Deciding who gets the kids in divorce and how to divide parenting time is one of the most important decisions you’ll make for your children in terms of their welfare. A healthy relationship with both parents is crucial for the wellbeing of the child. As Kelley & Lamb (2003, p. 196) conclude, “there is substantial evidence that children are more likely to attain their psychological potential when they are able to develop and maintain meaningful relationships with both parents, whether or not the two parents live together.” Research shows that girls especially show a deprivation in mental health when their fathers are not actively involved or live far away, often developing antisocial or hostile behavior. (Braver, Ellman & Fabricius, 2003) Parental absence or neglect can impact every aspect of a child’s development. So it’s important to create custody arrangements that work in the interest of the child.
Deciding on Post-Divorce Living Arrangements: What’s Best for the Children?
“I find it amusing that an alternative form of joint custody, called birdnesting, in which the children stay ‘home’ and the parents go back and forth, is too taxing for most adults. After an initial flurry of parental interest, this option has been largely abandoned.”
– Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee (2000, p. 213)
Living arrangements are another area that will have a big impact on child welfare. Obviously, someone is going to have to move and create a new home. But where they end up doing this matters a great deal. Ideally, parents should strive to be no more than a 15-minute drive apart from each other. When parents get divorced, they are splitting apart a child’s two most important people. The larger that split, the bigger the separation, the worse off children will be. There are several factors behind this principle:
A) The closer the proximity of parents to each other, the more involved each parent will be; one of the most important measures of post-divorce child welfare. As Braver, Ellman & Fabricius (2003, p. 207) point out, “significant physical separation that makes weekly or even monthly visits impractical is likely to add considerably to the difficulty of maintaining (a healthy) relationship.” A parent who is close to a child in proximity can maintain regular contact, watch their soccer games, and basically be a better parent than one far away. The larger the distance between parents, the less involved the contact.
B) When parents separate from each other at greater distances, each parent becomes an island. There’s only one person to pick them up from school when they’re sick. Nobody else to help get them to soccer practice on that day when you have an important meeting. No chance for mom to have dad watch the kids (or vice versa) when she could use a night off. All of these things raise the stress levels of single parenting and limit a parent’s resources. Furthermore, all of these “little” things we just discussed are in fact a big part of parenting, and help strengthen parent-child bonds.
C) In studies, students from families where one parent had moved greater distances received less financial support from their parents than families who remained close, even after correcting for differences in financial situations. Those children also “worried more about that support, felt more hostility in their interpersonal relations, suffered more distress related to their parent’s divorce, perceived their parents less favorably as sources of emotional support and as role models, believed the quality of their parents’ relations with each other to be worse, and rated themselves less favorably on their general physical health, their general life satisfaction, and their personal emotional adjustment.” (Braver, Ellman & Fabricius, 2003, p. 214) To sum it up, farther separation means less support in all areas, and this lowered support translates into a less healthy child in all aspects of life.
D) A large number of “environmental changes,” one of which is parental relocation, predicts poor outcomes in children, much more so in children whose parents divorced than with non-divorced children. (Stolberg and Anker, 1983) On top of everything else that is going on, to have a parent move far away just adds another transition to the mix.
E) This separation tends to endure and will create a lower standard of living as (well as parental estrangement) for a child well into adulthood. The longer a child is separated from a parent, the weaker that relationship will become. (Lye, Klepinger, Hyle & Nelson, 1995) Studies have found that the less children saw their fathers while growing up, the less fathers contributed to their college expenses (Fabricius, Braver & Deneau, 2003) and the less close the fathers were in relationships with their adult children. (Deneau, 1999)
On virtually all child outcomes measured, children whose parents relocated farther away from each other were shown to be significantly disadvantaged and have a lower standard of overall welfare. (Braver, Ellman & Fabricius, 2003) As the previous authors state, “we find a preponderance of negative effects associated with parental moves by mother or father, with or without the child, as compared with divorced families in which neither parent moved away.” (p. 214) This leads to children who are “significantly higher in distress” than when both parents remain in close proximity. Other research has found that “a comprehensive and critical reading of over 75 studies in the social science literature … generally supports a policy of encouraging both parents to remain in close proximity to their children.” (Warshak, 2000, p. 84)
Relocation disputes can pose a considerable dilemma for the courts. (Kelly & Lamb, 2003) On one hand, there is considerable weight given to the reasonable desire that a non-custodial parent has to maintain a relationship with the child. On the whole, courts overwhelmingly prefer that both parents stay close together following a divorce. On the other, often times such a move arises because a parent gets a job or has an opportunity to better his or her circumstances. If one parent is relocating out of the area, courts may also decide to switch custody arrangements, giving the non-custodial parent full custody to remain in the area with the kids. Our advice is to do your best to avoid such issues altogether, by working together to find living arrangements in close proximity to each other that will benefit your children. To do otherwise may result in significant harm.