The question of relocation after parental divorce is difficult and complex. However, parenting plans that both accommodate parental relocation and maintain the same proportion of residential parental responsibility being exercised by each parent before and after relocation, while extremely challenging, are possible. Equal or shared parenting can be made to work when parents live some distance apart, particularly with older children. At the same time, in the interests of stability and continuity in children’s lives, relocation should be undertaken only after careful consideration in regard to the impact such a move will have on children and on their relationships with both parents. It is no surprise that research indicates that children of divorce fare better if their parents remain in the same local area.
Braver et al (2003) studied 500 college students who grew up with divorced parents. The students were divided into two groups based on the moving history of their families: In the first, neither parent moved more than one hour away from the original family home, while in the second, one parent did move more than one hour away. Children’s psychological and emotional adjustment, health status, and other factors were measured. Results showed those whose parents had been separated by more than an hour's drive were “significantly disadvantaged,” scoring poorly on numerous measures, including hostility, distress over their parents’ divorce, and generally poor physical health and life satisfaction.
In a review of the theoretical and empirical research literature on the effects of relocation on children, Kelly and Lamb (2003) conclude that relocation stresses and often disrupts psychologically important parent-child relationships, and this, in turn, has adverse consequences for children. Younger children are particularly vulnerable to disruptions in attachment formation and consolidation, and therefore are likely to suffer the most when relocation occurs, with long-term consequences.
Yet moving is ubiquitous in North American society, with statistics indicating that 16 percent of all Americans move during a year's time, 43 percent of them outside of their current metropolitan area. Moving is most common among people ages 20 to 34, the age group most likely to have young children. Thus, kids are even more likely to move than adults. Moving with children is particularly common after divorce.
Kelly and Lamb provide some useful guidelines for maintaining children’s relationships with both parents if relocation is to occur. First, divorced parents wishing to relocate should consider waiting until their children are at least two or (even better) three years old, because the children are then better equipped with the cognitive and language skills necessary to maintain long-distance relationships.
As children grow older, their changing developmental needs must remain at the forefront of whatever arrangements parents make to modify their schedules and to accommodate co-parenting of their children over long distances. Parenting plans should also make explicit reference to the regular use of telephone calls, videotapes, e-mail, and web cameras, in which communication can take place during periods that children are separated from either of their parents—although a disembodied voice over the phone or an image on the screen is never a substitute for actual physical contact. Thus, co-parenting over long distances requires a good deal of creativity and flexibility, and parents in these circumstances may particularly benefit from support services such as mediation, parenting coordination, and the development of parenting plans.
Courts have generally upheld the ability of custodial parents to relocate, based on the assumption that “what is good for the custodial parent is good for the child.” The “distress argument” is often made—namely, that to deny a parent’s application to relocate will cause such psychological harm to the parent that it will damage her or his ability to provide care. Such a position overlooks the fact the relocation may cause the non-resident parent even greater distress, and importantly, can threaten the child’s relationship with the non-relocating parent and thereby the child’s well-being.
Court decisions are beginning to change, however, as studies demonstrate that children’s relationships with both parents are best safeguarded by legislation that discourages child relocation when both parents are actively involved in parenting after divorce. New legislation in Wisconsin, for example, requires a moving parent to prove that prohibiting the move would be harmful to children’s best interests. In contested cases, a rebuttable presumption that children remain in the community in which they have become adjusted would safeguard children’s existing relationships and should be part of equal or shared parenting legislation.
Above all else, children’s best interests should be the main concern in any discussion about relocation. Primary among these is the preservation of children’s primary attachments to both parents, and bearing in mind that children have a different concept of distance to adults; what may seem manageable to the parents may be experienced as an infinite distance away by children. To the degree that children’s meaningful relationships with both parents can be accommodated after relocation, a key factor in their post-divorce adjustment and well-being, the decision to relocate is made easier.
The likely effects of moving on the children’s social relationships must also be considered. To the extent that relocation threatens children’s relationships with a parent, and their existing social network, the potential adverse effects of relocation should be at the forefront of decision-making about the residential arrangements of children after divorce. The choice to have children necessarily involves sacrifices, and one of those sacrifices may come down to having to prioritize a child's needs to maintain a fulfilling relationship with both parents over a potentially selfish desire to start afresh following divorce.
Braver, S. et al. (2003). “Relocation of Children After Divorce and Children’s Best Interests: New Evidence and Legal Considerations,” Journal of Family Psychology, 17 (2), 206–219.
Kelly, J. & Lamb, M. (2003). “Developmental Issues in Relocation Cases Involving Young Children: When, Whether, and How?,” Journal of Family Psychology, 17 (2), 193-205.