The Effects of Divorce on Children : A Selected Literature Review
Until recently, a common assumption in the divorce literature was that both parents living in the same household as the child would be a better environment for children’s development than a single-parent family. According to this view, the absence of one parent from the household is problematic for children’s socialization. Although there is some support for this view, it does not appear to be the only factor involved in children’s well-being following divorce.
It has been found that, following divorce, many children experience a decrease in the quantity and quality of contact with the noncustodial parent (Amato, 1987; Schlesinger, 1982). Stolba and Amato (1993), however, argue that adolescents’ well-being is not solely associated with the loss of the noncustodial parent. Instead, they conclude that alternative family forms can be suitable for raising adolescents, if they provide support, control and supervision. However, they suggest that extended single-parent households may be less beneficial for younger children.
There are conflicting views as to whether or not remarriage of the custodial parent is beneficial for the children. Researchers who emphasise the importance of economics or parent absence argue that the remarriage of the custodial parent should be beneficial for the children because it normally increases the family income and provides more parental supervision and support for the children. On the other hand, it has been argued that the entrance of a new, and possibly unwelcome, adult into the family can be a source of stress and rivalry for the children (Hetherington & Camara, 1988). Simons (1980) suggests that children may become resentful of the time they lose with the custodial parent as a result of the new partner. Furthermore, dating and remarriage may destroy children’s belief that their parents will remarry. Finally, remarriage is often confusing for children because they must learn to adapt and accept yet another new family structure. It is interesting to note, however, that children living with stepfathers are much more likely to say that their stepfather is a member of their family than they are to include their non-residential biological father as a family member (Furstenber & Nord, 1985 cited in Seltzer, 1994).
Although the financial advantages that step-children enjoy over those in single-parent families are evident, research to date has failed to show a beneficial effect of remarriage on children’s achievement or behaviour. In a national longitudinal study of children (aged 12-16), Peterson and Zill (1986) found more behaviour problems among girls living with a remarried mother, as compared to boys. In a follow-up study with these children at ages 18-22, Zill et al. (1993) concluded that remarriage didn’t have a protective effect on children. Hetherington and her colleagues (Hetherington, 1993; Hetherington et al., 1985) found remarriage to be associated with more negative effects. For instance, remarriage of the custodial mother had more adverse effects on girls than boys, while the divorce itself had more adverse, long-term effects on boys. Over time, though, children adjust to remarriage and then there is an improvement (Hetherington, 1993; Peterson & Zill, 1986; Zill et al., 1993).
A number of researchers have argued that, although there are often negative effects on children immediately following the divorce, children adjust to divorce over time. For instance, Amato (1987) found that the length of time since marital disruption was related to children’s well-being. That is, when interviewed years after the divorce, most children said that they had accepted the situation and had adjusted reasonably well to the divorce. Further, Walsh and Stolberg (1989) found that the amount of time that had passed since the separation was significantly correlated with child adjustment (i.e., beliefs about divorce, parent-reported behavioural adjustment, child-reported emotional labelling). They found that inter-spousal hostility was associated with increased child-reported anger for recent separations, but with lower anger for distant separations. In addition, they found that for recent separations, high levels of "bad" events were associated with fewer misconceptions about divorce; no relation at mid-length; but, more misconceptions for distant separations.
The impact of parental conflict on children’s post-divorce adjustment has received considerable attention in the literature. Most theorists agree that parental conflict, at the very least, provides some negative influences for children’s adjustment to the divorce. For instance, it has been found that conflict can affect children’s self-esteem, ability to adjust and cope, social competence and behaviour (see Grych & Fincham, 1992 for a review of the literature).
Johnston et al. (1985) conducted an in-depth examination of the nature of parental disputes with 39 families who were disputing custody or access arrangements. It should be noted that this sample is biased in that their rate of verbal and physical aggression is considerably higher than that of a normal divorcing sample. However, it provides us with an indication of the devastating effects conflict can have on children. According to these parents, children witness a great deal of verbally and physically abusive incidents, but much less of the verbal reasoning attached to such incidents. It was found that the parents involve children in conflicts as bystanders, passive weapons, communication channels, or as active participants to collect evidence, spy, or communicate threats and insults. Only 5 percent of the parents reported that they protected their children consistently from arguments or the behaviour following an argument (i.e., depression). Children’s reactions to these conflicts differed depending on age. Younger children had predominantly submissive distress responses and were more likely to try to control the fight than older children. Two-thirds of all the children tried to avoid the dispute and one-quarter showed aggressive distress responses. Again, it should be noted that these children appear more distressed and more likely to become angry than children from non-disputing families, but both groups attempt to control, ignore and avoid the dispute. According to Johnston et al., children’s emotional and behavioural problems can be predicted by the amount of involvement the child has in disputes, the degree of role reversal with parents, the amount of disagreement between parents, and the duration of the dispute over the child.
