Involuntary Joint Custody is a Bad Idea

One study that’s been cited a lot in favor of Joint Custody laws is Wallerstein’s and Kelly’s five-year study which found that children who maintain relationships with both parents adjusted best after a divorce divorce.

But Wallerstein’s study conclusions were for families where “the conflict between the divorcing partners had subsided,” not for all divorced parents – which is the trouble with studies of Joint Custody outcomes looking at families which chose Joint Custody, who are likely to be more affluent, better educated and more cooperative than the average divorcing parents. In her later followup of the same sample group, Wallerstein found that the most destructive post-divorce situation for children is where the parents are extremely hostile to each other. If both parents have custody of the child, the children can end up caught in the middle, which is a terrible situation – but one that’s much more likely if courts force Joint Custody on unwilling parent(s).

There’s also the value of small children having a stable environment, and going to a single school. It’s one thing for my friend Greg, whose parents divorced when he was 12 and voluntarily chose Joint Custody. Luckily, Greg’s parents had similar incomes, making it possible for them both to live in the same school district, in walking distance of each other, with Greg having a bedroom in each home that he could wander to at will. I think that outcome was, without a doubt, the best possible set-up for all concerned in that situation.

It’s quite another thing for small child to have to live equally in two households in alternate weeks or months – small children being shuttled from home to home report feeling disoriented and unstable, and sometimes have trouble with their schoolwork and social skills. (See “The experience of children in a joint-custody arrangement,” American Journal of Orthospychiatry v51 #3) This is something two cooperative parents will be able to deal with, we might suppose – but two parents who had gone through a nasty, hateful divorce?

And how is Joint Physical Custody handled with two parents of uneven incomes (the most common thing by far), who perhaps can’t live in the same town & school system? What happens when two parents who can’t agree that the ocean is wet need to decide what kids their child is allowed to play with, or what school to send their child to? What if one parent gets a great job offer – or a great new marriage – in another state – should the other parent be required to move, too?

All of these problems are reasonably solvable when parents get along well – but among parents who cannot get along, these situations are liable to lead to harmful tugs-of-wars with the child as the rope.

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28 Responses to Involuntary Joint Custody is a Bad Idea

  1. 1
    Glaivester says:

    I understand what you are getting at, but wouldn’t the end result be that a woman who wants a divorce could in essence deny the father any access to his kids and turn him essentailly into a slave whose only function is to work to help support her and the kids?

  2. 2
    Barbara says:

    I think the real problem is that divorce and custody plays out in a lot of tactical maneuvering whereby the parties take positions that seek to maximize their desired outcome. So in addition to situations where there has been a clear history of damaging conflict, in which you are undoubtedly right it would be wrong to award true joint custody, there are many other situations where, If sole custody is the desired outcome, the party may think it’s in their best interest to create or exacerbate conflict in order to promote the idea that they are too unreasonable to live with a joint custody arrangement, even in the absence of prior abusive treatment or escalating conflict within the marriage. This isn’t just true with custody, it’s also true with division of property: a spouse may insist that he or she has the right, for instance, to hang on to a share of the other spouse’s inherited or heirloom property in order to gain greater financial concessions on other property (or custody, for that matter). This is the problem with abstract rules of any kind in the divorce arena: you end up having to deal with human beings who are often motivated to hurt each other, at least in the short run. My family professor used to say that nice people would make the best of the most ill-conceived custody orders, while angry ex-spouses would make hash of even the most carefully considered arrangements.

  3. 3
    Lee says:

    In Maryland, the parents must maintain separate households for a year and attend mandatory counseling before the divorce is final. Unless there is neglect or abuse, the children are in joint custody for that year. The permanent custody arrangements are finalized at the last divorce hearing.

    I happen to be a bystander of four divorces among my friends within the last couple of years, and it is not pretty to watch. Maybe some examples would help you understand Amp’s position a bit better.

