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New Observations on Sole and Joint Custody for Children

New perspective from 40 years of research says sole custody is better for kids.

Key points

  • Divorcing parents do not collaborate well in joint custody for their children's benefit. If they could collaborate, they may not have divorced.
  • The choice of mate for marriage affects the style of parenting in both intact and divorced families.
  • Parenting styles revolve around which parent gives emotional care to the children and which parent seeks emotional care from the children.
  • Sole custody ensures the opportunity for children to be emotionally nourished, provided sole custody is given to the emotionally giving parent.

Many people ask me about custody matters. Is joint custody workable? Do children do better in sole custody or joint custody? What about joint custody with infants, toddlers, or teens? After 40 years as a child psychiatrist involved in custody/visitation disputes, I share what I learned about custody arrangements for children. I wrote in detail about my findings in Living on Automatic: How Emotional Conditioning Shapes Our Lives and Relationships, my book co-authored with Homer B. Martin, M.D.

Is collaboration possible post-divorce?

Collaboration can make the custody arrangement work better, providing that the two parents can work together and agree on what is beneficial for the child(ren). However, I find that people who work collaboratively rarely get divorced. They work things out in their relationship, including issues over raising children. They are content to be married. They achieve harmony and workable solutions for their difficulties.

Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke/Pixabay
Source: Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke/Pixabay

People who divorce have already established they cannot get along with one another and enjoy their lives together. They do not see eye-to-eye on so many concerns that they dissolved the relationship. Divorced couples disagree with one another on many fronts. Often, they have distinct viewpoints on how to help and raise their children. Such childrearing differences may predate their divorce or even be the cause of their divorce.

In an ideal world, joint custody might work. Each parent and each child would have similar amounts of time with each other. Parenting would be consistent regardless of who each child spends time with. Even in intact families, children do not spend equal time with each parent.

How the choice of mate affects parenting style

I find that consistency in parenting does not take place in joint custody. Much of the cause for this relates to how parents choose one another as mates in the first place. Due to what Dr. Martin and I call “emotional conditioning” in childhood, parents commonly choose opposite and complementary personality mates.

Emotional conditioning takes place in early childhood and governs the ways parents shape their children’s emotional lives. This process is similar to how we train our dogs behaviorally. This conditioning process, in turn, dictates children’s subsequent adult attractions in romantic relationships. People seek mates who “complete them”—as if two people can become one whole, with each complementing the other.

Image by 5688709/Pixabay
Source: Image by 5688709/Pixabay

Dr. Martin and I discovered that each person remains consistent with his or her personality style and method of relating. When a change takes place in the relationship, and a caregiving mate requires emotional care, the other mate is unable to switch roles and give the necessary emotional care. He or she is only good at consuming emotional care.

This style of relating was the original attraction. The caregiver gives emotional care, and the receiver consumes the care. We saw that each person has difficulty switching roles. Role-switching is necessary to maintain a healthy relationship.

Parents relate differently to children during marriage and divorce.

When children are added to the marriage, each parent relates distinctly and usually oppositely with their offspring. The emotionally care-consuming parent expects the children to give emotionally to him/her. The emotionally caregiving parent expects himself/herself to give emotionally to the children.

Since children are developing and dependent, they require emotional care from their parents. They should not be placed in a position where they need to learn to dispense emotional support to a parent. This is an overwhelming and inappropriate task for them. Children need to be recipients of emotional care, not dispensers of it.

Gerd Altmann/Pixabay
Source: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay

As long as children live with married parents, they are buffered and protected from the care-consumer parent by the other parent who better meets their needs. Once divorce takes place, children have more solo exposure to the emotionally needy parent. Children become emotionally encumbered.

Most jurisdictions in the United States and most countries opt for joint custody following divorce, commonly with a 50-50 time period spent in each parent’s household. This is an easy decision for courts. It does not require much thought or investigation into what each set of parents and children is like or what the children need emotionally to grow up to adulthood. I find that joint custody does not work due to the effects of emotional conditioning received in childhood that result in dissimilar personalities and different parental roles in the adults.

Sole custody works best, provided the correct parent is the custodian.

I recommend sole custody with the emotionally caregiving parent. This can be either father or mother. I found neither fathers nor mothers predominate as emotional caregivers to their children. Sole custody means children have one physical and emotional home in which to grow up and develop from a secure base, being given to according to their developmental ages and needs.

Mohamed Hassan/Pixabay
Source: Mohamed Hassan/Pixabay

Regular visitation should take place with the non-custodial parent. This prevents the children from idealizing a parent lost to them. They need regular visits and contact to know what their non-custodial parent is like in reality, not in their fantasies.

Training of custody evaluators and judges

To figure out the emotionally care-dispensing parent, the court should have a supply of expertly-trained custody evaluators they can tap for custody evaluations. These evaluators should be trained to decipher caregiving from care-consuming parents, not an easy task. Care-consuming parents may put on a big show of how much they do for their children. They may falsely allege parental alienation by the other parent. They may be projecting and be guilty of alienating a caregiving parent in a push to become the sole custodial parent.

Sharp and well-trained custody evaluators can be from any mental health or counseling profession—psychiatry, psychology, social work, family therapy. They must be trained in how to distinguish parents who give emotional care and support to children from those who rely on their children to care for them.

Evaluators and judges should also be trained in spotting parental alienation. Judges should be prepared to interrupt immediately the tight symbiosis between children and an alienating, care-consuming parent who is hell-bent on alienating the parent best-tending to the children’s emotional needs.

Source: Tumisu/Pixabay

I wish that joint custody worked better for children of divorced parents. I wish marriage and mate choices worked better, too, so that children did not have to go through these post-divorce times of turmoil with their parents. Since this does not happen, I find that sole custody with the emotionally giving parent affords children the most advantageous opportunity to grow up securely and emotionally nourished. Regular visitation by the other parent ensures no loss of contact or relationship with that parent.


Shared Physical Custody––What Children Discover and Suffer,, 19 September, 2019.

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