Considerations for Different Custody Arrangements
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Joint Custody - Sole Custody - Primary Custody - Step-families
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Post-divorce Custody and Family Structure

The Prevalence of Divorce

The oft-quoted statement that nearly half of first marriages end in divorce (Pedro-Carroll, 2001) has recently been supplanted by new data that is based on information from over fifty six thousand people (U.S. Census Bureau, 2005). The U.S Census Bureau released a major new study to the Internet in February of 2005 showing that roughly twenty percent of adults over fifteen have been divorced. The rate of divorce is highly variable based on age cohorts but one thing is clear - the divorce rate is not as high as it was in its peak. For example, the rate of divorce is much higher among baby boomers than it is with their parents, but the rate has dropped with the younger generation. Only about ten percent of those married in the late 1950s divorced by their tenth wedding anniversary, but the tenth anniversary divorce rate rose to nearly thirty percent for those married in the 1970s. Since then, the tenth anniversary divorce rate has dropped to about twenty five percent for those married between 1985 and 1990, the last age cohort with available data (U.S. Census Bureau, 2005).

A different perspective on divorce is gained by examining divorce rates of those who married by the age of fifty. The cohort of those born between 1945 and 1949 has the dubious distinction of having the highest divorce rate: approximately forty three percent of these early baby boomers had been divorced by their fiftieth birthday. In contrast, the divorce rate for fifty year olds was only about thirty percent of their parents' generation born approximately twenty years earlier. Data are not yet available for younger birth cohorts at the age of fifty, but the ten year anniversary example presented above and other information from the Census Bureau study suggest that the fiftieth birthday divorce rate will drop for more recent age cohorts (U.S. Census Bureau, 2005).

Regardless of the exact divorce rate it is clear that divorce is a major societal issue. This leads many parents and counselors to a genuine concern for the welfare of children with divorced and divorcing parents. These concerned parents and counselors (including grandparents, lawyers, judges, marriage and family counselors, psychologists, and mediators) are the decision makers who control the fate of the children caught in the middle of a separation between parents. Often the courts, the parents, and counselors are well meaning with a genuine concern for the children but their heavy focus is on the needs of the parents. Furthermore, their lack of knowledge about the developmental stages encountered by growing children and adolescents can lead to arrangements that are unsatisfactory and even harmful to the children (Wallerstein et al., 2000).

Caregiver Attachments for Children of Divorced Families

Underlying much of the discussion about post-divorce custody is the importance of attachments between children and their parent caretakers. Humans require about two and a half decades to reach full adult maturity (Vander Zanden, 2003). Unlike a grasshopper that emerges from its egg to begin life hopping and eating on its own, the human infant is helpless and will die without caretakers. The initial caretakers for human babies are generally the biological parents, but adoptive parents and other caretakers sometimes assume the critical role of feeding, nurturing, and teaching the child. The successful caretaker/child relationship is maintained through healthy attachments, but the role of caretakers is a complicated if the core family unit is separated by divorce.

Strong attachments are more than mechanisms that facilitate the provision of food, shelter, and clothing for children, they are building blocks to healthy self-reliance (Ainsworth & Bowlby, 1991). As children grow, their attachment representations predict school behavior and competency during middle childhood and adolescence. Children with secure attachment representations fared better with attention-participation, self confidence, and school grades (Jacobsen & Hofmann, 1997). A study of college students showed that "perceived attachment to parents was a significant predictor of psychological well-being" (Love & Murdock, 2004), and the same study indicated that children from intact families tended to show more secure attachments with their parents than did children raised in stepfamilies where there are multiple attachment figures.

Intact nuclear families that never divorced are the model for long term secure caretaker/child attachments and they are often more financially secure than binuclear families. Divorced families face situations that can challenge financial security and healthy attachments between parents and their children (J. B. Kelly, 2003). Divorce can clearly be detrimental to children.

Compared with children whose parents remained married, children with divorced parents have significantly lower functioning on a variety of indexes, including academic achievement, psychological adjustment, self-concept, conduct, and social competence. Although the average effect sizes are small, ranging from. 08 of a standard deviation for psychological adjustment to .23 of a standard deviation for conduct (Amato & Keith, 1991).

However, other evidence shows that children raised in favorable custodial settings have little or no developmental disadvantages compared to those raised in nuclear families (Carter & McGoldrick, 1999; J. B. Kelly, 2003). The fact that some children succeed while others fall behind makes it clear that the quality of the post-divorce experience matters significantly. Children without the necessary support suffer, yet when parents get it right children prosper.