    Couple A separated last fall, and their kids are the same age as my kids. The children attend the same school all year and spend alternate weeks with each parent. Mom A only takes the kids to the activities she feels are important, while Dad A is trying to maintain the schedule they had before the separation. These kids are not doing particularly well emotionally, partly because the rules and routines are so different at each house, plus each parent is prepared to go all-out to get full custody when the time comes.

    Couple B consists of a previously divorced father and divorced mother. Dad B has primary custody of his kids because Mom B travels a lot for her job. Stepmom B (whose only child is now in college) is frequently exasperated because Mom B sends the kids over in raggedy clothes. Mom B says she doesn’t want Dad B to benefit from her hard-earned cash. (Stepmom B was nowhere in the picture until a year after the divorce was final.) Stepmom B has learned to keep a full wardrobe on hand for each kid, plus a going-to-Mom’s-house outfit, usually new, because those outfits never come back.

    Couple C had a mostly amicable divorce and voluntarily chose joint custody, but Mom C is going back to court over the summer to get full custody. Part of the reason why they divorced in the first place was because Dad C gets so wrapped up in his work that he loses track of time, plus he is not available via normal channels of communication, which he turns off to avoid distractions. After a year of getting calls from the school to come pick up the kids from after-school activities during his week with the kids, Mom C says she wants the control if she has the responsibility.

    Couple D had a very very hostile divorce, but because Dad D lost everything in the dot-com crash, he was in the economically weaker position and got sort of a one-third custody arrangement. Mom D was willing to let him handle the after-school activities but doesn’t like his new wife at all (Stepmom D basically doesn’t want the kids around much). So about a year after Dad D remarried, Mom D went back to court and won full custody. Dad D can come see the kids whenever he wants, but he has to juggle his desire to be with his children against keeping Stepmom D happy.

    Are any of these arrangements fair to the kids? Probably not. As far as I can tell, the children in families A and B are in the middle of a power struggle amongst the important adults in their lives, the children in family C have had the biweekly “Dad forgot me again”? sinking feeling plus having to deal with their mom’s irritation with their dad, and the children in family D have to deal with a Stepmom who has made it crystal-clear she doesn’t want them around.

    Barbara, I agree with you. Because of the way we handle divorce in the U.S., custody arrangements automatically put parents into adversarial positions. But any “one-size-fits-all”? solution is not going to help. Whoever has control of the kids has the power in the relationship, and everybody handles having that power differently.

  4. 4
    Lee says:

    I meant to say,

    “I happen to be a bystander of four divorces among my friends within the last couple of years, and it is not pretty to watch. Glaivester, maybe some examples would help you understand Amp’s position a bit better.”

  5. 5
    W. Kiernan says:

    Jesus, y’all say what you’d like, but I sure wish my parents had got divorced when I was three or so and permanently moved as far away from each other as possible. And I don’t care what child-sharing arrangement they had come up with, even if they were batting me back-and-forth like a ping-pong ball. In fact it would have probably been preferable if they’d both washed their hands of me and thrown me into a orphanage.

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  7. 6
    NYMOM says:

    Well it seems a little odd to me that so many feminists would be against this presumptive Joint Custody…Aren’t you the ones always putting out reports claiming that courts are BIASED AGAINST MOTHERS and that in some states and counties over 50 to 70% of FATHERS who litigate get custody of the children…and then you go on to claim that this number is far higher then the number of fathers who were primary caretakers BEFORE the divorce…although how you would know this is beyond me…but that’s another issue altogether…

    But clearly feminists are of the opinion that courts are biased against mothers…

    YET accepting this logic and feminists’ own figures, you then go on to be AGAINST something that would at least ensure mothers are allowed 50% of time with their children and thus, continuation of a system which in some places (according to feminists’ own figures) ensures that some 50 to 70% of mothers risk losing custody completely, and frankly, with feminists’ support of moveaways, maybe never seeing their children again?????

