Child Custody Arrangements: Their Characteristics and Outcomes

2004-FCY-3E

6. THE EFFECTS OF CUSTODY ARRANGEMENTS

6.1 Parent-child Contact

Research shows that in shared custody situations, fathers spend more time and are more involved with their children than fathers in other custody arrangements, even when socio-economic status and the pre-divorce quality of the parent-child relationship are taken into account (Kline et al., 1989; Arditti, 1992).[14]

A number of studies report that, as the years pass after separation, there is a decrease in the frequency of father-child contact in cases of sole maternal custody (e.g. Seltzer et al., 1989; Maccoby et al., 1993).  In cases of sole paternal custody, however, mothers visited more often over time (Maccoby et al., 1993).  In shared custody situations, "there appears to be less change in contact ₀ in the first several years after separation, particularly when the arrangement is close to 50/50" (Kelly, 1994: 5).  Others have found that fewer fathers "dropped out" in shared compared to sole maternal custody arrangements (Coysh et al., 1989; Kline et al., 1989).

6.2 The Well-being of Children

The well-being of children has been examined in terms of behavioural problems, deviant or delinquent behaviour, peer relationships, achievement in school, self-esteem, social competence and psychological adjustment (e.g. depression, somatic symptoms), depending on the study.[15]

6.2.1 Child Outcomes

The majority of the research literature has found no relationship between the type of custody and child outcomes.

In Canada, a study using the database of the 1994-95 National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth reported that custody arrangements had no effect on the emotional or psychological health of children between 2 and 11 years of age (Haddad, 1998).  Custody arrangements were defined as mother custody, father custody and shared custody.  There apparently was no definition of shared custody; rather, the interpretation was left up to the respondent.[16]  Problem behaviour was defined as one or more of the following:  anxiety, emotional disorder, hyperactivity, inattention, conduct disorder, physical aggression and unsocial behaviour.[17]  The parent identified these problems.  Multivariate analysis found that gender (boys), younger children, parents with lower education, and the number of years that the parents were separated—but not custody type—were positively associated with reported behaviour problems among the children.

In their random sample of cases in a California county, Kline et al. (1989) found that children in shared and maternal custody were equally well adjusted—there were no significant differences in children's behavioural, emotional or social adjustment.  Similarly, Pearson and Thoennes (1990) reported no relationship between custody arrangement and adjustment in their multiple regression analysis of the factors that affected parental reports of aggression, depression, delinquency, social withdrawal and somatic complaints.  In both studies, the factors that best predicted the child's adaptation to divorce were family dynamics, child characteristics and inter-parental relationships.

Overall, there were no major differences in adolescent behavioural and emotional outcomes for children in shared custody and other arrangements in the California sample of Buchanan et al. (1996).  However, youth in shared custody tended to be less depressed, to have better grades, and to have less severe "worst problems" than did those in sole custody.

There were no differences in adjustment of the 91 children in different custody arrangements assessed by Luepnitz (1986) in terms of self-concept, the parents' ratings of children's self-esteem, psychosomatic and behaviour problems, and the emotional climate in the family.

Contrary findings on the effects of custody arrangements on the well-being of children are reported in some studies.  Many studies that find evidence of effects of custody arrangements on psychosocial development are small in scale and/or clinical in approach.  A clinical study found that, according to scores on one factor of the Adolescent Multiphasic Personality Inventory, children in shared custody arrangements exhibited better psychological adjustment than did those in sole custody arrangements.  On most measures, however, there were no differences between children in shared and sole custody arrangements.  Girls showed better adjustment in shared rather than sole custody arrangements, whereas boys did better in sole custody (Hendrickson, 1991).  Using parent and teacher ratings of behaviour and emotional problems, Shiller (1986a) found that boys between 6 and 11 years of age who were in a shared custody arrangement were better adjusted than those in a sole maternal custody arrangement.  Adolescents in a sole paternal custody arrangement reported more problem behaviour than did youth in either sole maternal or shared custody arrangements (Buchanan et al., 1992).  The poorer adjustment of adolescents in paternal custody arrangements was associated with a lower degree of supervision/monitoring in these families, greater inter-parental hostility and the father's long working hours.

