The word narcissist is spreading through divorce support groups like wildfire. It is often used by partners experiencing difficulties in their marriage or their divorce as a way to explain hurtful behavior. Often I see coParents struggling with the following questions:
Why aren’t they cooperating?
Why can’t they see that this is the best way?
They want things their way all the time!
There are many articles, checklists, and quizzes to help you spot if you are in a relationship with a narcissist. Reading these articles can help rationalize the behavior that has caused confusion and hurt. It can help you better understand a pattern of behaviors and may help you create boundaries to protect yourself. Often when one finds a diagnosis they think may fit their ex, they are so relieved they will often share that they have the answer as to why the two are struggling to get along. Some people are genuinely surprised when their ex is not gushing with gratitude. When their ex rejects the diagnosis, the partner will assert that they are refusing to get help for their diagnosis.
There are risks with throwing around mental health labels, risks you should be familiar with before you bring them into discussions with your ex partner or professionals involved in your coParenting struggles.
Here are the four main reasons not to label your ex a narcissist:
1. If you look for an explanation hard enough, you will find one.
But it may not be the correct one. You have wanted and expected something in interactions with your partner that you did not get. As a result, you have been disappointed and confused — time and time again. We live in an age where information is readily available. You can find evidence to support just about anything you believe. You may have read through the checklists and decided you are definitely divorcing a narcissist. The problem with these checklists is they often identify narcissist traits and not the other nuances that a mental health professional will explore in an educated diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. In short, you are not unbiased and probably do not have the educational background to be diagnosing people with psychiatric disorders. Parents often throw this label out as a way to explain why they have such difficulties coParenting.
2. So what should you do if your ex is presenting all of the traits of a narcissist?
It is more important to speak the facts of each situation rather than putting serious labels on a person’s behavior. Leave the diagnosis out as people will dismiss the whole conversation, therefore, missing the important things you’re trying to convey. Remind yourself, that you are not qualified to make such a diagnosis and by trying to you may make your ex defensive. By mentioning the specific behaviors that are bothering you instead, you may be more effective at swaying a person into assessment by a licensed professional if that is your goal.
3. What’s in a name? Think about what you want to accomplish long-term by establishing such a label.
Even if you were to establish such a diagnosis through proper assessment (which would be a long and expensive endeavor if your ex is fighting it in the court system), the coParenting might not change. This person is still a parent to your child, and it is important that they are in your child’s life. A mental health diagnosis does not lessen that importance. Regardless of whether they have the diagnosis or not, you have recognized a pattern of behavior that you need to learn to work with for your child’s sake.
4. Be the person you want your child to be.
The stigma of mental illness is changing especially as the younger generations receive more education about it. We would never allow our children to openly mock someone with another illness, so why mental illness. Being mentally ill isn’t a choice and is nothing to be ashamed about. In every divorce, people can identify something they don’t like about their spouse. For our children, we do not highlight those traits because it would hurt them. We want to highlight the good qualities of mom or dad. And if our ex does end up with a mental illness diagnosis, framing conversations in a positive and educational way can only help.
Regardless of whether your child’s other parent is diagnosed as a narcissist, you have recognized a pattern of behavior around which you will have to establish boundaries. There are lines that should never be crossed no matter the reason. For your well being and that of your children, engage respectfully and end interactions that are anything but. Take responsibility for your own actions but not those of other adults regardless of attempted manipulation. Be respectful, firm, and consistent in your communication about what you will accept for you and your children. Regardless of labels, we all seek the same thing, to be respected and not hurt in our interactions with people.