A new study by Kansas State University assistant professor, Mindy Markham, indicates that over half of parents with joint legal and physical custody of their children get along fine. Still, Markham touts her work as casting doubt on joint custody arrangements. Even a casual look at her findings strongly suggests that it doesn’t. Here’s an article on the study (Psych Central, 8/10/12).
As is so often the case with studies purporting to question joint custody, Markham’s is seriously flawed in a number of ways. First is its sample size – 20 parents. Second is its selection bias; Markham only talked to mothers about their experiences with joint custody, leaving fathers in their old familiar role of voiceless others. In addition, her mothers were predominantly white and well-educated. In short, her sample bears little resemblance to the population generally. Perhaps worse is that Markham seems determined to miss the obvious – that the minority of mothers who reported continuing conflict with their exes were really reporting their dissatisfaction only. That is, there’s no indication that the conflict was mutual, that Dad shared Mom’s discontent. Worse still, the study suggests that the root cause of those mothers’ continuing upset was the fact that they were dissatisfied, not so much with their ex but with the fact that he got joint custody.
However flawed the study, fair conclusions to draw are that (a) in most cases, joint custody works well and (b) where it doesn’t, Mom likely could benefit from therapy to get over her sense of wronged entitlement.
The study included 20 predominately white, well-educated women between the ages of 26 to 49 who were divorced or separated from the father of their children.
The mothers, from two Midwestern states, shared with their former partners legal and physical custody of the children, who ranged in age from 21 months to 12 years.
At the time of the study, the couples had been separated or divorced from six months to 12 years.
Markham divided the relationships the mothers reported having with their exes into three groups, “continuously contentious,” “always amicable” and “bad to better.” The continuously contentious group, as the name implies, involved mothers who were mostly dissatisfied with the fathers about their parenting. The always amicable group got along well with the dads, while the bad to better group started out like the continuously contentious group but became like the always amicable group over time. At the time of Markham’s survey, everyone in the bad to better group had amicable relationships with their exes.
Markham found that there were nine mothers in the continuously contentious group, four in the always amicable group and seven in the bad to better category. In other words, at the time of her survey, 11 out of the 20 mothers were experiencing amicable relationships with the fathers of their children. Four of those always got along well while the other seven learned to do so after the first anger and disappointment of divorce subsided.
Twenty percent of mothers reported an amicable co-parenting relationship — where they reported always getting along with their ex-partners from separation to the present.
In this form of relationship the mothers believed their ex-partners were responsible parents, money wasn’t a source of conflict and the mothers chose to share physical custody.
Seven of the mothers in the study (35 percent) had bad-to-better co-parenting relationships, where co-parenting was contentious at the time of separation, but greatly improved over time.
At the time of the study, these women’s relationships were similar to those of women with always amicable relationships. These mothers wanted to share physical custody, thought the father was a responsible parent and most said money was not a source of conflict.
Significantly, all mothers in bad-to-better relationships said they were unable to co-parent amicably with their ex-partner in the beginning because personal issues were not kept separate from parenting responsibility.
“Although ex-partners with bad-to-better relationships originally allowed their feelings about one another to negatively affect their co-parenting, at some point they realized this was not beneficial and made a conscious effort to change the relationship for the sake of their children,” Markham said.
Those were mothers who put aside their own hostile feelings for the sake of their children. They understood that the children needed their fathers and that continuing hostility only made matters worse for them. In short, those were mothers who behaved like responsible adults.
That leaves the nine mothers for whom conflict was still the norm. What might have been the source of their discontent?
Markham said eight of the women in the continuously contentious relationships didn’t want to share custody of the children with their ex-partner, but most were told by lawyers or the court that they would have to do so.
Ah. The conflict originated with those mothers’ disappointment at having to share custody with their exes. Obviously, there were no serious issues of abuse on the part of the fathers, otherwise the lawyers and courts wouldn’t have told the moms they’d have to share custody. As we know from Margaret Brinig’s and Douglas Allen’s study of over 40,000 divorces, the vast majority are filed by women because they figure they’ll get custody. So when that presumption on their part fails to come about, they’re resentful of their ex. She figures she’s entitled to custody and he’s thrown a spanner into the works.
But wait. Maybe Mom has good reason to be concerned; maybe she criticizes Dad because he’s truly a lousy father.
“All mothers in this type of co-parenting relationship reported differences in parenting styles and were concerned with how the ex was raising the children,” Markham said.
“Parenting practices that concerned the mothers varied greatly and included putting children in harmful situations, not bathing the children, not disciplining them and having no rules or routines.
Hmm. ”Putting children in harmful situations” covers a multitude of sins from letting little Andy play on the freeway to letting little Jenny play on the slide at the playground. Never bathing a child is obviously bad parenting; letting him skip a bath once in a while is not. Particularly given the fact that the lawyers and courts looked at the situations and concluded that the dads were acceptable parents, those complaints by the mothers look more like griping because the fathers have different parenting styles (as Markham said) than truly dangerous or neglectful practices by the dads.
The sense of entitlement on the part of the mothers seems even more apparent in this statement by Markham:
“It was especially difficult for these mothers to share custody with ex-partners who were uninvolved during the marriage. They didn’t believe their exes were responsible parents.”
That’s the idea that, because Mom did most of the parenting during the marriage and Dad did most of the earning, courts should reward Mom with sole or primary custody. Many mothers voice that opinion, but it ignores two important things. The first is that putting a roof over the child’s head and food on the table are as important to the child’s welfare as being bathed and having its diaper changed. The second is that, irrespective of his hands-on involvement in childrearing, children need their fathers. Research shows that children bond with both Mom and Dad early on. Divorce disrupts that badly enough, but cutting the father out of the child’s life via court order is a disaster waiting to happen and should be avoided if at all possible.
Finally, there’s the all-important issue of inter-parent communication.
Being able to communicate with the ex-partner is a major factor during co-parenting. In the always amicable and bad-to-better relationships, mothers were able to communicate well with ex-partners.
The ability to communicate with the ex-partner made discussing differences in parenting styles easier, reported this group of women.
So what about the mothers in contentious relationships?
However, for women in continuously contentious relationships, lack of communication was a big issue, Markham said.
These mothers limited direct in-person or phone communication with their ex, preferring alternative methods like texting or email. They also avoided seeing their ex in person when it came time to exchange children by having them picked up at day care or school.
So, although co-parenting obviously requires a good level of effective, ongoing communication between the parents, in Markham’s study, it was the mothers who “limited…communication with their ex.”
This study should be taken with an enormous grain of salt, but the good news about it is that most parents with shared custody got to a point at which they cooperated for the sake of the children. Good for them. But for some mothers, their expectation of sole or primary custody, when thwarted by an order of joint custody, proved beyond their ability to handle. They put their children’s needs – for peace and harmony, and above all for their father – second to their own sense of injustice at having to share custody. Those are mothers who need a good therapist who will show them the necessity of understanding a child’s need for its father and correcting their behavior that is clearly dangerous to their child’s future well-being.
Women in this country and elsewhere are inculcated with the idea that their most important and most fulfilling role is that of mother. When a court order seems to question that, bad feelings can follow.
Markham said she was surprised by the level of animosity that accompanies shared custody, at least from some mothers’ perceptions.
She shouldn’t have been. After all, we see it here every day.