6.2.2 The Role of Parental Hostility and Conflict

Children's adjustment to divorce has long been assumed to be related to the post-divorce conflict between the parents, although the relationship is acknowledged to be complex (e.g. Lee, 1997).  One of several problems with this strand of research is that conflict can be defined and measured in a variety of ways.  The content of the conflict, the manner in which the conflict is expressed, its frequency, and the children's role in the conflict all deserve greater research attention.

The most critical questions are "Does shared custody increase conflict between ex-partners?" and "Is there a negative effect on children as a consequence?" The clearest available answers to these questions are found in the findings of the Stanford Project.

In this research, adolescents were interviewed approximately four years after the separation of their parents.[18]  Teenagers in a shared custody arrangement were better off in terms of adjustment than were respondents in a sole custody arrangement but only when their parents co-operated in their parenting.  When the parents were in conflict, the adolescents were better off living with only one parent.  Children with parents in conflict reported more depressive symptoms and problem behaviour (e.g. in school, delinquency, substance abuse).  Negative effects were most apparent for those who felt caught in the middle of their parents' conflicts:  for example, when the children carried messages between parents about child support payments or other contentious issues, or were asked questions about the household of the ex-spouse.  These children experienced loyalty conflicts or, in the researchers' words, "felt torn" or "caught" between the parents.

The amount of contact with the non-resident parent and type of custody (shared versus sole) were not associated with feelings of being caught.  However, adolescents in a shared custody arrangement with parents in high conflict who communicated poorly were particularly likely to feel caught.  Discord between the parents was related to feeling caught, which was, in turn, related to the adolescents' depression and deviant behaviour.  Parental discord "did not appear to augment either depression or deviance among adolescents in this sample unless the adolescent felt caught between parents as a result of this conflict" (Buchanan et al., 1991: 1022).

Buchanan et al. (1991: 1025) concluded that the direct relation between frequent contact and being caught in parental conflict (as reported by Johnston et al., 1989[19]) is limited to families that are in high conflict.  Thus, the custody arrangement, in and of itself, did not increase or decrease the likelihood of problem behaviour (see also Maccoby and Mnookin, 1992).

Pruett and Hoganbruen (1998: 280) concluded "interparental conflict that reaches high levels on a sustained basis appears to have strongly adverse outcomes for children." At the same time, despite shared custody arrangements (or others that involve frequent access), some high conflict parents manage to maintain boundaries between their interaction and their interaction with their children, regardless of negative feelings for their ex-spouse.

One of the flaws in this kind of research is that the pre-separation functioning of the children is not known.  The problem behaviour and psychological problems of children in high conflict may have been present even before the divorce process began.  What needs investigation is the extent to which custody arrangements affect pre-existing behaviour and problems.

In summary, shared custody appears to be harmful to children when the parents are in "high conflict" (although what parental behaviour constitutes high conflict is somewhat unclear), when the children are the subjects of the conflict, or when they become embroiled in the discord.

6.2.3 Gender of the Resident Parent and the Children

Several studies have compared the outcomes of children who live with their mother to those who live with their father in sole custody arrangements.  The findings are conflicting and more than a little confusing.  Differences in sampling, the sophistication of the analysis (e.g. the use of appropriate control variables such as parental conflict, social class and the age of the children), and the different measures of child outcomes undoubtedly account for the variations in the findings of the effects of mother and father residence arrangements.

A 20-year-old study of child outcomes after divorce, the Texas Custody Research Project, looked at the role of the gender of the children and the custodial parents.  The authors concluded that boys benefit from growing up with their father and girls benefit from being with their mother.  More recent research does not always support these findings (see Pike, 2000, for a review of this research.)

Maccoby et al. (1993) reported that girls who lived with their mother had somewhat higher grades and better psychological adjustment as compared to girls who lived with their father in a sole custody arrangement.  Kelly (1994) concluded that girls who lived with their mother had significantly greater social competence, maturity, co-operativeness and self-esteem than did boys who lived with their mother.

In a recent Australian study of primary school students, Pike (2000) contrasted four groups:  boys living with their father, girls with their father, boys with their mother, and girls with their mother.  Boys living with their mothers scored significantly higher in scholastic, athletic and physical domains.  These boys scored higher in scholastic domains than did boys living with their fathers, and higher in the athletic and physical domains than did girls living with their mothers.  There were no differences in performance of the four groups in the social and behavioural domains, or in self-esteem.  In reading and spelling, girls living with their mother outperformed both girls and boys living with their father.  In spelling, boys living with their mother outperformed both girls and boys living with their father.  In other words, boys and girls raised by their father did not perform as well in academic areas as did the boys and girls from mother-resident families.  On the other hand, there were no differences among the groups in self-esteem and competence.  The gender differences were not uniform across all residential groups—that is, there were different profiles for each of the four groups.  Pike concluded that it is not necessarily advantageous for children living with single parents to be raised by a single parent of the same sex.

