Types of Custody
Before you can begin to co-parent together, or even to understand what co-parenting is, you need to understand what the custody options are when your marriage or relationship ends. A variety of arrangements are possible; the biggest distinction is between legal custody and physical custody.
Legal custody refers to parental authority and decision-making power. Parents can have joint or sole legal custody. Those who share joint legal custody are supposed to make the important decisions about the children's education, health, religion and other issues together (and this is truly at the root of co-parenting). In theory, joint legal custody requires the parents to truly cooperate. But in reality, it's often established to make the parent who doesn't have primary physical custody feel better about the situation.
I've worked with several families where a visitation schedule was easy to create, but the father wouldn't agree to it because he did not technically have joint custody. Changing the wording to joint legal custody made the agreement more palatable.
While parents like to be able to say, "I have joint custody of my children," the designation is often in words only. Those who couldn't work together before are not magically transformed into cooperative parents by a court decree. The residential parent often ends up making many decisions about their child without the other's input.
On the other hand, if one parent is given sole legal custody, this doesn't necessarily mean that the other parent is shut out of participating in decisions about the children. A custody arrangement is what you make of it, meaning you can choose to work cooperatively as parents for the best interests of children.
Physical custody refers to how the children's time is shared by the parents. In most custody arrangements, the children have one home base, where they spend the most time. This parent is sometimes referred to as the residential or primary parent.