Social Science Research Debunks Theory that Parental Conflict Obviates Shared Parenting

May 11, 2017 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Having disposed of the few papers that either claim that joint parental custody should not be ordered in cases of parental conflict or had the claim inaccurately attributed to them, Dr. Linda Nielsen moves on to the core of the matter – reviewing the existing literature on what role, if any, the existence of parental conflict should play in judges’ decisions on child custody and parenting time.

First however, she points out that the literature she’s just debunked has had a powerful impact on judicial thinking and training. It’s at the root of much of the anti-father bias that’s daily evident in family court cases.

“Most courts and commentators agree with the oft-quoted dictum that joint custody is encouraged primarily as a voluntary alternative for relatively stable, amicable parents behaving in mature civilized fashion” (p. 216). When parents are unable to communicate faceto- face and when there is a level of distrust between them, even joint decision making (joint legal custody) is often not considered to be in the child’s best interests. “This principle is abundantly established in case law” (DiFonzo, 2015, p. 218).

Unsurprisingly, our old friends Robert Emery and Jennifer McIntosh are among the primary purveyors of that view.

“Conflict is more damaging to children in divorce than having only a limited relationship with your other parent” (Emery, 2016b, p. 51). Similarly, McIntosh and Smyth (2012) believe that there are “over two decades of research in the U.S.” that is “demonstrating a poor fit between the many demands of shared time parenting arrangements and ongoing high levels of conflict between parents”

Not only are judges receiving that information (and not, apparently, any other), but so are custody evaluators.

For example, 57% of 213 custody evaluators with doctorates who had been in practice at least five years ranked cooperation, low conflict and communication among the most important variables influencing their recommendations for or against JPC (Ackerman & Pritzl, 2011). Only 13% of these custody evaluators considered “maintaining or maximizing the parent-child relationship” a high priority in making custody recommendations.

Nielsen then moves on to the nut of the matter. She takes on several common fallacies about conflict and joint parental custody. For example, it’s often claimed that, if a couple takes their legal conflict before a judge instead of working matters out between themselves or with the help of a mediator, they are per se in conflict and JPC is an inappropriate outcome. Again, Emery and McIntosh are behind this view, McIntosh in her inimitable and intellectually dishonest way:

McIntosh cited only one study—a study with 18 divorced parents, only 4 of whom had any court involvement in their custody case (Bing, Nelson, & Wesolowski, 2008). None of the four were repeat cases and they did not have higher scores on conflict or maladjustment than the 14 parents with no court involvement.

Indeed, there is essentially nothing in the scientific literature to support Emery’s and McIntosh’s contention. Two studies have addressed the matter. One found no link between parental fighting in court and children’s behavioral problems. The other compared two groups of parents and kids, one with high legal conflict and the other in which parents avoided court and agreed between themselves.

At the end of 18 months, the 19 children in contested cases had better outcomes on almost all measures of well-being than the 12 children in uncontested cases, even though the two groups’ scores were not significantly different at the outset on most variables.

One aspect of the question about conflict that’s often ignored by the likes of Emery and McIntosh is whether sole custody arrangements offer less conflict to children than do joint parenting arrangements. That is, if those academics oppose JPC on the grounds that it’s prohibited in case of parental conflict, is SPC any better?

The research from the past several decades is robust and consistent: most SPC parents do not have low conflict, cooperative relationships.

That’s borne out by both old and recent research into the matter. It’s one of the anti-dad crowd’s favorite dodges. They seem to figure that, if they can associate JPC with parental conflict then judges and others will conclude that SPC tends to do the opposite, i.e. lessen conflict. But, like so many of their claims, it turns out to just not be true.

Perhaps the most often expressed arguments against JPC is that the research on it suffers from selection bias. That is, the research demonstrates clearly enough that kids in JPC generally have better outcomes than those in sole care. Ah, say JPC opponents, that’s just because parents with JPC orders were more likely to be cooperative going into the divorce, are more cooperative afterward. So all those studies are doing is measuring the effects on kids of parents who get along reasonably well.

In fact, there is essentially no difference between the conflict levels of divorcing parents who eventually chose JPC versus those who ended up with SPC.

In sum, seven of the nine studies fail to support the belief that JPC couples have significantly less conflict than SPC couples at the time they are separating. In two studies, however, the JPC couples did have less conflict than SPC couples. Overall then, conflict is not closely linked to whether the parents have a JPC or a SPC arrangement.

If there’s no measurable difference between the parents’ levels of conflict going into a divorce, what about afterward? Surely JPC, with its continual requirement that the parents communicate with each other and reach decisions together, must exacerbate conflict, right? After all, that’s what those opposed to shared parenting keep saying. Thirteen studies addressed that question.

In three of the 13 studies the JPC parents had significantly less conflict than SPC couples one to six years after separation…

In 10 of the 13 studies, JPC and SPC conflict was not significantly different in the years following their separation.

In short, another canard of the anti-dad crowd finds no support in the scientific literature.

More on this tomorrow.




National Parents Organization is a Shared Parenting Organization

National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.


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