Custody Structures

It is impossible to declare that there is any one "best" custody arrangement or parenting style for raising children in divorced families. The goal is to perpetuate secure parent/child attachments and to provide a financially sound living environment. Joint custodies might be the best for some families but a nightmare for others. Primary custody arrangements with regular visitations by the non custodial parent are optimal for many families (Pedro-Carroll, Nakhnikian, & Montes, 2001), but even then the path is not clear. For instance, who should be the primary custodian? There is surprising evidence that in some cases children fare better if a suitable father serves as the primary custodian instead of the much more common primary custodian mother (Gunnoe & Hetherington, 2004). While less frequent, other situations exist where the child will fare the best with few or no visitations with the non custodial parent (Wallerstein et al., 2000).

The family structures addressed in this paper include (a) sole custody by one parent with little or no involvement from the other parent, (b) primary custody by one parent with regular visitation by the non custodial parent, (c) stepparents and blended families, and (d) joint custodies. A final section will discuss the post divorce attitudes of parents that are most advantageous to their children.

Sole Custody

In some cases the issue of custody is never in doubt because one of the parents completely withdraws from the children leaving the remaining parent with all of the parental duties. These are often the most difficult cases. When an abrupt departure leaves behind a sole custodian the new single parent family starts in a particularly difficult place. Abandonment creates a feeling of helplessness and can lead to depression and acting out (Ahrons, 1999).

It is generally the mother who is left with sole custody (J. B. Kelly, 2003; Vander Zanden, 2003). This situation is the result of fathers that refuse or are unable to get involved with their children. The mother remains as a single parent with sole custody (Davies & Rains, 1995). Sole custody is a big job with heavy responsibilities. Vander Zanden (2003) offers some sobering facts about single motherhood.

1.   Women heading single parent households generally have lower levels of income and social support

2.   Female heads of households generally report lower self esteem

3.   Some studies show that families headed by women show juvenile delinquency rates twice as high as from two parent households

4.   Kin networks are important to many single mothers

5.   Some families headed by women face few ill effects

Compared to single fathers, single mothers are more likely to be poor and on welfare (Anderson, 1999). In a study of 22,761 adult men, researchers matched occupational status, income, and education to the family type in which the men were raised. Sons raised by working sole custody mothers did nearly as well professionally as those brought up in two-parent homes but the sons of unemployed single mothers did not fare as well. They were more likely to occupy the lowest-paying positions. This study supports the premise that financial stability has a great deal to do with successful single parenting (Robinson, 1998).

Despite the hardships, most single parents provide for the needs of their children in spite of the difficulties. The social context and quality of the support network for the single parent is very important. An isolated single parent in a difficult situation will have a much harder time than one in a close and supportive social and familial web. Therefore, a goal for a single parent is to actively develop and nurture not just their children but also the support network of friends and family (Anderson, 1999).

Primary Custody

In 2002 nearly twenty eight percent of all children under twenty one were living in families where one of the parents was absent from the child's primary home (U.S. Census Bureau, 2003). Two types of custody fit into this category: sole custodies and primary custodies. Primary custody differs from a sole custody in that it involves regular parental involvement with the non custodial parent. There are over 15 million families headed by a primary parent with over 14 million of those headed by mothers (Anderson, 1999). In primary custodies the majority of the physical parenting time and decision making power goes to the custodial parent, either maternal or paternal, but the non-custodial parent generally has visitation rights that allow him or her to maintain regular contact with the child.

The primary custodian has a heavy burden that can be ameliorated if the non custodial parent is actively involved. Compared to sole custody it is generally easier on the custodial parent and more beneficial for the children to have the regular involvement of the non custodial parent. In a primary custody arrangement the non custodial parent's the payment of child support and the maintenance of frequent and emotionally relevant contact with the child can have a significant positive impact on the custodial parent and the children (Braver et al., 1993).

Because the mother is usually the primary custodian (J. B. Kelly, 2003) the role of the non-custodial father has been well researched. Children had significantly better academic performance when their fathers shared meals, spent leisure time, engaged in activities, and helped with homework (Vander Zanden, 2003, p.344). This is true whether or not the father is non custodial or living in a nuclear family. Strong emotional bonds and feelings of interdependence with the father characterized the relationships in which children fared best, this supports the importance of healthy father-child relationships (J. Pedro-Carroll, 2001).

The frequency of fathers' contact was not related to child outcomes in general, but fathers' timely payment of child support significantly improved children's economic and general well-being and enhanced their health status and educational attainment. Two additional aspects of the father-child relationshipóclose emotional bonds and authoritative parentingówere positively related to children's academic achievement and negatively related to children's externalizing and internalizing of problems (Pedro-Carroll, p.1001).

