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When making custody determinations, judges and child experts usually prefer a shared parenting arrangement over a sole parenting arrangement. "Two is better than one", is the prevailing philosophy. Whether you agree that this is best for your child or not, you need to be ready for the key players and decision-makers in your divorce (the judge, expert witnesses, and your spouse's attorney) to be leaning toward this type of arrangement.
Studies have shown, for many years now, that having two involved parents to love and guide their child is the best case scenario. Keeping that in mind, perhaps "shared or not shared" is not the most important question. Instead, when negotiating custody, why not consider advocating for a custody plan that provides enough time for both parents to be truly integrated into your child's life and to have enough time to be a real parent to that child. In other words, the quality of time means much more than the quantity of time.
Why is Shared Custody Preferred in the U.S.?
To get or keep both parents involved in a child’s life, when you get divorced, it is easier when that child spends a lot of time in both parent's homes. Why is that?
- When your child spends a lot of time in your home, you have to help her to bed, get her up in the morning, prepare her meals, field her questions, dry her tears, and find all her lost sneakers. This helps with the bonding process. Most judges think so too.
- Living day-in and day-out with your child is the most natural way to be integrated in your child's world. This helps strengthen and maintain your child's bond to you.
Children who have strong positive relationships with their parents have an easier time navigating their relationships with other people. This simply makes life better. The strongly supported theory is that, creating an opportunity for strong parent-child relationships with two parents is better than just one.
What Is Needed for a Good Shared Custody Arrangement?
1) You and your ex must get along well. Otherwise, your child will do better with a primary parent arrangement.
- Shared custody requires co-parenting. That means that both parents must be able to have rational and child-centered conversations about what is best for their child. If every conversation ends up in a screaming match, shared custody is not a good idea. If your ex cannot follow a simple line of conversation because of some type of personality disorder, ditto.
- Shared custody requires compromise and getting comfortable with not always having things your way. If you were the primary parent during your marriage, and are used to being able to run the show as it pertains to your child, you will have to either get used to not being 100% in charge, or be prepared (with evidence) to explain to a judge why your way is the best way.
2) Friendly communication is key. For shared custody to work, you and your ex must be able to have friendly conversations about your child. Many couples find that they actually have to communicate more post-divorce than they ever did while they were married.
- Day-to-Day Matters. You will need to keep each other posted on your kid's schooling, health, social life, emotional issues, and other matters of primary importance.
- Scheduling. You will need to be in constant communication about your child’s schedule changes, childcare issues, birthday parties, try-outs, and other special events.
- Keeping Up. If you were not the primary parent during your marriage, you now need to step up and keep up with what is going on with your child’s life - doctors, coaches, friends, friends’ parents, teachers, clubs, everything. If your kid feels you don’t know anything about their life, they will not be comfortable living with you. They will turn to the other parent for help, even if they spend considerable time in your house. That defeats that purpose.
3) Your custody schedule must allow enough time for both parents to show their children what they think is important about the world and about being a good person. Children learn by watching you. That is how they learn what you think is important. They listen, too; but, the expression "actions speak louder than words" applies to parenting, too. Your child needs to spend a good amount of time with you for your world view and values to rub off on them.
- More time with your child allows for more role modeling opportunities. Your child watches everything that you do. The more they are with you, the greater the opportunity for them see you solving problems, relating to other people, and managing your time.
- Time is not everything, though, and many parents are able to make a strong impression on their kids without a lot of time. This is under the umbrella of "quality versus quantity". For example, my dad’s parents were divorced when he was nine years old. He only saw his dad on Saturdays. Still, my dad had a great relationship with my grandpa and was very positively influenced by him. In my own children’s case, their dad traveled for a living. He was only able to be with them less than 30% of the time. Nonetheless, both of my kids are very much like their dad in many ways. It’s clear that they were raised by both of us, even though they were under my roof over 70% of the time.
