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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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
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
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
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
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
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
International Studies Confi rm
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
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
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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