Why co-parenting with a toxic ex can’t work


​Co-parenting means that both parents raise the children together in the same direction, with the same values, and with mutual respect for each other’s individual differences.

This is the absolute ideal for the children. It gives them clarity and support and they always know where they stand.

The parents, although separated, work together. They don’t let the reasons for their separation get in the way, but put themselves on a mature, adult pedestal – they virtually outgrow themselves – and are fully aware of the responsibility of providing good guidance for their children. They usually have very similar values that they represent and live by.

Yes, it works. At least with mentally healthy parents.

So I can understand why the entire help system here and elsewhere insists on co-parenting – after all, that’s the best thing for the child that can happen after separation.

But what if one parent doesn’t have the same values? If one parent does everything to destroy the ex-partner, both financially and emotionally? When the one doesn’t care at all about what might be with the children, but only puts himself or herself first and foremost?

In short, what if a parent has narcissistic personality disorder and is not at all capable of making empathic decisions for the benefit of others?

No question, narcissism occurs in both men and women, and it is incumbent upon all involved in the support system to detect it quickly and make good decisions based on it in order to offer the right counseling.

Since I exclusively counsel mothers with toxic ex-partners, I will focus here only on cases where the child fathers have such a disorder.

Because what all counselors simply must realize: Not only the children have to be protected, but also the mothers, who even after the separation from the ex-partner are still beaten up and controlled and blackmailed by means of the children.

Therefore, I say very clearly:

There can be no co-parenting with a narcissistic child father.

The only thing that can work is the counter-concept: parallel parenting.

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The three relationship levels

A great guide with which we can achieve clarity for the needs and requirements of all concerned is the distinction between the individual relationship structures of a separated family.

Relationship level A: children to the mother

Relationship level B: Children to father

Relationship level C: mother to father

While co-parenting requires all three relationship levels to be intact and flowing, parallel parenting leaves out relationship level C. A relationship between the separated parents does not have to be actively lived. The focus is on the children’s relationships (to which one could  connect any number of other relationship levels, e.g. to grandparents, aunts and also friends and neighbors).

I sometimes have the impression that co-parenting is being held up like a holy grail by the system. As if it wants to force that mother and father get back into a relationship and yet most of them close their eyes to the reality, because a main component is missing in a toxic child father: The desire and will to treat their children’s mother with respect and fairness.

Co-parenting with a toxic ex-partner always means for the woman to deny herself to the point of self-sacrifice and to have to do everything with herself for the sake of the child’s well-being.

In parallel parenting, on the other hand, both focus on their relationship with the child and do not exert any coercive influence on the child’s relationship with the other parent, but simply ensure that contact can take place and that boundaries/agreements are adhered to.

The goal is to have to clarify as little as possible in everyday life, since – as you have already experienced – no communication can succeed with toxic ex-partners.

By the way, there is still enough potential for conflict in the context of joint custody, don’t worry! After all, we are talking about pathological personality disorders here. And of course he will continue to want to force a relationship, but the mother has at least the permission within the parallel parenting to be allowed to separate herself more.

My point is to be able to show you, as a mother, ways in which you can find a clear line for yourself to deal with the father of your children. That you don’t have to put up with his games and blackmail for the “good of the children”.

But that also means, conversely, that you yourself let go when it comes to your children’s relationship with the toxic father.

Since the system here demands that mothers allow contact with the father – no matter what he has already done, no matter whether he has treated his family irresponsibly and no matter whether he is sane or not – anyone who resists this view will be punished even more.

So, in order to prevent even worse things from happening, you should allow and respect the children’s contact with the child’s father, even if this relationship presents itself to you as highly toxic and manipulative.

Tough stuff, isn’t it?

We want to protect our children, they are still so innocent!

But to be honest, I’d rather you stay present in your children’s lives as a parent at least 50% of the time and be able to develop and recover from the relationship with the ex in a self-sufficient way, than to put all your energy into a hopeless fight for access rights that only catapults you backwards and never forwards.

Because that 50% is worth its weight in gold. They are exactly what your children internalize when they are with you. Your empathy, your values, the absence of manipulative interests – your children will unconsciously absorb this and recognize it as truth at some point when they have grown up.

Do you want to feel confident about managing child hand-offs with your toxic ex?


What does parallel parenting mean in everyday life?

Therefore, limit your relationship with the ex to the bare essentials and to the issues that need to be settled in joint custody – which is less than imagined – and focus on the children when they are with you.

  • Don’t talk nastily about the ex in their presence.
  • Keep anything away that they might overhear about how he treats you.
  • Model your values.
  • Think about your rules that will apply in your home, regardless of what your ex does.
  • Enable contact and stick to the agreements and times on your part.
  • Let go of everything you learn from the kids that the ex allows or forbids, and don’t discuss it with them. “That’s interesting.” or “Oh yeah?” and “I’m happy for you.” are appropriate retorts.
  • And there you go – voilà – living parallel parenting.

Attachment intolerant?

Yes, this killer argument is used in court faster than you can look. It seems to me that people also like to confuse the levels of relationships.

Attachment intolerance as an accusation should actually be about the lack of tolerance for the children’s attachment to the other parent, not about the ability of both parents to relate to each other!

In this case you make clear that you respect the relationship of the children to the ex as described above, but that you have now ended your own relationship to the child’s father for a good reason.

As you could find out by now, a parenting relationship in co-parenting is not possible with this man – countless joint mediation and educational counseling interventions can prove this – so there should be nothing against it if you drive a different strategy in the future.

So that you can also protect yourself and as a mother can accompany your children in the future in an emotionally stable way.

Does this also work in the alternating model?

Parallel parenting cannot work in an alternating joint custody model with a toxic ex, because the entire construct is geared towards constant coordination. But co-parenting does not work twice…

Should you live in the alternating model, then you can still think about how parallel parenting could be implemented at least approximately with the ideas from above.

I just can’t understand why courts decide on the alternating model for highly contentious separating couples.

And it is a folly to force the mother with a verbally aggressive ex-partner to accept the alternating model plus countless joint sessions at a child guidance center, so that the alternating model has even a chance to work.

It still doesn’t work, but hey – it’s impossible for someone to claim that they didn’t see it coming?

Another mystery for me is why parallel parenting is not yet officially recommended to mothers in the help system. At least I haven’t heard about it yet.

Probably because otherwise it would be an admission that the whole society bites on granite with narcissists and therefore knows no other answer than “Now finally get your act together, you are finally adults!”.

Hopefully this attitude will change over the next few years.

I’m working on it 😉.

If you’d like to learn more about what Parallel Parenting might look like in your everyday life, why not subscribe to my FeelBold Friday. All of my coaching packages and also my online group program DEXKADIMA are based on the distinction of relationship levels and how the practical implementation could be lived in everyday life.

So that you can become strong again and focus on your future.

How do you see it? Have you already had experiences with parallel parenting? Or how does communication with your ex work for you? Write it down in the comments, I’m looking forward to it!

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