Remarriages have become almost as common as first marriages in contemporary America. In fact, in recent years, almost half of all marriages involved at least one spouse who had been married previously (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1998). Remarriage rates in the United States (the number of people remarrying each year per 1,000 persons divorced or widowed) increased during the 1960s, declined precipitously across the 1970s, and have continued to decline throughout the 1980s and 1990s, although at a much slower rate (Sweet and Bumpass 1988; U.S. Bureau of the Census 1998).
Contemporary remarriages are more likely to follow divorce, in contrast to earlier centuries, in which remarriage typically followed the death of a spouse. For example, Demos (1970) reported that in the Plymouth Colony, approximately 40 percent of men and 26 percent of women over the age of 50 had been married more than once, due primarily to the death of the first spouse. In contrast, throughout the twentieth century, remarriages following the death of a spouse have been increasingly outnumbered by remarriages following divorce, owing to the combination of the dramatic decrease in the mortality rate in the first few decades of the century and the increase in the divorce rate. In fact, by 1990, remarriages in which both parties had been divorced occurred twenty times more often than remarriages in which both parties had been widowed (Clarke 1995).
While remarriage rates are related to divorce rates, they do not always follow the same trend. For example, the rise in remarriage rates in the 1960s accompanied the rise in divorce rates, but the decline in remarriage rates in the 1970s occurred at a time when the divorce rates were still growing. This apparent incongruence in the 1970s and early 1980s can be explained to a great extent by an increase in cohabitation among formerly marrieds across the same period (Bumpass et al. 1991).
Rates of remarriage vary substantially by age, gender, race and ethnicity, and marital status (i.e., divorced or widowed).
Age at the time of termination of the first marriage is clearly the best predictor of remarriage— particularly for women—with younger people remarrying at much higher rates. For example, almost 90 percent of women under the age of 25 when their first marriage ends remarry, while fewer than one-third of women over the age of 40 at the time of termination remarry (Bumpass et al. 1990).
Remarriage rates also differ by race and ethnicity. White non-Hispanic women are substantially more likely to remarry than are black women, and somewhat more likely than Hispanic women (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1998). White non-Hispanic women also remarry much more quickly than do either black or Hispanic women. Based on 1988 data, 35 percent of white women had remarried within two years, compared to only 16 percent of black women and 17 per cent of Hispanic women (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1998). Further, black and Hispanic women are less likely to cohabitate following divorce than are white women (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1998). Thus, the variations in remarriage appear to reflect a general tendency for white non-Hispanic women to be more likely than black or Hispanic women to establish new households following divorce.
Gender is a particularly important factor to consider when discussing remarriage, not only because remarriage rates vary by gender, but because gender interacts with several other factors that predict remarriage. Overall, three-quarters of divorced men and two-thirds of divorced women in the United Sates remarry (Cherlin and Furstenberg 1994). However, gender differences in likelihood of remarriage increase substantially across the life course. For formerly marrieds under 30 years of age, there is little difference in men’s and women’s likelihood of remarriage; however, by age 35, men are much more likely to remarry, and they are increasingly more likely in each successive age group. For example, among those aged 30–34, the rate of remarriage per 1,000 in the formerly married population is 138 for women, and 178 for men. In the age group 50–54, the gender discrepancy increases to a rate of 25 per 1,000 for women, and 75 per 1000 for men. By age 65 and over, the rate of remarriage rate for women is only 2 per 1,000 formerly marrieds in the population, compared to 15 per 1,000 for men (Clarke 1995). Thus, women’s likelihood of remarriage not only decreases considerably across the life course, but decreases particularly markedly compared to that of men.
Various explanations for the overall lower remarriage rates for women than men have been developed. The most commonly cited explanation focuses on the limited ‘‘marriage market,’’ or field of eligibles, for women who experience the termination of their marriage through divorce or death. First, there are fewer men than women, and this discrepancy increases with age (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1998). Also, women tend to marry men who are older than themselves, further limiting the pool of eligibles for women who are themselves older.