There are some studies that go a step further, demonstrating that conflict, rather than divorce per se, is the major determinant of children’s adjustment. For instance, Bishop and Ingersoll (1989) found that marital conflict had a greater impact on adolescents’ self-concept than family structure. Similarly, Mechanic and Hansell (1989) found that family conflict had more direct effects on long-term changes in well-being (i.e., depression, anxiety, physical symptoms, self-esteem) than divorce, current separation from parents, or parental death. Furthermore, they found that adolescents in intact families with high levels of conflict had poorer well-being than those experiencing divorce with low levels of conflict. A recent survey of 9,816 secondary school students in the Netherlands indicates that the level of well being of children living in single mother families is higher than that of students living in two parent families with much parental conflict, the well being of children living in single mother families with no parental conflict and with a great deal of contact with the departed father is lower than that of children living in two parent families without parental conflict and finally, the degree of parental conflict after divorce is more important for the well being of the children than the degree of contact with the departed father (Dronkers, 1996).
Using data from the United States National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth, Jekielek (1996) found that both parental conflict and marital disruption were associated with decreases in the children’s well being but children who remain in the high conflict environments do worse than children who experienced high conflict but whose parents had divorced at least two years previously. The results suggest that parental divorce following high conflict may actually improve the well being of children relative to a high conflict status. Using a 12 year longitudinal study, Amato, Loomis & Booth (1995) also found that the consequences of parental divorce depend on the degree of parental conflict prior to divorce. In high conflict families, children had higher levels of well being as young adults if their parents divorced than if they stayed together. In low conflict families, however, children had higher levels of well being if their parents stayed together than if they divorced. In marriages that did not end in divorce, parental conflict was negatively associated with the well being of the children.
On the other hand, some researcher have argued that while conflict is an important factor the relationship between conflict and children’s post-divorce adjustment is neither universal, simple nor straightforward. For instance, Cockett and Tripp (1994) found that, although marital conflict was associated with poor outcomes for children (in terms of health, behaviour, school, friendship, and self-esteem), family reorganisation appeared to be the main adverse factor. Further, Buehler and Trotter (1990) found co-parental competition to be related more strongly to children’s social competence than conflict or co-operation. Although Hess and Camara (1979) found parental harmony to be a better predictor of child behaviour than family status, they also found that the parent-child relationship appeared to be the most powerful influence on the child’s social and school adjustment, stronger than parental harmony. Kelly (1993) argues that the effects of conflict are indirect - they are either mediated through other behaviours of the parents or dependent on the strategies used to resolve conflict, or related to the extent to which parents expressed their conflicts directly with and through the children. In both married and divorced families, children were less aggressive and had less behavioural problems when parents had higher co-operation scores as opposed to when they used negative, attacking dispute resolution styles (Camara and Resnick, 19989). Furthermore, some researchers (e.g., Cohen, 1995; Heath & MacKinnon, 1988; Hoffman, 1995) have found parental co-operation to be highly correlated with the child-father relationship and predictive of child’s social competence, indicating the importance of co-operative family interactions following divorce.
Kelly (1993) states that children can escape the negative consequences of parental conflict when they are not caught in it by their parents, when their parents avoid direct, aggressive expressions of their conflict in front of them or when they use compromise styles of conflict resolution. Buchanan et al. (1991) found that with adolescents who were living part of the time with each parent, the effects of discord between parents is stronger and they tended to feel caught in the middle. Children who were involved in their parents disagreements and who felt they had to manage their parents relationship to make things run smoothly were the most likely to feel depressed and exhibit deviant behaviour (Buchanan, 1991). Therefore, conflict per se is not necessarily the best predictor of adjustment and should perhaps not be used by itself as a sole determinant making decisions about custody and access. Another major difficulty with using conflict as a determinant in custody and access decisions is that conflict almost invariably diminishes over time (Kelly, 1990; Maccoby, Depner & Mnookin, 1990) and couples can move in and out of conflict both before and after separation and divorce (Neale & Smart, 1997).
