When you have a partner who is narcissistic or emotionally abusive and you make the choice to leave them, the advice that’s always given is to go “no contact” and cut them out of your life completely.
That would work beautifully as a solution to healing from the emotional trauma of being in a relationship with a narcissistic emotional abuser. Except…
What about when you can’t go “no contact”?
What about those of us who created beautiful children with terrible people? What about the women and men who have left an abusive partner but can’t fully escape them because of the children they share?
What about the people like me?
The single, most difficult thing about my life now is managing the co-parenting relationship I have with my daughters’ father. It feels like I continue to hold the vast majority of the parenting responsibility, as I always did, but am required to engage in a relationship with my children’s’ father, regardless of my history with him.
My struggle in this relationship is so bad that I’ve idealized the lives of other parents whose former partners have completely abandoned them and their children. I recognize (and empathize so much with) how incredibly difficult it must be for these parents, financially and otherwise. But I envy the freedom they have when it comes to making decisions for, and being caregivers of, their children.
I also envy my friends who got divorced BEFORE they had kids. In my mind, that type of divorce is akin to ending a middle-school relationship; you both move on and it never has to matter in your life again EVER. Again, I’m not saying it’s easy, just that it’s easier than divorcing when you have kids.
I don’t actually think of what my ex and I do as co-parenting. In fact, there’s a different term for the type of parenting we do: it’s called “parallel parenting.” “Parallel parenting” looks more like a business relationship than a typical parenting relationship. You detach from the other parent and operate separately, aside from making major decisions together. This article explains it much better than I can, but hopefully I’ve given you the gist.
Thinking about all this stuff makes me wonder, how do other parents manage when their partner is abusive? Whether that person is narcissistic, emotionally abusive, physically abusive, or just a shitty person…how do the non-abusive parents cope with an ongoing parenting relationship? Because it’s hard. It’s really, really, fucking hard. And it takes time to figure out ways of coping.
If you also need to continue engaging in a difficult relationship, I do have a few ways you can help minimize the effect it has on your day to day life. You can do things like…
- Setting a specific ring- and text-tone for your former partner. This way, when calls or messages come in you know right away who it is and you can pause to prepare yourself before answering.
- Bathing your children when they return home (or having them shower if they’re old enough) and washing the clothes they came home in. I find that scent is a HUGE trigger for me. If it’s a problem for you too, you can eliminate or reduce triggering smells by literally washing them away and the kids never have to be the wiser. All you need to say is “it’s bath night!” and that’s enough.
- Doing all pick-ups and drop-offs outside your house or in a neutral location. Two choices here: either arrange to meet your ex and the kids somewhere close to home, but not AT your home, or move the pick-ups/drop-offs to your driveway. Again, this is about putting boundaries in your life (and your children’s lives) to keep you feeling safe and secure. Your home should be your sanctuary and if you feel threatened by your ex, inviting them in—or even just having them stand in your doorway—may be too much to ask of yourself. On top of that, and I may have some personal experience with this, opening the door to your ex may enable them to invade your space without permission. So do the drop-offs elsewhere and keep your space sacred (or at least douche-bag free).
- A similar solution, if it’s possible with your kids, would be to arrange pick-ups and drop-offs around the school schedule so you don’t even need to face your ex at all. Yay!
- Calling in the recruits! When you have to face your ex, having back-up in the form of another trusted person (a parent, new partner, or friend, for example) can help immensely. Not only is there strength in numbers (or at least that’s how it will look if there are two or more of you), having another person there holds both you and, more importantly, your ex accountable for what is said and done. (Soooo what I’m saying, really, is to make sure there are witnesses, because if your life starts to look more like a crime drama than an actual life, you may need them.)
- Hiring a professional. If you have the funds, hire a parenting coach or counsellor and attend sessions separately (parallel parenting, remember?). Let the coach do the work of managing your ex’s outbursts, irrational behaviour, out-of-whack expectations, and all other forms of bullshit. If you do end up meeting as a group, you’ll have the counsellor or coach there to keep things on track and keep everyone feeling safe.
Telling abuse survivors who are parents to go no contact with our abusers is actually shitty advice We don’t get to go no contact—it turns out that when you have children with your abuser, “til death do us part” is a life sentence whether you stay married or not. Instead, we should be given tools and language that enable us to set up and, here’s the key part, maintain strong, healthy boundaries that protect us when we feel (or are literally) threatened. Life’s not as simple as just turning away from our problems and when you have kids, you always have to stare those issues straight in the face.