Cookston (1999) analyzed data from the 1995 and 1996 National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health in the United States.  Higher rates of self-reported (by the adolescents) problem behaviour were found in all types of family structure in which there were low levels of supervision.  That is, it was not where the children lived, but rather the amount of supervision that was associated with problem behaviour.  Unfortunately, monitoring and supervision were measured in a limited fashion:  whether the parent was at home when the children left for school, returned from school, and went to bed.

Hilton and Devall (1998), after interviewing mothers and fathers with sole custody and one child in each family, found no differences in positive and negative parenting behaviours of single mothers and single fathers.  The behaviour of the children as reported by their parents did not differ between sole custody mothers and fathers, except that children in sole maternal custody were reported to have somewhat higher "internalizing" behaviour (complaints of headaches by the children).  The authors concluded that the gender of the parent was of little value in explaining the children's behaviour.

6.2.4 Changeovers in Shared Custody Arrangements

Concern is often expressed about the uncertainty introduced by having the children move from one residence to another (the "yo-yo effect").  While there is a good deal of unsupported commentary on this issue, the research evidence on the effects on children of frequent transitions from one home to another is limited.

In Canada, almost one quarter (23 percent) of a sample of shared custody parents reported that the children were "upset" for a time following the change in residence (Irving et al., 1984).  In Luepnitz's (1982) smaller (but also a self-selected) sample, however, shared custody did not seem to create distress or confusion for most children about their living arrangements; in fact, three quarters of the children said that they liked having two homes.  Only three children (of an unstated but small number of about 20) were confused about following two sets of rules or conflicting parental expectations.  No other research was located that directly addressed this question.

The absence of information on the effects of changeovers from one household to another required by shared custody—especially information on the differences in impact on children of different ages—prevents even tentative conclusions on how children perceive and cope with this type of transition on a regular basis.

6.2.5 Summary

There are a myriad of factors that influence the well-being of children after divorce, including the amount of parental conflict both pre- and post-separation, the adjustment of the parents to divorce, and the degree of closeness between the children and their parents.  Also, factors related to the children's personality, their sex and age, their pre-divorce adjustment, the pre- and post-divorce functioning and parenting practices of the parents, and the socio-economic circumstances in which children find themselves after marital dissolution may affect children's ability to adjust to their new situation.

Most research indicates that custody arrangements after separation and divorce do not predict child outcomes.  The direct impact of custody status on outcomes appears to be minimal.

Lye summarized her analysis of the research literature on the effects of custodial arrangements on children as follows:

The evidence ₀ does not reveal any particular post-divorce residential schedule to be most beneficial for children.  There are no significant advantages to children of joint physical custody, but also no significant disadvantages to children of joint physical custody or of any other post-divorce residential schedule (Lye, 1999: 1).

6.3 Parental Adjustment and Satisfaction

One might expect that the greater the satisfaction with a custody arrangement, the greater the psychological benefits of the arrangement to the parents and perhaps also the children.  With a few exceptions, research has produced no categorical findings on the extent to which different custody arrangements benefit parents.

6.3.1 Effects on the Post-divorce Adjustment of the Parents

Shared custody arrangements may work to maintain a parent's attachment to his or her ex-spouse and inhibit the re-organization of his or her life.  No such findings were evident in a sample analyzed by Pearson and Thoennes (1990).  Respondents in each custody group—including parents with shared custody arrangements—had the same or lower "attachment scores" in the third interview as they did in the first, which had been done soon after separation.  Other researchers have suggested that a degree of attachment benefits co-parenting:  a friendly attachment to a former spouse is conducive to a more supportive and shared co-parenting relationship (Dozier et al., 1993).[20]  The friendlier the attachment, the less conflict around child rearing.