In an examination of a number of common hypotheses relating to the effects of divorce on children, Kalter et al. (1989) found no support for the inter-parental hostility hypothesis. Instead, they suggest that when a number of stressors (i.e., economic deprivation, inter-parental hostilities, and the burden of single parenting) take their toll on custodial mothers, children fare less well. However, when parents are psychologically able to provide a loving relationship, children will be buffered from the stresses divorce can engender and will prosper developmentally (Cohen, 1995).
Perhaps more than any other piece of work, Statistics Canada’s ground-breaking Violence Against Women Survey (VAWS) made it clear that in Canada violence against women in the family context is far from rare. Twenty nine percent of all women who had ever been married or had lived with a man in a common law relationship had experienced at least one episode of violence by a husband or a live-in partner (Johnson,1996). Furthermore almost half (48 percent) of women who had been previously married or had lived in a common-law relationship in the past had been assaulted or threatened in some way by previous partners. Relationships with violence are therefore more likely to end than peaceable ones and in some cases, the woman’s decision to terminate the relationship results in a violent response from her partner. As well, risk of deadly violence was substantially higher for separated couples than for married couples who were living together: between 1974 and 1992, rates of wife killings were six times higher for separated wives than for those still living with the accused at the time of the killing (Wilson & Daly, 1994). Many men increase the level of battering against their wives when the women take steps to leave (Johnson, 1996). Separating couples are therefore particularly at risk. Moreover, the VAWS showed that in 39 percent of marital relationships with violence, victims said their children had been witnesses and that when the children were exposed to assaults on their mothers, in 61 percent of cases the women suffered physical injuries and in 52 percent of cases the violence was so severe that the victim feared for her life. It is clear that any treatment of the issues surrounding divorce, custody and access is incomplete without an understanding of the dynamics of domestic violence. Failure to take these cases into account can only increase the emotional trauma of those involved or worse, increase their physical danger.
Research has shown that not only is violence in families pervasive but that both the children who are victims of violence and those that witness violence that occurs between their parents suffer a great deal and are themselves at risk of using violence as adults (Jaffe, Wolfe & Wilson, 1990; O’Keefe, 1995; Pagelow, 1993; Saunders, 1994; Johnson ,1996) . It would be impossible to do justice here to the numerous findings on the effects of spousal violence on children but it can be safely stated that the effects are devastating and vary according to the child’s age, sex, stage of development and role in the family. For example, infants suffer from having their basic needs for attachment to their mother disrupted or from having the normal routines around sleeping and feeding disrupted, and may also be injured in violent episodes. Older children come to see violence as an appropriate way of dealing with conflict in human relationships, which in turn affects their adjustment at school and with their peers. These children can suffer from serious emotional difficulties, living in shame, their sense of self undermined and with little confidence in the future. They are anxious, living in fear and waiting for the next violent episode to occur. Adolescents can react either by running away or becoming involved in delinquent behaviour or by trying to take on the responsibility for keeping the peace and ensuring the safety of their family. The sad irony for these children is that the very people on whom they depend for safety and nurturance can offer them neither (Jaffe, Wolfe & Wilson, 1990).
The impact of these findings must be acknowledged in discussions surrounding custody and access. The sheer prevalence of the problem of violence and the dynamics surrounding it make it clear any assumptions about equal partnership in these cases are out of the question. On the one hand, the majority of women never report the assaults or in fact ever tell anyone about it (Johnson, 1996) and thus may not be believed if the first time the issue is raised is at the point of separation. Victims of violence may avoid going to court out of fear of retaliation, a fear which is not unfounded given the data on the escalation of violence at separation. Women may agree to whatever the husband wants in an attempt to pacify him and in the process may give up property or other economic entitlements in what they see as an exchange for custody. If the effects of violence are not acknowledged women may appear unstable or emotional while their batterers are perceived as confident, rational and economically secure (Rosnes, 1997). Moreover, it is important to link the negative impact of wife abuse on children to the abuser to avoid judging the mother as unfit by virtue of being a victim of spouse assault. Indeed, virtually all the research flies in the face of what Rosnes argues is presently happening in the courts:
"…judges assume that wife abuse is not necessarily damaging to a child, and that being violent does not necessarily affect a father’s parenting ability… Similarly, research showing how battered women give up legal rights, and how women and children are at risk during unsupervised access visits and transfer is also upheld." (Rosnes, 1997 at 33).
