Repartnering And Stepchildren Research Paper

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1. Introduction

Sexual unions create children and hence, parenthood. Union dissolution creates single parents and absent parents. When these parents enter a new partnership, they may have a new kind of children—stepchildren— children who are not the joint concern of the couple at the start of the union, as at least one member enters the union as a step-parent. This asymmetry in parenthood is likely to shape the partner dynamics that lead to union formation and hence to affect the calculations of those with children (whether coresident or not) and any partners who might join them in a new union. This asymmetry affects their lives as a couple, particularly whether they have additional, joint children, and also affects whether their union survives. This research paper on children and new partnerships examines three issues: (a) the role of children in the likelihood that their parents repartner (considering different effects for men and women); (b) the role of such children on the fertility of the unions formed, and (c) the effect of stepchildren on union dissolution.

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2. Background

The rapid rise in divorce in most industrialized countries together with the rise in cohabiting unions, which tend to be more unstable than marriages, is creating a new demographic situation for men and women. A union disruption places them in the partner market again, which is particularly challenging for those who are the parents of young children. Although historically, high mortality often left young parents widowed, divorce creates twice as many new prospective partners. Further, whatever wisdom had accumulated for those facing this challenge, has likely been lost. The divorce revolution that began in the 1960s and 1970s in the industrialized countries in the west followed a half century or more of rapidly declining mortality, which sharply reduced widowhood for both sexes and concentrated it at ages when children are older, or even adults. In addition, the early years of the increase in divorce rates disproportionately involved couples without children far more than has been the case in the 1980s and 1990s (Andersson 1997). Hence, the effect of existing children on new partnerships is not well understood, either in the community of scholars of the demography of the family or in the communities experiencing the new situation. Little is known about how children affect their parents’ repartnering, and not much more is known about those partnerships as they develop over time in terms of their fertility and stability. The research community has been further hampered by a lack of appropriate data to study these issues.

The numbers involved are substantial. In the United States, it is estimated that 40–50 percent of all marriages dissolve and a substantial minority of all children spend some time in a single-parent family (Bumpass and Raley 1995). Half of both previously married cohabiting couples and remarried couples have children in the household and many of the rest have children living elsewhere (Bernhardt and Goldscheider 1998). Although such rates are higher in the US than in other industrialized countries, they are rising rapidly outside the US, while US levels appear to have reached a plateau in the last two decades of the twentieth century. At whatever level, these trends mean that a substantial proportion of adults are at risk of entering a new partnership, and many of those who do will have children, either living with them or dependent upon them financially. Those considering forming a union have to take their potential partner’s children into account.

A critical question might be whether the presence of children increases the likelihood that the unions formed are cohabiting ones. There is some evidence that this is, in fact, the case. Although the rise in cohabitation has not fully offset the decline in proportions married among the never married, the offset is total among the formerly married, suggesting that remarriage is being replaced by cohabitation. However, most research, and most of the data on which research could be based, has made it difficult to study cohabiting partnerships that involve children. Research on ‘single-parent’ families has frequently studied only ‘unmarried’ parents. The most common control for resources in families was ‘family income,’ which typically excluded the income of ‘non-family’ members, i.e., cohabiting partners. New surveys, such as the Family and Fertility Surveys (FFS), should over- come these difficulties.

3. Repartnering Of Parents

Nearly all research on repartnering when pre-existing children are involved has considered only women with coresident children, focusing almost entirely on remarriage and on the US. These studies have typically found that the presence and sometimes the number of children reduce women’s likelihood of marrying, with effects often depending on the ages of the children and of the mother. One of the few studies that considers cohabitation suggests that children reduce the partners’ commitment to the union, decreasing the risk of getting married but increasing the risk of cohabiting (Bennett et al. 1995).

There is much less evidence on how children affect men’s likelihood of union formation. A major problem for men is distinguishing between coresidential and non-co-residential children, a distinction that has been less important for women. One study examined widowers, where presumably fewer of the children lived with other relatives (Smith et al. 1991). That analysis showed that having dependent children reduces middle-aged (< 60) men’s likelihood of remarriage after widowhood, although the reduction was much less than is the case for women with children. However, more recent research on both the US and Sweden, which has included divorced and never-married men with coresident children, as well as widowed men, has found that such men enter partnerships significantly more quickly than men without children (Goldscheider and Sassler 2000, Bernhardt and Goldscheider 1999). This suggests that the effects of coresidential children on union formation are quite different for men than for women.