The effect of the presence of children on likelihood of remarriage also varies considerably by gender. In particular, the presence of children has much greater effects on the likelihood of remarriage for women than for men. For example, a recent study in New York State found that only 45 percent of divorced women with children remarried, compared to 67 percent of divorced men with children. Further, the likelihood of remarriage for women, but not men, declined as the number of children from the previous marriage increased (Buckle et al. 1996). About half of the women with one child remarried, but only about a quarter of the women with four children remarried. In contrast, about two-thirds of men with either one or four children remarried. It is possible to speculate that the lower rate of remarriage for women with children, particular those with multiple children, might be a function of the fact that women with several children are likely to be older than their childless counterparts; however, even when controlling on age (i.e., comparing women within the same age groups), the rate of remarriage is about one-quarter lower among mothers than among childless women (Bumpass et al. 1990).
Buckle and colleagues (1996) found that the presence of children also affected men’s, but not women’s, choice of a new partner. Divorced men who were childless were four times more likely to marry women who had not been married previously; in contrast, divorced men with children were almost twice as likely to marry a woman who had been married before. While divorced women were almost twice as likely to marry men who had previously been married than those who had not, this choice was not affected by whether the women had children.
Recent work by Sweeney (1997) suggests that the age of children must also be considered when examining the effect of children on their mothers’ likelihood of remarriage. She found that preschoolers reduced women’s likelihood of remarriage, while school-age children and teenagers had no effect, and children 18 years or older were associated with an increased likelihood of remarriage; these findings are similar to those reported by Koo and Suchindran almost twenty years earlier (1980), suggesting little change across time in the effects of this factor on remarriage.
Mate Selection Among Those Who Remarry
One of the most striking patterns in first marriages is the tendency for individuals to marry others with similar social characteristics, such as age, educational attainment, religion, and socioeconomic background—a pattern known as homogamy. Although there is also a tendency toward homogamy in remarriage, the degree of similarity has been less than in first marriages, although this trend appears to be changing.
The differences in status similarity between first marrieds and remarrieds can be seen by examining partners’ age discrepancies. Individuals who remarry tend to select mates from a wider field of eligibles compared to first marrieds, resulting in greater age difference between spouses in remarriage; however, the discrepancy appears to have decreased over the past two decades. Throughout the past thirty-five years, the groom in a first marriage has been, on average, two years older than the bride. Between the early 1960s and the mid-1970s, remarried grooms were, on average, four years older than their brides; however, since 1980, the discrepancy has declined to about three years (Clarke 1995). Thus, while there continues to be less age homogamy in remarriages than first marriages, the difference has become muted.
Individuals who are formerly married also appear to be increasingly likely to select a partner who shares the same marital status. For example, by 1990, divorced women were almost twice as likely to marry men who were also divorced as to marry men who had never been married (Clarke 1995). However, as in the case of age, homogamy of marital status was greater than in earlier years; in fact, the rate of divorced women marrying divorced men almost doubled from 1970 to 1990.
Socioeconomic factors appear to have somewhat different effects on patterns of first marriages and subsequent marriages—particularly for women. The women most likely to enter first marriages are those with greater socioeconomic prospects (cf. Goldscheider and Waite 1986; Lichter et al. 1992). However, the patterns are more complicated for remarriage. Haskey (1987) reported that women with higher occupational prestige were less likely to remarry; however, more recent research by Sweeney (1997) suggests that the effect of women’s occupational prestige on remarriage may be more complex. She found that, among women under the age of 25 at the time of separation, those with higher occupational prestige were less likely to remarry; however, among women separating at age 45, higher occupational prestige was associated with an increased likelihood of remarriage. Thus, it appears that the middle-aged women who are the least able to support themselves are also the women least likely to be able to achieve economic stability through remarriage, further increasing the risk of poverty for women in this age group.
For men, it is less clear whether socioeconomic prospects have differential effects on entry into first marriages and remarriages. As in the case of women, greater economic prospects increase men’s likelihood of entering into first marriages (cf. Goldscheider and Waite 1986; Lichter et al. 1992); however, evidence on economic factors and remarriage are less consistent. While Haskey (1987) found that men with higher occupational prestige were more likely to marry, Sweeney (1997) found no effects for any dimension of men’s socioeconomic prospects, including educational attainment, job status, occupational aspirations, and work commitment.