A study that used a California sample of shared custody parents and sole custody mothers undertook two sets of interviews and clinical assessments, one interview less than a year after separation and the second two years later (Coysh et al., 1989).  One third of the sample had a shared custody arrangement.[21]  The type of custody was not related to parental adjustment, which was measured by factors such as coping skills, social relationships, fulfilment in work, and emotional and psychological disturbance.  There was reasonably strong evidence that the prior functioning of the parents was predictive of their adjustment after divorce.  Good psychological adjustment among fathers was related to the quality of their relationship with a new partner.  Poor psychological adjustment among mothers was associated with a conflictual relationship between their children and her new partner.

Bailey (1991) examined the adjustment process after divorce of 141 custodial single parents (63 mothers and 58 fathers) who had either sole or shared custody of children aged 5 to 14 years.  No relationship was found between the type of custody arrangement and parental adjustment (e.g. life satisfaction, life stress, job satisfaction).  However, parents with sole custody reported receiving more social support and were more satisfied with their relationships with their children and their custody arrangements.  Fathers with sole custody were more content with life and themselves, had greater job stability, and were slightly better off financially than those with other custody arrangements.

Using longitudinal data from the U.S. National Survey of Families and Household (wave 1 in 1987-88 and wave 2 in 1992-94), Shapiro and Lambert (1999) analyzed fathers' psychological well-being in relation to their children's residential status.  There were no significant differences in self-reported depressive symptoms between divorced fathers with and without children living in their home.  When the self-reported "happiness" of the divorced fathers was examined, the findings were that divorced fathers living with their children were somewhat less happy than divorced fathers not living in the same home as their children.  However, the finding was not statistically significant.

6.3.2 Effects on the Satisfaction of the Parents

Two studies of shared parenting provide evidence that the parents were satisfied with their shared arrangements.  It is important to emphasize that there are problems in generalizing their conclusions:  the samples were voluntary (i.e. self-selected) and therefore not random, and there was no comparison between parents with shared custody arrangements and those with different custody arrangements.

In the early Canadian study of shared custody parents, overall satisfaction was reported by 77 percent, and satisfaction with scheduling by 86 percent (Irving et al., 1984).  The factors that were significantly associated with overall parental satisfaction were as follows:

  • How the agreement had been established.  Parents who came to shared custody by means of court action and court services were much less satisfied than those who came to the arrangement informally.
  • The greater the respondents' reported level of guilt over the marital break-up, the less satisfied they were with this custody arrangement.
  • The greater the pre-separation conflict, the less satisfaction with shared parenting the parents expressed.
  • The longer the shared parenting arrangement had been in place, the greater the parents' satisfaction.

Factors that had no relationship to satisfaction with shared parenting were social class, scheduling arrangements, and remarriage of one or both parents.

The stated reasons for parental satisfaction included continuity in parenting and improved security of the children as well as shared responsibility for child rearing.  The sources of dissatisfaction included uncertainty about the long-term effects of the arrangement on the development of the children and the lack of time spent with the children.

The majority of the shared custody parents interviewed by Rothberg (1983) did not find their problems overwhelming and perceived that the arrangement benefited their adjustment to the divorce process.  Eighty percent would recommend shared custody to other couples as long as the divorce was fairly co-operative and amicable.

Some studies have found that fathers tend to be more satisfied than are mothers with shared custody arrangements (e.g. Benjamin and Irving, 1990; Emery, 1988).  However, gender differences in satisfaction may be diminishing (Kelly, 1993).[22]

Other research has looked at parental satisfaction by custody type.  Maccoby et al. (1990) found that women with a shared custody arrangement were more satisfied than were sole custody mothers whose children saw their father.  Both groups were more satisfied with their custody arrangements than were women whose children had no father contact with their fathers.

One reason why some mothers in successful shared custody arrangements are more satisfied than their sole custody counterparts may be because they rely on their former partner for child care[23] and have more time to pursue their career or leisure activities (Luepnitz, 1986; Rothberg, 1983).  Burnout is reduced among shared custody parents because "without asking for it, or making special plans, they have part of the week ₀ to be free of parenting" (Luepnitz, 1986: 7).  Welsh-Osga (1981) found that shared custody parents were less overburdened by parenting responsibilities than sole custody parents.  This difference among custody arrangements is exemplified by the finding by Pearson and Thoennes (1990: 139) that 40 percent of parents with sole maternal, 25 to 30 percent of sole paternal or joint legal, and only 13 percent of parents with shared custody agreed with the statement "I often feel overwhelmed by the amount of time and energy my children require."