There is even less research on how non-coresidential children affect union formation, although this is a particularly important issue for men (and the women who consider entering unions with them). The studies mentioned above also examined this issue, and found that in both the US and Sweden, men with noncoresident children are significantly more likely than otherwise comparable men with no coresident children to enter a union than to remain outside a partnership. In Sweden, such men are also more likely to enter a union with either a woman who has coresident children or one who does not than to remain unpartnered; in the US this effect does not appear for union entry for women without children. The few women who have non-coresident children are also more likely to enter a union than to remain outside a partnership. In this case, however, at least in Sweden, they are much more likely to choose a partner with no coresident children, although this effect may reflect the small numbers of nonpartnered men who live with their children.

Perhaps a more important question, however, is the broader one: what factors affect entry into a union with a partner who has children? Research on the US and Sweden shows that two family-related factors distinguish men by whether the partnerships they enter into include children: their parents’ marital history and their own marital history (Bernhardt and Goldscheider 1999, Goldscheider and Sassler 2000). Men who experienced a nontraditional family structure in childhood are significantly more likely to form a marriage that converts them into stepfathers than one that does not, and the same general difference appears for cohabitation.

US men who have been previously married resemble those who are already parents, in being very likely to enter a union (Goldscheider and Sassler 2000). If they marry, there appears to be no difference in the likelihood that their partner has children or not. If the new union is a cohabiting one, however, they are more likely to enter one with children. In fact, divorced men are more likely either to marry or cohabit with children than to remain unpartnered; and they are significantly less likely to cohabit without children than to remain outside a partnership. Similar results were obtained for Sweden (Bernhardt and Goldscheider 1999).

Men who enter unions with children are not simply different in terms of their family histories, however; the evidence for both Sweden and the US suggests that they are also drawn from among the less educated, but the studies do not show why. In Sweden, those with a post-gymnasium education are the most likely to enter a union with a partner without children but the least likely to enter a union where the new partner has children (Bernhardt and Goldscheider 1999). This pattern is the same for US men; college graduates are more likely to enter a union than to remain outside a partnership if the woman does not have children. They are more likely, however, to remain outside a partnership than to enter a union with a women who has children (Goldscheider and Sassler 2000).

These results suggest that there are important differences in the likelihood of repartnering for those with and without children, with patterns that differ between men and women. Children, whether coresident or not, increase repartnering for men, but only non-coresident children do so for women; for them coresident children have the opposite effect. This suggests that surveys need to go beyond providing information in their partnership histories about whether partners brought children into the union and at least also provide information on whether partners have children living elsewhere. Such children clearly affect union formation; it is likely that they would also affect partnership dynamics (fertility and union stability), though this cannot yet be assessed fully, as we shall see in the next section. It is also likely that other characteristics of the children, such as their sex, might affect their parents’ repartnering. No studies to date, however, have assessed whether the gender of the child(ren) matters. This question will take on increased importance later in this review.

More fundamentally, it becomes increasingly important to understand the reasons why children reduce the likelihood of repartnering, which we now see is only the case when they are coresident children and are children of the woman and not the man (unless he is older and widowed). How important is the fact that, although in most industrialized countries stepfathers have few legal rights or responsibilities vis-a-vis their stepchildren, most men realize that the children will be claimants on their incomes, at least while they remain in the household? The effect of having coresident children appears to be less for Swedish women than for women in the US (cf. Bernhardt and Goldscheider 1999 and Bennett et al. 1995). It may be that the greater support provided to children of all kinds by the Swedish state offsets some of the perceived liability for prospective stepfathers.

A perhaps equally important problem is ambiguity over the nature of stepfather–stepchildren relation- ships. Stepfathers are discouraged from assuming parental responsibilities for their stepchildren’s lives by the children, their mothers, and by the larger society in most western, industrialized countries. Paternal involvement is an important factor in family dynamics, particularly for union stability, and we will examine this topic below.

A further interesting question is how much of the decline in marriage formation is a result of the increase in potential partners with children? Most studies that have examined whether the quality of the partner market has declined have considered women’s decisions and have examined trends in the earnings of unmarried men who would be their potential partners. It might be equally interesting to study men’s decisions and examine whether trends in men’s marriage likelihood are influenced by the changing composition of potential female partners, as increasing proportions have children living with them.

