The Nature of the Beast
While the very best way to establish and hold clear boundaries with a narcissist is to cut off all contact, this is not always possible for a variety of reasons. Those who have a child with a narcissist, or when a narcissist is a close blood relative, like a parent or sibling will likely at least have occasional forced contact with the narcissist.
It is imperative to learn and employ specific and well planned boundaries on a consistent basis with a narcissist. Much like in the film ‘Terminator’, when character Kyle Reese says to Sara Connor: “Listen, and understand. That terminator is out there. It can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead”, narcissists will relentlessly probe for any and every weak point or advantage and exploit it.
While, of course, most narcissists are not so avid as to kill their victims, it is important to note that some are. So the first boundary issue to discern is an assessment of the narcissist’s potential and level of threat. Some narcissists are simply nuisances and are hardly more troublesome to control than swatting a fly, while others pose a clear and present danger to property and life. Most, though, fall somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. The suggested strategies and boundaries below are intended to help a wide variety of victims of narcissists.
Know Where the Line Is
Often, the narcissist will have gained so much emotional and psychological control over the victim that the victim feels that it is strongly implied that the narcissist is a physical threat. This sensibility should not be ignored; while the narcissist may in fact not be a danger, it is always best to err on the side of caution. If a narcissist has made specific bodily harm threats to their victim, then the threats must be taken seriously. ‘Bodily harm’ because threats just to ruin a reputation, destroy a person financially, or go to court to ‘get custody of the child’ will not be sufficient for any legal action for the verbal threat. Legal action may be taken, especially if there is a ‘continuance’ of a verbal threat, such as holding a weapon in the presence of the victim when the verbal threat is made, and may qualify as ‘assault’. Victims of narcissists are wise to study up a bit on how the legal system works so that they do not miss opportunities to put legal sanctions in place against an abusive narcissist.
Victims should formulate a network of family, friends, legal representation, and professional counseling as a base of operations for their boundary making and holding. One aspect of narcissistic relationship is that the narcissist very often works diligently at socially isolating the victim from friends and family. Reestablishing and strengthening these contacts is essential. It is also important that family and friends get at least basic education of the nature and tactics of individuals with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).
Most attorneys who have any experience at all in divorce have met and coped with their fair share of NPD’s. Yet, it’s a good idea to find a lawyer that has a good understanding of this mental health disorder; it gives the victim an edge. Not all clinical counselors are willing to give counsel to victims of narcissists, since they have an understanding of how vicious an NPD can get. Many counselors just don’t want the hassle, but finding someone who has the professional skills to help you recover from the damage to your self esteem is key. Believe it or not, narcissists can even rattle and ‘con’ professional counselors, lawyers, and judges.
The next set of boundaries to establish might be called ‘filters’. Filters are the means to not only keep the narcissist at bay in your physical life, but also to keep them at bay from continually entering your thoughts. The latter is just as important as the former, for a classic marker of an NPD is the ability to ‘get into the victim’s head’.
Take some time and compare your legal obligations (in the case of custody, for example) to what you are actually doing concerning custody. NPD’s tend to use techniques designed to capture your your sympathy, because they know people ‘fall for’ the idea that maybe being reasonable with the NPD will make things better; it won’t, the NPD is just trying to take advantage of you. For example, if the custody order says that the child sees the NPD parent for two weekends a month, but does not say anything about transportation, don’t agree to drive halfway across the state to meet the NPD ‘half way’ as an act of good will. Or, if the court order says the NPD parent has a right to phone call the child, don’t volunteer ‘Skype’. In a situation like that, the NPD only really wants to peer into your home and taunt YOU, they don’t really care about their child. If they have objections to you not going above and beyond what the court order says, let them bring it to court as an issue. They have no good will towards you. Really. You are either a tool, a toy, or an obstruction to the NPD.
Discern and then write down (to keep you reminded) what you MUST communicate about with the NPD and steadfastly ignore everything else. Since NPD’s have a natural predator instinct, they know full well how to ‘bait’ their victims into reacting, and it’s that reacting that feeds the vampire that is an NPD. Learn to expect the NPD to go through very dramatic ‘displays’ when you begin to ignore everything that is irrelevant to any genuine court ordered business between you (like child visitation). Examine everything they communicate with you and evaluate it with a cold, suspicious eye. NPD’s love to bluff, and they love to rattle by threatening legal action against you.
