Thoughts on Shared Parenting Presumptions – Part III

Research It has been said that you can find research to support any opinion, and that is particularly true in the area of parenting after divorce or separation. However, most of the research emphasizes different aspects of the same problem, so that we can benefit from looking at the research – so long as we make the effort to understand it. The following are quotes from studies reported in the Family Court Review, the journal of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC), one of the most respected sources of information on parenting in divorce.

Some studies support equal shared parenting schedules:

Respondents [college students in one study] wanted to have spent more time with their fathers as they were growing up, and the living arrangement they believed was best was living equal time with each parent. The living arrangements they had as children gave them generally little time with their fathers. Respondents reported that their fathers wanted more time with them but that their mothers generally did not want them to spend more time with their fathers. (Fabricius and Hall, Young Adult Perspectives on Divorce, Family Court Review, October 2000.)

The present findings [in another college student study] indicate that divorce leaves young people with strong feelings of “missed opportunities” and “emotional longing” for a father-child relationship – feelings that remain salient for years after the divorce has been finalized….The present results thus are consistent with calls for family law reform mandating that children spend equal amounts of time with their mothers and fathers following divorce. (Schwartz and Finley, Mothering, Fathering, and Divorce: The Influence of Divorce or Reports of and Desires for Maternal and Paternal Involvement, Family Court Review, July 2009.)

Other studies oppose shared parenting mandates:

Australian family law now endorses the active consideration of equal or substantively shared parenting in most cases where parents are able to share overall parental responsibility and decision-making [defined as] a division of care between parents at a rate of 35:65% or higher. [Prior to the new legislation, such an arrangement] was “relatively rare,” occurring in about 9% of the general population of divorcing families in 2003. It was a parenting arrangement that proved viable for a small and distinct group of families …electing a shared arrangement [with] the ability of parents to get along sufficiently well….

[In contrast] the literature is stronger on the poor fit between shared parenting and unremitting post-divorce conflict. Beginning two decades ago, Johnston and colleagues…identified cautions against substantively shared parenting for children whose parents’ ongoing acrimony and inability to encapsulate their conflict meant continued exposure to toxic inter-personal dynamics and the diminished responsiveness of each parent….

[After] four years children in shared care arrangements… reported sustained levels of inter-parental conflict, while children in traditional [primary parent] arrangements reported significant decline [in conflict]. Children in shared care were also significantly more likely to report feeling caught in the middle of their parents’ conflict [and] children more often wished to change [the shared arrangement]. (McIntosh, Legislating for Shared Parenting: Exploring Some Underlying Assumptions, Family Court Review, July 2009.)

It helps to look at the different emphases of these studies. The first favoring more father contact was reported during the college years. It appears that these young adults grew up when fathers were generally less involved than many are today – by the agreement of both parents. From my recent mediation cases, I have observed that younger parents are much more likely to develop parenting plans with a greater role for fathers than I observed when I started my law practice in 1993. However, the majority of these plans are not equal shared parenting plans, but often 25-30% with fathers who are satisfied with these schedules. If the young adults in the first set of studies had this amount of time with their fathers and if their mothers supported their father’s relationship with them, it may be that they would have felt more satisfied. Their opinions about equal parenting time were a conjecture rather than based on experience. Their perspective may have also been based on their more recent adolescent years.

The second set of studies (McIntosh reports on Johnston’s studies as well as her own), emphasize the experience of younger children living in shared parenting arrangements – and feeling distress. When I heard Jennifer McIntosh speak at the 2011 AFCC conference, I remember her examples of children about 8 years old and younger. Especially in a culture where only 9% of divorced families had a history of shared parenting, it may be these children felt frustrated because of their young age and their experiences with young peers who appeared to have the “benefit” of growing up with a “primary” parent.

What this research suggests to me is that there are two very different issues involved here:

1)    At what age is a primary parent preferable and at what age is shared parenting preferable?

2)    Does shared parenting work if it is imposed, rather than the agreement of the parents?

It appears to me, from reading this and a lot of other research, that there really are at least three distinctly separate age periods affected by children of divorce and separation, with different abilities and needs, as I described above. Equal shared parenting arrangements appear very likely to fail during the first 3 years – the most important formative years of a child’s life. While I have seen some highly cooperative couples manage this by age 4, I have also seen children of 6 and 7 struggling with equal shared schedules. A significant factor is the parenting history. Moving suddenly from a primary parent system (say, 80-20) to shared parenting system (say, 50-50), can be traumatic for a child who might otherwise handle it as a gradual transition.

Likewise, from my experience and observations, I have seen many cooperative 50-50 parenting plans for children age 5-12 change to one primary house during the teenage years, at the insistence of an active teenager, when it became hard to keep his or her “stuff” going back and forth. It wasn’t about the parents – it was about having a home base. However, I have also seen several 50-50 plans continue throughout adolescence, although not as many as those that changed to one primary household.

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Bill Eddy is a family law attorney (Certified Family Law Specialist), a therapist with children and families (Licensed Clinical Social Worker), a family mediator (Senior Family Mediator, National Conflict Resolution Center) and President of the High Conflict Institute. He has handled over 400 divorces as a lawyer and over 1100 divorces as a mediator. He is the developer of the New Ways for Families method in use in the United States and Canada. He has taught at the University of San Diego School of Law, the Pepperdine School of Law and is on the part-time faculty of the National Judicial College. He is the author of several books, including The Future of Family Court: Structure, Skills and Less Stress, Splitting: Protecting Yourself While Divorcing Someone with Borderline or Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and Don't Alienate the Kids!: Raising Resilient Children While Avoiding High-Conflict Divorce. For more information about his seminars, consultations and books: www.HighConflictInstitute.com.