4) Your custody schedule must take geography into consideration. You need to live close to each other and your child’s school. If that is impossible to do, consider a primary parent situation. Your kid shouldn’t have to live in the car commuting from your home to school. 30 min or less is a good goal.
5) Your custody schedule should help your child to feel secure. Divorce is already very confusing. Your child’s custody schedule needs to be crafted in a way that feels as natural as possible and doesn’t add unnecessary anxiety.
- Have a regular schedule. Most children feel more secure when they can count on a routine. Some parents get along so well that they don’t feel they need a schedule. Even in those cases, though, their child will appreciate having a reliable custodial care schedule just like they have a reliable schedule for soccer practice, piano lessons, and tutoring. It’s one less thing they have to worry about.
- Your parenting arrangements should be flexible enough so that your child doesn’t have to worry about missing out on special activities.
6) Your custody arrangement should reflect the truth about how much time you really want to spend with your child. Some people aren’t cut out to spend a lot of time on day-in-day-out parenting duties.That doesn't mean that they love their child less. That parent just might not be cut out for the mundane and exasperating work of parenting. What is important is that your child's primary caretaking be with a patient, attentive, and mood-stable parent. If that is not you, then you should not be lobbying for a shared custody arrangement. Instead, focus on how you can provide the best quality of time (versus the quantity of time) when creating a custody plan for your child.
7) If there is risk of harm to your child, don’t even discuss shared custody. If the other parent is clearly incompetent to take care of your child for any reason, or is a danger to your child, shared custody is out of the question.
Should I Consider 50/50 Custody?
1) Judges love 50/50. That means you can’t ignore the possibility. If you and your ex live fairly close to one another, and can both accommodate your child’s basic caretaking needs, you should consider how 50/50 custody would look for your family.
2) List out the best and worst-case scenarios related to 50/50 custody. Whether you are fan of 50/50 custody or not, you need to consider all of the positives and negatives of an equal custody arrangement. Be clear in your list and use specific examples. Write out best and worst-case scenarios of what will happen, in specific circumstances, if your child does or does not end up 50/50 custody arrangement. What is scaring you the most? Write it down. Be real with your fears.
3) What if I or my spouse are never around? If you or your spouse travel for a living, or work super long hours, you probably cannot accommodate a 50/50 custody arrangement. In my mediation practice, I usually ask my clients with these types of careers to describe how 50/50 would look to them. They often start by assigning back the lion’s share of the parenting duties to the other parent. That is not 50/50.
4) You might find that 50/50 custody is not as bad as you think. 50/50 may seem like a nightmare; but it might just be the transition that is hard. The actual 50/50 custody arrangement might work out fine. I have known many children who thrived in a 50/50 custody situation. If the parents are comfortable with 50/50, and they are attuned to their children’s emotional lives, it can work very nicely for many families.
5) The silver lining of 50/50 custody. With 50/50, and other shared custody arrangements, there is time for the parents to get a break. If you use your breaks well, your child might return home to a more relaxed and refreshed mom or dad!
6) There is no shame in a less than 50/50 custody arrangement. There seems to be a shaming of parents, in the US, who do not ask for, or do not “win”, 50/50 custody. There is no need for this.
- If equal parenting time doesn’t work for logistical reasons, or you simply don’t feel that is best for your child’s emotional well-being, you just need to substitute quantity of time for quality of time. That works for a lot of parents. Don't listen to people. They don't know your family like you do.
- There is no shame is having a custody arrangement that allows your child to thrive.
Is some type of shared custody best for my child? Almost always, the answer is yes. Why is that? Because children tend to do better -- both while they are children and throughout their entire lives -- if they are bonded with and guided by both parents. Living with your child makes the bonding and guiding easier. However, just assigning custody ratios, such as 50/50 or 60/40, does nothing for the well-being of your child. The idea is to share the actual parenting (not just split the time). Being involved with your child's inner and outer life, listening, and being a good role model, is what parenting is all about.