What’s Best for the Children When a Marriage Breaks Up?


Separation and divorce is a horrendous experience for everyone involved. Whoever is at fault, whatever the background, it is something that inevitably causes heartache and sleepless nights for all involved. No wonder it is second only to the death of a loved one in the official rankings of the most stressful life events you can go through.

If there are kids in the mix, then the stress and trauma is ramped up a notch. The interesting thing is that the question at the top of this article is always stated as being at the top of everyone’s agenda, and even in the most acrimonious of splits, it is one that the divorcing couple are united in wanting to get right.

What are the options?

In days gone by, the phrase “staying together for the sake of the children” was one that was commonly heard. Couples who could not stand the sight of each other put themselves and their families through years of misery and made the family home a constant battleground in the mistaken belief that this was in some way good for the kids.

At some point, the penny dropped that this was not benefiting anyone, and we began to see a greater shift towards the “fractured” families that are more common today. Typically, this involves one parent having residency of the child, while the other has agreed access. Despite these enlightened times of residency as opposed to custody, the long and short of it is that 80 percent of the time this means the kids live with Mum and they get to spend every other weekend with Dad.

Is this the best arrangement, though? Aren’t they missing out on something crucial when one parent is seen about as often as most kids see their grandparents or other extended family? Yet what other option is there? The parents are now living apart, and the kids can’t live in two places. Or can they?

Joint custody

On the face of it, joint custody sounds like a disaster waiting to happen. How can a child thrive leading two lives in two different homes? This might sound like a rhetorical question, but there has been a great deal of research on this very subject. Joint custody is becoming increasingly common in Sweden, and the most recent study concluded that those who live with one parent are more prone to psychological problems than those who spend at least 35 percent of their time with each.

Conventional wisdom is that kids need stability. This is true, but the study shows they also need to have both parents are a real and significant part of their lives. When a couple is divorced, it is often a case of choosing the “least worst” solution. This research, along with other papers published by such experts as the Journal of Divorce and Remarriage suggests that they are better able to cope with two homes than one parent.

The Swedish study was organised by Dr Malin Bergström of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. She told British reporters: ‘It is beneficial for children to have everyday contact with their parents. It may be more important than a stable home where a child is living with both their mother and father.”

Can you make it work?

Of course, it is easy to fall into the trap of seeing an ideal scenario where the kids alternate between the two homes, get the best of both worlds and live a rewarding life with time split between Mum and Dad. From their perspective, that probably sounds like the best available plan, too. The biggest obstacle, however, is not for the kids to accept it, it is for the parents to make it work.

Joint custody needs cooperation, respect and coordination between divorced parents. Can you and your ex manage to achieve that? Experts from Parents Magazine came up with a set of guidelines on making shared custody work. Here are some of the key points:

  • Put the kids first. This is nothing to do with the divorce, it is about the children.
  • Don’t badmouth the other parent in front of the children, however tempting it might be.
  • Be realistic from the start as to your availability in view of work commitments and so on.
  • Communicate with your ex. If face to face always leads to problems, find a better method, for example texting or email.
  • Be flexible. Situations change, and you or your ex might need to modify arrangements from time to time.

Not a silver bullet

There are some circumstances in which shared custody will not be appropriate. If there is a history of domestic violence, it is clearly not an option, and if there is a significant geographic distance between the parents, then it is not going to be practical to spend hours travelling every other day.

Also, from the points above, it is clear that the parents need to be on at least vaguely amicable terms. If you are completely at war with one another, it is going to be difficult to make joint parenting workable, and might end up causing more stress and tension for all concerned, rather than less.

Also, research suggests that older kids are less enthusiastic about the prospect of two homes, and, of course, if the child has taken a side and fallen out with one parent, this is unlikely to be a workable solution.

The least worst arrangement

“Least worst” might sound like fingernails down a blackboard to grammarians, but it really is the appropriate phrase here. As we said at the start, divorce is a horrible experience for everyone, and can leave mental scars on the separating couple and those closest to them.

The trick is to find the least worst solution for your kids, and what that is will depend entirely on your circumstances.

At Hylton Potts, we can offer advice on a range of family law issues, so if you would like to discuss anything related to the above, a member of our team would be pleased to help.

You can call us on 020 7381 8111, or get in touch via email at law@hylton-potts.com.

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