Academic journal article Journal of Family Studies

Preparing to Repartner and Live in a Stepfamily: An Exploratory Investigation

Academic journal article Journal of Family Studies

Preparing to Repartner and Live in a Stepfamily: An Exploratory Investigation

Article excerpt


Little is known about the courtship period of stepfamily couples. This current study is an exploratory investigation of the preparation couples undertake prior to stepfamily living. Ninety-nine stepfamily adults living in New Zealand completed an online questionnaire about the courtship period. The results suggest that couples are motivated to repartner by needs for an intimate relationship and associated benefits, although economic and resource issues precipitated cohabitation for some. Many participants had awareness of potential stepfamily challenges. However, the majority did not talk to partners about parenting issues, or how to manage the change for children, supporting earlier findings that stepfamily couples avoid communicating about difficult issues. The results also suggest that many children received little preparation or communication about the decision to repartner and live in a stepfamily.

Keywords: stepfamily; stepparent; courtship; remarriage; stepparent-child


Many children spend part of their childhood in a stepfamily household. Approximately 9% of married couple households in the United States and 11.5% of cohabiting households contain resident stepchildren (Teachman & Tedrow, 2008). In Australia, approximately one in ten couple families contain resident stepchildren (Australian Bureau of Statistics [ABS], 2007) and 13% of households in the third wave of the HILDA survey have either residential or non-residential stepchildren, or both (Qu & Weston, 2005). Stepfamily data are not collected in the New Zealand census; however, results from the longitudinal Christchurch Health and Development Study indicated that 18.6% of the 1265 study participants had lived in a stepfamily (either cohabiting or remarried) between the ages of 6 and 16 years (Nicholson, Fergusson, & Horwood, 1999).

Stepfamilies face challenges that are unique and often struggle to form functional family households. Over the last three decades, researchers have focused on a number of areas relevant to stepfamily processes and relationships (Ganong & Coleman, 2004; Coleman, Ganong, & Fine, 2000). However, there are still several areas of stepfamily life that have received little research attention (Stewart, 2007). Given the evidence of increased risks of negative outcomes for children in stepfamilies, compared to their peers from first marriages (Amato, 2000; Bray, 1999; Hetherington & Kelly, 2002), it is important to consider new areas that may lead to productive developments, especially in practices that can assist stepfamilies. This study focuses on one such area--the processes that couples engage in prior to living in a stepfamily household.

Stepfamily researchers have investigated stepfamilies post-remarriage and little is known about the preparation that couples engage in prior to cohabitation or remarriage (Ganong & Coleman, 2004). Two exceptions to this include an early study in the USA that asked stepfamily couples about their preparation for remarriage (Ganong & Coleman, 1989) and a more recent British study that interviewed mothers (Smith, 2008) and stepfathers (Robertson, 2008) about stepfamily life with some focus on the period prior to repartnering. These studies suggest that many couples do little to prepare for living in a stepfamily. Many repartnered quickly and did not discuss parenting and stepparenting roles prior to repartnering (Ganong & Coleman, 1989; Robertson, 2008; Smith, 2008).

There is also evidence that some children receive little assistance with the transition (Robertson, 2008). While there has been some research into children's involvement in parental separation and custodial arrangements (e.g., Dunn & Deater-Deckard, 2002; Smith, Gollop, Taylor, & Tapp, 2001), there has been no investigation of the ways in which parents communicate with children about the decision to repartner. Ganong and Coleman (1989) concluded that the main means of preparing for remarriage was cohabitation. …

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