by Marion Gindes, Ph.D.†

Excerpts taken from article posted on Divorce Watch


I. Introduction
The divorce of parents significantly undermines their children’s sense of security and stability. The two people upon whom the child is dependent are no longer equally accessible to the child and the foundation of the child’s world is splintered. From the child’s perspective, the best of all possible worlds, after parental divorce, includes parents who are amicable, do not display overt hostility, can communicate with each other about the child, and live close enough to each other so that child can have the same playmates when with either parent. These conditions maximize the potential for the child developing strong, positive relationships with both parents as well as for both parents’ involvement in the child’s school and extracurricular activities and for frequent and regular contact with the nonresidential parent.

When a residential or custodial parent, then, seeks to move to a different geographic region, that best possible post-divorce scenario for children is threatened. The wish to relocate poses the most dramatic example of the conflicting needs and wishes of parents and children and of the conflicting needs and wishes of custodial and noncustodial parents. For the most part, children do not wish to leave the environment in which they live nor do they wish to leave their noncustodial parent, who also does not want them to go. Parent and child relocation, which has become a major problem facing mental health and legal professionals, is, however, inevitable in a mobile society. Psychological research has yet to focus extensively on the impact of relocation on children. Perhaps this is because relocation as an issue is relatively new, too infrequent to obtain a sufficient sample of cases, and, of course, too geographically widespread to make the study of these families feasible. A vast body of psychological literature, however, exists regarding the relationship of other variables, such as interparental conflict, to children’s well-being following parental divorce. In this article, I present the major considerations involved in examining relocation cases, such as definitions of relocation, psychological issues germane to relocation decisions, the context in which relocation occurs, and the various motivations for relocation. The research dealing with psychological factors, such as the child’s contact with the nonresidential parent, interparental conflict, the age of the child, parent-child relationships, and the parents’ level of functioning, are discussed in terms of their significance for relocation. Finally, several factors are identified that are consistently related to positive adjustment in children of divorce. These factors include positive adjustment of the custodial parent, a positive relationship between the child and custodial parent, and a low level of conflict between the parents. Findings regarding contact with the noncustodial parent have been found to be inconsistent and subject to wider variation than the other factors mentioned. The need to consider the potentially conflicting wishes of the child and of the parents is also explored. Finally, the delicate task of reconciling the relocation issue with the best interests of the child is addressed.

While the best interests of the child standard should be a priority in any custody decision, the larger family system cannot be neglected, especially in relocation cases. The importance of the family context is acknowledged in the standards adopted by of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts which state that the primary purpose of a custody evaluation is to assess the family.As T. Richard Saunders, Marion Gindes, James Bray, Sylvia Shellenberger, and Rodney Nurse note, in discussing child custody assessment, the goal “is to preserve what is sound and successful within any given family system. . . .”.

The needs of a particular family member cannot be considered in isolation from the needs of other family members.
Constance Ahrons uses the term “binuclear” to describe the postdivorce family. According to her, the binuclear family consists of two households, with the child living in both. The binuclear family includes stepparents, step-siblings, even former spouses of stepparents as well as parents, full siblings and halfsiblings. While this is a broad definition of the postdivorce family constellation, it highlights the interconnectedness of the various people involved. Children usually continue to consider both of their parents as part of their family, even following the parents’ separation or divorce. When children are asked to draw a picture of their family, they include both of their parents even if their parents have long been divorced. If the interests of the entire family, which includes the parents, other children, extended family members, and, sometimes, other parties who may have significant relationships with the children are ignored, there may be negative consequences for all members of the family system. Thus, relocation cases, like other custody or visitation cases, need to be considered from a developmental or life cycle family systems perspective. The parties need to be considered as “individuals at different developmental stages in the context of a separating family.” The term “separating” is used because a relationship between the parents continues past the physical separation, divorce, and even remarriage. The most psychologically sound approach is to determine the best interests of the family, with the children’s interests paramount. Even then, what is in the best interests of siblings of different ages and characteristics may not be the same.

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