In conclusion, the research literature generally shows a positive relationship between shared custody and parental satisfaction—assuming that there is not a substantial degree of hostility and conflict between the parents.

6.4 Parent-child Relationships and Parenting Skills

6.4.1 Shared Custody

In comparison to sole custody parents, parents with shared custody in the Stanford Child Custody Project had fewer problems making adjustments to parenting roles after divorce (Maccoby and Mnookin, 1992).  The shared custody parents, especially mothers, could remain firm and patient and had more time for playing with their children.  As noted, a likely explanation for this finding is that parents with shared custody arrangements have more child-free time than parents with sole arrangements.

On the other hand, parents who continued to be in conflict reported more difficulty monitoring and in keeping track of their children.  Also, approximately one quarter of the parents with shared custody expressed concern about their children's lives in the home of the other parent, including parenting style and lifestyle (Maccoby and Mnookin, 1992).

In contrast to mothers with sole custody, mothers with shared custody more often felt that their ex-spouse did not respect their parenting style and that their children returned upset after stays with their father (Bannasch-Soissons, 1985).  In addition, mothers with shared custody expressed greater discomfort about the potential for negative paternal influences and greater fears for their children's emotional and physical safety while with their father.  However, this research is based on a small sample.

Also in the United States, Donnelly and Finkelhor (1992) used a national sample to explore the extent to which shared custody had an impact on child-to-parent support and affection, parent-to-child support and affection, and parent-child disagreements.  Data were obtained from 160 households with children older than 5 whose parents were never married or were divorced. Only 12 percent of the respondents (75 percent of whom were female) were in a shared custody arrangement, defined as when the mother and father had custody of the child "about equally." After undertaking multivariate analysis, it was found that the type of custody—shared versus sole—was related only to child-to-parent support and affection:  children in sole custody were more likely than those in shared custody to express support and affection towards their parents.  Their behaviour in this regard resembled that of children in intact families.  The type of custody was not related to either parent-to-child support and affection or to parent-child disagreements.  There was no direct indicator of parental conflict available in the data.

While this research appears to be well done, the relatively small sample size (a total of 160 households and fewer than 20 with shared custody) is problematic given the use of regression analysis with nine independent variables.

Parents with shared custody have reported that they have less difficulty finding time to play with and talk to their children than do mothers with sole custody, and often are more "involved" with their children (Welsh-Osga, 1981).

The Pearson and Thoennes (1990) analysis revealed that respondents' satisfaction with the parenting performance of their ex-spouse differed by type of custody:  30 percent of the sole custody mothers were satisfied, as were 50 percent of the sole custody fathers and parents with joint legal custody, and 65 percent of the shared custody parents.  From the perspective of ex-spouses with shared custody arrangements, 90 percent of their former partners had a good relationship with the children.  This can be compared to 50 percent for the sole custody mothers and 60 to 65 percent of the sole custody fathers and joint legal custody parents.

From the perspective of the children, compared to those in a sole custody arrangement, adolescents in a shared custody arrangement were more likely to report that they felt close to both parents (Buchanan et al., 1992).  A small clinical study that assessed children four or more years after divorce also found that the perceptions of children differed (Ilfeld, 1989).  Children in a shared custody arrangement, compared with those in a sole maternal custody arrangement, said they spent more time with their father in child-centred activities which were pleasurable and important to the children.  There were no differences by custody arrangement in the children's perceptions of emotional closeness to, or acceptance by, their father.

6.4.2 Father Custody

The analysis by Shapiro and Lambert (1999) of a nationally representative sample found that divorced fathers who lived with their children perceived a higher quality of child-father relationship than those who did not live with their children.  Divorced fathers in the latter category perceived the largest decrease in relationship quality after marital break-up.

6.4.3 Sole Maternal Versus Sole Paternal Custody

In an interview study involving parents with sole custody (30 mothers and 30 fathers), Hilton and Devall (1998) found that the parenting behaviours of the two groups did not differ, except that single fathers allowed their children more independence.  Similarly, single fathers were less likely to monitor or supervise 11- to 19‑year-olds than were single mothers (Cookston, 1999).

