Durvasula: Well, one thing that’s most important to note is that it takes one good, healthy parent to raise a good, healthy kid. We know that, and I think a lot of parents panic thinking, “Oh, my goodness, I really chose a bad person here and I’m going to pay forever.”

What it means is that a good healthy parent now has to do the work of not two parents, but of three parents. Because you have to do the work of you, being a good parent, and then you have to do the work of dodging the bullets of the bad stuff that the unskilled parent is doing, and then step into their role, that’s like a third job here.

I tell people that the key is to stop waiting for justice. “But they should be doing this, they are the other parent, it’s not fair.” No, it’s not fair. Sadly, the only thing that many people can do is look in the mirror and say, “I made a lousy choice, but this is not this child’s fault. I’ve got to step up and I’ve got to do right and not get caught up in what’s fair or what’s not fair, but to really, really do the heavy lifting of parenting.”

This means teaching your child how to tolerate frustration and disappointment. Teaching your child empathy. Allowing your child’s emotional vocabulary to develop and grow and never shame them or humiliate them for feeling anything. Engaging with them. Being mindful of them.

You have to be everything. You have to be the one at their soccer game. You have to be the one teaching them to wash the dishes and do their chores and compromise and play nice and all of that. You have to be super person if this is the case if you’re co-parenting with a narcissist.

I have worked with many clients who had one deeply narcissistic parent and one very, very loving parent, and the loving parent saved them. The only downside to this is, if a child grows up with a very narcissistic parent, even if they have that very loving parent, something I do often see in adulthood, is that these people grow into rather anxious adults.

They still live under the spectrum of “I’m not good enough” or “What could I do to win them over?” or the tension or anxiety that a rageful parent brought into the home even if they had that loving parent. It may not translate into narcissism in that person, when they turn into an adult. It may turn into anxiety.

Anne: Hum, interesting. I can’t be super person so that is a little bit discouraging, but I will try. The more I think about that and I’m like, “Oh, I parallel-parent, so that I hold a no-contact boundary,” and that helps, but I still find myself getting exhausted. Being a super person is impossible.

Dr. Durvasula: It is impossible, and in some ways, it’s also having those standards of being the good enough parent, but also never gaslight your own kids. By that, I mean you don’t have to say, “Well, Dad’s your hero and that’s great.” Like, if dad humiliates, for example, that child showing an emotion, then you can say, “Sweetie, that wasn’t okay. Emotions are wonderful but some grownups don’t always understand them. What’s amazing about you, as a little person is that you are actually brave enough to show your emotions.”

You don’t have to say, “Dad’s a jerk, who doesn’t even have one emotional bone in his body and is a narcissist.” You don’t have to do that. What you can say is that, “What’s amazing about you, is you’re able to do something and Dad is not able to do that and that’s hard from him.”

Acknowledge that it’s a struggle, and it is, but also, it’s not okay to ever have their emotions shamed. Never let your kids say, “Oh, that’s okay. Dad didn’t mean that” or “That’s just how dad is.”

Dad did mean it. That’s why dad did it, but that doesn’t make it okay. It’s that fine balancing act of not throwing dad under the bus, because that’s not good parenting, but also not signing off on it and saying that’s just how dad is.

The 3 C’s Of Narcissism

Anne: You refer to charm, charisma, and confidence as the 3 C’s of narcissism. Yet, acknowledge that not all who possess those are narcissistic. In the early stages of dating, before the traits which comprise the pillars of narcissism begin to reveal themselves, are there other clues to watch for which might indicate whether the 3 C’s are red flags, rather than positive traits?

Dr. Durvasula: I actually talk about this in the new book and I hint at this in Should I Stay or Should I Go? If you can find someone who is charming, charismatic, and confident and also empathic, kind, reciprocal, serene and patient, and all of those things, you’ve just won the human being lottery is what you did.

I think that somebody may be very charismatic because they are telling you a story of what they do for a living or about their life or something like that. You can get so caught up in that story that what we don’t pay attention to is are they listening to other people or are they merely holding court? Acting like an entertainer rather than as a human being?

The problem is we get so snowed. Everybody wants the fairy tale. I’m not a fan of fairy tales. I think that, in that quest, the larger than life people we can get lost in them. It’s almost as though you have to, in your head, say, “If I’m talking about myself is this person listening?” Sometimes charming people are actually really good at that, so you have to be careful.

It’s not just that they listen, are they interested? Are they asking questions? Pay attention to how they talk about other people. Are they contemptuous? Are they belittling? People give you more clues than you think, you just have to be on.

Now, not all of us want to be sort of a shrink the first time we meet someone at a cocktail party, and I get that. It may very well be that the charming, charismatic, confident person is beguiling enough that you do go out on that first date or that second date, but notice what happens in those first few weeks. Those love-bombing weeks.