Support systems can help alleviate some of the negative effects associated with divorce. This support can be provided by parents, extended family members, peers, teachers, etc. Kelly and Wallerstein (1977) have suggested that both intra-familial and extra-familial support networks take on a special significance during times of crisis for children, especially when the crisis involves the disruption of the family structure. While older children generally have relationships with peers on whom they can rely for support, this option is often not available for younger children. Younger children are often totally dependent on their parents for support during the divorce process. Alternatively, they may come to rely on extended family members who can help them cope with divorce-induced stress and provide a needed sense of continuity and stability. Grandparents and other kin can step in to alleviate the emotional strain and disruption of divorce on children . These other adults can step in and provide social support which alleviates the residential parent’s burden and can help improve the quality of the interactions with the children. A stepfather can also enhance the children’s well being by reducing the stress and insecurity the mother has to live with (Seltzer, 1994). This outside support is particularly crucial, because it has been found that parental support may decrease during this period of crisis, as adults attempt to cope with their own divorce-related stresses (Jacobson, 1978; Wallerstein, 1980). Perhaps not surprisingly, though, children’s contact with non-residential fathers declines when the mother remarries, which in turn may threaten the children’s well-being, as the stress of adapting to a new presence in the family is combined with the loss of ties with their father (Seltzer, 1994).
A great deal of research has concluded that parental support, particularly the parent-child relationship, is very important in the adjustment of children following divorce. In fact, Hess and Camara (1979) found it to be a more powerful influence on children’s social and school adjustment than parental harmony. While some studies have found that only a very good relationship with the mother has any mitigating effect (Hetherington et al., 1979; Wallerstein & Kelly, 1975), others, such as Hess and Camara (1979), have found that the child’s relationship with the non-custodial father is of equal importance. Further, Hess and Camara argue that a positive parent-child relationship, even with only one parent, has been found to greatly mitigate the negative effects of divorce.
Other research has indicated that support other than that provided by parents may be sufficient for children’s positive adjustment. Stolba and Amato (1993) found that alternative family forms can be suitable for raising adolescents, if they provide support, control and supervision. However, they also found that, for younger children, extended single-parent households may be less beneficial. Further, Heath and MacKinnon (1988) found that mothers’ use of support systems predicted daughters’ perceptions of social competence, but not sons’. They concluded that, while the use of outside support systems may be desirable, for children’s well-being, it is equally desirable for the mother to be self-reliant.
While sibling support has been identified as an important buffer against the stresses of divorce (Neugebauer, 1989), other research findings offer qualified support for this observation. Kelly and Wallerstein (1977), for example, found that interactions between siblings had the potential for becoming negative, serving to increase a child’s feelings of alienation, injustice and anger. On the other hand, sole children who faced marital disruption, were found to be exhibit higher levels of stress and alienation.
The divorce process in Canada can be a very long and drawn out process. Lawyers in divorce proceedings are litigating in the best interests of their clients - the parents. However, children like their parents, often suffer the stress associated with lengthy battles over financial and custodial issues. But, often the custody arrangements granted are what is best or more suitable for the parents, and do not take into account children’s wishes or needs (Wallerstein, 1985b).
In addition to the effects of the divorce decision, the divorce process itself may have a negative impact upon the adjustment of children. For instance, Saayman and Saayman (1989) argue that the adversarial nature of the legal system has a negative impact upon the psychological adjustment of children of divorce. They found that, following the divorce proceedings, a significant proportion of those examined were identified as neurotic or antisocial. This effect was produced regardless of the approach or demeanour of the legal professionals involved. Therefore, they argue for the establishment of divorce mediation. It has also been found that behavioural problems in children are associated with the duration and animosity of their parents’ legal battles (Healy et al., 1990; Saayman & Saayman, 1989). Proponents of mediation argue that it can encourage co-operation and lead to better outcomes for children who might otherwise be exposed to lengthy court battles (Dillon & Emery, 1996). Further, an increase in satisfaction with the dispute resolution process may increase subsequent compliance with the agreements (Kelly, 1991; Kelly & Duryee, 1992).
