Even after twenty years in this field, I cannot say that I personally ever have seen an arrangement styled from the git-go as "joint" or "shared" custody and remain so in fact throughout a child's childhood. Of course, I have had parents, and political activists, and others claim to me that this can occur, but I haven't seen it myself. At this point, I'd have to say that theory is interesting, but reality doesn't match it.
Where I HAVE seen the kinds of situations in which divorced parents get along and work together -- those "good divorces" we sometimes hear about -- these have all commenced with one thing in common: they became "good divorces" at the point at which both parents understood that the child actually has a *home* with one or the other of them, and ceased focusing on what was "fair" to the parents and their "parental rights," and started pulling together in their children's interests.
The real friendship that redeveloped or remained intact between the parents actually meant, not a flip-flop between two attempted psychological homes, which is destructive and impossible, but rather, a nonresidential parent who remained welcome in and supportive of, the child's primary home, who remained "family," and a child who felt free to spend time with the other parent in the same way the child would remain free to visit with grandma across the street.
If parents actually can achieve what they really and truly need to make joint custody work -- and this is a slim "maybe" -- then being truly willing to do what is in the child(ren)'s best interests and putting them first, first above another spouse, first above any personal opportunity that might come along, first with such commitment that they can make the sacrifices necessary... why aren't they remaining married.
I just don't buy the "love 'em, can't live with 'em, but nevertheless willing to stay in the same neighborhood for the next fifteen years and talk daily on the phone or in person" thing as compatible with getting divorced. When I've seen these "terrific" divorces, the individuals have got divorced precisely because one or both canNOT make these kinds of commitments. They remain "loving" of each other, even though one of them has essentially flown the coop to pursue another career, another relationship, or another place.
In twenty years, ALL of the "reworked" true friendships between formerly married parents that I have encountered are ones in which (1) ONE of the parents has sole custody (or what amounts to sole custody), and (2) the other isn't concerned in the slightest because (a) his/her input and friendship and participation is welcome and opinions respected, and (b) s/he feels completely confident in the decisions and abilities of the other parent, with or without input.
A few of these arrangements commenced as joint custody, which doesn't last over the long haul, and nothing good started redeveloping until the parents got honest about the situation. Most of these commenced as sole custody.
One of the reasons, among many, that I deplore this unthinking political movement toward imposed "shared parenting," is because from what I've observed, the best chance for this kind of "we're still family and friends" relationship to develop is accomplished when all possible points of conflict have been removed post-divorce, when wounds have been permitted to heal in peace, and when the child's primary caregiver is confident of being able to give the child a stable, intact, and supportive and supported home.
It's not just the potential conflict which makes joint custody a bad choice for kids, although "conflict" makes a handy scapegoat to explain away why the theory doesn't pan out in reality. It's that joint custody is a schizophrenic arrangement. It lacks stability and consistency; it's a situation unlikely to endure over the child's remaining childhood (requiring a second traumatic family upheaval); and it fosters increased manipulation by and insecurities in the kids (great divorce, great friends, working together to "help" their druggie teenager with his problems, etc.) Among many other negatives.
There are negatives inherent in the joint custody situation which even the best parents cannot overcome. Joint physical custody is logistically impractical and psychologically detrimental. And joint legal custody, or shared custody, with one parent remaining as the primary physical custodian does little to alter the amount of time a child spends with the noncustodial parent, and does a lot to create control conflicts between parents who continue to harbor resentment stemming from the failure of the marriage.
Joan Zorza (Summer 1995 Family Law Quarterly, "Recognizing and Protecting the Privacy and Confidentiality Needs of Battered Women") summarized, in an article not otherwise directly on this subject, but a fine summary nevertheless:
"Joint custody awards do not improve the lot of children. In fact, most children in court-imposed joint custody (not just those with abusive fathers) do poorly [ft.nt.60 Gina Kolata, "The Children of Divorce: Joint Custody is Found to Offer Little Benefit, N.Y. Times, Mar. 31, l988 at B13; Nancy D. Polikoff, "Joint Custody: Only by Agreement of the Parties," 8 Woman's Advoc. 1,3 (1987)] and are more depressed and disturbed than children in sole custody, [ft.nt.61 Sheila J. Kuehl, "Against Joint Custody: A Dissent to the General Bullmoose Theory," 27 Fam. & Conciliation Courts Rev. 37 (1987)], even when the parents genuinely choose joint custody [ft.nt.62 Id.]. Furthermore, joint custody results in lower child support awards, which fathers are no more likely to pay than awards made when the mother has sole custody. [ft.nt.63 Polikoff, supra, note 60.] Joint custody does not even result in the father spending any more time with his children. [ft.nt.64 Frank F. Furstenberg & Andrew J. Cherlin, "Divided Families: What Happens to Children When Parents Fail 33-38 (1991).]"
Professor Mary Ann Mason writes in "Equality Trap" Simon and Shuster l988:
"There are many things wrong with this unthinking rush to joint custody, but the primary objection is that it changes the focus of custody away from the 'best interests of the child' to the best interests of the parents -- or, more precisely, to the best interests of the father."
Joint custody *increases*, not decreases, covert resentment and conflict, because it permits the parent who is *not* spending the day-to-day time raising the children and operating the household to exercise veto power over decisions made by the CP, and if so inclined, to meddle and interfere, creating stalemate, and power plays to attempt to break it between the two parents. Some of these "power plays" are: good parent/bad parent game, visitation conflicts, and withholding of support. And even when this is NOT consciously done, the problems nevertheless occur simply because of the nature of the beast.
