Joint or Sole Custody

For the sake of the children, the goals of divorcing parents should be the same: involvement of both parents in the lives of the children and mitigation of conflict between the parents. These two factors should dominate all others when thinking about custody.

A joint-custody solution gives a psychological boost to the parent who would otherwise be the noncustodial parent. But, even in a sole-custody situation, generous time-sharing (combined with open communication between parents) can create an environment where a noncustodial parent is significantly involved in the children’s lives.

Is joint custody right for you? That depends a great deal on the ability of you and your spouse to get along. If you are to share decision-making, you must be able to sit down with your former spouse in a non-combative atmosphere and make decisions together. Shared values and parenting styles make this custody style more viable.

Here’s what psychologists have found after long-term studies of families in joint-custody and sole-custody arrangements:

  • Joint custody is a viable option only if the parents have an amicable relationship with each other, communicate well, and understand the nuances of their kids’ day-to-day routines. Parents in this situation feel more involved in their children’s lives than the noncustodial parent in the sole-custody arrangement. On the other hand, in a family where one parent says “black” and the other parent says “white,” the children are better off with a sole-custody arrangement to reduce the possibility that their parents will fight over every decision that must be made on their behalf.
  • For parents not on friendly terms, joint legal custody (that is to say, joint decision-making) means more room for disagreement and continuation of conflict. These parents are more likely to return to court than parents who have one decision-maker (sole custody).
  • If you’re able to communicate about the kids, are willing to live in close proximity to your ex, and have the time and resources to share “possession and access” (as they say in Texas) or “physical custody” (as it’s more commonly called), then it can be a great thing for everyone. But generally, only children who tend to be easy-going by nature can adapt well to this kind of living arrangement. Children who do poorly with constant change, have difficulty adjusting to new situations, and seem to need a great deal of stability and security in their lives don’t do well with joint physical custody.

In short, if you can agree to most of the following statements, joint custody could work for your family:

  • I will communicate openly with my ex-spouse regarding the children’s needs and activities.
  • I can be flexible in working with my ex-spouse and put my children’s needs first.
  • I will never bad-mouth my ex-spouse in front of my children. On the contrary, I will show nothing but respect for my children’s other parent.
  • I will respect my ex-spouse’s right to have his or her own house rules and not undermine them.

Be honest with yourself. If your feelings don’t allow you to accept these guidelines, then get some counseling. If that doesn’t work, then joint custody is not a good choice for your family.

When Joint Custody Won’t Work

Candace and Bill had been snapping at each other for years by the time they decided to divorce. The manager of a medical clinic in the neighborhood, Bill couldn’t keep his eyes off Marion, a lab technician ten years his junior. Eventually, what had started out as an office flirtation turned into a passionate romance, and Bill asked Candace for a divorce. Of course, Candace was shocked. Despite the fact that she, too, was dissatisfied with the marriage, thinking about Bill moving out — to marry someone else — made Candace’s heart race with anxiety

When Bill decided it was time to work out the details of the divorce, he requested joint legal custody of the two children, Gwen, 14, and Martin, 12. The thought of giving up his role as decision-maker was too much to bear. Candace, humiliated by Bill’s abrupt dismissal, wanted as little to do with him as possible and could not imagine sitting down to make mutual decisions for the kids.

In this situation, Candace and Bill would have to transcend their bitterness for joint legal custody to work. As long as the animosity continued, it would not be possible to share decisions about the children. If Candace and Bill’s situation continued with ongoing conflict, as many of these situations do, joint legal custody would result in more fighting and perennial visits to court.

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