A Guide to Parallel Parenting with a High Conflict Ex

Everyone in a high conflict situation likes to think the difficult ex is a narcissist. Clinically diagnosed narcissists make up between 1 to 15% of the US population, so all of the ‘narcissistic exes’ are not all narcissists. The sad news is people don’t have to be narcissists to be challenging to parent with! 

Letting go of the labeling and the name calling can be a vital first step towards finding peace in the parallel parenting world. We can step outside of the victim mode of dealing with someone we feel is impossible and start creating a world we can feel some control and autonomy – in our homes at least. But first we need to fully define parallel parenting and why it might be the ideal approach to a high-conflict situation.

What is parallel parenting and why is it helpful when dealing with a narcissistic (or challenging) ex?

Parallel parenting, very simply put, is your house,  your rules. The flip side of that, and one that people find less appealing, is that it also means their house, their rules. Parallel parenting means taking an inventory of the things that are within your control — for example, bedtimes in your home —and the things that are not, such as bedtimes in the other house.

People with high conflict natures and personality disorders tend to crave conflict because conflict equals interaction and attention. Just like kids will sometimes act out even if the only response they will get is a negative one, those people who crave attention and interaction are happy to get your energy even if that energy is anger and resentment. Often, people with personality disorders and a predilection for drama have been fed negative attention as their dominant source of attention since childhood, so they don’t know any other way of doing or being.

This is an important clue. We can unwittingly become a source of sustenance if we keep engaging with someone hooked on negative attention. Our attempts to diffuse, while well-intended, do little more than feed the addiction. In turn, we become frustrated because it doesn’t matter how reasonable we try to be. There is just no reasoning. 

So now that we know what parallel parenting is, let’s talk about why it’s helpful during high-conflict situations. 

Parallel parenting gives us the opportunity to take back our power and limit communication. 

If we stick firmly to the idea that in our house we make the rules, all of the noise from that high conflict person surrounding what we are doing wrong, why we are bad parents, and why we should be doing things their way becomes just that — noise. I often tell my clients to channel a sassy old English woman when they are being hit with a tirade and respond in their heads, “That’s nice dear.” Those attempts to drag us into conflict don’t warrant or deserve our energy. We can keep our responses very brief and to the point, lacking in emotion, and pleasant. Check out the BIFF or Grey Rock responses for more information about this.

What this means for the actual practice of parenting

After many years of trying different methods, my hunny and I have found a process that works really well for us. He and I parent together in our house. We set the boundaries and the tone, we decide the consequences, and we enforce those consequences. There is zero expectation that our values, rules, or consequences will be supported in mum’s house. This also means that any rules, values, or consequences from her house stay there.

If a child has had their device taken off them in either home, there is no expectation the other home will carry on that consequence. There are a couple of reasons we have chosen this approach. Firstly, there was no co-parenting in our situation. I’m talking zero communication about the most basic things like toilet training or nap times. It was a very high conflict situation, and the children were constantly being told how stupid and wrong we were by their mother. Thirdly, we didn’t agree with the fundamental parenting approach of the ex.

So with all of that in mind, it would make zero sense to continue enforcing values and rules we don’t agree with. For example, one child might be scapegoated in one home, which is fairly common when narcissistic traits are present. They may consistently be punished for things that were not their fault, so why would we carry on that inequity? Switching home environments is hard, so it’s important that kids have perks here and there, like getting a fresh start.

Outside of our home, when it comes to things like medical, legal, and education decisions, there are laws in place that put the responsibility of decision making on both parents. It can be incredibly difficult to do this when a high conflict ex refuses to co-parent on these matters. We have found that it requires consistent boundaries and accountability. 

For example, one child in our stepfamily had blood tests recently. We waited and waited for the ex to inform my husband of the initial appointment and subsequent test results. In the end, he asked her outright. The response of “I just got the results back” was an outright lie, as we know she’s had them for weeks. She then gave a partial report. Is there any point in calling out the lie? No. However, it is important to keep holding her to account to share information. Each time we become aware of another breach, my husband will text requesting the information.

Narcissistic or not, parents can get very territorial. They can become self-righteous and feel entitled to tell us how we should or shouldn’t be parenting. Parallel parenting gives us the option to “pay them no mind” when this happens! We can sit solidly in our decisions and the parenting we choose to perform in our own homes. 

Protecting the couple relationship amid the drama

A critical part of parallel parenting is focusing on your relationship with your partner. The couple relationship is the foundation of a stable step-family unit. It’s far too easy to let a high conflict person come between us. Find common ground and establish your own family culture that embodies your shared values as both a couple and your goals as a family unit.

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