Some studies have found that non-custodial mothers are more involved in child rearing than are non-custodial fathers.  In California, for example, mothers whose children were in a sole paternal custody arrangement spent more time buying clothes, tracking appointments and supervising homework than did fathers whose children were in sole custody of their mother (Maccoby and Mnookin, 1992).

Using 1987‑88 data from the U.S. National Survey of Families and Households, Stewart (1999) looked at how non-custodial mothers and fathers spent their time with their children.  Contrary to expectations, mothers and fathers had a similar pattern of participation in activities of (outings, play and school for example), after socio-demographic and family characteristics were taken into consideration.  That is, both non-resident mothers and fathers spent similar amounts of time in leisure activities versus school or other organized activities.  The author suggests that the similarity in involvement with absent children may be the result of circumstances surrounding the role of the non-resident parent, rather than a gender difference.

6.5 The Relationship between the Parents

In the Stanford Child Custody Project, one quarter of parents were in high conflict at the time of divorce; this proportion decreased to 10 percent a few years later.  It has been estimated that from 9 to 15 percent of couples are in continuing and severe conflict (Pruett and Hoganbruen, 1998).  These estimates suggest that high conflict relationships affect a minority of couples, but they are the minority that is of most concern to divorce professionals, not least because they create most of the litigation burden on the courts.

Most authorities emphasize that a shared custody arrangement works best when parents communicate regularly and have a co-operative relationship with regard to child rearing.  Sources of conflict have the potential to be more numerous when the children live in two residences because of the frequent parental interaction believed to be required.  Furthermore, the nature of the parenting role changes after divorce.  Former couples who, when married, were accustomed to sharing decisions and responsibilities on a daily basis must accommodate to new methods of parenting, a situation that may be a source of strain.

In Irving et al. (1984), the majority of respondents (75 to 90 percent, depending on the item), said that issues such as child rearing, lifestyle differences, and inter-parental contacts were either free of problems or presented only minor difficulties.  These parents reported remarkably few conflicts and generally problem-free communication.  Only 1 out of 10 respondents had taken any legal action with regard to their custody arrangements.  Only 15 percent said that their financial agreements had not been kept.  The majority of respondents said that their relationship with their former spouse was very or moderately friendly, that over time this relationship had stayed the same or improved, and that their communication about child rearing had few problems.  It was also noted that discussions about issues other than those related to the children seldom or never occurred.  Again, it must be emphasized that this sample was a self-selected one and comprised only of those with shared custody—no comparison data are available.

Maccoby and Mnookin (1992) reported that communication between parents with shared custody decreased over time.  In the first wave of interviews soon after separation, 68 percent of the couples discussed the children at least once a week; three to four years later, only 41 percent did so.  This finding may not necessarily reflect a negative situation; it is possible that the immediate post-separation "renegotiation of parental roles" requires more interaction, a need that decreases as time went on.

The same research found that there was no significant difference in the level of conflict by the type of custody arrangement.  One quarter of parents with a shared custody arrangement were classified as co-ordinating their parenting goals and strategies; this pattern remained relatively stable over three years.  A second response was disengagement:  parenting was done independently of the other parent.  This proportion increased from 29 to 41 percent after three years.  The third response was conflict, meaning that there was conflictual communication between the parents:  this type of interaction decreased from 34 to 26 percent of the sample after three years.[24]  Proportionately more conflict occurred in larger families with one or more children under school age.  Parents who were initially hostile and subsequently reduced their conflict usually shifted to the disengaged mode of interaction (or more pertinently, non-interaction).[25]

In the non-random interview study by Bailey (1991), mothers and fathers with shared custody experienced more verbal conflict with their ex-partners than did parents with sole custody.

Parents who select shared custody may be predisposed towards co-operative behaviour.  As described in section 4.3, parents with shared custody interviewed before their divorce became final were almost twice as likely as mothers with sole custody to comment that they were able to co-operate (Pearson and Thoennes, 1990).  Three years later, the proportion of parents in this sample who characterized the level of co-operation with a former spouse as "impossible" was as follows:  10 percent for parents with a shared custody arrangement; 15 percent for parents with a joint legal paternal custody arrangement, 30 percent for parents with a sole custody arrangement; and 30 percent for parents with a joint legal maternal custody arrangement.  As the authors comment, the causality of these findings cannot be readily determined.

The small sample of shared versus sole custody couples assessed by Luepnitz (1986) differed in the amount of inter-parental conflict; parents with shared custody had less conflict than did parents with sole custody.

