Older Parents and Adult Children in Stepfamilies

Prior to 1990, research on the development and maintenance of relationships in later-life stepfamilies was nearly nonexistent. Since then, however, many researchers have considered issues such as the closeness of adult stepchildren and their older parents and stepparents and the intergenerational transfer of resources (e.g., Amato, Rezac, & Booth, 1995; Aquilino, 1994; Kalmijn, 2013; Pezzin, Pollak, & Schone, 2008; Seltzer, Yahirun, & Bianchi, 2013). Most of this work has focused on postdivorce stepfamilies (there are exceptions, e.g., Kalmijn, 2007; Seltzer et al., 2013), so less is known about relationships following parental death. Relationships among adult children and older cohabiting parents and stepparents also have rarely been studied (again, there are exceptions, e.g., Noel- Miller, 2013).

Closeness and Contact

Frequency of contact between adult children and their remarried parents and stepparents is a commonly used measure of relationship closeness. Older parents who remarried when their children were young have less contact with their adult children than do continuously married parents (e.g., Aquilino, 1994; Bulcroft & Bulcroft, 1991; Kalmijn, 2007), but more than divorced parents (Lye, Klepinger, Hyle, & Nelson, 1995; White, 1992). Considering the motherhood mandate, it is not surprising that remarried mothers have more frequent contact and better relationships with children than remarried fathers do (Amato et al., 1995). Remarriage of the parent who had physical custody after the divorce is only slightly related to the adult child’s relationship quality and contact with that custodial parent. Aquilino (1994) found that remarriage of mothers had small effects on adult children’s relationships with their nonresidential fathers. Custodial fathers’ remarriages, however, had large negative impacts on children’s relationship quality with their nonresidential mothers. Cooney, Hutchinson, and Leather (1995) reported that parental remarriage was associated with sons’, but not daughters’, closeness with parents. Maternal remarriage limited closeness with both parents, but paternal remarriage contributed to mother-son closeness.

Compared to married parents and their adult children, in families where the older parent remarried, relationship quality and contact between parents and adult children are lower (de Jong Gierveld & Peeters, 2003 ; Kalmijn, 2007 ; 2013 ; Lye et al., 1995; Noel-Miller, 2013; van der Pas & van Tilburg, 2010). Additionally, parents in cohabiting and LAT relationships formed later in life have less contact with their adult children than do remarried parents (de Jong Gierveld & Peeters, 2003).

It appears that remarriage after the children are grown creates more distance between fathers and children than between mothers and children. For instance, remarried noncustodial fathers had significantly less contact with their adult children than did remarried mothers (Aquilino, 1994; Kalmijn, 2007). Aquilino (1994) also reported that when mothers remarried and adult children acquired a stepfather, the adult children’s contacts with nonresidential fathers were lower than contacts between divorced mothers and their adult children, although relationship quality was not. Custodial fathers’ remarriages had large negative effects on adult children’s contact frequency and on the relationship quality with their nonresidential mothers (Aquilino, 1994). Additionally, divorced fathers who remarry or repartner, particularly when they have additional biological children and stepchildren, have less close relationships with their children than do divorced fathers who remain single (Noel-Miller, 2013). These findings may be because adult children get along better with mothers than fathers before the remarriage, and in part it may be because adults develop closer ties with stepfathers than with stepmothers (Vinick, 1998; Ward, Spitze, & Deane, 2009). Evidence regarding parent-adult child relationships for older widowed persons is hampered by the small samples of most of these studies, but in general it appears as if these relationships also become less close after the older parent remarries (Lopata, 1979).

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