Shared Physical Custody: Civility and Communication Are Key to Successful Co-Parenting

Shared Physical Custody:  Civility and Communication Are Key to Successful Co-Parenting

It is so easy to continue being angry or in a constant state of irritation with your ex-spouse . . . but, if you have a Shared Physical Custody Arrangement, that anger and irritation will eventually get in the way of successfully co-parenting your children. The anger will seep into your everyday (and I mean everyday!) conversations with your ex-spouse and, as a result, taint your ability to raise well-adjusted and secure children in two distinct homes.    

With Shared Physical Custody, parents will need to communicate on a very regular basis in order to keep each other informed of how their children are doing (day in and day out), with regard to school, academic projects and test schedules, extracurricular activity schedules, tutoring, birthday parties, clubs, church activities and events, illnesses, doctor and dental appointments, ongoing disciplinary action, behavioral issues, emotional issues, etc. Not only that, but children forget stuff – their football helmet, their violin, their homework, their medication, their contact lens solution, their coat, their favorite jeans, etc.  Until they are old and mature enough to handle their own schedules and stuff, both parents will need to be involved, together, in the management of the children’s schedules and material possessions. 

It is hard to imagine (if you are not already parenting in a Shared Physical Custody arrangement) the amount of talking, texts, emails, etc. that are necessary in order to raise children in two separate homes.  The lines of communication must always be open and parents need to make the other parent feel welcome to share information about the children.  In other words, neither parent should ever have to feel that he just doesn’t want to “deal with the ex”.  It should not be a burden.  To limit the stress of co-parenting, both parents need to feel comfortable reaching out to the other parent on all issues related to the children’s well-being.  If you are not there yet, you will almost certainly need to work on this skill.  Sometimes, the majority of the effort only comes from one side.  In the end, however, it doesn’t matter.  What matters is that you find a way to get along.  

On top of the regular and civil communication necessary to co-parent effectively, it will be important, in a Shared Physical Custody Arrangement, to develop new ways of parenting together.  The old habits might have to be reborn in the form of new ways of doing things.  I say this because, as I have seen in my practice, joint decision-making and constant checking-in about children (and the endless and details of their lives!) is not the norm for many couples in intact marriages. Instead, in many families, the majority of child-related matters are handled primarily by only one of the parents and, for a variety of reasons, he or she is not historically accustomed to a high level of involvement from the other parent.  When this style of parenting has been ongoing for many years, it is often very difficult to switch gears.  But, for children to function well while living in two distinct households, both parents really need to be on equal footing when it comes to major – and sometimes not so major – decisions with regard to their children. The details will need to be discussed and follow up will be necessarily.  It’s a lot of communication.

According to Robert Emery, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and the author of The Truth about Children and Divorce,

“ . . . joint physical custody is the best and the worst arrangement for children. It's the best when parents can cooperate enough to make joint physical custody work for children. It's the worst when joint physical custody leaves children in the middle of a war zone. The best research supports this conclusion. In low or controlled conflict divorces, children fare better in joint than in sole physical custody. In high conflict divorces, children do worse in joint physical custody than in other arrangements. Admittedly, existing research is imperfect and very hard to do. But this "best and worst" conclusion also is commonly held by seasoned practitioners, and it makes good common sense.”


In other words, having both parents in a child’s life, as much as reasonably possible (considering the parents’ ability to provide care and the children’s ability to handle the stress of living in two different homes), is best for kids. . . but only if the parents can get along and make child-focused decisions without the poison of anger and resentment creeping into their conversations regarding the children.

Another reason that Shared Physical Custody Arrangements demand parents that get along with one another is almost never mentioned.  I find it paramount, however, to intuitive and sensitive parenting.  Here is is: Good parents do their best to keep their head and heart on the pulse of their children’s well-being.  In other words, it is important that parents and children “be in rhythm” with each other, as much as possible (until they elbow you out, which is natural!).  However, when your children live in two different homes, this is hard to do.  It is hard to keep your finger on the pulse of your family’s rhythm when that rhythm is in a constant state of interruption. But, plenty of families succeed in doing this and, if you can befriend one those lucky parents, that would be a very good friend indeed!

Some children thrive in Shared Physical Custody Arrangements.  Some do not.  Both parents need to be willing to admit this.  They need to keep a watchful eye on their children’s stress levels and see what type of children they have.  Some kids, even in the best of co-parenting situations, simply never get comfortable with moving between two separate households.  And, of course, some kids seem to do fine even when the parents never get the hang of “civil communication”.  Best Advice: Stay tuned-in to your child (or individual children) and be open to change if necessary.

You should also know that many experts have found that Shared Physical Custody Arrangements tend to be less stable, over the child’s minority, than more traditional post-divorce parenting arrangements. Why is this?  According to Dr. Emery:

“. . . joint physical custody is less stable over time than sole physical custody. Several studies show this. And this isn't necessarily a problem. Kids’ needs and desires change. So do parents' needs and desires [change]. People move. New partners get involved. The changes can make a lot of sense, and changes can make things work better. So file this concern under "something for parents to consider" not under "why you don't want joint physical custody."

BUT joint physical custody apparently works only for a minority of families. At any one point in time, maybe 10% of children from divorced families are actually living in joint physical custody. (There really isn't great research here, but even the highest estimates I've seen aren't much bigger.) Why is the number small compared to the amount of talk about joint physical custody? I think it's for all the reasons I've discussed. Joint physical custody is definitely an option to consider - it's my preferred option for cooperative parents. But it's only one of many options that can work for divorced parents and for children.”


There is very little good information, statistics or studies out there in terms of what the short and long term impacts of Shared Physical Custody are on the well-being of children of divorce. These children are part of a new trend in raising children and only time will tell us how this new way of raising children actually works out for these kids.  We will have to remember to ask and learn from them, as it is most definitely those children that will be the real experts!

Posted by Elizabeth Downing Revell, Mediation Assistant


1 Comment

  1. Great article. I am dealing with some of these issues as well..

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