It is not that joint [shared] custody parents did not disagree with each other; they did disagree, and often needed to change the logistics of their arrangement.  However, they were able to disagree in a more civil manner than their single-parent custody counterparts (Luepnitz, 1986: 6).

Luepnitz acknowledges that the families with a shared custody arrangement may have been "self-selected for the ability to negotiate reasonably." Also noteworthy is that in Luepnitz's sample the minimum length of time that parents were separated was two years.

Coysh et al. (1989) found no relationship between custody arrangement (shared versus maternal custody with contact by the father) and parental relationship two years after the divorce.  The factor that best predicted the post-divorce relationship between mothers and fathers was their pre-existing (pre-divorce) functioning.  There was a "marked continuity of functioning and relational style from pre- to post-divorce." In a similar vein, the emotional state of the parents at the time of separation had a significant effect on the co-parenting relationship one year later (Maccoby et al., 1990).

There is no evidence that the type of custody arrangement either improves or negatively affects the parental relationship.  However, if shared custody is ordered by the court, there is some evidence from the Stanford Child Custody Project that there is more conflict and less co-operation among parents who made shared custody their first choice of custodial arrangement (Maccoby and Mnookin, 1992).

Pearson and Thoennes (1990) reported on types of conflict.  Among sole custody mothers, the most frequent complaint (50 percent) was about cancelled or missed visits.  Among mothers with shared custody, 38 percent complained that their former spouse had the children for too much of the time.  Regardless of the custody arrangement, 20 percent of respondents said problems arose because children returned late after contact visits.

Despite the "central belief" about shared custody—that parents co-operate more than sole custody parents around child rearing—support for this conclusion is mixed (Pruett and Santangelo, 1999).  The available evidence suggests that the type of custody arrangement is not strongly related to the inter-parental relationship.  It is probable that the best predictor of the quality of the relationship of divorced couples is the quality of their pre-separation relationship.

6.6 Child Support Payments

When looking at the relationship between custody arrangement and compliance with child support payments, it is important to not assume that there is a cause and effect link.  For example, it is not clear whether non-resident parents who comply with child support payments tend to be more involved with their children or whether being involved with their children makes non-resident parents more likely to provide support.

A positive relationship has been found between the payment of child support and shared custody, although few studies took the payor's income into account.  First, Brown et al. (1997) included data on child support compliance for two years after divorce.  In this Wisconsin data, the different custody arrangements had quite different rates of full compliance in the second year:

  • paternal custody cases had the lowest full compliance (36 percent);
  • in maternal sole custody cases, compliance was 57 percent;
  • split custody cases had 60 percent compliance;
  • the rate in equal shared custody was 68 percent; and[26]
  • unequal shared custody had the highest full compliance rate, at 77 percent.

However, the parents with equal and unequal shared custody arrangements had the highest incomes.  Because the researchers failed to control for income, the question then becomes whether income or custody arrangement is the influential factor in full compliance with child support payments.

Second, Nord and Zill's (1996) analysis using the Survey of Income and Program Participation also did not take income into account.  Shared custody was marginally related (it "approached significance") to whether or not any child support was paid but was unrelated to the amount of child support paid by those who paid some support.

Third, in a sample analyzed by Pearson and Thoennes (1990), two years after final decrees, court files showed that 20 percent of sole custody mothers had filed one or more citations for child support.  Only 8 to 10 percent of those with joint legal or shared custody had filed such citations.  The next section presents more findings on post-divorce returns to court.

6.7 Returns to Court and Re-litigation

As with other topics discussed in this chapter, the research findings on post-divorce returns to court by custody type are conflicting.

Luepnitz (1986) in her self-selected sample of 16 maternal, 16 paternal and 11 shared custody families found that no shared custody parent had returned to court about money or visitation compared to 56 percent of the sole custody parents.

In Wisconsin, returns to court within two years of the final divorce decree were examined for  cases heard between 1987 and 1992.  Of the five categories of custody arrangements examined, unequal shared custody and split custody arrangements showed the highest rates of return, at 45 percent and 43 percent, respectively.  Lower proportions were found for maternal custody (34 percent), paternal custody (30 percent) and equal shared custody (27 percent) (Brown et al., 1997).  Parents with unequal shared custody and split custody arrangements were twice as likely as other parents to return to court about the physical placement of the children (about 22 percent versus 10 percent for the sample overall).  These parents were found to be most likely to have retained legal counsel and to have had legal conflicts during the divorce process, suggesting that this pattern may have continued in the two years after divorce.