Unfortunately there is a fairly high degree of withdrawal and non payment of child support among non custodial parents. About fifty nine percent of custodial parents had child support agreements from the non custodial parent and of those who owed child support approximately seventy four percent made at least some payment, but only about forty six percent made all payments required by their child support agreements. Overall, custodial parents reported receiving about sixty three percent of the child support that they were supposed to receive (U.S. Census Bureau, 2003).

Visitation is helpful in getting the non custodial spouse to pay child support. A little over seventy seven percent of those with visitation privileges paid child support, but fewer than sixty percent of those without visitation privileges paid any child support in the same time period (U.S. Census Bureau, 2003). The most powerful factor that led to the increase in the payment of child support was the non custodial parent's feeling that he or she had some control over the child's upbringing. Fully employed non custodial parents who have a perception of control over their children's lives have an excellent record of making their child support payments (Braver et al., 1993).


Half of the marriages that occur are remarriages (Carter & McGoldrick, 1999) and estimates are that seventy five to eighty percent of divorced parents will eventually remarry (Vander Zanden, 2003); therefore, many custodial arrangements eventually involve step parents. The average time between the first marriage and the second marriage for those who remarry is about three and a half years (U.S. Census Bureau, 2005). This means that dating and remarriage is often an active part of post-divorce life for parents and children.

Stepparent family structures are often very complex. In some cases the children of divorce will be involved with multiple sets of stepfamilies and stepsiblings. Stepfamilies are often more stressful and less cohesive than intact biological nuclear families and result in family members who are less satisfied with husband/wife and parent/child relationships. To understand these difficulties it is important to realize that that biological parents and stepparents may have differing perceptions of the nature of their difficulties (Banker & Gaertner, 1998). "Biological parents may consider marital problems to be separate from difficulties arising from their parent-child relationship, stepparents are likely to believe that there is a link between marital difficulties and problems in their relationship with their stepchild" (Fine & Kurdek, 1995).

Not surprisingly, biological parents in stepfamilies perceived their relationships with their children more positively than did their stepparent spouses but this did not necessarily translate to problems for the children. Adjustment problems may not result even if the quality of stepparent/stepchildren relationships are worse than the relationships children have with their biological parents (Fine & Kurdek, 1995). There are, however, some correlations between stepparent involvement and behavioral problems.

The National Survey of Families and Households found that stepparents exerted as much control over their stepchildren as did their biological parent spouses, but stepparents provided less warmth and nurturing to their children. This control/nurturing imbalance can lead to trouble. Adolescents residing in stepfamilies found it difficult to adjust to a new authority figure in the family system and they were more at risk for problem behavior than were adolescents growing up in one-parent families (Morin, 2001). More frequent behavioral problems of stepchildren in relation to children in first-marriage families may be due to full control coupled with lower levels of stepparental warmth that stepchildren receive (Fine, Voydanoff, & Donnelly, 1993).

In a study relating to discipline in stepfamilies, forty-five adolescents ranging in age from 15 to 19 years completed the Adolescent Discipline Perception Survey. A finding of the study is that it makes a difference whether or not the stepparent is a stepfather or a stepmother. Although stepfathers are less involved with their stepchildren than biological fathers in stepfamilies, they are apparently as likely to supervise them. The more frequently stepfathers engaged in control and supervision activities, the poorer is the quality of the relationships between children and their biological mother. Stepmothers, on the other hand, have more positive relations with their stepchildren to the extent that their spouses control their children's activities. The most common method of discipline was the loss of privileges and grounding (Fine & Kurdek, 1995).

To wrap up this discussion of stepfamilies succinctly the following guidelines and observations are presented: (a) it is generally preferable when the biological parent usually does the disciplining (Carter & McGoldrick, 1999; Morin, 2001), (b) stepmothers generally bond better with their stepchildren than stepfathers (Vander Zanden, 2003, p.349), (c) it generally takes two years for stepfathers to become co-managers of their step children (Carter & McGoldrick, 1999), (d) courteous and low-intensity relationships between the ex-spouse and the ex-spouse's new partner work best for the children (Carter & McGoldrick, 1999), (e) the more regularly children visit their non-custodial parent the better will be their adjustment to the remarried family (Furstenberg, Peterson, & Zill, 1991), (f) the less exposure children have to conflict in the stepfamily, the better will be their adjustment (Furstenberg et al., 1991).

