I may not have children, but the majority of my good friends do. A few of them have exes with whom they still share custody, and of these, a few of these exes also happen to be narcissistic abusers. Coming from a background of both mental health and living on planet earth, I’m very familiar with narcissistic abuse. Therefore, I always listen with sympathy when they talk about it. Attempting to co-parent with a toxic ex is especially harrowing. Ever since the COVID-19 crisis began, I’ve noticed the usually unpleasant communications have taken on an even more unpleasant tone and script.
My friends happen to be female, but narcissistic abuse spans gender and relationship dynamics. I know parents aren’t the only ones susceptible to this behavior right now, but children provide a powerful weapon for narcissists to use, especially when “safety concern” is their ammunition.
Within only a week, three of my friends sent me messages from the fathers of their children. One scolded her for picking up a carry-out pizza. She was “only trying to go drinking”, according to him–despite fact the bar at the pizza place was closed. She was also “putting their child at risk” by being in public. Another friend’s ex-husband accused her of “putting their child at risk” by going grocery shopping. What a gift this crisis and lockdown has given to a narcissist co-parent. Suddenly it’s easy to paint a normal, necessary act like feeding a child as “bad parenting.” No one can set up a no-win situation like a narcissist.
“Tell me I’m not crazy. Is this reasonable? I don’t even know anymore.”
“Of course you’re not crazy,” I told them. “It’s obvious what he’s doing here.”
But of course, to them, it isn’t so obvious. When you’ve been the victim of narcissistic abuse for so long, you lose the ability to trust in your own judgment. During a crisis, when everyone’s doubting their own judgment and no one knows exactly what to do, the power a narcissist has to make a victim doubt themselves is even more potent.
The Manipulation Tactics Narcissists Use
Shame and Guilt
No one is less prepared for a pandemic than you, says the narcissist. No matter what you’re doing, it’s wrong. Did you have to go to the grocery store with your kids last week because you had no milk? You might as well just let them run out into traffic or feed them to lions. If they get sick, it will most definitely be your fault. How could you put them at risk like that?! You’re such a bad parent!
This is what the narcissist wants you to believe and, spoiler alert, it’s bull shit. In a time when CDC guidelines have changed on almost a daily basis, when it’s so hard to balance caution with practicality, when the words “essential” and “necessary” have to be parsed by each person using judgment and individual circumstance, how can anyone really know what’s definitively “right” and what’s “wrong” to do? We’re all just trying to figure it all out together, and trying to be as safe as we can be. But the narcissist will make sure you feel like absolute crap about whatever choice you make. Social and ethical gray areas like those that exist in a crisis give narcissists an uncommonly good opportunity to make you feel unsure about everything you do.
Narcissists LOVE to catastrophize–it’s a great way to gaslight you. A narcissist can create a crisis out of anything. Ten minutes late to pick up your kid at school? To hear the narcissist tell the story, you basically abandoned them. The kids were crying. The teachers almost called CPS!
Under normal circumstances, it’s pretty easy to tell when the narcissist is dramatizing things, but when there’s a genuine crisis, it gets hard. When the narcissist demands you drop everthing and leave your job (that you’re still required to show up to) to drive across town because little Timmy has a little cough, is that reasonable? You really need to stay at work, but if you don’t treat it like a 5 alarm emergency and it turns out your kid has coronavirus, you’ll be the bad guy forever. More likely than not, the narcissist just wants to use the events at hand as an excuse to violate your boundaries and pull your strings. Dance, monkey, dance!
They want you know that they’ve been the one doing EVERYTHING. They’re the only ones prepared for this crisis. When little Timmy coughed, the narcissist had to rush him to the emergency room and disinfect the entire house. (Maybe he even used it as an excuse to throw some belongings if yours away that were possibly “contaminated.”). Clearly he’s the only parent who actually cares! It’s all on him now to be the responsible one.
Suddenly your behavior is being twisted to make you out as negligent and apathetic. The narcissist can then step in to save the day as the reluctant hero. It’s a very effective way of villainizing you to everyone you know, because rest assured everyone else will hear all about how much they are doing and how much you aren’t. Gaining sympathy from everyone else is all part of the smear campaign they’re already setting up.