    Objectively speaking does that even make sense…

    I wish you would really think about your positions and be consistent with them…

    For example, it’s always seemed a little odd to me with no-fault divorce that feminists supported it every state of the union, wherever it came up, NOW however, in New York State, the NY Chapter of NOW is campaigning against changing New York’s fault divorce law claiming that courts and Judges are biased against women, so fault divorce gives a woman some negotiating tools to work with…

    So how come if this is the case in New York, it’s NOT the case everywhere else…

    Can you at least be consistent…

    Presumptive Joint Custody where women are guaranteed at LEAST 50% of the time with their children is the LESSER of many evils that can befall women and their children. Especially when you consider how many chowder heads women helped get into positions of power within the court system, mistakening thinking we would be automatically empowering ourselves when we empowered other women…

    Give me one good, consistent, logical reason to be against presumptive Joint Custody IF I believe feminists’ own reports and figures on courtroom bias against mothers…just one…

  8. 7
    Barbara says:

    Actually, I think presumptive joint custody is a reasonable rule. I think the law described in Maryland is a reasonable one (absent domestic violence or other extenuating circumstances). Why? Well, yes, it can be hard on the kids — but it’s silly to think that any arrangement isn’t hard on the kids in the first year post separation. The first year after divorce is the worst — giving both parents a chance to prove their desire and ability to rise above personal animus to take care of their children seems appropriate. If one or both of them can’t do it, then adjustment is obviously necessary.

    Amp raises a really good point about moving. This is just another imponderable of divorce. It’s just really tough to know what to do in all circumstances. You hope that the court is flexible.

  9. 8
    NYMOM says:

    “Actually, I think presumptive joint custody is a reasonable rule. I think the law described in Maryland is a reasonable one (absent domestic violence or other extenuating circumstances). ”

    Oh my God…

    I just collapsed…

    I’m on the floor unconscious…


    I’m alright now…

  10. 9
    Barbara says:

    Have I missed something? Did you mention joint custody once in the other thread? Joint custody is usually the custody bugaboo that feminists are criticized for.

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  12. 10
    NYMOM says:

    “Actually, I think presumptive joint custody is a reasonable rule. I think the law described in Maryland is a reasonable one (absent domestic violence or other extenuating circumstances). “?

    Well at least you’re honest…so support of presumptive Joint Custody is ANOTHER position feminists share with Mens’ Rights Advocates…

    It also proves another point I’ve made. There is NOTHING feminists aren’t willing to put women and children through to institute their grand public policy visions; as this presumptive Joint Custody would impact never-married mothers and infants as well as divorced mothers of older children…

    Oh well…

    The good news is that Maryland is a small state with a minimal taxbase…and I suspect they will quickly find as Washington DC did when it tried to institute presumptive Joint Custody that Maryland just CANNOT afford it…as who is going to be financially responsible for all the benefits those kids need when everyone gets Joint Custody and no one is responsible for child support…

    Probably they’ll start handling child support like they do in California now, where it’s allocated according to income as supposed to custodial status…

    Good…since as many MRAs have often said ‘it’s not about the money, it’s about spending time with the children”…so they can now spend the time and the money as well…

  13. 11
    Lee says:

    Actually, NYMOM, the purpose of the Maryland law is to reduce the divorce rate and preserve stable, two-parent families where possible. The idea was to counterbalance the no-fault divorce with counseling and a cooling-off period. Many of the legislators who voted for the measure felt too many couples with children were divorcing without looking at the big picture (i.e., thinking about the kids) and that these split families were imposing an unnecessary burden on public services. The involuntary joint custody was built in partly as a tool to force the parents to have a realistic look at the consequences of their actions, but also as a way to help the presiding judge discern what custody arrangement would work best. I’m afraid I don’t know enough about the child support rules to discuss them.

    The situation in D.C. is very different from in Maryland, mostly because D.C. is not a state. Not to get into state’s rights issues too much here, but D.C. has a very difficult time getting anything done with the 800-pound gorilla that is Congress poking its fingers in anytime it likes.

