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 noncombative 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 kid's 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.

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Surviving Divorce © 2002 by BookEnds, LLC. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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