Margulies and Luchow (1992) suggest that mediation is more appropriate than lawyer- litigated and negotiated divorce for those couples who would eventually resolve their divorce through a negotiated settlement. They contend that mediation is designed to promote adaptive behaviour rather than maladaptive struggle, is generally faster, and is less expensive. Saayman and Saayman (1989) also recommend replacing the adversarial process with divorce mediation, through family courts. They claim that mediators can assist in early identification and mediation for those children who are most at risk. In addition, they contend that mediators have the necessary skills for negotiation and making assessments, which lawyers do not.
In a follow-up of clients who had had been involved in divorce mediation, Duryee (1991) found a strong preference for mediation over litigation. Furthermore, counter to the contention that mediation causes power imbalances against women, this study found that women’s responses were significantly more favourable towards mediation than men’s. In response to the argument that mediators impose their own values, there was no evidence that clients felt imposed upon by the mediator’s values. Overall, the clients stated that they appreciated the opportunity to express their own views and to focus on important issues. However, they were more equivocal about the nature of the agreements reached and expressed distrust in their spouse to live up to the agreement. No relation was found between client satisfaction and whether the counsellor made a recommendation to court.
Thus, while there some evidence to suggest high rates of consumer satisfaction among parents using mediation, the findings comparing litigation to mediation in terms of such factors as relitigation and compliance with the post-divorce arrangements remain inconclusive owing largely to the differences that exist in the various mediation programmes and the clientele they serve (Dillon & Emery, 1996).
The development of "parenting plans" is another option to the traditional legal process. A parenting plan is a document which is prepared by both parents, setting out various criteria for decision making, residential time, access and dispute resolution. The objective of the plan is to encourage discussion and agreement between the parents, rather than having a decision imposed by the court. It is hoped, in this way, that the agreements will be adhered to better. The Washington State Parenting Act, passed in 1987, is an example of an Act which incorporates parenting plans. Ellis (1990) conducted interviews with attorneys and judges, examined case records, and observed court proceedings in an attempt to examine the usefulness of this Act. She found that the Act increased the amount of shared decision making and residential time and attempted to incorporate limitations in cases of abuse. However, she also found that most parenting plans contained a limited number of formulas for decision making, residential time and dispute resolution. In addition, there was no direct evidence that parenting plans helped parents focus on the child’s needs, or prevented conflict. There was no information on the long-term effects of this Act.
Although the introduction of parenting plans and/or mediation services appear to be viable alternatives to litigation in matters of custody and access, there is relatively little known about the effectiveness of these options. Therefore, a great deal more research into various alternatives is necessary. For instance, since there are many different types of mediation services, it is necessary to examine the results of various types of mediation compared to litigation. In addition, there are a number of issues surrounding mediation which need to be addressed (e.g., mediation and power imbalances between women and men).
The impact of custody and access arrangements on the children of separating couples has been the subject of much debate but perhaps not enough systematic study. For discussion purposes here, it might be useful to distinguish six types of custody arrangements: exclusive custody (one custodial parent and no access by non-custodial parent); sole custody (one custodial parent with access by non-custodial parent); joint legal custody (shared responsibility in decision making about aspects of child’s life); joint physical custody (shared responsibility in daily care and childrearing); and, split custody (siblings are split between parents).
Major policy changes in the area of family law have promoted changes in the structure of post-divorce families in several jurisdictions, most notably the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. Increasingly, we are witnessing an emphasis on agreement rather than conflict between parents and attempts to maximise or maintain relationships between fathers and their children. Mothers have traditionally been given custody of the children in the majority of cases, and fathers were allowed visitation but there is some evidence that shifts are occurring. Little (1991) found that joint legal custody was more common that sole legal custody in Los Angeles. However, sole maternal physical custody remained the most frequent award, with joint physical custody infrequently awarded (less than one family in six). Moreover, maternal custody arrangements appear to be more stable than other arrangements: children who live with their mother after divorce are more likely to remain in this arrangement during the first three to four years after separation, while over half of the children who start out by spending time in each parent’s household or who start out living with their father make at least one change (Maccoby & Mnookin, 1992). In Canada, the data show that since 1978, the percentage of cases in which mothers get custody as gone from 79 percent to 73 percent. The percentage of cases in which fathers get custody has hovered around 15 percent, while the proportion of cases in which joint custody is awarded has increased significantly from 1 percent in 1986 to 14 percent in 1990 (Statistics Canada, 1993).
