Q: My wife and I will soon be divorced, and we both want to spend a lot of time with our children. We're trying to work out a custody agreement 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 less likely to go back to court to settle their disputes.
- 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 be implemented.
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 themselves.
- 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 parents.
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.
A great dad himself, Armin speaks not only as a specialist in parenting, but as a parent himself. He has written several books including The Expectant Father and Fathering Your Toddler.