In recent years, we have witnessed a trend towards shared parenting for divorced children. This trend includes a growing proportion of children who are living for about the same amount of time in each of the parent’s households, for instance one week in each place. From being a rather marginal phenomenon two decades ago, 50/50 living arrangements have now developed into a mainstream phenomenon: approximately every sixth divorced child in Denmark lives in this way. Furthermore, as a result of the Act of Parental Responsibility from 2007, the Danish family law authorities can now decide that a divorced child should have a 50/50 living arrangement. Yet, in spite of these trends, until recently we have had very limited research-based knowledge on how these arrangements work – especially from the perspective of the divorced child.
The first research report from the “Children who live in 50/50 arrangements” study was published this autumn. On the basis of in-depth interviews with 28 children (aged 8-14) and their parents, we focused on divorced children's everyday lives - inside as well as outside the family setting.
The study suggests that a 50/50 living arrangement may work well for some children but not for all. It depends on individual circumstances, including the child's own resilience, the way in which the 50/50 arrangement is organised, the proximity between the two homes, and not least, the parental capability to help their child to bridge between his or her two family lives and to obtain continuity in everyday life.
Children talking about 50/50 living arrangements
When children pointed out advantages, many of them argued that a 50/50 living arrangement allows children to have access to both parents to the same extent. Being “equally shared” and “fairness” were important concepts, not only for the children in the sample, but also for the parents. Nevertheless, to live in a 50/50 arrangement also appears to be a logistical challenge that complicates everyday life. Several children in the sample complained of being stressed and exhausted. To pack, to move, to unpack and to adapt to a new household every week is simply more burdensome than living permanently in one place. Some of the parents interviewed said that they themselves could not bear to live in this way. Thus, compared to other divorced children, these commuting children are exposed to special burdens.
According to their accounts, children can handle different sets of household norms and parental styles, as long as these do not clash (which was the case for some children).The idea of having two homes appeared to be easier to handle for the youngest informants in the sample. Some of them had lived in a 50/50 arrangement for some years; this was their normal social order, and they could not imagine things to be different. However, the accounts also left the impression that when reaching their teens children may perceive this arrangement to be more burdensome. Having constant access to one’s favourite things and being in touch with one’s friends becomes increasingly important. Some of these teenagers wanted to change their living arrangements to another model. Geographical proximity between parents' homes is essential for the child’s opportunity to be rooted in his/her local environment, as short distances facilitate contact with peers and participation in leisure activities. Among the informants we met children who were living on isolated family islands half of the time, without being able to integrate their extra-familial social life, because one of the parents lived far away.
A well-functioning 50/50 arrangement requires a relatively high standard of parental cooperation, as practical parental responsibility is divided between two households. To avoid the life of their common child becoming fragmented, parents need to exchange information about practical issues, they need to discuss matters concerning child well-being, and they need to establish a basic level of common normative standards. Similarly, parental flexibility and generosity around the practical organisation of the living arrangement appear to be crucial for the children’s ability to integrate their two family lives in a harmonious way.
In some of the divorced families in the study sample there was no coordination due to a minimal level of parental cooperation. This put a strain on the children, sometimes leading to further troubles with respect to the practical aspects of their everyday life. If one parent initiates activities for the child (e.g. extra homework, a diet, or attendance in sport), while the other parent ignores such initiatives, it becomes difficult for the child. Other young informants shared their fate with other divorced children (not living in 50/50 arrangements) in that their parents had fraught relationships or even had parents who were in open conflict. These children were stuck in dilemmas of loyalty or drawn into allying themselves with one parent against the other parent. In this study some children coped with such critical parental relationships by exercising self-censorship or by not talking about what was going on in the other household. They navigated through life by hiding feelings for the one parent to the other. As a result these children came to have two completely separate family lives.
In the wake of the study
Based on the findings, we concluded that some divorced parents apparently operate with a rather low cooperation threshold, even if their children are living in a 50/50 arrangement. In the wake of the study we prepared a pamphlet, addressed to divorced parents. This pamphlet contained, among other things, a reflection tool to test parents’ capability to have a 50/50 living arrangement. Although we printed a large number of copies of the pamphlet, it was sold out within only three weeks. This experience reflects a demand to translate scientific-based knowledge into practical guidelines, at least within the area of divorced families
The second research report from the study is based on quantitative methods and it is expected to come out in the spring 2012. The study is being funded by the Egmont Foundation.