Kelly (1993) reports that in California joint legal custody was not found to be significantly linked with higher levels of father involvement in decision making or time with children, nor did it result in greater compliance with child support after controlling for income. There was a slight decrease in discord of the joint legal custody group by final divorce but no corresponding increase in co-operative communication. However, Bahr et al. (1994) cite United States census data suggesting that fathers who had either joint custody or visitation privileges had a greater likelihood of paying child support. In terms of patterns in custody arrangements, Bahr’s study found that joint legal custody was adopted in 21 percent of cases; mothers continued to receive sole custody in the majority of cases (70 percent); father’s with sole custody were a small minority (6 percent); and, split custody occurred in about 5 percent of cases. Interestingly, these patterns did not change significantly from 1970 to 1993.
Whatever the custody and access arrangement, the overwhelming pattern has been for most divorced fathers to stop seeing their children, and for those who maintain contact to reduce the frequency of their visits. According to Seltzer (1991) about one in five divorced fathers has not seen his children in the past year, and less than one out of every two fathers sees his children more than several times a year. In addition, the longer divorced fathers and their children live apart, the less contact they have with each other. Non-residential mothers appear to be more likely than non-residential fathers to maintain contact with the children, but among families in which the non-residential parent has at least some contact, mothers and fathers are equally likely to see the children weekly or more frequently. Some fathers do maintain a presence in their children’s lives after divorce: nearly 25 percent of non-residential fathers see their children at least weekly and more than a third who see their children also spend extended periods of time with them in visits that last longer than a weekend (Seltzer,1993). Fathers who see their children also are more likely to maintain contact by phone or mail while non-residential fathers who do not see their children do not compensate by increased mail or phone contact.
In examining the impact of the Children Act in the United Kingdom, which promotes not just on-going contact but in fact what they call co-parenting, Neale and Smart (1997) found evidence to support the idea that fathers are re-evaluating their children and do seem to want to have their children living with them after divorce. There is no way of knowing though whether this is a new or growing trend. They also point out that the material and emotional resources for sustaining co-parenting as fostered by the Act are very scarce, and there is no real infra-structure available properly to support co-parenting during marriage, let alone after divorce.
Although the granting of sole custody to one parent with access privileges to the noncustodial parent has been the norm, it is recognised that in some cases (e.g., abuse) exclusive custody is necessary. The general view has been that not granting access privileges to the noncustodial parent is an extreme measure which can have a negative impact on the child. Research has found that diminished contact with the non-custodial parent has a negative impact on the relationship between the non-custodial parent and the child (McKinnon & Wallerstein, 1988) and that breaks in parent-child bonding can have negative effects on children’s emotional and social development (Lund, 1984; Magid & Oborn, 1986), as well as on behaviour (Pesikoff & Pesikoff, 1985).
Access to the non-custodial parent, however, may be more complex than was previously believed. For instance, Johnston, Kline and Tschann (1989) found that children who have more frequent access to both parents are more emotionally troubled and behaviourally disturbed than those with less access. These results were found regardless of whether inter-parental aggression was present (although it should be noted that all families in this study were involved in custody and access disputes). Healy et al. (1990) found that, among younger children and boys, frequent and regular visits with the non-custodial father increased self-esteem but led to more behaviour problems. Among older children and girls, frequent and regular visits were associated with lower self-esteem but fewer behaviour problems. Although a non-custodial parent may be granted access to a child, visitation may or may not take place. Kelly (1993) claims that little research has been conducted on the determinants of father dropout after separation, although she suggests that it may be because they are not given access (by the courts or by the custodial mother). She contends that contact with the non-custodial parent isn’t unidimensional nor always beneficial, but rather depends on the child’s age and sex, closeness of the relationship prior to the divorce, conflict, maternal and paternal adjustment, and the mother’s hostility following the separation.