4. Fertility Of Couples With Children From Previous Relationships

There have been more studies on the effects of children from a previous union on childbearing in a new union than on repartnering. Few, however, distinguish between coresident and non-coresident children, and none have taken into account the selectivity of repartnering when children are already present as revealed in the studies reviewed above. Nevertheless, these studies have assembled an impressive set of results for a wide range of industrialized countries in Europe, as well as in the US.

Not surprisingly, the general finding is that couples in later unions have lower fertility within those unions than do couples in otherwise comparable first unions, which indicates clearly that many individuals have childbearing goals they do not want to exceed. Their previous children are considered in their decisions to continue childbearing. This result has appeared in studies in Germany, Czechoslovakia, the US, France, and Sweden (cf. references in Vikat et al. 1999).

How much previous children matter and whether it makes a difference whether they are coresident or not remain open questions. They are much more difficult questions to assess for the moment, as there is rarely information on previous children for both members of a couple, particularly on their non-coresident children. The most complete study is a recent analysis of Swedish data (Vikat et al. 1999), which, although it only had data on non-co-resident children for one member of the couple, produced a number of interesting findings.

First, the study found that the effect of previous children is definitely not total, as couples in Sweden appear to have at least one shared biological child independently of previous childbearing by either partner. The authors interpret this result as indicating that joint children are an important element of a union. Second, the authors were able to rule out some alternative reasons for childbearing in later unions. There was little evidence that the risk of having a first child in a union was higher when one of the partners was childless, suggesting that Swedes do not have a child simply as an indicator of adult status. Further, there was little evidence the couples have a child to produce a sibling for a pre-union child, although couples did appear to avoid having only one shared child. This was interpreted as suggesting that it is full siblings that are considered important by Swedish couples in new unions, not half-siblings. Research on the US indicates that while stepsiblings remain fairly close to each other in adulthood, they are much less close than full siblings (White and Riedmann 1992), although it is unclear how much this difference reflects their different histories prior to coresidence and how much it reflects problems in their relationships while sharing a home. It was not possible to assess how much fertility in repartnerships is affected by coresident as opposed to non-coresident stepchildren, as full information on the latter was not available.

Fertility in repartnerships is clearly a complex subject, and one that might depend not only on the numbers of children each of the partners has had previously and where they live, but also the genders of those children. Strong gender effects appear in research on stepfamily relationships, and there is evidence that gender of children affects union dissolution (Brooks-Gunn 1994). No studies to date, however, have assessed this issue, as no research has addressed the selectivity of repartnering.

5. Stepchildren And Union Dissolution

One of the most widely observed characteristics of second partnerships is that they are less stable than first partnerships. Although many have speculated that this pattern was the result of one or more elements reducing commitment (from religious prohibitions to personal orientations toward divorce), a landmark study found that most of the difference in marital satisfaction and in stability could be attributed to the presence of stepchildren. Previously childless persons who repartnered had very little greater risk of union dissolution than those in first partnerships (White and Booth 1985). Studies of union dissolution since then have generally included indicators of the presence of non-joint children as well as joint children, and found that whatever protective effect joint children might have does not characterize stepchildren, who increase the risk of separation. Little research has been done, however, on what types of stepchildren contribute more to this effect. Are the ages of the children a factor? Is their sex? Does the involvement of the step- parent and/or of the non-coresident parent matter? An even more important element might be the parenting practices of the new partners. Two studies of paternal involvement that was restricted to first partnerships showed that greater involvement of a father with his children increased the wife’s marital satisfaction (Harris and Morgan 1991) and their children’s well-being (Amato 1994); stepfathers are normally less involved with their stepchildren than are biological fathers (Marsiglio 1991).

Related to this issue is a startling finding—that couples with daughters are more likely to divorce than couples with sons (Morgan et al. 1988). The key to this result appears to be paternal involvement with children. Men tend to spend more time with their sons than their daughters, both in one-on-one conversation and in terms of participation in family activities, sharing more meals, leisure time, and home activities with them (Cooksey and Fondell 1996). In a sense, stepchildren may be like daughters for many men, children who they wanted less, who they do not relate to as closely, and who they can leave more easily. This may also account for the commonly observed phenomenon that sons often benefit more by their mother’s remarriage than daughters (Brooks-Gunn 1994). Given the increased importance of repartnering in the lives of children and their parents in western, industrialized societies, understanding this phenomenon needs to be a high priority.


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