Defining and Measuring the Complexity of Stepfamilies in the United States


Stepfamilies are common in the United States. By definition, these families occur when an individual or the person with whom they are partnering through marriage or cohabitation has a child from a past relationship. There are many types of stepfamilies, however, which makes it difficult to track and define these family forms and draw conclusions about how various types of stepfamilies function.

Regardless, programs seeking to work effectively with stepfamilies can benefit from knowing more about the complexity of this family form. Some healthy marriage and relationship education (HMRE) programming, for example, is designed or, more often, modified to be used specifically with stepfamilies. To support stepfamilies most effectively, it is critical for HMRE programming to understand and respond to different forms of stepfamilies.

In this brief, we synthesize what research published in the last decade tells us about stepfamilies among individuals of childbearing age who have minor-age children. We begin by discussing how stepfamilies differ from other family forms in the United States and review the different pathways into a stepfamily. We also review recent estimates of stepfamilies in the United States, highlighting some of the measurement and data-related challenges in determining these estimates. We conclude by discussing gaps in current research and implications for HMRE programs designed to support stepfamilies.

Key findings and implications

  • Stepfamilies are common.
    • Among adult Americans under age 50 who were living with a partner in 2017, 35 percent of women and 25 percent of men were in a stepfamily.
    • In 2019, nearly 1 out of 10 children were living in married or cohabiting stepfamilies.12
  • Stepfamilies are complex and can be formed in various ways.
  • Future research should:
    • Identify stepfamilies, cohabiting and married, from the perspective of all family members.
    • Incorporate nonresidential children when defining a stepfamily.
    • Attend to the diversity within stepfamilies across factors such as marital status, sexual orientation, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and education.
  • HMRE programming should consider the diversity of stepfamilies when designing, implementing, and evaluating programs, recognizing that there will be no “one size fits all” program.


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