Generally, studies have found that children express a strong preference for flexible and unrestricted contact with the non-custodial parent (Mitchell, 1988; Neugebauer, 1989; Wallerstein, 1980).
It has been suggested that joint custody may be more beneficial than sole custody because it conveys to children that their parents are committed to them (Glover & Steele, 1989). On the other hand, children in joint custody arrangements may have problems in coping with the different family morals, values or practices between the two households (Wilson, 1985). In addition, joint custody may inadvertently provide the opportunity for greater inter-parental conflict, particularly with regard to key issues such as the child’s bed time, discipline and the amount of television time allowed to the child (Kurtz & Derevensky, 1994).
Empirical findings in support of joint custody are equivocal at best. This may be because research conducted with the two types of joint custody (legal and physical) have not been well described. According to Kurtz and Derevensky (1994), investigations of joint custody most frequently employ joint legal custody arrangements, resulting in very limited implications or erroneous conclusions about joint physical custody. Although it is generally acknowledged that children from intact families are the best adjusted, some research has found that children living in joint physical custody arrangements are better adjusted emotionally and socially than those in sole custody (Glover & Steele, 1989; Neugebauer, 1989). However, McKinnon and Wallerstein (1987) found that children in joint custody were indistinguishable in their initial distress and responses to marital rupture from those in sole custody. Similarly, Kline, Tschann, Johnston and Wallerstein (1989) found no differences between joint physical custody and mother-custody arrangements in behavioural, emotional or social adjustments of children.
Research examining when joint custody works best has found that, among those electing shared parenting, some report high and others low satisfaction. Kurtz and Derevensky (1994) suggest that the successful implementation of joint custody requires that both parents be child- focused, committed to parenting, respect each other as parents, maintain flexibility, be cooperative, provide emotional stability and have the ability to set aside inter-parental conflict and personal needs for the sake of maintaining the shared parenting agreement. As Neal and Smart (1997) state:
"Developing and sustaining co-parenting involves and enormous amount of time, emotional labour and sacrifice. It is likely to involve constant negotiations over, and fine tuning of, arrangements as well as ongoing debates over child care and discipline. The needs of new partners, children and the other parent need to be juggled. There is a constant concern over the adjustment of the children to a mobile existence and two lifestyles and environments." (at 208).
Kelly (1993) suggests that custody status alone doesn’t predict post-divorce adjustment but rather that the outcomes for children are related to a complex range of socio-economic and psychological factors and depend less upon the structure of the post-divorce family than upon the quality, stability and reliability of the care received, particularly from the primary, residential parent. For example, court-ordered joint physical custody results in less satisfaction than voluntary arrangements, and when there is conflict, those in joint custody do less well. Finally, she argues that no differences have been found between maternal and paternal custody on a number of variables.
Kurtz and Derevensky (1994) point out the need for further research in this area, such as: a factorial study examining the effects of differential child care alternatives upon the family system; a longitudinal study to observe differences in family dynamics between joint physical and legal custody; an examination of which parents and children benefit from shared parenting; and, an examination of the effects of shared parenting on inter-parental relationships.
Geographic movement is common among divorced families. Schlesinger (1982) observed that 40 percent of the children of separation or divorce had changed neighbourhoods following the divorce of their parents. Fulton (1979) found that children had moved an average of two times, and as many as eight times, following the marital dissolution. The reality for children and single parents is that divorce often means a change in school, neighbourhood, and peer groups. Physical dislocation may ultimately have an influence on many aspects of the child’s life, including academic performance, peer relations, psychological well-being and physical health. Although there is little research available in this area, what has been done suggests that such changes may affect some aspects of children’s functioning (Grych & Fincham, 1992). For instance, Stolberg and Anker (1983) argue that change is the major determinant in the development of child psychopathology in some children of divorce. In their study, they found that children of divorce reacted differently to environmental changes than children of intact families. As environmental change increased, behaviour pathology among the divorced group increased, while behaviour pathology among the intact group decreased. Similarly, Hodges et al. (1984) found that as the amount of significant environmental changes increased, children become increasingly depressed, and exhibited more anxiety.
 We will focus here on violence against women, fully recognising that women can be violent toward their husbands. However, the weight of statistical data shows that the overwhelming majority (90% in most studies) of victims are women, that the dynamics of spousal violence affect women in unique ways and can have devastating consequences for large numbers of women.
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