  14. 12
    Lee says:

    W. Kiernan, wow. If your home life was that bad growing up, you probably would have been better off with a whole ‘nother set of parents. Too bad that’s not one of the options our system gives children in a custody hearing! (Although you probably couldn’t have articulated that at age 3.)

  15. 13
    DP in SF says:

    I agree with our gracious host that joint custody is probably a bad idea for parents that hate each others’ guts. But, if that’s the case, what custody arrangement exists that won’t bring some tears in their child’s life? I had exactly the same experience W. Kiernan had: I wished both my parents were in Hell. Unfortunately, courts probably won’t send the kids involved in these travesties to an orphanage as a matter of course, so someone has to get custody.
    It’s time to admit two things: father’s rights groups like presumptive joint custody because they feel it’s a chance to get child support lowered. Feminists don’t like it because they feel Dad should pay his child support and slink away, grateful for his alternate weekends of “visitation” while Mom is out commiserating with her peers.

  16. 14
    K1 says:

    It’s time to admit two things: father’s rights groups like presumptive joint custody because they feel it’s a chance to get child support lowered.

    Speak for yourself! That’s only one aspect, and fair enough, but many fathers do actually love their kids and want to spend more than a token amount of time with them, as real fathers, not 2/14ths “Disneyland Dads”.

    And why should either parent have to pay the other parent? It’s purely part of the Feminist Agenda, to make men pay.

    The fact that children do badly when parents continue warring after separation overlooks one important thing: Parents need to grow up before they can bring up their own kids. If they can’t get over their grief about the breakdown of their own relationship, how can they support their kids through it? They shouldn’t have the kids at all.

    And as many, in fact, can’t (get over it), what is needed to make parental relationship breakdowns less damaging to children is not unbalanced custody arrangements but compulsory post-separation therapy and assessment. If parents can’t grow up, put the kids up for adoption. The rate of instantaneous parental growing up would be astounding… And mature, balanced, conflict-free Presumptive Joint Custody would work very well for the children.

    The problem, of course, is mothers. Not fathers. As a General Rule. William Congreve was absolutely right:

    Heav’n hath no rage like love to hatred turn’d,
    Nor Hell a fury, like a woman scorn’d.

    The Biblical example of King Solomon’s wisdom is all the more applicable today.

  17. 15
    Lee says:

    A friend of mine is currently writing a scifi novel of the First Contact type. I told her it must be science fiction because the culture she posits is one in which only certified nurturers are responsible for raising the children. Anyone can have children, but they have to apply for the privilege; then at 6 months, the babies are handed over to people who have tested as the most compatible parent figures. She actually doesn’t use this structure to explore American family culture, which is too bad, since I think it could be very interesting as well as relevant to this thread.

    But thinking about her story made me wonder if nannies could be the solution to the whole custody question. Instead of making the parents contest each other for the right to raise their children, what if divorcing parents had to hand over their children to a court-appointed nanny until they can prove they are mature enough to handle the responsibility of an amicable divorce and custody arrangement?

  18. 16
    Flydi says:

    Ahh, how many of you are :
    1. divorced?
    2. getting divorced?
    3. parents?
    4. dealing with join custody yourself?

    I highly encourage those who are not actually experiencing the pain of divorce and joint custody to remember just that. As a liberal feminist I cant believe some of the comments on this site – they HAVE to be from folks who dont have children, or an x-spouse or half a brain for that matter. Staying married “for the sake of the kids” is the worst idea ever. Children need to see how to resolve conflict and be given a chance to see their parents happy or at the very least happier. Joint custody may not be the greatest solution, but too many adults put their own needs, wishes, fears, ideals, morals, etc first instead of doing what is best for the children.

    Having just gone through a mediated divorce in Georgia and determining a custody schedule with a very difficult x-husband, I found myself wishing that Georgia also had the Maryland “cooling off year”. What a progressive idea! SO much changes in the first year of divorce, custody is tough. So many emotions and a bonafide feeling of loss. It’s not natural to not know if your child is ok or where he or she is!