Joint Custody

The last custodial structure considered in this paper is joint custody. Joint custody is a parenting arrangement between divorced or separated parents that shares decision-making and physical parenting time. The time split between families need not be fifty/fifty to qualify as a joint custody. Based on earlier studies, a custody qualifies as a physical joint custody if minimum amount of time that the child spends with each parent is about thirty percent (Lakin, 1994; Sopp, 2003).For the remainder of this paper the term joint custody will refer to joint physical and legal custody.

Joint custody can be a highly attractive arrangement for all parties involved. Children in successful joint custodies fare better in multiple types of measures than children in sole custody (Bauserman, 2002; Pedro-Carroll, 2001). In a physical joint custody the children have regular custodial contact with each parent, each parent gets extended quality time with the children, and each parent gets a regular break from the custodial parenting role. A statement from Robert Bauserman's (2002) joint custody meta analysis follows.

Children in joint physical or legal custody were better adjusted than children in sole-custody settings, but no different from those in intact families. More positive adjustment of joint-custody children held for separate comparisons of general adjustment, family relationships, self-esteem, emotional and behavioral adjustment, and divorce-specific adjustment. Joint-custody parents reported less current and past conflict than did sole-custody parents, but this did not explain the better adjustment of joint-custody children. (Bauserman, p. 91)

Joint custody has increased in popularity as a custodial option in divorce settlements since the 1970s with many state statutes now having either a preference or presumption for joint legal custody (Bender, 1994), but that does not mean that prescribed joint custodies will work for all divorced families. The well-intentioned purpose of a joint custody is to allow the children of divorce to grow up with more or less equal input from both of their parents. This, in fact, will work favorably if parents have the complex set of skills necessary to implement a successful joint custody. These skills include mutual parental respect; the ability to cooperate, communicate, and negotiate frequently; and the ability to separate parental conflicts from the needs of the children (Ahrons, 1999; Brown, 1984).

Distance and money are other factors necessary to maintain joint custodies effectively. Joint physical custody is effectively ruled out for school age children if it is not possible for the children to attend school from both of their parents' homes. Insufficient financial resources also make it virtually impossible to maintain a effective joint custody if two furnished child-ready homes cannot be maintained.

Despite joint custody's desirability it is not all that common for parents to have the financial resources, geographic proximity, and blend of skills necessary to maintain successful long term physical joint custodies. If the courts order a joint custody when the parents do not have the resources necessary to carry out a successful joint custody the children might suffer from the arrangement because the "every day" parental interaction necessitated by the joint custody could legitimize and exacerbate harmful parental conflicts. To the extent that these interactions put the children in the middle of accelerated on-going conflict the joint custody works against the children (Brown, 1984). In cases like this the children would be better off with a custody arrangement that allows for less frequent parental interactions.

Summary: All Custodial Families are Different

There is no "best" post-divorce family structure for all families. The personalities, emotional resources, geographic location, and financial means of the parents heavily influence the family organization that is most favorable for each family. Healthy children grow from sole custodies, primary custodies, stepfamilies, and joint custodies. Unhealthy children also grow from each of these family structures as well as from intact families.

Divorce involves the dismantling of the nuclear family: preferably in a well-planned progression. Unfortunately, many divorces are sudden and not at all well planned. In the worst cases abrupt departures "create severe crises for those left behind" (Ahrons, p. 389). Orderly separations and divorces set up far more favorable conditions for the children and parents. When parents cooperate and communicate without rancor in the face of divorce (at least in front of the kids) the children are likely to grow up without notable damage from the divorce (Hetherington, 1993; J. B. Kelly, 2003; Pedro-Carroll, 2001).

A constructive divorce establishes civilized and productive rules of engagement between all members of the family creating a base for a binuclear family that maintains familial attachments and provides adequate financial resources. From the perspective of the children the binuclear family includes all of the aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents that they knew and loved before the divorce. Regardless of the structure of the new binuclear family, children will benefit if the parents can provide the following elements:

1.   Financial support so their basic needs are met (Ahrons, 1999).

2.   Maintenance of extended family relationships that were important before the divorce. This includes parents, grandparents, and other extended family members (Ahrons, 1999).

3.   Relationships between parents are supportive and cooperative (Ahrons, 1999).

Like it or not, a new family structure is created after a divorce. To benefit their children, ex-spouses should work to foster child-centered goodwill throughout the creation and maintenance of the binuclear family. This work is often very difficult but is important to the well-being of the children. The type of the custody is not as important as the financial and emotional package of care received by the children from both parents. Children will benefit if the nuclear family can morph into a flexible new post-divorce family that respects all members.

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