Turning Co-dependence into a Management Tool in High-conflict Relationships
The Continuum of Co-dependence and Narcissism
On the continuum of ‘self-focused’ and ‘other-focused’, the ideal and healthy place to fall is somewhere in the mid-range. Being too self-focused could be described as narcissistic and being too other-focused could be described as ‘co-dependent’. Neither is a healthy quality in an individual much less an intimate relationship or a parent-child relationship.
People from both ends of this continuum tend to be drawn to each other, and at least in the beginning, both feel they benefit from the give/take (not give/receive) relationship that develops. Eventually, the other-focused person gets tired of giving and giving and never really receiving while the self-focused person never tires of taking.
Breaking the Narcissistic Hold
Being co-dependent is usually considered a weakness or a flaw that needs to be changed. True narcissism usually cannot be changed but co-dependent behavior can be. Let’s use the words ‘other-focused’ instead of co-dependent; it better describes what is going on for the person who typically gets hurt in the relationship. When you are too other-focused, at the expense of thinking about or prioritizing yourself, you are at risk of being taken advantage of and manipulated. When you are manipulated repeatedly, you start to believe that the other person’s needs, ideas, and perspectives are accurate and your needs, ideas, and perspectives are wrong or unimportant enough to come out on top. This is called gaslighting. When an ‘other-focused’ person gets fed up and decides they won’t take it anymore, they can start to break free from the narcissistic hold.
Using ‘other-focused’ as a Management Tool in High-conflict Relationships
Once you can recognize that you have been manipulated into believing that your partner or co-parent is right and start to think, that in fact, your perspective has some merit too and may even be the ‘more-right’ version, you can start to step out of the automatic dysfunctional pattern and start to manage the relationship that you find yourself stuck in.
One fact to keep in mind is that a highly self-focused (narcissistic) person will always respond to praise, attention, and recognition – it is their life-blood – they cannot turn away from it. When you learn to use this to your advantage, you can better manage the relationship and start to expect specific responses to your actions (or inaction) which will help you feel more in control of the situation. This is a quality that an ‘other-focused’ person lacks in a high conflict relationship.
Changing the Narrative
Every time your high-conflict partner/co-parent verbally attacks you with ‘you ……’ statements, rephrase them as ‘I …….’ Statements. Narcissistic and self-focused people tend to be pretty transparent when you know how to interpret their words and behavior. Because they have such poor self-worth underneath that annoying behavior, they are almost always projecting onto others how they really feel about themselves. For example:
“you’re a terrible parent, you are the cause of all of our problems. You are ruining our family.”
Rephrase this as follows:
“I am a terrible parent, I am the cause of all of our problems. I am ruining our family.”
How does that feel just imagining a litany you have heard many times in a new way? It changes things.
Praise with Purpose
I know the last thing you want to do is praise your high-conflict partner/co-parent. I know you have a long list of choice, descriptive, words you would rather throw around. But remember, a narcissistic person loves attention (of any kind) and when you praise with purpose you can gain an upper hand and buy yourself a buffer. You don’t have to mean it (though if you can muster a little truth in your praise it helps) but when you utter the words “thank you, that was helpful” or “you’re a great dad/mom, I appreciate you helping the kids with their schoolwork”, your high-conflict partner is getting an IV drip to their ego and that brings their defenses down and makes life easier for you.
Done without intent and purpose, this would be manipulative. I’m not suggesting you stoop to that level and manipulate others, rather intentionally use tools that reduce conflict, lighten the mood and give you a break and opportunity to plant some seeds and lay some groundwork for a future request, comment, or action.
Fill the Piggy Bank
Think of your high-conflict partner’s ego as a piggy bank that is always about to run into the red. This is very threatening for a ‘self-focused’ person and will trigger lots of problematic and annoying behaviors. If you can help to keep the ego piggy bank with a small balance it could help to make your life easier by reducing the tension and the likelihood your high-conflict partner will lash out.
Want More Help?
Contact me today at 619-248-2016 or [email protected]to learn more about my monthly Co-parenting with a Narcissist group or individual therapy to help you and your children change the narrative and live more fully in your own version of the story.