Dissertation Abstracts

Stepfamily Configurations and Trajectories following Parental Divorce: A Quantitative Study of Stepfamily situations, Stepfamily Relationships and the Well-Being of Children

Author: Vanassche, Sofie , sofie.vanassche@soc.kuleuven.be
Department: Centre for Sociological Research
University: KU Leuven, Belgium
Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Koen Matthijs
Year of completion: 2013
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: Stepfamilies , Joint custody , Parental divorce , Stepfamily relations
Areas of Research: Family Research , Population


The evolution towards more equal parenting after divorce for men and women over the past two decades resulted in two changes in Belgian divorce law: joint legal custody became the legal standard in 1995, joint physical custody in 2006. This thesis deals with the demographic and sociological implications of these developments for the formation, structure and functions of stepfamilies after divorce and the family processes within these families. We use two data sources: Divorce in Flanders and the Leuven Adolescents and Family Study.
A first group of findings relates to the proportion of children living in a stepfamily formation, and to what extent this proportion is affected by the residence arrangement of the child. Our results demonstrate that stepfamilies following divorce are not exceptional living arrangements: the large majority of the children have at least one parent in a new partner relationship. Compared to children who reside full-time with their mothers, children in shared residence are more likely to be faced with a new partner of the mother and to co-reside (part-time) with a new partner of the father. The father's new partner (or the stepmother) more often has residential children from a previous relationship than a mother's new partner (or stepfather) does. Joint physical custody therefore leads to more (complex) stepfamily formations.
A second set of questions relates to the structure and characteristics of family relationships within stepfamilies and their association with children’s well-being. Many children have good relationships with their parents and stepparents. Co-residence is an important factor for maintaining a good relationship with all parental figures. The relationship of children with their stepfather is strongly linked to their relationship with the mother, but is independent of their relationship with the father. The reverse holds for the relationship with the stepmother. The relationships between the former partners and the new partner relationship are relatively independent of each other, both in terms of emotional interaction, and in terms of co-parenting. Despite the current normative climate which stresses the importance of the (biological) parental union following divorce, we found relatively little coparental communication between ex-partners. Divorced mothers and fathers appear to view their new partners to be their main collaborators in childrearing.
In general, family relationships are more strongly related to the wellbeing of children than family structures, but there are important variations according the child's residence arrangements. The results indicate the need for more conditional framing of research questions within this field: the interrelatedness of family structures, family processes, and the wellbeing of children is very complex.
Our findings have important implications for contemporary family policy and family law. These have to do with the almost exclusive focus on biological parenthood after divorce in recent years, and the conspicuous silence about the rights and obligations of stepparents. Finally, there are important gender dimensions associated with the evolution towards joint custody of children following parental divorce, both from the perspective of biological parents and from the perspective of stepparents.