Due to high union dissolution rates, single parents are increasingly present on the relational market. Gaining insight into the re-partnering dynamics among these individuals is relevant from different perspectives. From a parent’s perspective, forming a new union has been identified as one of the main predictors of ‘recovering’ from the dissolution of a previous union, both in terms of improving social and emotional well-being, and financial resources (Sweeney 2010). From a child’s perspective, the arrival of a stepparent increases the availability of parental resources in the household. However, empirical evidence supporting the beneficial effects of a transition from single-parent family to stepfamily remains scarce and inconclusive (Sweeney 2010).
We argue that for a better understanding of the dynamics within stepfamily formation, insight into the union formation process of single parents is required. Stepfamily formation can contribute additional parental resources to a household, depending largely on what elements are at play on the relational market. The question that arises is: with whom do single partners start a new union? To answer this, our recent work explored the relationship between stepparent characteristics (such as their parental status) and the residential arrangement of children from a previous union (Vanassche et al. 2015).
A study on partner characteristics necessitates a consideration of a parent’s likelihood to stay single. We found that, compared to (separated) childless men and women, parents with full-time, residential childrearing responsibilities are more likely to remain single and less likely to enter a union with a childless partner. However, this finding does not hold for parents who share childrearing responsibilities with their ex-partner, or parents of minors who live full-time with an ex-partner. Nonetheless, what does hold is that parents who do re-partner are more likely to do so with somebody who has children from a previous union. Thus, stepfamily formation is often ‘complex’ and involves children with different biological ties to both parents.
How do we explain these findings? Full-time, residential childrearing responsibilities substantially decrease the opportunities to meet new partners, especially potential partners without children. While meeting other parents might occur, for instance, at the school grounds or children’s leisure activities, meeting persons without children is largely restricted to social activities that are difficult to combine with childrearing responsibilities. Furthermore, full-time residential childrearing implies a serious restriction of the time and privacy for the new partner relationship, and a parent may, therefore, be reluctant to start a new partnership. Finally, permanent childrearing responsibilities may reduce a parent’s attractiveness towards potential partners, who find the role as full-time, residential stepparent to be unattractive, especially if they have no children themselves.
What do these findings learn in terms of resource building in post-divorce stepfamilies? Firstly, our study found that parents with the highest degree of residential childrearing responsibilities often have less of an opportunity to share these responsibilities with a new partner. An important evolution is found in the growing popularity of shared residence of children after union dissolution. This move away from full-time mother custody as the only possible post-divorce custody arrangement alters the position of single mothers on the relational market. The facilitation of meeting new partners, and, in particular, partners without children, might be an important shift towards resource building within stepfamilies.
Many of the problems in post-divorce families have been linked to the restrictions on sharing resources, e.g. both partners have parental obligations towards children from a previous union (Furstenberg 2014). Beyond this, the resources stepparents might add to their new family are further limited if they already have children themselves. Thus, parental bonds are more complex within stepfamilies involving children from a previous union of both partners. The coordination of childrearing responsibilities across multiple households requires extensive organization and communication, and creates the possibility for new conflicts (Furstenberg 2014). If only one partner has children from a previous union, fewer parental systems span multiple households, and may facilitate the coordination of parental responsibilities. On the other hand, shared residence of children intensifies the link with the household of the ex-partner, in case only one partner has children. Joint custody may therefore both restrict and intensify the link with other family systems. From a different point of view, parents repartnering other parents might enter into an exchange process. In line with homogamy patterns, parents may prefer partnering with another parent because they have more things in common. While a childless partner might have the potential to bring financial resources to the family; repartnering a partner with childrearing experience may be the preference of parents who require support in daily childrearing.
Summarized, the complex nature of stepfamily formation — in terms of both partners bringing children from a previous union — may be driven by both positive and negative processes that relate to the needs, opportunities, and attractiveness of single parents (De Graaf & Kalmijn 2003). A positive trend is highlighted in the shift towards shared residence of children after union dissolution, a movement that might diminish the relational market’s negative selection mechanisms for single mothers. Shared custodial residence increases the opportunity to meet a new partner outside the child-oriented network, and potential partners might be less reluctant towards a part-time step-parental role than towards full-time childrearing responsibilities. The positive partner selection processes may, therefore, gain importance in the re-partnering process of mothers. In addition, there are no indicators that part-time fathers, compared to non-residential fathers, will experience reduced attractiveness or restricted opportunities on the relational market. Thus, stepfamily formation after union dissolution increasingly involves residential stepmothers. Overall, stepfamily formation might, therefore, effectively add parental resources to the maternal and paternal household.
Vanassche, S., Corijn, M., Matthijs, K., Swicegood, G. (2015). Repartnering and childbearing after divorce: Differences according to parental status and custodial arrangements. Population Research and Policy Review, 34(5), 761-784.
De Graaf, P. M., & Kalmijn, M. (2003). Alternative Routes in the Remarriage Market : Competing-Risk Analyses of Union Formation after Divorce *. Social Forces, 81(4), 1459–1498.
Furstenberg, F. F. (2014). Fifty Years of Family Change: From Consensus to Complexity. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 654, 12–30.