Sabrina was at her wit’s end. Her narcissistic ex-husband hit an all-time low. During their marriage, she was the target for his angry rants, verbal assaults, gaslighting, and guilt-tripping. But now his attacks seemed to center around just one of their two kids. Unfortunately, it was their ten-year-old child who most resembled Sabrina’s personality that was his new target. Their twelve-year-old child seemed to escape his scrutiny despite the recent in-school suspension and two failing grades.
But it was the ten-year-old who was quiet, generally compliant, and rarely got into trouble that Sabrina’s ex attacked. Sabrina watched in horror as her child shut down, became unnecessarily anxious, was newly fearful, and depressed. Afraid that her child would become like her, Sabrina knew she had to speak to him. However, the last time she confronted him, he slapped her with a motion to modify parenting agreement accusing her of parental alienation.
So, what could she do? She didn’t want to be like him and file motions requesting hearings to handle their child. Besides which, the last time they were in court, he seemed to woo the judge getting more than his fair share. Sabrina needed a different approach. Her protective instincts wanted to keep her child away from him even more, but she knew this would end in disaster. Instead, Sabrina decided on a different strategy. Here is what she did.
- Realize they won’t change. Even Sabrina caught herself thinking, “Why can’t he just do this one thing differently.” Just because there was a divorce and the kids are hurting, it doesn’t mean the narcissist will gain any insight or claim responsibility. They didn’t change in marriage and they won’t in divorce. Remembering this limitation put Sabrina’s perspective into clearer focus. She needed to change what she could and ignore the rest.
- Work with the narcissism and not against it. Knowing her ex loved attention and being admired, Sabrina told him that their daughter admired him and wanted to spend more one-on-one time with him. Of course, she shared this idea with her daughter prior and got her approval for the verbiage. This stroked his ego, so he wanted to engage more with their daughter.
- Use the hamburger method. The hamburger method is a way of communicating that makes receiving criticism easier. The ingredients are: compliment (the bun which usually has sugar and salt for flavor), confront (the meat), and compliment (another bun). Think of it as “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” Because the narcissistic ego needs regular stroking, this works nearly every time.
- Ignore threats. Instead of being paralyzed or retraumatized by his threats to take her back to court, Sabrina learned to overlook his comments. When the narcissist feels like they are losing in some way, they will make threatening statements. Sometimes these are benign, and nothing comes from the threat. Other times, there is a full attack. Past behavior in marriage is the best judge of this in divorce.
- Model healthy behavior. Sabrina knew that her interaction with her ex was being watched intensely by their kids. They were looking, instinctively, for what works and what doesn’t. Kids naturally study their parents so they can get what they want. Sabrina began discussions with a smile, good attitude, and calm demeanor. Even when her ex escalated, Sabrina lowered her vocal register, spoke more slowly and quietly, and breathed deeply. This helped her to keep present and not slip into survival mode. Once survival mode is triggered, reasoning becomes difficult while the automatic response of fight, flight, freeze, or faint kicks in.
- Don’t tolerate abusive behavior. One of the reasons Sabrina sought divorce was her ex’s abusive behavior. Now, away from it, she realized that her daughter was getting the brunt of it. Unfortunately, the abuse was so subtle that it hurt her daughter but was not reportable. Sabrina stopped tolerating his abuse and she needed to teach her daughter the same thing. Borrowing the idea from a superhero movie, Sabrina and her daughter designed an imaginary force field that could be activated anytime her daughter felt unsafe. It is a protective bubble that surrounds her daughter so she can still see out, but nothing gets in. This allowed the attacks to be seen but they would only get an arm’s length distance before bouncing off. Her daughter loved the idea and even drew a picture of it so she could remember her superpower whenever she needed it.
- Avoid embarrassment. Knowing that her ex hated to be embarrassed, Sabrina used this fear to encourage him to engage more with their daughter. She talked to him about a dad that her ex knew and felt competitive with. Then she told him about how that other dad had taken his daughter out to a fancy restaurant and the theatre getting all dressed up in formal attire. Within a week, her ex arranged for him and his daughter to fly to NYC to see her favorite Broadway show staying at an upscale hotel. This simple trip went a long way in helping their relationship and gave her daughter a good memory with her dad.
At first, Sabrina felt uncomfortable with these techniques but after she had some success, they continued to work for her and her kids. Better yet, her kids learned some new skills and felt more comfortable during their time with their dad.