Q: My soon-to-be ex and I both want to spend a lot
of time with our children and we're trying to work out custody plan
that both of us think is fair. A couple we know that got divorced are
co-parenting their children. But other people have told us that sharing
custody causes problems for everyone. Who's right?
A: The best way to maintain a strong relationship
with your children is to spend as much time with them as you possibly
can. Joint physical custody provides the best guarantee of regular contact
with your kids. In most states, joint physical custody is defined simply
as "frequent and continuing contact," which covers everything
from equally splitting expenses, decision-making, and time with the
kids to arrangements that are basically indistinguishable from sole
mother custody with occasional visitation by the father.
So pursue as much physical custody as you can reasonably manage. This
is probably going to be somewhere between 30 and 50 percent. Unless
there are extenuating circumstances, don't shoot for more than 50 percent:
your children need their mother just as much as they need you and your
ex needs them just as much as you do. Why go for co-parenting? Simply
put, because it's the best thing for everyone.
- Parents like it. Former couples who share physical custody of their
children are happier with their custody arrangements than those who
don't. They fight less and are generally more satisfied with the overall
outcome of their break-up.
- Fathers like it too. Co-parenting dads are "more likely than
nonresidential fathers to share in decision making about their children
and to be satisfied with the legal and physical custody arrangements,"
says researcher Margaret Little.
- Judges like it. Parents who co-parent are half as likely to go back
to court to settle their disputes as
- Kids feel more secure. Seeing their parents break up can make children
feel frightened and out of control and, perhaps, unloved. And if one
parent disappears--or almost disappears--these feelings get worse.
- Everyone wins. "At its best joint custody presents the possibility
that each family member can 'win' in post divorce life rather than
insisting that a custody decision identify 'winners and losers,'"
writes social policy expert Ross Thompson. "Mothers and fathers
each win a significant role in the lives of their offspring and children
win as a consequence."
- It increases father-child contact. Fathers who share physical custody
of their children have far better visitation records and keep in much
closer contact with their children than dads who don't have as much
time with their kids.
- It nearly eliminates child-support default. The US Census Bureau
found that over 90 percent of men with joint physical custody pay
their entire child support obligation on time. Compliance goes up
even further when adjusted for unemployment, underemployment, disability,
or other legitimate inability to pay.
- It promotes flexibility. In the early stages of co-parenting, some
kids may find it a little confusing. But it usually doesn't take them
long to get used to the idea. Co-parented children quickly learn to
cope with and accept the different ways their parents do things.
WHEN IT WORKS AND WHEN IT DOESN'T
Most experts now agree that co-parenting is the best option. But they
also agree that there are times when it just won't work and shouldn't
Co-parenting works best if you and your ex....
- Live near each other. Even though they're moving back and forth
between two homes, your children should be able to keep going to the
same school and participate in the same extracurricular activities.
- See each other's value to the children. You and she must recognize
how important it is for the other to have a healthy relationship with
your children, and how important those relationships are to the kids
- Can cooperate. You need to be willing to shelve your personal differences
in the interests of working together. This means trying to come up
with a set of common rules for behavior, discipline, and parenting
style. And if you can't agree completely, at least accept and respect
each other's choices.
- Don't fight in front of the children. Experts have found that the
single most accurate predictor of children's long-term adjustment
and well-being after divorce is the level of conflict between the
Co-parenting won't work if you and your ex ...
- Are constantly at each other's throats. Even supporters of co-parenting
agree that it's not a good idea in cases where the parents are verbally,
emotionally, or physically abusive to each other in front of the children.
Realistically, though, this is pretty rare. Although about 25% of
divorces fall into the "high-conflict" category, only 10%
of them--2.5% of all divorces involving children--show any kind of
correlation between joint custody or frequent visitation arrangements
and poor child adjustment, says John Guidubaldi, a Commissioner with
the United States Commission On Child & Family Welfare.
- Put your kids in the middle. Too many parents use their children
to carry messages back and forth and to inform them of the other parent's
activities. Researchers Christy Buchanan and her colleagues found
that adolescents with higher feelings of being caught in the middle
were more likely to experience depression and anxiety and engage in
more deviant behavior such as smoking, drugs, fighting, stealing than
adolescents who experienced more cooperation between their parents.
- Live too far apart.