For most couples without children, divorce is a final goodbye. They walk away from the marriage and never see each other again.

The picture is quite different when you have children. Yes, divorce is the end of your marriage. But it might be the beginning of another important relationship: co-parents.

Forging that new partnership with your former spouse is rarely easy. Even so, you’re determined to do it. And that’s a good choice. Studies show that kids cope better when they maintain loving relationships with both parents after divorce.

Let’s talk about how shared custody works and how to set yourself up to be an effective co-parent.

Physical custody versus legal custody

Before we go any further, it’s important to understand the difference between physical custody and legal custody.

Physical custody refers to where a child lives, some or all of the time.

Legal custody refers to a parent’s right to make major decisions on that child’s behalf. These include things like where they go to school, what medical procedures they have, and what their religious upbringing is.

Shared legal custody ensures that both parents remain responsible and accountable for their children. In most instances, parents must discuss major decisions, and one parent has “tie-breaker authority.” That means they have the controlling vote on a particular issue, whether that’s about education or extracurricular activities.

50/50 shared physical custody, often called joint custody, is becoming more common. But sometimes it’s impossible or is not in the best interests of the child. For instance, it may cause too much disruption for a child to travel back and forth each week between two houses. Or one parent’s work schedule may not allow them to care for a child during the week.

See: How Do We Tell Our Kids That We Are Getting Divorced?

Shared custody agreements

When people talk about shared custody, they’re generally referring to a joint custody agreement — or 50/50 physical custody. These are the two most common joint custody schedules:

  • Week on/week off. In this schedule, the child alternates weeks. One week at Parent A’s house. One week at Parent B’s house. This schedule often works better for older children. They frequently have extracurricular activities that are easier to manage without mid-week transitions. And they’re better able to manage going a week without seeing one parent or the other.
  • 2/2/5/5. In this schedule, each parent gets seven days over a two-week-period. But the days are spread out. So, Parent A gets every Monday and Tuesday. Then Parent B gets every Wednesday and Thursday. And they alternate having the child for the weekend — Friday through Sunday nights. (Lay this out on a calendar, and the pattern of days is 2/2/5/5.) This schedule is often better for younger children who may want more constant contact with both parents.

To make joint custody successful, parents need to work diligently to communicate and cooperate with each other. Joint custody agreements also work best if you live close together. That lessens travel time and creates the least disruption for children.

So what if joint custody isn’t right for your family?

That doesn’t mean both parents can’t maintain a strong presence in their children’s lives. With a well-designed parenting plan, children can have a close and meaningful relationship with both of their parents.

See: What is 50/50 Custody?

Primary custody and parenting time

One of the most common custody arrangements is not technically shared custody. One parent has primary physical custody, and the other has parenting time (what’s sometimes called visitation) with their child.

You and your spouse can create a parenting plan before you file for an uncontested divorce. Or if you’re already in the midst of a contested divorce, you can create one through mediation or settlement discussions. This gives you the most control over the final plan.

The schedule in your parenting plan can take many forms. For instance, your plan might include the non-custodial parent having parenting time one night a week or every other weekend. Or maybe one parent has a non-traditional work schedule, but they can have parenting time for five weeks every summer.

Your lawyer can help you think through options that make the most sense for your family.

Note that the judge will have to approve it before it becomes final. As long as your plan is reasonable and in the best interests of the child, judges do usually approve them.

See: The Best Way to Help Children Cope With Divorce? Make It Amicable

Effective co-parenting after divorce

Whatever the exact structures of your parenting plan, your child’s mental and emotional wellbeing depends on your ability to effectively co-parent with your ex-spouse.

Here are our top tips for co-parenting after divorce

  • Get support. Adjusting to life after divorce is hard — for everyone. The last thing you want to do is turn to your child for support. Now is the time to hire a therapist, schedule a weekly coffee date with your best friend, or put a trusted confidant on speed dial. Maybe all three.
  • Talk to a professional. Taking care of your own emotional needs is important, but you and your ex-spouse might also need joint support. Some counselors specialize in divorce and co-parenting. They help divorcing and newly divorced couples learn to create that new parenting partnership. They may even help divorced parents that have been co-parenting for a while but encounter a new challenge to their partnership.
  • Keep your kids out of it. No matter what’s going on between you and your ex, don’t put your kids in the middle. Don’t use them as messengers. Don’t argue in their presence, and don’t badmouth your ex-spouse in front of them. Remember: your kids didn’t ask for this.
  • Choose effective communication methods. If just the sound of your ex-spouse’s voice makes you angry, make an agreement to communicate via email and text. If, on the other hand, you find that texts lead to misunderstandings, agree to communicate important information via email or over the phone. Co-parenting apps can also be a helpful option. One of our favorites is >OurFamilyWizard.
  • Focus on your child. If you start to lose your temper or get drawn back into old patterns or arguments, take a breath and re-focus. The sole purpose of your relationship with your ex-spouse is to effectively care for your child. None of the other stuff matters.
  • Try to be consistent. You and your ex are different people, so you’ll parent differently. There’s no way around it. But aiming for some consistency can help avoid confusion for your children. Come to an agreement on schedules as well as basic rules like curfews, bedtimes, and screen time.
  • Support time with the other parent. The transitions between parents can be really hard for kids, especially in the early days after divorce. Be positive when your child is going to spend time with their other parent. Anticipate things they might need (their special stuffy or favorite toy) and drop them off on time. Don’t interrupt your ex-spouse’s parenting time unless it’s an emergency.

Shared custody agreements can be a great way to ensure that your child maintains a strong connection with both parents. But they require a lot of communication and cooperation. And they’re not the only option. We help parents design custody agreements and parenting plans that work for their families. Contact Porchlight to see how we can help.