    Custody is difficult no matter how much theory you apply to it. It is infuriating to receive advice on custody from arrogant non-parent experts. I think we should educate and furnish tools to parents on mediating parental differences and continue to offer support as the new custody arrangements begin and develop. As a parent I would love to have someone provide factual information to both my x and I so we can make the best decision for our son.

  19. 17
    ginmar says:

    Ki Or whatever the fuck your name is: who gives a shit? I’ll just call you fuckface.

    The problem, of course, is mothers. Not fathers. As a General Rule. William Congreve was absolutely right:

    Heav’n hath no rage like love to hatred turn’d,
    Nor Hell a fury, like a woman scorn’d.

    Gotta love assholes. Really, when feminists get accused of hating men, it doesn’t seem, given examples like this, that it’s unfair. In fact it seems like profound restraint.

    I hope to God this fuck doesn’t have daughters.

  20. 18
    alsis39 says:

    Trolly Ride wrote:

    “And why should either parent have to pay the other parent? It’s purely part of the Feminist Agenda, to make men pay.”

    Amp, I think it’s time to revisit my earlier proposal: All MRA’s and anti-feminists should be barred from posting until they can pass a quiz proving that they have already read at least one of the threads pertaining to the subject they claim such expertise on.

  21. 19
    Rock says:

    The fact is that many men are totally irresponsible and do not support there children; custody or no. Often they are busy with the new family and pay little attention to the kids. It has been the burden of mothers to pick up the slack and do double duty for years as many dads are flakes with no conscience. (Sadly drugs are producing moms that are this way as well.)

    Amp is right in that forcing someone into relationships does not make sense. If they are not compelled to care and cooperate and be responsible as they should be anyway, what is forcing them going to do but cause more resentment that generally gets taken out on the kids?

    Hats off to Barbara, Lee, Flydi, you definitely have the upper hand in this discussion, I am purly impressed with your patience in the face of blatant ignorance. Blessings.

  22. 20
    Anonmom says:

    I’m new to blog commenting and fell upon this entry so I don’t know if I’m too late to enter this conversation.

    My husband and I have one daughter together who is 3. He also has a 13 year old daughter (I’ll call her Jane) from a woman he dated years ago (she left him for the man she’s currently married to). He’s been fighting to see his daughter more for years now. His ex lives about 10 minutes away from us and since we all live in NYC even if one of us moves to a different area, it will never be that hard for any of us to see Jane.

    Before I came into the picture there was no official custody agreement. Jane’s dad saw her 3 days a week on the nights that Jane’s mom was working. When Jane’s dad met me, Jane’s mom became really angry and started threatening to take away that time. Jane’s dad got scared and went to court to make sure that he could continue to see his daughter.

    Well we live in NY State, where as it was best put by Barbara in comment #2:

    “If sole custody is the desired outcome, the party may think it’s in their best interest to create or exacerbate conflict in order to promote the idea that they are too unreasonable to live with a joint custody arrangement, even in the absence of prior abusive treatment or escalating conflict within the marriage.”

    My husband didn’t want his daughter to go through trial. She was only 6 at the time. Once he decided that he wouldn’t go through trial then it became up to Jane’s mom to decide how much Jane’s dad could see him. She gave them every other weekend, Wednesdays from 3 to 7pm, and after MUCH pushing from the guardian ad litem, every other holiday and 7 weeks in th summer. He went from seeing his daughter 3 days a week every week to hardly nothing.

    Jane’s dad has tried to get Jane’s mom to go to mediation with him so that they can work out how to parent separately but together, but Jane’s mom refuses. She doesn’t have to so she won’t.

    My husband is the poster dad for joint custody and really the classic example of how some families get really screwed by sole custody.

    This was never an issue of money for child support. He’s never been late paying. And he would happily continue to pay under joint.

