You may be in a relationship with a narcissist, or divorcing one, or trying to co-parent with a narcissist after your divorce. One of the most difficult aspects of being tangled in a narcissist’s web is learning to set firm boundaries with them. Narcissists typically have poor boundaries themselves; they like to win and maintain power, and they don’t like others setting boundaries on them. They even feel above the boundaries of the law — they don’t follow court orders and they find personal boundaries easy to violate. So, can you set boundaries for yourself and your children?
What is a boundary? It is simply drawing a line in the sand that represents what you are willing to do and what you will not do. We all have our limits. Narcissists are capable of devouring people with their selfish needs and demands while at the same time eroding their partners’ self-worth. If you are contending with an “ex,” it’s helpful to learn how to set boundaries. You will eventually have to teach this necessary life skill to your children too.
You do not have to maintain that line in the sand in a hostile manner. You can enforce it instead with firm words, practice, patience and restraint. You can even do it courteously and kindly. Sometimes it is as simple as saying that you are not going to listen further to an unpleasant exchange, hanging up the phone and turning off the phone. You can also walk away from situations and say that you cannot listen to a person who is being unreasonable. You can close the door, drive away and use other such tactics to enforce your limits.
Let’s also look at some practice dialogues:
Your ex says: “I left some things in your garage and I am stopping by after work to get them.”
You say: “I am at work today and it is not all right with me for you just to stop by my house anytime or enter my garage. You will have to schedule a time to do this when it works with my schedule, too. You must respect my property and schedule or I will contact law enforcement about your trespassing.”
Your ex says: “I know I was supposed to be there at six p.m. to get the kids, but I am coming by after school instead.”
You say: “We are going to follow the court orders exactly, and you cannot change the times at your whim. The children will not be home after school because we have other plans. We will see you at six p.m. tonight as planned.”
Your ex: Swears at you on the phone and is verbally abusive.
You say: “I will not allow you to speak to me that way any longer. Just so you know, each time that you do this, I will simply hang up the phone.” (Hang up. Do not engage or fight back.)
You ex: Disparages you in front of the children and you hear it.
You say: “This is not good for the children. I will remove them from this situation and I will speak with them about why it is not okay for you to do this. They will be told this each time you are determined to put me down in front of them. I won’t disparage you, but I will let them know that this behavior is not acceptable.”
These are just a few common examples. Think about the boundaries that your narcissistic ex or partner may try to cross on a consistent basis. You can work on writing out assertive and firm answers so you are ready to fire when the occasion calls.
You can set boundaries without blaming, shaming, or fighting. But it does take a bit of the warrior spirit to stay firm. The key to setting boundaries with a narcissist is to stick to them. You will want to communicate clearly and directly each time. If you make a mistake and find that you “lose it” or say something wrong, just keep practicing and be accountable for your behavior. In the end you will begin to feel empowered and much better about yourself and your ability to cope with that narcissist in your life. As a recent client told me, “My ex-wife, even though we are divorced, still asks me to pick up her cleaning and groceries on the way over to get the kids. I was always kind of co-dependent and had to orbit around her in the marriage and it took me some time to stop doing this. I finally learned to just say no! It feels really good.”