Requests for modification of custody arrangements in the Pearson and Thoennes (1990) sample  also differed by custody type.  Attempts to modify the arrangements were made in 10 percent of cases of sole maternal custody, 14 percent of cases involving joint maternal custody, 29 percent of parents with shared custody, 33 percent of joint paternal custody cases, and 39 percent of cases involving sole paternal custody.

In a Massachusetts study, almost half of the total sample of divorced parents returned to court to re-litigate issues (Koel et al., 1994).[27]  Unlike the two studies described above, custody arrangements bore no relationship to whether re-litigation occurred.  Of those who did re-litigate, however, parents with joint legal custody (which included shared physical custody) filed more motions than did parents with sole legal custody.  The re-litigation by these parents raised different issues, with child support being the main one for sole custody parents, and custody and access being the most common in joint legal custody families. 

The outcomes of these returns to court are interesting, although why the differences occurred is not known (the researchers collected only court-based data).  Overall, 31 percent of joint legal custody families changed their child custody arrangements after re-litigation, compared to only 13 percent of the sole legal custody families.  If the outcomes of the re-litigating joint legal custody families are examined by changes in the residential placement of the children, there were significant differences in outcome:

  • The joint physical custody families had the highest rates of change in placement of the children, at 57 percent.
  • The rate in joint legal paternal custody families was very similar to that in joint physical custody families, at 56 percent.
  • The joint legal maternal custody families (the majority of this group) had a much lower rate, at 23 percent.

Therefore, joint legal custody (including shared custody) and father-residence families were much more likely to obtain court-ordered changes to their custody arrangement than were joint legal mother-residence families and sole legal custody parents.  Although these new arrangements may have been consensual, the authors suggest that the number of motions indicates that parental conflict was the basis of the returns to court.  The authors also point out that the re-litigating joint legal custody parents were not necessarily dissatisfied with their arrangement, since most joint families who altered their arrangements kept their joint legal status, changing only the physical placement of the children (Koel et al., 1994).

6.8 Summary

Most of the research on child custody has concentrated on the effects of different arrangements, primarily on child outcomes.  In this context, Chapter 6 addressed the effects of custody arrangements on child outcomes and the roles of parental conflict, the gender of the parent, and changeovers or "transitions" from one home to another in shared custody arrangements.  Other topics examined were parental adjustment, parent-child relationships, the parental relationship, and child support payments.  The incidence of re-litigation on custody arrangements was briefly summarized.

No particular benefits or drawbacks accrue from different types of custody arrangements:  children in shared custody arrangements do as well in terms of psycho-social development as do those in sole custody arrangements.  There is no evidence that shared custody increases conflict between the parents, but this topic is not well studied.  Research does suggest, however, that discord between the parents increases the likelihood of negative outcomes among adolescents in shared custody situations when the children feel torn between the parents.

The evidence suggests that the amount of supervision by the custodial parent, not the sex of the custodial parent, is related to problem behaviour by the children. 

No conclusions can be drawn on the effects of changeovers between the two households in shared custody arrangements.

No relationship between type of custody arrangement and parental adjustment has been found.  However, parental satisfaction tends to be higher among those with shared custody arrangements. Perhaps associated with this, parents with shared custody arrangements had fewer problems adjusting to their parenting roles after divorce.  In shared custody situations, most parents believed that their former partners had a good relationship with the children, and adolescents in shared custody were more likely to report that they felt close to both parents.  At the same time, a minority of parents with shared custody (about one quarter in one study) expressed concern about the effects of their ex-partner's parenting and lifestyle on the children.  Data on the relationship between the parents with shared versus other types of custody arrangements are difficult to interpret because shared custody parents are a self-selected group—they are probably better able to co-operate than are many other parents.  The available evidence indicates that the type of custody arrangement the parents choose is not strongly related to the inter-parental relationship.

Several researchers have suggested that greater adherence to child support obligations is an outcome of shared custody.  However, the evidence is inconclusive on this point.

Similarly, the effects of custody arrangement on returns to court—re-litigation—are not clear, with studies from the United States reporting conflicting findings.

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