Slowly but surely, you’ll see their interest level start to fade a little bit. You’re going to see, again, real life happens. They might have to wait in line at a restaurant or their order may not come out exactly how they want it, or they may be barraging you with texts and you can’t always answer.

Watch how they respond when things aren’t perfect. We so desperately want the charming, confident, and charismatic person to be the whole package, but we try to ignore it when the other parts of the package don’t show up.

I think that if you can get those three things with all of the other stuff then it’s fine, but those three things without the empathy and all of the other good stuff, forget it. That’s where you have to pay attention. Empathy is one of those things people should pretty much lead with. If it starts to wane, if the people can’t handle things like frustration and disappointment, those are the kinds of patterns that bring the relationship down.

Another thing to pay attention to, no matter how charming or charismatic someone is, how sensitive are they? Hypersensitivity is one of those red flags that shows itself off early because people are trying to impress you when they first meet you, right? If you say, “Oh, gosh I never knew that school was that hard to get in to,” and they’re like, “What do you mean? That school is really hard to get in to, blah, blah, blah.”

That’s a red flag. That they are so hypersensitive, that they’re like, “Yeah, whatever, I had a great experience,” that they can’t be a bit easy breezy about it. That tension, when they feel that they’re at all being slighted, that’s a very big red flag and a lot of people write that off to anxiety when they first meet someone. No, that hypersensitivity is usually a sign of more problematic things lurking.

Anne: That’s interesting. When you said that they’re listening, but are they REALLY listening, it reminded me of my ex when I would talk. I thought he was the best listener because I could just sit and talk and he would just sit there and listen, is what I thought. But looking back, I realize he was never really engaged. He was just there in body but not actually engaged with his mind.

He wouldn’t ask me follow-up questions or ask me how I felt about it. But I’m very, I would say, independently descriptive so I would say, “This is how I felt about it.” I would just say all the things I wanted to say, without needing prompting, so I thought he was a good listener. I know, now, that that was not good listening. He was probably daydreaming about bike parts or something.

Dr. Durvasula: Yes, and also pay attention to how much they remember. I mean, “Well, he has ADHD, so he doesn’t remember stuff.” I don’t know. When you care enough about a person, you remember stuff. You do feel like it’s a soliloquy and, many times, when we first meet someone, we’re anxious, so some of us talk too much.

A narcissist might actually cut you a wide berth to keep talking and talking and talking. We think that’s good listening. Actually, good listening means that every so often they say, “How did that feel?” or “What happened next?” They’re punctuated into the conversation means that they are actually tracking what you’re talking about.

Anne: Just really quickly, on that same note, when I would interrupt my ex, when he was talking, to track what he was saying with, “So, you mean this? or “Oh, this is what happened,” he would get angry with me for interrupting him. I was like, “Wait, I’m practicing active listening skills. This is what people do when they’re listening to people,” and he would get really mad and tell me that I needed to be completely quiet until he was done. Do you see that? Is this common?

Dr. Durvasula: Yeah, that’s a real problem too. I mean, again, there’s a lot of places that could come from. It can come from arrogance, it can come from entitlement, it can come from family of origin issues, that that’s how they did it in his family. You kind of did your little speech and then sat down.

Here’s the thing. People say, “Well, if that’s how they grew up, then I feel bad for them.” I feel bad for them too, but if that doesn’t work for you, this is how it’s always going to be. I get that people feel bad for where people came from, and that’s lovely and compassionate, but you’re not going to change that. You can’t un-ring the bell of their history.

Yes, I think narcissists, as I said, they hold court. Everything is a soliloquy. You say this long speech and then someone else has a long speech. It’s parallel play. It’s not the interactiveness of a relationship. That idea of “Stop interrupting me,” if that happened early enough in a relationship, that’s usually a red flag of a problem.

Anne: I wish I would have known that before. That would have been helpful. Hopefully, our listeners will think about that as they’re interacting.


  1. Sue

    Thank you for this podcast! It’s the best thing I’ve heard in years of videos and podcasts about narcissism. Plus real parenting info. Very helpful!

    • Anne Blythe

      I’m so glad it was helpful to you!

  2. Beth

    Do the guidelines for partners of narcissists work for partners of sociopaths? My therapist recently commented that it sounds like my husband might be a sociopath.

    • Anne Blythe

      With narcissists and sociopaths, we always recommend the “no contact” route. I hold a no contact boundary with my ex, and we parallel parent. That might be something for you to consider.

  3. Lisa Parker

    This podcast was so informative and helpful. Thank you so much!

    I was wondering if Dr. Ramani could possibly have a discussion with you sometime about how these traits show up in covert/shy narcissism?

    • Anne Blythe

      Good idea! I’ll ask her to come back on the podcast in a few months. Stay tuned!


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