Fatherhood in complex families: Ties between adult children, biological fathers, and stepfathers

Maaike Hornstra*, Matthijs Kalmijn, Katya Ivanova

*Corresponding author for this work

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We examined adult children's concurrent ties to biological fathers and stepfathers. Three mechanisms potentially determining the strength of father‐child and stepfather‐child ties were tested, namely, investment, interdependence, and substitution.

As most research studied father‐child and stepfather‐child ties separately, our knowledge about the potential substitution dynamics between the two ties is limited.

We used the Dutch Ouders en Kinderen in Nederland (OKiN) survey, which features an oversample of individuals, aged 25–45, who did not live with their two biological parents when growing up (N = 1,183; M age = 31.89 [SD = 5.13]; 56% female ). OKiN includes information on adults' relationships to all parent figures in their lives. Non‐recursive structural equation models were applied to account for the bidirectional influence between children's ties to biological fathers and stepfathers.

Our findings suggested that the quality of the two father‐child ties are interrelated, that is, we found a small substitution effect (i.e., adult children were more likely to “choose” one father in the presence of both). We also found that the quality of father‐child and stepfather‐child ties was associated with the length of the parental investment period (i.e., investment). In addition, bonds with stepfathers were positively associated with the attitudes of the two fathers toward each other, while bonds with both fathers were associated with the quality of the tie between the biological parents (i.e., interdependence).

Overall, the weak substitution dynamic that we found implied that a poor tie with one father can partly be substituted by being close to another father.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Marriage and the Family
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 2020


  • SEM modeling
  • divorce
  • father-child relations
  • intergenerational relations
  • stepfamilies

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