Taken together, these findings suggest that patterns of remarriage may be becoming more similar to patterns of first marriages in terms of some demographic characteristics, such as age and previous marital status, but not necessarily in terms of socioeconomic prospects.
Differences Between First Marriages and Remarriages
While the popular press has debated the relative happiness of first marriages and remarriages, scholarly research on this issue has failed to find important differences. The most comprehensive review of this research to date (Vemer et al. 1989) found that first marrieds report only slightly greater marital satisfaction than do remarrieds. Elizabeth Vemer and her colleagues suggest that even this small difference may be accounted for by the fact that most studies combine data from individuals who had married twice with those who had married more than twice, and there is evidence that individuals in the latter group are less happy in general. Vemer and her colleagues also found that remarried men were more satisfied with their relationships than were remarried women; however, the differences were very small and paralleled the differences found between women’s and men’s satisfaction with first marriages. The absence of notable differences in marital quality between first marriages and remarriages has also been found in more recent investigations of this issue (cf. McDonald and DeMaris 1995). Thus, taken together, the findings indicate little difference in satisfaction between first marriages and remarriages for either men or women.
The literature suggests that the division of household labor also differs for couples in first and subsequent marriages. Ishii-Kuntz and Coltrane (1992) found that husbands in remarriages contributed more to household tasks such as cooking, meal cleanup, shopping, laundry, and housecleaning than did men in first marriages, particularly when couples had only their own biological children. In families in which there were stepchildren, women performed a greater actual number of hours of household labor, but the proportion that they contributed relative to their spouses was still smaller than that of women in first marriages. Ishii-Kuntz and Coltrane suggest that this is because the ‘‘incomplete institutionalization’’ of remarriage leads to a reduction in gender traditionalism.
However, other studies suggest that whether the woman has been married previously may have more effect on the division of household labor than whether her husband has been married before. Funder (1986) found that women in second marriages perceived that household labor was shared more equally than in their first marriages; however, there was no such trend in men’s perceptions. Further, Sullivan (1997) reported that women who had been previously married contributed a smaller proportion of household labor, but that men who were formerly married contributed no differently than did men in first marriages.
The large majority of remarriages involve children. Not only do more than half of formerly married individuals bring children to their new marriages (Buckle et al. 1996), but the rate of childbearing in remarriages is relatively high. Approximately half of all women who enter remarriage under 35 years of age bear at least one child during that marriage, generally within the first two years (Wineberg 1990).
One question that is often raised in both the popular and the scholarly literature is the effect of the presence of children on marital quality. The presence of children has generally been found to have a negative effect on parents’ marital quality; however, the effects of children specifically on remarried couples is less clear. While White and Booth (1985) found that the presence of stepchildren was associated with somewhat lower marital quality, Martin and Bumpass (1989) found no effect, and both Albrecht and colleagues (1983) and Kurdek (1989) reported that the presence of stepchildren was weakly but positively associated with marital quality. The findings regarding mutual children are also inconsistent. Ganong and Coleman (1988) found that mutual children had no effect on marital quality, but Albrecht and colleagues (1983) found a weak but positive effect. Thus, it is unclear how the presence of either mutual children or stepchildren affects marital quality among remarrieds.
Another question that is often the focus of research on stepfamilies (or blended families as they are increasingly labeled) concerns the effect of the remarriage on children. These effects are of considerable importance, given that about 15 percent of all children live in blended families, and it is estimated that between one-third and one-half of today’s young people will become stepsons or stepdaughters at some point (Glick 1989; U.S. Bureau of the Census 1997). In the majority of these cases, the children in stepfamilies live with a biological mother and a stepfather.
Remarriage presents several challenges to the family. Members must make numerous decisions and adjustments to living arrangements and family relationships. In addition, parenting approaches and activities may change following the remarriage. Further, remarriage creates a complex set of relationships between former spouses, between stepparents and stepchildren, between step- and halfsiblings and extended kin. These relationships are often ill defined and lack the support of social expectations and norms. The ambiguous nature of these relationships can be seen when members of blended families are asked whom they consider to be family. While only 10 percent of children fail to mention a biological parent when asked to define their family, over 30 percent do not mention a stepparent (Furstenberg and Cherlin 1991).