    I know that alot of fathers are really crappy and abandon their kids. I just read Nick’s post about “child support and male entitlement,” but sometimes really good dad’s have to pay the price for the bad ones.

  23. 21
    Lalcute says:

    Anonmom, I agree with you Sometime Really Good Dads do have to pay the price for all the bad ones. And even though they are good fathers the system only hears the mother even though she is crazy and doesn think about how her actions affect the child. Something needs to be done about this it is really a problem. It is really hard for a father to get full custody, I mean it has to be something really bad or the mother just signing her rights away or it will not happen.

    All you can do is pray for the child and I guess the wacked out mother too, That she will see her faults and see how she is only hurting the kid, Why cant they see that??? Divorce is sad indeed but the kids suffer no matter what, Think about if the parents were never married then what rights do the father have? (None in Indiana) You have to really fight for it and it cost a lot.

    But to all the fathers reading this I wish you the best of luck and just know if you are being the best father that you can be and you know that your child belongs with you, It will happen, may be when the child is old enough to WANT to Be with you, to KNOW that they are better with you but it will happen so keep FIGHTING dont give up and GOOD LUCK.

    I have been with my man 4 years and for 3 years we have been fighting to get his little girl whom is now 6, We did get Joint but The mother is still NUTS and likes to jerk us around whenever she can because she hates me, Talk about being unfair to your children, she takes the cake.
    So we will continue to do what we can to make sure she gets to be the princess that she deserves to be…Even if it is only when she is with us, She will feel it for herself.


  24. 22
    Lynne says:

    My ex-husband and I have been living with involuntary joint custody of our two children for six years now following a high conflict divorce. It is a misserable nightmare which has allowed an angry, controlling man to use his children to bring financial hardship on the primary caregiver of his children.

    I was required to commute 3,500 miles/month under a restraining order not to move my children 75 miles when re-locating for work. The referee reversed the established custodial environment without considering the ‘Best Interest Factors’, awarding more time with a father who had been court ordered to participate in counseling for abuse. DeNovo review supported the established custodial environment.

    It would seem the Michigan courts are attempting social engineering with a hidden agenda: if women can no longer assume they will have custody of their children, divorce rates will decline.

    Divorce is a reality. Much unnecessary suffering has resulted from this ill-conceived social engineering. Children would be best served by awarding custody in balance with the pre-divorce roles of each parent.

    The ‘Primary Caregiver’ standard is gender neutral.

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  26. 23
    Chris says:

    Speaking as a single father I would say that a presumption of joint custody makes a lot of sense. Start from a balanced centre point and then modify based on the wishes of the parents themselves. If it can be agreed that 75%/25% is a good split then so be it, however starting either partner in the “hole” seems very harsh.

    On the topic of reducing child support this makes sense, each parent must provide housing etc for the children and if custody is split closer to evenly then the additional costs for each parent should tend to balance out (with at 50/50 custody neither parent giving or receiving money). Similarly if one parent is barred from seeing their child then realistically they should not be forced into supporting the child, I believe one feminist writer supported this with a comment along the lines of “If its 100% our choice then we bear 100% of the responsibility for it”.

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  28. 24
    Cozette says:

    My husband has shared custody (every other week)of his two children. Every other week they are transported back and forth between two totally different households and environments with different values. When they are with their mother or grandmother there is a lot of cursing, drinking and smoking(grandma). They live in a bad neighborhood with a lot of negative influences. Their mother also has had two additional children with two different fathers since the divorce about four and a half years ago.
    We are in a different income bracket so our neighborhood has more resources available to children. My stepdaughter wants to play soccer but I can’t get her involved in any activities because her mom is uncompromising and complains that we live too far for her to drive her when she has practice and games on her week. My husband allows the children to go to school in her neighborhood which is almost an hour away from where we live. He has to drive them to school that far every other week for nine months. I think its unfair that she won’t compromise and it’s affecting the children’s behavior as well as their social activities. I feel helpless. I think children should be involved in sports or some type of activities. I think we need family counseling.