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'I Only Want Trust': Norms, Trust and Autonomy

40 Pages Posted: 9 May 2001  

Margaret F. Brinig

Notre Dame Law School

Steven L. Nock

University of Virginia


Norms in families, at least in the sociological sense of community recognition of family institutions, comes when the community finds, or predicts, two important characteristics: the permanence of the relationship, and the unconditional love within it.

When it finds permanence and unconditional love, society trusts that the relationship in question will do what it is supposed to do. For couples, that means promoting intimacy. For parents, that means trust that they will provide an environment within which children can flourish. Once the society trusts the relationship enough, various legal and other supports will encourage and promote the relationship.

One set of interesting questions is why some relationships that possess the first two characteristics aren't recognized by the wider community - that is, by becoming legal families. To name some of these, we might consider committed same-sex couples or what the ALI calls "de facto parents".

Another, and the one we'd like to focus on here, involves what happens when someone who was in a legal family no longer is, or no longer is in the fullest sense. The particular individuals we'd like to consider are noncustodial fathers, though we could envision similar outcomes for noncustodial mothers, birth parents following adoption or any parents once their children are emancipated. What the empirical work shows is that it is losing the community trust and recognition of a custodial parent that causes a significant amount of depression in divorced men. So one important lesson is that it is critical to look at feelings (not just behavior, not just financial costs/benefits)

A second empirical observation is at least suggestive of what happens when the law tries to put a "fix" on a problem that is perhaps intractable. Many of these fathers have for the last twenty years or so been made "joint legal custodians." So part of my project is to determine whether that title, which was seemingly a low-cost solution, mediates the unhappy effects of loss of custodial status. (Judith Seltzer, using the same dataset, has shown that joint legal custody has marginal effects on child support receipt or visitation.)

We find that marriages break up when at least one member of the couple no longer trusts the other. So long as trust remains, spouses tolerate large "balances" in terms of the divisions of household and labor force responsibility. But once they focus on the here-and-now, the relationships become less stable. If a wife loses trust in her husband (usually if she no longer believes he is acting unselfishly, quite often, she files for divorce. (In fact, work published in October by sociologists Sayer and Bianchi shows that her satisfaction with the relationship is significant in predicting divorce, while his is not.) Though she loses financially by divorcing, she keeps (if she has custody) not an asset but the third party trust and autonomy that goes with being a custodial parent (married or single). He gains financially, but will be depressed by his loss of custody far more than by his simple loss of marital status.

In our latest research, we have found that noncustodial fathers are more depressed, controlling for divorce, education, and changed income. Having a legal agreement giving custody to the other parent (which, while maintaining that you are "fit," impliedly means that you are less trustworthy in the normative sense), not only is statistically significant at less than .01, but also has the largest or one of the largest standard coefficients in each equation. In practical terms, loss of custody through a legal agreement or decision increases depression by about 4 points or 1/4 of a standard deviation. Incidentally, we'd predict a similar increase in depression for women who lose custody. Unfortunately in the NSFH sample there were so few of them that results are not statistically significant.

We have also run precisely the same regressions using an additional variable, joint legal custody. Lawmakers and attorneys who dreamed up joint legal custody in the first place or who advise men to seek joint legal custody presumably do so in order to make them feel better, or to give them some role in their absent child's upbringing. They may also have thought, contrary to what Seltzer has found, that children would do better, either through increased visits or more faithful child support payments. Instead, our analysis suggests (though the result isn't statistically significant at .10) that those who receive joint custody (presumably more involved in the first place and sometimes even those who lose a contested case) are more depressed than those who simply lost custody between the first and second waves. Of the 380 couples affected by legal agreements, 204 had a joint custody arrangement.

While we would have liked to see what happens with joint physical custody, the number of couples who had some form of this in our data was so tiny, 34, that no conclusions could be drawn. This suggests an avenue for future research, albeit research that cannot be done with the NSFH. The results also suggest that the effect of joint legal custody, the most common award in many states, seems miniscule for children, negative for men and tedious at best for women (who must consult and seek agreement of their ex-spouses on many more issues).

Suggested Citation

Brinig, Margaret F. and Nock, Steven L., 'I Only Want Trust': Norms, Trust and Autonomy. Available at SSRN: or

Margaret Friedlander Brinig (Contact Author)

Notre Dame Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 780
3157 Eck Hall of Law
Notre Dame, IN 46556-0780
United States
574-631-2303 (Phone)
574-631=8078 (Fax)

Steven L. Nock

University of Virginia ( email )

Cabell Hall, Room 543
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States
804-924-6519 (Phone)

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