Some studies have found that the bonds between stepparents and stepchildren are somewhat less warm, more conflictual, and less enduring than those between biological parents and children, while others have found substantial levels of closeness between stepparents and stepchildren (Kurdek and Fine 1993; White 1994). Such variation is not surprising, considering the wide variety of roles that stepparents adopt within the family. Some stepparents adopt a parental role, including the formation and maintenance of close emotional bonds with their stepchildren. Others take on the activities and roles of more distant relatives such as aunts or uncles, and still others act like adult boarders in the home, having little involvement with or showing little affection for the children (Arendell 1997).
Several factors appear to influence the nature of the stepparent-stepchild relationship. In a 1994 review, Cherlin and Furstenberg concluded that the primary factor influencing the character of the stepparent-stepchild relationship is the effort made by the stepparent to forge kinlike relations. Further, it appears easier to be a stepfather than a stepmother, in part because children seem more willing to accept substitute fathers than substitute mothers.
Other factors also affect the quality of the stepparent-stepchild relationship. For example, the younger the child at the time of the remarriage, the more likely he or she is to come to view the stepparent as a ‘‘real’’ parent. The more frequent the contact between the nonresidential parent and the child, the less likely the child is to develop a parentlike relationship with the stepparent (Arendell 1997).
Following remarriage, children often must adapt to the presence of step-siblings and halfsiblings, as well as to stepparents. Such siblings may present additional challenges for the child’s adjustment. For example, children may be asked to share space and material resources, as well as the attention of their biological parent. Children may also find that their positions in the household hierarchy have changed with the addition of stepsiblings; for example, a child may suddenly find that he or she has lost the status of being the ‘‘oldest’’ or the ‘‘baby’’ of the family. Despite these changes, most step-siblings eventually adjust and form close relationships. In fact, even as adults, step-siblings often maintain contact, albeit on a less frequent basis than full siblings (White and Reidman 1992).
Research on blended families provides a mixed picture with regard to the degree to which stepfamilies differ from intact families in terms of children’s adjustment (for reviews, see Amato and Booth 1997; Amato and Keith 1991a, 1991b; Hetherington et al. 1998). Children in stepfamilies appear to be at greater risk than children in intact families. For example, children in divorced and remarried families are more likely than children in intact families to have academic problems; to be less socially responsible; to have lower levels of selfesteem; to be withdrawn; to be less happy; to have trouble concentrating; and to have troubled relationships with parents, siblings, and peers. Adolescents may experience the same negative outcomes; they may also be more likely to drop out of school, to become sexually active at an earlier age, to have children out of wedlock, to be involved in delinquent activities, to abuse drugs and/or alcohol, and to be unemployed. Further, adult offspring of divorced and remarried families have been shown to be less satisfied with their lives, to have higher levels of marital instability, and to have lower levels of socioeconomic attainment.
Fortunately, despite their increased risk, the majority of children from divorced and stepfamilies do not experience these problems, and some studies suggest that many of the detrimental consequences of divorce of remarriage on children are temporary (c.f., Chase-Lansdale and Hetherington 1990; Emery and Forehand 1994; Hetherington 1993).
It is also important to note that the magnitude of differences in well-being and behavioral outcomes linked to family structure is reduced when the well-being and adjustment of the child prior to divorce and remarriage are taken into consideration. Further, there is a tendency for studies of children’s adjustment following divorce and remarriage to combine different categories of stepfamilies together. This is particularly problematic due to the set of children that experience multiple transitions in family status. Approximately 10 percent of children experience at least two divorces by their custodial parent before they reach the age of 16 (Furstenberg 1988). The inclusion of children of multiple divorces with those of parents who have divorced and remarried a single time may artificially inflate the risks for children associated with remarriage, since these children are at greatest risk for negative outcomes. In fact, Kurdek (1994) argues that it is the children of the multiple-divorce group—not the stepfamily group— that are most at risk for negatives outcomes when compared to children of intact families.