Gaslighting is when the narcissist makes you doubt your own perception of a situation. In the case of Covid-19, a narcissist may make you feel like your own judgment isn’t right. Once it’s confirmed little Timmy just has seasonal allergies, they might tell you that Timmy was running a fever to justify their overreactive behavior. You know there was no fever, but how can you prove it? History revision and denying facts are all gaslighting maneuvers.
Recently, one of my friends moved to a new apartment that is owned by one of our mutual friends. Her narcissist described the move as her having “unstable housing”. Because it was located downtown, he told her it was “unsafe” for their daughter during the Covid-19 crisis, as the area is densely populated (I guess she was supposed to move to a deserted island instead of the town she lives in?) He also asserted the home was “unsanitary” and “unlivable” because they were in the process of replacing the carpet. These descriptions were carefully crafted so that they could be shown in court later during their custody battle. The home was fine, moving is something everyone does, and living in a city isn’t a crime. A narcissist can spin anything to suit their agenda. His attempt at painting a damning picture of her living situation for later custody hearings demonstrates one thing: a narcissist believes they can gaslight and manipulate others just as easily as they can their victims. Too often, they are right.
Smear Campaign/ Threats
The gaslighting sets the stage for the smear campaign. By cherry picking their outrage (which is almost always full of hypocrisy), they can make their victims look bad and make themselves look good. Don’t immediately get up from your Zoom meeting and come running because the narcissist says your child has the sniffles? You are a neglectful parent who doesn’t care about their child. Pick up a carry out order from a place that sells alcohol? You’re a floozy who just wanted an excuse to go to a bar! COVID-19 is a time where personal safety and health are everyone’s top priority. Unfortunately, it’s also a great opportunity for a narcissist to find a million ways in which you are not being the perfect quarantine citizen and use it against you any way they can. As in my last example, they may hint around or outright threaten to use your handling of the Coronavirus crisis to prove to others that you’re an unfit parent later.
Appealing to Emotions
Many victims of narcissists are really nice people. Narcissists tend to seek out easy targets, and the more empathetic, trusting and forgiving a person is, the more likely they will put up with a narcissist’s abuse. These characteristics can also keep the person under the influence of the narcissist long after the relationship has ended. The narcissist knows you’re a nice person, too, and that’s the first thing they will exploit. Narcissists will use guilt, pity, sympathy, false hope, anxiety, fear and even anger to manipulate. When appealing to one emotion doesn’t work, they will rapidly shift their approach to appeal to another. (For example, if a narcissist can’t get your sympathy, they will then target your ire.) Often narcissists will use children as part of the emotional appeal. They frequently do this by speaking (not always truthfully) for the emotions of the child in order to shame, guilt or incentivize the other parent. Example: “Little Timmy said he’s upset because you’re still going to work and spending time around other people. He’s very scared of getting sick and doesn’t feel safe at your house.” See what I mean?
Is it just me, or did every narcissist suddenly become an expert on infectious disease? Narcissists are the ultimate hypocrites, so while they are likely not actually doing 1/10th of the things they tell you you should be doing, they will happily lecture you on all the ways you should be behaving privately and publicly. Whatever you think is best for your kids, the narcissist knows better. Whatever brand of disinfectant you use, it doesn’t work well enough. Whatever news source you’re watching, it’s not accurate. After all, you aren’t as smart or informed as they are, so everything you’re doing and all the precautions you’re taking are wrong.
A Case Study for What This Looks Like in Real Life
The ex husband of my friend (let’s call her Mary) sends her a text accusing her of “putting their children at risk” because she went to a bar back in February–long before lockdowns were put into place. Their son has been sneezing, which only started after being at her house so it must be she who got him sick. Because it happens to be his weekend for custody, he is saddled with watching and caring for the sick child.
Tactics used: gaslighting, appeal to emotions, martyrdom, setting up the smear campaign.
