Dear Mr. Dad: I’m getting divorced, and the only thing my soon-to-be ex-husband and I agree on is that we want what’s best for our children. He’s been talking about joint custody and co-parenting and I’m leaning in that direction. But a friend of mine who went through a nasty divorce a few years ago says that joint custody never works out and that I should go for full custody. What do you suggest?
A: At the risk of sounding harsh, my first suggestion is that you spend less time with your friend. She may have had a bad experience, but that has nothing to do with you. The fact that you and your nearly ex are putting your children’s need first tells me that you’re going to prove her wrong.
Assuming that there’s no history of violence or abuse (and I’m sure you would have mentioned it if there were), it’s almost always in the best interests of the children to spend as much time as possible with each of their parents. The best way to accomplish that goal is with “shared parenting” (sometimes called co-parenting). Joint custody sounds nice, but it can mean anything from having the kids live half time with each parent to having them live 80% of the time with one parent (usually the mom), with the other relegated to visitor status. With shared parenting, both parents have the right—and, maybe more importantly, the obligation—to be actively involved in their children’s lives and to agree on major decisions that affect the children (the big ones usually involve health and education).
Joint custody benefits everyone, according to Wake Forest University Professor Linda Nielsen. She cites research showing that children in shared parenting situations do better academically, emotionally, psychologically, and socially. As young adults, these children have better relationships with both of their parents than those who lived primarily with one parent (again, usually the mom). Shared parenting benefits the parents as well. Former couples who share parenting are overwhelmingly happier with their custody arrangements than those who don’t. They fight less and are more satisfied with the overall outcome of their break-up.
Shared parenting does not mean that you have to spend huge amounts of time with your ex or that you have to agree on everything. A study that followed 120 shared divorced-and-co-parenting couples for 20 years found that half of the couples were “cooperative but not friends,” meaning that they made decisions together but didn’t have much contact with each other. Twenty percent were “dissolved duos” who cooperated with each other but had no other contact, and 10 percent were “perfect pals” who saw each other frequently. Only 20 percent were what the researchers called “angry foes.”
Judges tend to like shared parenting too, because they have to deal with fewer angry, squabbling parents.
Some critics of shared parenting—such as your friend—have claimed that it’s used as a way for one parent (usually the dad) to decrease child support payments. There is absolutely no reliable data to support that claim. In fact, mothers who share parenting with their ex are “just as satisfied as the sole residence mothers with the money they were receiving from the father,” says Nielsen.
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