Joint and exclusive custody

Joint custody is the least pleasant condition for many divorcing parents. But what do the data tell us about the cases in which the choice fell on this or other options?


A divorce is an event that can trigger a certain number of emotions, very often conflicting. In this context, legal psychology pays particular attention to the most vulnerable part: minors. When a relationship is broken, many questions arise concerning the children: where will they go to live? How often will they be able to see their parents? Better the joint or exclusive custody?

Even if in some cases the conditions do not allow it, in others a question that can be resolved by psychologists relies on emotions: despite the differences, and if the conditions exist, is joint custody advisable or not? And could sole custody have no impact on the child? What are the differences between one case and the other in terms of well-being?

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Children and joint custody

Joint custody and exclusive custody: in a nutshell

The so-called divorce law , approved in Italy following the referendum in 1970, provides for exclusive custody to one of the two parents. In other words, the custody and care of the minor is entrusted to one of the two parents, while the other is obliged to visit.

This aspect underwent changes in 2006, following the observation of the harmful effects that sole custody had on the children of divorced couples. That year the concept of shared custody was introduced, according to which the care, well-being, protection and custody of the minor are the responsibility of both parents, so the minor can live with both in different periods.

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According to ISTAT , in 2015 about 89% of divorce cases ended with joint custody, while only 8.9% of children were entrusted exclusively to the mother.

What does the scientific literature say about it?

Two Spanish researchers, Tejeiro and Gómez (2011), conducted a meta-analysis on divorce, custody and child well-being, based on the study of psychological research. The conclusions of their study have been well received by the scientific community: some differences in terms of well-being between a minor facing shared custody and one facing exclusive custody .

Both authors report what Bauserman (2002) had already confirmed following the analysis of 33 studies on the best parametric attributes: children who face shared custody are better off than those who experience exclusive custody. Some of the differences between the two forms of entrustment that the different meta-analyzes cited suggest are:

  • Greater involvement of fathers in joint custody.
  • Less depression in joint custody.
  • Major emotional problems in the exclusive assignment.
  • Minor sibling rivalry and greater self-esteem in joint custody.
  • Trend a feel rejected by a parent, in cases of sole custody.
  • Greater awareness of oneself, of the locus of control and of relations with parents in joint custody.

The results of other studies, however, indicate that the type of foster care chosen does not appear to have any effect on the emotional health of children.

Joint custody and the effects on the family

Shared custody seems to bring benefits not only to children, but also to parents who separate. This is what Marín Rullán (2015) argues, according to which low levels of conflict and high levels of communication trigger a cooperative pattern between parents , thanks to which both are more satisfied than parents who do not use this scheme.

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The conflict between parents is perhaps the aspect that determines a greater negative impact on children. For this reason, much of the well-being of minors lies in their parents' ability to behave well.

Very often, although it may be thought that shared custody is the right choice for the child, in reality it could involve greater contact between two people whose relationship is destroyed. Yet, Tejeiro and Gómez also calculated this variable in their meta-analysis, with the result that shared custody seems to reduce the levels of tension between the two parents .

In the case of shared custody, another doubt concerns the obligation to see an ex-husband or ex-wife every certain amount of time, which would prevent the healing of still open emotional wounds. Studies suggest, however, that this is an unfounded fear. The distance between parents, as measured by Pearson and Thoennes (1990), it tends to increase over two years regardless of the type of loan.

What happens to families after 12 years?

This is the question that Emery, Laumann, Waldron, Sbarra and Dillon (2001) asked themselves when they decided to observe what happens in families in which shared or individual custody was chosen (in the latter the conflicts between parents were major). Among the conclusions reached, the most interesting was that the parents of the children with sole custody were little involved in the life of the other parent .

The authors also noted that joint custody parents tended to opt for major changes in their life and, therefore, in their child's life as well; but also that this did not cause further conflict between the parents and was rather associated with aspects such as flexibility and cooperation.

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The impact on the child's adaptation phase

Bauserman, in his meta-analysis Child Adjustment in Joint-Custody Versus Sole-Custody Arrangements : A Meta-Analytic Review , measures the levels of adaptation of the child to different types of custody. The adaptation to which it refers provides:

  • Behavioral adaptation: conduct disorders.
  • Emotional adaptation : depression, anxiety, locus of controll problems, self-concept, etc.
  • Self esteem.
  • Family relationships and parenting.
  • Academic performance.

Having found a greater presence of all these categories in minors in joint custody supports the hypothesis that this form of custody has a greater impact on the child.

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Joint custody: advantageous and convoluted

After a complicated and painful process that, in some cases, particularly burns all the parties involved, shared custody is perhaps not the desired solution. Perhaps, although the parents show their interest in having their child lead a life as normal as possible, they don't know how to manage joint custody.

Regarding this difficulty, Marín Rullán seems to have a clear picture: there are four factors whose presence can determine the success or failure of shared custody. These are:

  • Commitment and dedication: above the provisions of a court.
  • Support for the other parent: respect for the relationship that the former partner has with the child, active and separate involvement of both parents. Flexible distribution of responsibilities.
  • Psychological characteristics: cooperative behaviors help raise non-narcissistic people , empathetic, strong, with an altruistic disposition and positive parenting attitudes.

Considering the consequences of both types of custody, bearing in mind the experiences of parents and children, perhaps the question may no longer be: 'better sole or joint custody?', But 'how to stimulate the development of skills in parents. necessary to manage a successful joint custody? '.

Differences between separation and divorce

Differences between separation and divorce

The differences between separation and divorce do exist, since they are two institutions with different purposes. Find out what it is about.

  • Bauserman, R. (2002) Child Adjustment in Joint-Custody Versus Sole-Custody Arrangements: A Meta-Analytic Review. Journal of Family Psychology, 16 (1), 91-102.
  • Emery, R., Laumann, L., Waldron, M., Sbarra, D. & Dillon, P. (2001). Child Custody Mediation and Litigation: Custody, Contact, and Coparenting 12 Years After Initial Dispute Resolution. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 69 (2), 323-332.
  • Marín Rullán, M. (2015). The influence of parental attitudes on the well-being of the minor and the preferred choice of joint custody: a dissertation. Clinical, Legal and Forensic Psychopathology, 15 , 73-89.
  • Tejeiro, R. and Gómez, J. (2011) Divorce, custody and welfare of the minor: a review of research in Psychology. Notes on Psychology, 29 (3), 425-434.