A key factor in successful parenting in intact homes is the ability to parent in unison and provide a united front. (See, e.g. Penelope Leach, and other child development experts.)
Persons who are married have difficulty enough parenting in unison and doing a good job of it, but at least where they disagree, they share common goals, and have a relationship between themselves to preserve, which is incentive for compromise and respectful discourse. That's absent in a divorce situation, and strained even more when stepparents enter the picture with their own interests and agendas. And regardless of commonality of values and interests and parental style, persons who are not sharing the same household and a life are just not going to be consistent in the details. And it's the accumulation, the cumulative effect of all the teeny little things, which ultimately adds up. Not to mention the unavoidable effects of the big things, like the child has no actual psychological home.
Psychological researchers who have expressed negative opinions about joint custody include, among others, Anna Freud and Judith Wallerstein. In short, a major problem is the child's, in Wallerstein's words, living a life in "no man's land." Having children routinely shift as a temporary resident between two households that have other permanent members who "really" live there presents a destructive outlook for a child, damaging of identity and self-esteem.
Young children form a sense of identity from their family base, and, notwithstanding the fiction, joint custody does not give the child a whole family, nor does it approximate a two-parent intact home. The child, in fact, is central and permanent to no home, which only reinforces the trauma of the divorce split. It would be far better for the child to have one stable one-parent "intact" home and for the other parent to visit in a complementary way, rather than create the conflict of a competing "home."
Professor David Chambers has written articles from the legal standpoint, recommending primary caretaker presumptions and the forbidding of physical joint custody over the objection of one parent.
For another article exploring these issues and concluding that a primary caretaker, rather than joint custody presumption is preferable, see Phyllis T. Bookspan, "From a Tender Years Presumption to a Primary Parent Presumption: Has Anything Really Changed? ....Should It?" 8 B.Y.U.J. Pub.L. 75 (1994). Children need to know where home is, and what they get there or do not get there, they carry with them for the remainder of their lives.
What is it going to take until people start to realize that kids are not here to give adult children what THEY didn't get. When we're talking about children, there just is no "dickaround" time to try this and that and counseling and see, etc. For every rare couple (usually unremarried) who professes satisfaction with a shared custodial arrangement, fifty now-sole custodial fathers or mothers will admit "Yeah, we tried that for X number of years while we still lived in the same town, and it was a nightmare... NOW we get along pretty good."
The politics of adult rights has no business injecting itself into this issue as a competing consideration to the interests of child.
"Experts agree that nurturing, supportive parenting that provides firm but fair limits assists children in becoming healthy, well-functioning adults.
However, a seven-year study by Dallas's Timberlawn Psychiatric Institute found the one factor that was the most important in helping children become healthy, happy adults, was the quality of the relationship between their parents.
"This one factor was more important than giving kids hugs, providing good discipline, building their self esteem, or any other aspect of what is traditionally considered `good parenting'...
"Many of us used to assume, and some still do, that children will `get over' their parents' divorce after an initial period of adjustment. The Timberlawn study, as well as landmark studies by Judith Wallerstein and others, found that divorce not only hurts both parents and children, but that children suffer long term consequences including emotional difficulties, poor school or job performance, and difficulty in achieving intimacy in their own relationships as adults.
"Wallerstein reports that one third of the children experienced moderate to severe depression five years after the divorce. Fifteen years after the divorce, many of those children were still experiencing the consequences of their parents' break-up as they began love relationships and marriages of their own. Every child in her study feared repeating a failure in adulthood, all feared betrayal and rejection, and all remained very vulnerable...
"What these and other studies have also found is, that while divorce hurts children, living with parents who continually wage embittered battles is even worse. Research shows that the children who suffer most are those whose parents divorce, and then carry on the battle for years through legal challenges, arguments, or refusal to cooperate with orders regarding visitation, custody, and child support.
"As Wallerstein points out, the courts have often believed that awarding joint custody would force parents to put aside their anger and cooperate for the sake of the children. However, often, the opposite occurs. The children become either the weapons or the trophies in their parents' power struggle, or the unintended victims of their rage. Moreover, the chaos and emotional (and sometimes financial) strain that the divorce process puts on parents often makes it difficult for them to provide the security and availability for their children, further leaving the child's emotional and physical needs unmet...
"Legal professionals often refer or order parents to marriage counseling, but many times, little seems to change. The same dynamics of conflict and discord continue throughout the legal process and long after agreements and orders are made...
"Many counselors are taught to use negotiation skills and contracts to help resolve conflicts. While these methods sometimes help, their benefit is often short-term. Using contracts and negotiation tends to civilize the power struggle for a period of time--until those very contracts become another expression of the power struggle.
"Focusing on `tit for tat', or on the content of the issues (money, children, sex, etc.) is at best a band-aid, and at worst, in contractual form, fuel for the fire. Therapy in which each partner tells their story to the therapist with the therapist acting as a kind of mediator also tends to have short term benefits. Long after the couple leaves a courtroom or a therapist's office, they continue to interact with each other and their children. Court order, contracts, or agreements, in or outside of therapy, set parameters for the power struggle...
"A legal document does not mean that a couple is divorced on an emotional level, particularly when one or both parties is ambivalent about the divorce. Wallerstein's study found that after ten and even fifteen years after divorce, close to half of the men and women had not given up the hopes and disappointments attached to their previous marriage. Half of the women and one third of the men felt intensely angry with their former spouse ten years after the divorce."
--Quoted from article in The Family Law Commentator, Vol.XX, No 3, l994, by H. Schleifler, M. A., LMHC