Last, it is essential to point out that remarriage may help to compensate for some of the negative consequences of divorce. For example, remarriage improves the financial well-being of children and their divorced mothers. Only 8 percent of children in mother-stepfather households live below the poverty line, compared to 49 percent of children in single-mother households (Cherlin and Furstenberg 1994). Remarriage also provides an additional adult in the household, thus adding more opportunities for interaction between children and adults, taking some of the burden off the custodial parent, and providing another role model for the child. These factors may help to explain why some studies have found that children in blended families are at less risk for negative outcomes than are children in single-parent homes (Amato and Keith 1991b).
In sum, although there are special concerns and greater complexity in family relationships, many blended families manage to form relationships that are close, loving, and lasting, and to function as effective family units, with the same variation in relationship quality found in more traditional family forms.
Clearly, remarriages and first marriages differ in complexity. The remarried couple must develop ways of interacting with the former spouse; with children from the former marriage (regardless of whether the children are minors or adults); and, in some cases, with both the extended kin and the new partner of the former spouse. In addition, the emotional history of the relationship with the first spouse, positive and negative, may carry over to influence the new relationship, regardless of whether the first marriage was terminated by death or divorce. Further, material possessions and financial considerations emanating from the first marriage often have a significant impact on second marriages.
This complexity, and perhaps the attendant problems, might help to explain the slightly higher rate of divorce among remarried couples. Whereas about half of first remarriages end in divorce, approximately 60 percent of remarriages do so (Ihinger-Tallman and Pasley 1987).
There are several explanations for the higher rate of divorce among the remarried. Cherlin (1978) has suggested that there is an ‘‘incomplete institutionalization’’ of remarriage. Remarriages, according to Cherlin, are more difficult than first marriages due to the absence of guidelines in language, law, and custom for remarried couples.
Another interpretation of the higher rate of divorce among the remarried is offered by Furstenberg and Spanier (1984), who identify the predisposition to divorce of the remarried as the key explanatory factor. According to this perspective, since remarried individuals have already demonstrated their willingness to leave an unsatisfactory marriage, they will be willing to do so again if dissatisfied with the current relationship. Therefore, it may not be the quality of the marital relationship that precipitates divorce but the propensity to leave an unsatisfactory relationship.
Last, Martin and Bumpass (1989) have suggested that another explanation for the higher rate of divorce among the remarried is that these individuals have sociodemographic characteristics that increased the likelihood that their first marriage would end in divorce. These characteristics, such as low educational level, income instability, and parental divorce, are then carried into the remarriage, also increasing its instability. Further, Martin and Bumpass suggest that individuals who remarry are disproportionately likely to have married as teenagers, which may indicate differences in personality or experiences that might make it more difficult to maintain a successful marriage. Consistently with Martin and Bumpass’s argument, there is evidence that men who are socially disadvantaged remarry more quickly than their counterparts who are more advantaged (Monk-Turner and White 1995).
In sum, while the literature on remarriage emphasizes differences between first marriages and remarriages, it is important to reiterate that, overall, there is substantially more similarity than difference between the two. The patterns of mate selection, marital quality, and marital stability of individuals who remarry do not differ markedly from the patterns of individuals marrying for the first time.
In conclusion, married life in America today often involves a sequence of marriage, divorce, and remarriage, sometimes followed by a subsequent divorce. Many sociologists suggest that the high rate or remarriage followed by a subsequent divorce in America society indicates a strong commitment to married life, albeit of a slightly different form. These scholars argue that contemporary Americans are not rejecting marriage, they are only rejecting specific relationships that became unsatisfying. Taken together, the literature on remarriage and stepfamilies suggests that the individuals who choose to follow this pattern have approximately as great a likelihood of finding a satisfying and stable relationship as do those who marry for the first time.
For further discussions and reviews of work regarding remarriage, see Bumpass and colleagues (1990), Ganong and Coleman (1994), and Vemer and colleagues (1989). For a further discussion of literature on the effects of divorce and remarriage on children, see Amato and Booth (1997), Amato and Keith (1991a, 1991b), Cherlin and Furstenberg (1994), and Hetherington and colleagues (1998).
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