He tells her he has “inside information” about a mandate to shutdown all interstates within 1-3 days and says they are no longer putting people over 70 on ventilators. He paints a grim, apocalyptic picture, continues to tell her things will get worse until there is martial law, while also insinuating she is not taking it seriously enough. None of his claims turn out to be factual.
Tactics used: catastrophizing, talking above, appealing to emotions, gaslighting.
He then tells her she should not be going to “parties” and “bars”, despite the fact she is doing neither and has been following all appropriate quarantine guidelines.
Tactics used: gaslighting, smear campaign, guilting and shaming.
When they were married, Mary was a loving, devoted stay-at-home mom. She lived under the thumb of an emotionally abusive, controlling husband. Now she is divorced and still a loving and devoted mom, just one who also has friends and hobbies. By reframing her participation in normal social activities as reckless, party-girl antics, he can smear her as a person and a mother. By making the accusation she put their children “going to bars” before the pandemic even escalated, he can appeal to her emotions, attempt to guilt her, and gaslight her about what decisions were reasonable at the time. He also reveals what is really motivating him: anger at the fact he no longer has her under lock and key. By catastrophizing, he can attempt to use the situation to dictate her actions and guilt her into staying exactly where he always wanted her: at home.
Rest assured, the narcissist isn’t concerned with whether you’re staying home because he cares about your well-being, the children’s well-being, or because it’s the appropriate thing to do right now. It’s because he cares about controlling you.
What You Can Do about It
Nothing makes a narcissist rage like losing control of a victim. Even after a relationship ends, a narcissist will continue to try and maintain that control. The best thing you can do is go no-contact with a narcissist, But when a person shares children with a narcissist, that is rarely an option.
The most effective way to escape from a narcissist’s grasp if you still have to communicate is using Gray Rock Method. Gray rock method is what it sounds like–literally becoming a “rock” in the landscape of the narcissist. Narcissists thrive on drama. They thrive on emotional reactions and attention and the thrill of the provocation. By “gray rocking” the narcissist, you start to blend into the background. You are nothing to them and you give them nothing.
Gray Rock Techniques
- Give short, simple, non-emotive answers. “Sure, okay.” “That’s fine.” “I don’t think so.”
- Don’t apologize or talk yourself down. Don’t say things like “sorry if I made you feel that way, I didn’t mean to…” Do not try to defend yourself, either.
- Don’t provoke or allow yourself to be provoked. This means do not engage in any argument or conversation the narcissist might try to suck you into about past drama or incidents. Ignore and deflect.
- Only interact when absolutely necessary and ignore and divert attempts to engage in non-essential conversations.
- Don’t tell the narcissist what you’re doing, don’t proclaim you’re “ignoring them.” That is a provocation.
More on Gray Rock Method can be found here.
The point of gray rocking is to no longer be a source of narcissistic supply. Once a narcissists no longer sees you as a source of supply, they will leave you alone. A narcissist only provokes a victim because they are getting something out of it. Your narcissist would not be attempting to antagonize you if you weren’t giving them something in return (being hurt and upset by their behavior is enough).
Narcissists spend their entire relationship with you learning your weaknesses, and they continue to exploit them long after you’ve split up. During the peak of your relationship, a narcissist learned exactly what things hurt you, and what things motivated you. They know you’re still, fundamentally, the same person you were with the same weaknesses and same insecurities. Healthy people do not weaponize other people’s weaknesses against them, but narcissists are not healthy people. They will not play by the rules of normal interpersonal decency. The same things that they could use to manipulate you then, they can still use now, and they will. By gray rocking, you convince them those old avenues to your emotions are no longer open. Your vulnerabilities may still be there, but once they stop getting the reward of your reaction, they get bored. Narcissists hate being bored. The rat eventually stops pushing the button when food stops coming out.
To gray rock successfully, you have to be able to see their provocations for what they are, and you have to make a choice to no longer allow it. You’re not a bad parent. And you’re too valuable and too worthwhile to allow a narcissist to chip away at your sanity.
If you are in a situation with a narcissistic abuser where you feel threatened or fearful for your safety, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline.