Shared Residential Custody: Review of the Research (Part I of II

DR. LINDA NIELSEN

Part I of this two-part article focuses on major concerns

relating to shared residential custody, the

children’s perspective, parental confl ict, and cooperation

and income. Part II will discuss characteristics of

fathers, outcomes for children (e.g., academic and behavioral),

and stability of shared parenting. The studies referenced

in both parts appear at the end of Part I.

Shared residential custody is becoming more

prevalent worldwide. Until recently, only fi ve percent

to seven percent of American children lived

at least one third of the time with each parent after

their divorce. Most lived exclusively with their

mother, spending only four or fi ve nights a month—

at most—in their father’s home (1). But a change

is clearly underway. For example, in Arizona and

in Washington state, 30% to 50 % of the children

whose parents divorced in the past several years are

living at least one third of the time with each parent

(2;3), as are 30% of the children whose parents

divorced in Wisconsin between 1996 and 2001 (Melli

& Browne, 2008). Likewise, in Australia, the Netherlands,

and Denmark, approximately 20% of children

whose parents have separated are in shared residential

custody (4; 5). In an international study of

14 countries, rates of shared parenting varied from

seven percent to 15% (6). In Norway, 25% of children

have parents who live apart, eight percent of

whom live with their fathers and 10% live in shared

residence (7). And in Sweden, where the courts

have the legal right to order alternating residence

even when one parent is opposed, 20% of the children

with separated parents live in two homes (8).

Interestingly, in France, about 12% of the children

whose parents live apart share their time between

the two homes, while an additional 12% live with

their fathers and spend some time living with their

mothers (9). Moreover, in France, since 2002, shared

residence has been an explicit legal option for separating

parents. Indeed, it is placed as the fi rst option

in a list of possible parenting plans, with both

parents receiving health insurance benefi ts and the

government allowance for dependent children (10).

TWO DOZEN STUDIES

Since there are now two dozen studies on these

shared parenting families, a clearer picture is

emerging—one that runs counter to a number of

negative assumptions and misconceptions commonly

held about these families. Nevertheless,

publications, and discussions about shared parenting

too often ignore this body of research and

Linda Nielsen, Ed.D. is a professor of Adolescent

and Educational Psychology at Wake Forest University

in Winston Salem North Carolina. Her areas of expertise

are father-daughter relationships and shared parenting

after divorce. Her work on fathers and daughters, with

an emphasis on divorced fathers, has been featured on

PBS, NPR, and in numerous magazines and newspapers

internationally. In addition to numerous journal articles,

she has written four books on father-daughter relationships

and a college textbook on adolescent psychology.

A member of the Association of Family and Conciliation

Courts and the Southeastern Psychological Association,

she has made numerous presentations on shared parenting

and divorced fathers, and has served as an expert

witness on shared parenting research. More information

about her work is available on her website www.wfu.

edu/~nielsen or through email nielsen@wfu.edu.

62 AMERICAN JOURNAL OF FAMILY LAW

focus instead on only a few studies—often based on

small, nonrandom samples of the highest confl ict,

physically abusive, and never married parents. For

example, a recent article in a British law school journal

is entitled “Shared residence: a review of recent

research evidence,” yet the article only presents four

research studies, two of which are based on samples

with large numbers of never married couples (11).

Overnight time benefi ts children more than

daytime contact.

The purpose of this article, therefore, is to summarize

all of the studies presently available on

shared parenting families. A number of terms are

used to refer to families where the children live at

least 35% of the time with each parent after they

separate: dual residence, shared physical custody,

shared care, joint physical custody, and shared parenting.

I will use the term “shared parenting” or

“dual residence” to refer to these families. Other

families will be referred to as “sole residence” or

“maternal” residence, since 95% of the children living

with only one parent are living with their mothers.

MAJOR CONCERNS ABOUT SHARED

PARENTING

Despite its growing popularity, shared parenting

still raises a number of concerns and considerable

debate. In academic publications, legislative

debates over custody law reform, and family court

custody proceedings, six issues are generally raised

as arguments against shared parenting. The fi rst is

that children will not benefi t any more from living

in a shared parenting family than from living

with one parent and spending two weekends a

month with their other parent. In short, additional

fathering time is not benefi cial. Second, fathers can

maintain quality relationships with their children

without having to live together more than a couple

of weekends a month. That is, high quality parenting

and close, meaningful relationships are not

related to the amount of time fathers and children

spend together — or to how that time is allocated.

Third, family income, cooperative co-parenting, and

high quality parenting from their residential parent

are more benefi cial than living with each parent 35

to 50% of the time. Put differently, shared parenting

is not related to children’s well-being. Fourth,

shared parenting will only succeed and will only

benefi t the children when the parents are cooperative,

have little or no confl ict, are relatively well

educated and fi nancially above average, and mutually

agree to share the parenting without any intervention

by lawyers, judges, or mediators. In short,

it only works for a handful of parents. Fifth, most

shared care families are going to fail because the

arrangement is so stressful and so problematic for

the parents and for the children. So why put everyone

through this unpleasant “experiment” since it

so rarely succeeds? And sixth, most shared parenting

children feel stressed, dissatisfi ed, insecure,

destabilized, and troubled by living in two homes.

Bluntly put, they hate shared parenting and resent

their parents for imposing it on them.

Each of these six issues will be addressed

through the research presented in this review. But

fi rst, we present the three premises on which shared

parenting is predicated. First, children benefi t from

maximizing nonresidential fathering time. Second,

overnight time is more important than daytime

contact only. Third, most children dislike and disapprove

of living with their mother and seeing their

father no more than a couple of weekends a month.

NONRESIDENTIAL FATHERING TIME:

DOES IT MATTER?

The fundamental questions on which shared

parenting rests are: Do most children benefi t from

spending time with their nonresidential fathers?

Does the amount of time or how that time is allocated

make any difference? In short, does fathering

time matter? If not, then shared parenting is based

on an irrational or unwarranted assumption.

Ironically, those who contend that nonresidential

fathering time has little or no impact on children

often cite the meta-analysis by Amato and Gilbreth —

a study which did not come to that conclusion (12).

This analysis of 63 studies examined the relationship

between the “frequency” of father contact

and children’s academic achievement and internalizing

and externalizing problems. The authors

emphasized two important shortcomings: First, it

was not possible to determine how much time the

fathers spent with their children, since “frequency”

of contact is not the same as time. Second, the data

on never married fathers was combined with data

on divorced fathers. So unmarried fathers who had

never, or only briefl y, lived with their children were

included with divorced fathers who had lived with

SHARED RESIDENTIAL CUSTODY: REVIEW OF THE RESEARCH (PART I OF II) 63

their children for years. The researchers, therefore,

were not surprised that there was only a weak correlation

between contact and outcomes for children.

Even so, there was a correlation. More important

still, the correlation was much stronger in the recent

studies (1989-1999) than in the older ones (1970-

1988). “As expected, children were better off when

they spent time with fathers who had positive

relationships with their children and were actively

engaged in parenting” (p. 570). Given this, they

recommended changing custody policies so that

fathers would not be restricted to weekend time. In

an even more recent review of the research, Amato

again concludes, “[c]onsequently, policies and

interventions designed to improve ties between

fathers and children should be maintained and

encouraged” (p. 192) (13).

Most children do not like “every other

weekend” parenting.

More recent studies continue to demonstrate

that the amount of time that nonresidential fathers

spend with their children is closely tied to the ongoing

quality and endurance of their relationship.

This fi nding is robust across a wide range of studies

with large samples, for example: 650 young American

adults from a national sample (14), 162 British

children (15), 1200 American college students in

Missouri (16), 99 college students in Virginia (17), 105

Canadian college students (18), 80 predominantly

Hispanic American college students in Florida (19),

and 245 adolescents in Germany (20).

Having a close and enduring relationship with

their fathers should—in and of itself—be enough

justifi cation for maximizing fathering time. But

nonresidential fathering time is correlated with

other positive outcomes for children as well.

Among the benefi ts are higher self esteem (21)

(22), less delinquency and drug use (23) (24), fewer

behavioral problems (25), and less smoking and

dropping out of high school (26; 27). In fact, adolescents

from intact families who do not feel close

to their fathers are more delinquent than adolescents

with divorced parents who feel close to their

fathers (28).

The second premise on which shared parenting is

based is that overnight time benefi ts children more

than daytime contact only with their fathers. Only

one study with 60 Australian adolescents has directly

addressed this question. Those who spent overnight

time in their father’s home felt closer to him and felt

he knew more about what was going on in their lives

than those who spent the same amount of time with

their fathers, but never overnight time. Those who

lived more than 30 nights a year with their father

were more likely than those who spent fewer overnights

to feel comfortable in his home, to feel they

belonged there, and to feel their fathers knew them

well. It is worth noting that these benefi ts accrued

regardless of the level of parent confl ict (29).

FATHERING TIME: CHILDREN’S PERSPECTIVE

The third premise underlying shared parenting is

that most children want to spend more time living

with their fathers. Most do not like the “every other

weekend” parenting plan. Indeed, this is one of the

most consistent, most robust fi ndings in the research

on children of divorce. Most children say they

wanted more time with their fathers and that the

most long lasting, most negative impact of their parents’

divorce was the weakened or lost relationship

with their fathers (30-32) (33). The majority who had

lived with their mothers said that shared parenting

would have been in their best interests (16; 19;

34-36). Not surprisingly, when fathers try to rebuild

their relationships during the children’s early adult

years, the relationship is often too strained or too

damaged to be reconstructed (37) (16). As one of

the most highly respected researchers on children

of divorce, Joan Kelly, states, “[f]or four decades

children have reported the loss of the father as the

most negative aspect of divorce. Even when they continued

to see each other, most relationships declined

in closeness over time. This has been primarily a result

of the traditional visiting patterns of every other weekend

which has been slow to change even in the face

of mounting research evidence and a reluctance to

order overnights for your children” (p. 66) (38).

Shared parenting is not based on the assumption

that all children will benefi t from this living

arrangement or that other factors do not also contribute

to children’s well-being after their parents

separate. It has long been acknowledged that

physically abusive, violent, drug addicted, alcoholic,

or mentally disturbed parents seldom have

a positive impact on their children (39). These parents,

therefore, would be poor candidates for shared

parenting. What must be kept in mind, however,

is that these parents comprise no more than eight

percent to 15% of divorced couples (40). Moreover,

64 AMERICAN JOURNAL OF FAMILY LAW

the parenting plan is one among many factors that

infl uence children’s well-being. Among them are

family income, parents’ educational levels, the quality

of each parent’s relationship with the children,

the level of confl ict between the parents, and the

quality of the parenting. It is widely accepted in our

society and is documented in the parenting research

that both parents need ample time with their children

in order to create and maintain quality relationships

and quality parenting. Shared parenting is

based on the assumption that this principle applies

to children whose parents are no longer living

together, as well as to those in intact families.

Parent confl ict during divorce is not a

reliable predictor of future confl ict.

Each of the studies addresses at least one of four

questions. First, do most parents in shared parenting

families differ in signifi cant ways from other

divorced parents? Specifi cally, are they far better

off fi nancially or far more cooperative and confl ictfree

than other divorced parents? Put differently, is

shared parenting feasible only for a relatively small,

select group of parents? Second, are there any advantages

for children who grow up in shared parenting

families compared to those who live almost exclusively

with their mother? Third, how do adolescents

and young adults who have been raised in shared

parenting and maternal residence families feel about

the living arrangement that their parents chose for

them? Which of these two parenting plans did they

feel was in their best interest? And fourth, how does

the quality of the father-child relationship compare in

shared parenting versus maternal residence families?

PARENT CONFLICT AND COOPERATION

Before discussing the issue of confl ict in shared

parenting families, a number of important research

fi ndings must be kept in mind (41; 42). First, the

term “high confl ict” has not been and probably

never will be operationalized by social scientists or

by professionals involved in custody decisions. The

term covers too wide a range of behaviors to be of

much practical signifi cance in regard to legal custody

or parenting time. The term is used in family

court and by researchers to describe anything from

intense anger and distrust, to ongoing problems with

communication, to frequent disagreements about

child-rearing, to verbal abuse, to injurious and life

threatening physical violence. Second, confl ict is

highest during the time when couples are separating—

the time when custody decisions are being discussed

or disputed. Moreover, parents often disagree

about how much confl ict exists in their relationship.

But regardless of how it is defi ned, “high” confl ict

almost always declines after the divorce is fi nalized,

meaning that confl ict during divorce proceedings

is not a reliable predictor of future confl ict. Third,

the term is used in overly broad, inconsistent, and

inappropriate ways by lawyers, judges, and mental

health professionals in the family justice system.

That is, “confl ict” becomes the weapon that parents

use in their attempt to deprive one another of legal

custody or parenting time. There is ample motivation,

therefore, for one or both parents to portray

their confl ict as far higher and far more intractable

than it actually is. Fifth, it is estimated that no more

than eight percent to 12% of divorced couples are

in “high” confl ict—the kind of confl ict that poses a

danger to children and often stems from personality

disorders, drug or alcohol additions, or mental

illness (40). Sixth, even though confl ict is never

benefi cial for children, parental disagreements and

verbal confl icts are not necessarily harmful. This is

especially true when the confl ict stems from a sincere

desire by both divorced parents to maintain an active

role in their children’s lives. Seventh, even when the

confl ict is ongoing and seemingly intractable, parallel

parenting plans still make it possible for these

parents to share the parenting time. Parallel parenting

plans provide the kind of specifi cs and structure

that limit the parents’ need for contact or communication,

thus reducing confl ict. Finally, it must be

remembered that confl ict is inevitable for all parents

over childrearing issues. Even the most happily

married couples argue and disagree over parenting.

Divorced parents, therefore, should not be expected

to be “confl ict-free” in order to share the parenting.

For all of these reasons, many experts on children

of divorce concur that confl ict should never be

used as the reason for limiting the amount of time

that children spend with either parent—unless that

confl ict involves a documented history of physical

abuse or violence (38; 49; 51; 71; 99).

SHARED PARENTING FAMILIES:

CONFLICT AND COOPERATION

In regard to confl ict then, do most shared parenting

couples have a cooperative, friendly, relatively

SHARED RESIDENTIAL CUSTODY: REVIEW OF THE RESEARCH (PART I OF II) 65

confl ict-free relationship compared to other

divorced couples? Are these parents so friendly

and confl ict-free that they are all enthusiastic from

the outset about sharing the residential custody? In

short, is shared parenting only possible for a small,

select group? Moreover, if most of these couples

have a confl ict free, communicative, friendly coparenting

relationship, then is it not likely that

whatever benefi ts might accrue to their children

is due to the parents’ excellent relationship—and

not to the shared residential parenting? As Table 1

illustrates, many parents who are succeeding at

shared parenting do not have especially friendly,

cooperative, or confl ict-free relationships.

Beginning with the oldest longitudinal study, the

landmark Stanford Custody Study, is a good starting

point. The study collected data over a four-year

period in the late 1980s from 1100 divorced families

with 1386 children. There were 92 shared parenting

families. Initially, nearly 80% of the mothers were

not in favor of sharing the residential parenting. In

other words, shared parenting was “forced.” Most

entered into the agreement reluctantly. Moreover,

the majority did not work closely together in coparenting,

and did not communicate better than

the other divorced couples. Most had a disengaged,

business-like, parallel parenting relationship where

they communicated “as needed.” They differed

from other divorced parents primarily in two ways.

First, both parents were committed to having the

father remain actively involved in the children’s

lives. Second, the father’s fl exible work schedule

made it possible for the children to live with him at

least one third of the time. But in regard to confl ict

and cooperation, the researchers’ concluded: “[p]

arents can share the residential time even though they

are not talking to each other or trying to coordinate the

children rearing environments of their two households”

(Maccoby & Mnookin, 1991, p. 292).

Five smaller studies with a total of 117 shared

parenting families also conducted in the 1980s

echoed the results of the Stanford study. Many couples

did not mutually agree at the outset to share

the parenting, varying from 20% (52), to 40% (53)

to 50% (54). The overall quality of those couples’

relationships was somewhat better than other parents,

but most were more strained than they were

friendly. For example, three years after separating,

10% of the 39 parents who had maintained shared

parenting said their relationship was “impossible,”

compared to 30% of the 276 parents who were not

sharing (55). In these fi ve studies, however, the

shared parenting couples had no history of physical

violence, unlike the families whose children were

in sole residence. Learning to make shared parenting

work well took time for most couples. Yet most

Table 1 Characteristics of Shared Parenting Couples

Confl ict &

Cooperation Number of Families Shared Compared to Sole Initially Opposed Sharing

Brotsky 40 similar 50% in court ordered mediation

Cashmore

CSA 440 dads say better/ moms say similar

LSAC 84 similar

CFC 123 somewhat better 40%

Irving 75 somewhat better 30%

Juby 112 similar

Kaspiew 645 somewhat better

Kitterod 209 similar

Kline 35 worse in shared all in court ordered mediation

Lodge 105 similar

Luepnitz 11 similar 50%

Maccoby 92 similar 82%

Melli 595 somewhat better

Pearson 111 somewhat better 40%

Spruijt 135 slightly better

66 AMERICAN JOURNAL OF FAMILY LAW

succeeded even though they still had confl icts and

many had initially opposed the sharing.

Parallel parenting plans limit

communication and confl ict.

A much more recent, larger study in Wisconsin

reached similar conclusions (56). Data were collected

three years after divorce from a large random

sample of 590 shared residence and 590 sole

residence families. Roughly 15% of the couples in

both groups described their relationship as “hostile.”

Most shared parenting couples had a cordial

but business-like parallel parenting relationship

that was not confl ict-free. In fact, the shared parenting

couples were more likely to have confl icts

over childrearing issues (50%) than families

where the children lived with their mother (30%).

Understandably, there were more confl icts over

childrearing issues in the sharing families, since

these fathers were more engaged in parenting

than the fathers whose children lived with their

mothers.

International Studies Confi rm

American Studies

International studies confi rm these American

studies. In a Dutch study, confl ict for the 135

couples with shared parenting and for 350 with

sole residence were similar four years after their

divorce. On the other hand, the couples who had

the least confl ict at the time of the divorce were

more likely to have shared parenting (5). Likewise,

in a large Australian study, 20% of the 645 shared

parenting couples had ongoing confl icts and distant

relationships even three years after their divorce

(57). In a smaller Australian study with 105 shared

parenting and 398 sole residence couples, only one

third of the couples in either group said they had

a cooperative relationship. Likewise, only 25% of

the sharing and 18% of non-sharing couples said

they were “friendly,” with eight percent and 15%,

respectively, reporting “lots of confl ict” (58). In a

smaller study with 20 British and 15 French fathers,

the majority did not have cooperative, friendly relationships

with their children’s mother. Again, these

couples were parallel parenting with little or no

communication, even though half of these 60 children

were under the age of fi ve (10).

Court-Ordered or Mediated Shared Custody

Another question regarding confl ict is: If couples

are in confl ict over whether to share the parenting,

can this parenting plan succeed? That is, if

the plan is court-ordered or negotiated through a

mediator or lawyers, can it work and can the children

still benefi t? In the seven studies that have

collected this data, the answer is “yes,” as Table 1

illustrates. Despite the fact that many of their

parents were not initially in favor of a shared parenting

plan, these children had more positive outcomes

on measures of wellbeing than the children

in maternal residence families. Shared parenting

was not the fi rst choice for a number of these parents,

with the rates of those not initially agreeing

ranging from 20% (52), to 40% (53; 59; 60) to 50%

(54; 61), to 82% (62). Although it stands to reason

that those parents who mutually agree to share

from the outset probably have an easier time making

their plan work, these seven studies demonstrate

that children can benefi t, and sharing can

succeed, even when one of the parents is not initially

in favor of the plan.

In sum, shared parenting couples do not generally

have confl ict-free, especially friendly, or highly

cooperative “co-parenting” relationship. Likewise,

a considerable number did not mutually agree to

share the parenting, yet they still succeeded. On the

other hand, those couples whose shared parenting

succeeds rarely have confl icts that reach the level of

physical abuse, violence, or terrifying intimidation.

INCOME AND OTHER DISTINGUISHING

FACTORS

If having a friendly, cooperative, confl ict-free

relationship and being mutually enthusiastic about

shared parenting from the outset are not absolutely

necessary for couples to succeed at shared parenting,

are there other factors that set them apart? In

terms of income, it goes without saying that shared

parenting couples must have enough money to

provide two households suitable for children. Both

parents must also have fl exible enough work schedules

that their children can live with them more

than a couple of weekends a month. Since welleducated

people generally earn higher incomes,

and since higher income jobs generally have more

fl exible, family-friendly work hours, parents with

higher incomes and more education are somewhat

more likely to have shared parenting plans. Still,

SHARED RESIDENTIAL CUSTODY: REVIEW OF THE RESEARCH (PART I OF II) 67

parents with higher incomes, more fl exible work

hours, and more education are more likely to have

shared parenting families (55; 58; 63; 64).

This does not mean, however, that most shared

parenting couples are college-educated or fi nancially

well off. Most are not. Generally speaking,

shared parenting couples have incomes and educations

similar to other divorced parents (10; 54; 56;

59; 62). On the other hand, for 758 Canadian families

in a national survey, the mothers without high

school degrees were more likely than better-educated

mothers to share the parenting. It may be that

these mothers wanted more free time to fi nish their

educations (64). Or it may be that shared parenting

is becoming more popular with less educated parents.

For example, in Wisconsin, shared parenting

has increased in lower-income families over recent

years (65). In any case, shared parenting is not only

for wealthy, well-educated parents. A large, recent

study with 1180 families in Wisconsin illustrates

this (Melli & Brown, 2008). In the shared parenting

families, the fathers’ average incomes were $40,000

(30% college graduates) as compared to $32,000

(25% college graduates) for the other divorced

fathers. The mothers’ incomes and educational levels

were virtually the same, $23,000 versus $22,000,

with only 25% in both groups having a college

degree.

Interestingly though, college-educated fathers

may be less willing than other fathers to let their

children have a say in whether they want a shared

parenting plan. In a Norwegian study with 527

divorced parents, half of whom were sharing the

parenting, the least-educated fathers were twice as

likely as the college-educated fathers to give their

children a say in how much time they wanted to

live with each parent. The mothers’ educational

levels were irrelevant. It may be that the collegeeducated

fathers were more involved in their children’s

lives before the separation and were more

committed to continuing to live with them. Or it

may be that the college-educated fathers were more

knowledgeable about the importance of fathers

in children’s daily lives. Regardless of the fathers’

educational levels, adolescents were allowed more

input than younger children. So both the father’s

education and the children’s age played a part in

determining the parenting plan (7).

Moreover, factors other than income and education

are associated with a couple’s decision to

share the parenting. A large, Canadian study with

758 divorced families where 16% of the children

were living in shared residence families illustrates

several of these factors. The shared parenting

mothers were more likely to have a boyfriend

(often someone with whom she had been involved

before the divorce) and more likely to be clinically

depressed. It may be that these mothers were more

willing to share the parenting because they wanted

the child-free time to fi nish school or to be with

their boyfriends. For depressed mothers, it may

be that living with the children full time was too

daunting and overwhelming (64).

The child’s gender also appears to play a role in

parents’ decisions to share the parenting. Sons are

slightly more likely than daughters to be living

in a shared parenting family (5; 56; 63; 64; 66-68).

This may be happening because mothers feel less

capable of raising sons on their own. Or it may be

that fathers and sons feel more comfortable living

together than fathers and daughters. Then too,

fathers and sons generally have a closer relationship

than mothers and sons or fathers and daughters

before the parents separate (69).

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