Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Who Is in the Stepfamily? Change in Stepparents' Family Boundaries between 1992 and 2009

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Who Is in the Stepfamily? Change in Stepparents' Family Boundaries between 1992 and 2009

Article excerpt

Guided by trends of increased prevalence and social acceptance of stepfamilies, the authors argue that stepparents are more likely to include stepchildren in their personal network in recent times. Data are from observations by 2 studies: (a) the Living Arrangements and Social Networks of Older Adults Study and (b) the Longitudinal Aging Study Amsterdam in 1992-2009 of 247 Dutch stepparents age 54-91 years. The results revealed that in 1992, 63% of the stepparents had stepchildren in their personal network, and this percentage increased to 85% in 2009. The network membership of stepchildren was less likely for stepparents from living-apart-together partnerships. Stepmothers less often included stepchildren in their personal network than stepfathers. Both effects may be understood in terms of family commitment. Stepfamily boundaries have become more permeable over time, suggesting that there is an increased potential for support exchange and caregiving within stepfamilies.

Key Words: families in middle and later life, intergenerational relations, social context, social trends, sociohistorical change, stepfamilies.

The vast increase in divorce and diverse marital and partnership transitions is one of the main demographic changes that have occurred in Western societies over the last few decades (Amato & James, 2010; Cherlin, 2010). Like most other modern industrialized societies, the Netherlands witnessed a strong increase in divorce rates in the 1960s and 1970s, after which the trend stabilized or even reversed slightly (Latten, 2004). Remarriage rates have decreased since 1970 in the Netherlands for divorced and widowed individuals, but these were often replaced by cohabiting or living-apart-together (LAT) relationships. As a result of diverse marital and partnership transitions, families with stepchildren are making up an increasingly larger proportion of the population (Teachman & Tedrow, 2008). Stepfamilies in particular have been found to generate uncertainty with regard to the boundaries of families (Furstenberg, 1987). The elevated levels of uncertainty in stepfamilies in regard to who is part of the family network and who is not can be understood as arising from the lack of clear social roles and responsibilities in these families (Cherlin, 1978). Understanding the functioning of stepfamilies, and in particular relationships between older parents and their adult stepchildren, is vital to appraise the future viability of stepfamilies in providing care to older adults.

In this article, we argue that sociocultural changes in the second half of the 20th century have increased the inclusion of stepchildren as a regular and important tie in the networks of stepparents. A loss of constraints and embeddedness provided by traditional social structures and communities, such as the family, church, and neighborhood, can be observed. This process has been described as detraditionalization (Giddens, 1990). Newpatterns of partnership and family structure have developed, alongside an increase in divorce and remarriage rates as well as a rise in cohabitation and LAT relationships (Cherlin, 2010). At the same time, the social acceptance of more diverse family behavior has increased (Thornton & Young-DeMarco, 2001). In a social environment in which stepfamilies have become more common and more socially accepted, it is more likely that stepchildren will be included in the stepparents' family network.

The purpose of this study was twofold: (a) to examine the extent to which stepfamily boundaries have changed over time and (b) to explore the factors associated with stepfamily boundaries. Specifically, we focused on whether older stepparents include their stepchildren in their personal network, that is, whether older stepparents consider stepchildren as significant others with whom support might be exchanged (Kahn & Antonucci, 1981). The boundaries of the family network are a matter of perspective and are defined by the individual within the stepfamily (Schmeeckle, Giarrusso, Feng, & Bengtson, 2006). …

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