Studies show that children of divorced parents fare better when their parents live closer together, especially when kids are younger. And a review of existing research suggest when parents move away from each other, a child's well-being can have negative outcomes. Below, we explore various evidence-based reasons why parents should try to remain geographically close during a divorce, and when staying together may actually do more harm than good.
Research on Geographical Proximity Between Divorced Parents and Children
A 2003 article in the Journal of Family Psychology reviewed existing research on the effects of relocation on children and found that relocation negatively affects the relationship between parent and child. Additionally, children also face potentially long-term, challenging consequences as a result.
In other words, disrupting a child's day-to-day routine after divorce, which is already a huge upheaval, may be what you need but isn't necessarily in the best interests of your kids. The 2003 study by researchers at Arizona State University, suggests children of divorced parents are best off when parents are both living close to home (defined in the study as less than an hour's drive), regardless of who has custody.
The 2003 study examined 14 variables related to the stability of college-aged students who had been subject to a divorce as children. They looked at outcomes like the amount of college education contributions from their families, their emotional adjustment, level of hostility toward their parents, their romantic and friendship choices, overall personal health, and life satisfaction.
Among the findings from its 602 study participants, which study authors point out are correlational versus causal:
- Parents contributed more funds toward their child's college education when they stayed in close proximity to each other compared to kids who moved with their mother away from their father, or for those who stayed with their mother when the father moves away
- Children whose parents remained close by after a divorce scored lower on inner turmoil and distress surveys, compared to when either the father or the mother moved, with or without the children
- Students who participated in the study reported better overall rapport with their parents when both were located close by than when one was located at least an hour away from the children
These studies tend to parallel tendencies by the courts to award or maintain joint custody in child custody cases. In Florida for example, "There is a presumption that shared custody is in the best interests of a child," Casey M. Reiter, Esq., who is based in West Palm Beach, told MyDomaine in a previous interview.
Similar studies around the world tend to illuminate similar findings. For example, The Guardian reported on a number of Swedish studies that looked at the well-being of children based on their living arrangements. Their research suggest that psychologically, "Children benefit from two parents being interested in them, and sharing residency encourages this," reports The Guardian.
How Close Is Too Close?
Co-parenting has taken on several trendy terms of late. For example, a 2018 article by NBC Better explained the concept of "birdnesting," where instead of requiring children to move between two different residences, kids remain in the familial home and parents rotate in and out. However, this arrangement has its limits, and experts interviewed for the article says this arrangement typically only works with amicable divorces and isn't a permanent solution.
"I’ve never seen ‘nesting’ go on forever,” says Sherri Sharma, partner at Aronson, Mayefsky & Sloan, LLP, a matrimonial law firm in NYC, in an interview with NBC Better. “A few months is okay but for longer periods (beyond six months), I think the uncertainty of not knowing what it will really be like to have separate homes can be confusing or anxiety-[inducing] for children.”
When Staying Together 'For the Kids' May Do More Harm Than Good
On the other hand, for parents thinking of staying together for the kids' sake, experts say you might be doing more harm than good. In an interview with Goop, psychotherapist Dr. Marcy Cole said children do not thrive emotionally or truly feel “at home” when exposed to chronic conflict, estrangement between parents, or disengaged and dysfunctional role modeling. "Under those circumstances, assuming both parents remain emotionally available to their children, divorce (albeit not ideal) can actually be the most beneficial road for the child’s optimal well-being," Dr. Cole tells Goop.
Viry G. Coparenting and Children’s Adjustment to Divorce: The Role of Geographical Distance from Fathers. J Divorce Remarriage. 2014;55(7):503-526. doi:10.1080/10502556.2014.950900
Braver SL, Ellman IM, Fabricius WV. Relocation of Children After Divorce and Children's Best Interests: New Evidence and Legal Considerations. J Fam Psychol. 2003;17(2):206-219. doi:10.1037/0893-3126.96.36.199
The Guardian. Is Sharing Residency Better for Children's Mental Health? January 24, 2016.
NBC Better by Today. 'Birdnesting' Gives Kids One Stable Home After a Divorce. Does It Work? November 13, 2018.
Goop. Conscious Co-Parenting After Divorce. 2020.