Brainstorm practical solutions to often violated boundaries. For example, even though you may be legally required to share information with the NPD about the child’s medical and educational information, you could have the school or doctor mail a hard copy of grades and medical interventions directly to the NPD parent and further reduce your contact with them. In fact, you might want to block the NPD from texting you all together and rely only on telephone contact with a cheap, disposable cell phone that you use only for the NPD, and then only for emergencies or to have on when the child is with the NPD.
Other key foundational preparations to create and hold boundaries is to learn how to lower your reactivity and increase your ability to respond when dealing with the NPD. This means controlling your negative thoughts about the NPD controlling you or threatening you or even just annoying you so that you can genuinely keep your emotions in check. When you succumb to the tactics that the NPD uses to take the location of your thought and emotional control away from you, you place yourself right where they want you. If you have to be in a courtroom, knowing how not to react to the things that the NPD will say and do gives you a huge advantage, especially when they are making an idiot of themselves in front of the judge. Never put yourself in a place where the NPD can ‘mess with you’. Because when they can ‘mess with you”, they get you to react. And that just feeds them.
You Can Overcome
Lastly, it is wise to develop a legal strategy to protect yourself and your child. Keep a journal of all the crazy stuff they try to do to mess with you, as well as all their missed, court ordered visitations. Any injuries to the child when they are with the NPD should be photographed, if you genuinely suspect abuse. Keep the texts if they are threatening or bizarre in any way. Insist that any phone calls between the child the NPD parent be on speakerphone and record them if the NPD is talking smack about you to the child. Eventually, most NPD’s call the police on their ex and the police arrive at your home due to a false complaint of you abusing the child. Expect this, and don’t be rattled by it. When the police arrive, invite them in, be polite, and explain that the caller is an NPD. Most of the time, the police ‘get it’ once they see that the child is just fine and the home is safe.
Most NPD’s can be managed with clear and firm boundaries. But it is the victim that needs to grab hold of themselves, learn what needs to be learned, enter a recovery process from the abuse, and begin to build effective boundaries and limits to the NPD.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
SadDad18 on December 19, 2017:
While helpful, much of what you advise will hand the NPD a free pass to distort you in the courts nearly blind eyes.
Speakerphone while child talks? Red flag and very common sign of parental interference. We’ll call it inference since the courts refuse to call it alienation despite the years of proof.
My NPD ex has monitored every conversation I’ve had with my child. She knows as long as she is there my daughter will “not say the wrong thing”. It’s a method of control and intimidation and says to the child “ I’m here to protect you from Daddy”.
While I agree with boundaries I believe a few of these suggestions would likely be seen by the courts as the NPD trying to be involved but getting little cooperation from non NPD. Not because it’s true but because how it can be made to seem.
We can protect ourselves without looking uncooperative. Otherwise it’s used against you and good luck getting a judge to believe the crazy you know the NPD is. Especially if NPD has money and you don’t. Money wins.
Anya on June 29, 2017:
Thanks so much for this. I divorced my NPD ex a year ago after 4,5 years marriage. We have two beautiful daughters and for me it is a day-in-day-out thing of dealing with manipulations, threats, gas-lighting, name-calling etc.. etc. I am learning to set the boundaries and not to react, which is extremely hard if you naturally want to seek compromise. I continue educating myself and learning not to try to reason with NPD. Hard stuff. Thank you again for this post. (And on more thing: of course NPD is the whole spectrum, and every case is separate but actually I find calling an NPD individual a predator and vampire quite useful :) here where it is also used: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evolution-the...
Kim Cooper from Australia on July 10, 2016:
As an author who has written about NPD and codependence for nearly 8 years I would say this article has some good suggestions, but I object strongly to some of the language. Name calling such as . . . beast, vampire, predator, victim etc. and the image. This kind of over dramatic name calling is narcissistic through and through. It works to terrorise the very person that the article is apparently giving advice to. People are motivated by love more than they are motivated by fear. Learning to set real boundaries can and will help us and our families to mature. Narcissistic tendencies are very common, just easier to see in others than in ourselves. www.TheNCMarriage.com
Robert E Smith from Rochester, New York on October 15, 2014:
I can most assuredly say the definition of narcissist that you gave, I never have encountered. At first I thought that I had but did not understand the depth of the word, I guess. I have know self absorbed people in my life and I have just told them that although they said that they were my friends, they were not. Usually that made them angry and they removed themselves from me. But I have never met a person like you described. Helpful article. Bob.
Shelley Watson on July 11, 2014:
A hard disorder to deal with - and again only they can help themselves. Thank you for sharing!