Living with Your New Partner After a Divorce?
Things to do, things not to do, and what to consider when children are involved
Posted August 31, 2019
Media representations of families are beginning to reflect how the American family form has changed over time. These representations emphasize the importance of considering how family members from diverse family forms such as stepfamilies experience critical events in family life (Metts et al., 2013).
One newer family form is a cohabiting stepfamily where children live with one biological parent and their parent’s partner. As children continue to gain stepparents through cohabitation, it could be important to understand what has worked and what has not for the stepchildren involved.
Dr. Audra K. Nuru and Dr. Tiffany R. Wang (2014) contend that the term stepfamily should be expanded to account for more nuanced compositions of stepfamilies—including cohabiting partner households that contain children. Based on 28 interviews with stepchildren whose parents had cohabited before remarrying, these researchers identify three events that were generally positive, one stepchildren perceived as negative, and three that were met with varied results.
Things to Do
Quality Time - Stepchildren reported that quality time spent with cohabiting stepfamily members such as family vacations, non problem-oriented relationship talks, and leisure activities allowed them to create a normal family life and become more comfortable with their stepparents.
Remarriage - Stepchildren reported that the engagement or wedding ceremony of their residential parent and stepparent changed how they saw their stepparent. Remarriage signaled that the stepparent was going to be a long-term part of the family’s life and solidified the family as valid, legal, and legitimate.
Prosocial Actions - Stepchildren reported that prosocial actions such as gift-giving, friendly gestures, or acts of kindness helped them feel more confident that their stepparents cared about them and would be there to stay. For some stepchildren, prosocial actions alleviated some of the stress and worry they were experiencing.
Something Not to Do
Rush the Process – Although a residential parent might believe that it is beneficial to have a partner move in soon after the relationship begins to create a new long-term family, stepchildren reported that they felt less like a family when the move in process occurred too quickly. For some stepchildren, this might mean having a partner move in too soon after a divorce, move in before getting to know the child well, or start to take on the role of stepparent before the child was ready to acknowledge them as a stepparent.
Things to Consider
Changes in Household and Family Composition - Stepchildren reported several types of changes in household and family composition including a partner moving in, a child being born to the remarried couple, the remarried couple became grandparents, and stepchildren visiting or moving in/out of the cohabiting household. For some stepchildren, having a partner join the household represented a negative event because this change destroyed or disrupted the close bond they had with their residential parent. For other stepchildren, the addition of a new baby represented a positive event because this change helped them feel a greater sense of closeness with their stepparent.
Relocation or Geographical Move - Stepchildren reported events where they changed location of their household to a different house in the same area, a different city, or a different state. For some stepchildren, moving into a new house signaled that the stepparent was invested in the family and interested in creating a fresh start and new memories in their new house. For other stepchildren, moving into a new house signaled that their nonresidential parent would be less able to visit and attend events in their lives.
Conflict or Disagreement – Perhaps the most surprising finding was that stepchildren reported that conflict or disagreement could be both negative and positive. Some stepchildren reported that stepparents became more involved in conflicts and disagreements than the stepchildren thought they should be. Other stepchildren reported that successful resolutions of conflicts or disagreements gave them greater confidence that their stepparents would treat them with respect in future conflicts or disagreements. These varying experiences suggest that how the stepfamily members approach the conflict was pivotal in determining whether the conflict or disagreement was viewed negatively or positively.
Exploring different types of relational events allows people to better understand what events shape how cohabiting stepchildren feel about their families. Ultimately, cohabiting stepfamilies represent an important family form that provides insight into how stepfamilies are formed and cultivated over time. If you are considering living with a new partner after a divorce and have children involved, make sure that everyone is ready and open for this change and commitment to a more long-term relationship.
Metts, S., Braithwaite, D. O., Schrodt, P., Wang, T. R., Holman, A. J., Nuru, A. K., & Stephenson Abetz, J. (2013). An exploratory study of experience and expression of emotions of stepchildren at critical events in stepfamily life. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 54, 414-437. doi:10.1080/10502556.2013.800400
Nuru, A. K., & Wang, T. R. (2014). “She was stomping on everything that we used to think of as a family”: Communication and turning points in cohabiting (step)families. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 55, 145-163. doi:10.1080/10502556.2013.871957