The diagram above is designed to introduce the complexity of the only child personality through the life span. It is constructed as a result of my research that emerged from life-stories and interviews. The matrix has three strands of intra, inter, and extra – psychic to offer a three dimensional understanding of the way these three interact.
At the centre of the only-child matrix is the intrapsychic, the private world of the only-child with two themes juxtaposed: that of the only-child’s feeling of specialness coupled with a feeling of aloneness and lack of connection to others. This is a result of never having been dethroned by a sibling, and at the same time missing out on the social and emotional learning a sibling provides. Without the ‘rough and tumble’ of sibling interaction, opportunities for dealing with jealousy, anger, envy and conflict, in the relatively safe environment of the home, are lost. This can leave the only-child longing to remain in the specialness of their youth, without the essential emotional and social development required to make good relationships. Having spent a great deal of time in their own company only-children develop ways of being alone which are beneficial to them but can be difficult to integrate in later relationships. This may result in them feeling a greater tension between the human needs of having both space and intimacy.
The intrapsychic circle is surrounded by the interpersonal world, for we are always inter-connected with other people. However for the only-child the interpersonal world may bring particular problems originating in the family. Difficulties in separation and family enmeshment, although by no means inevitable, do challenge the only-child in a way people who have siblings may be more able to avoid. Feeling responsible for parents’ happiness, whether real or imagined, can have a detrimental effect on a developing sense of self. Feeling responsible for fulfilling parental expectations, means only-children carry a greater burden as the one living testimony of parental achievement. Letting go of this responsibility is a challenge often unmet until the death of the parents. Lack of separation and enmeshment, and continually being the centre of attention, also affects other relationships causing friction and tension, exacerbated by the only-child’s attempts to avoid conflict by trying to placate and please, or withdraw and isolate themselves.
Finally the extrapsychic or public world impacts on the other two worlds. The negative only-child stereotype has a detrimental affect on the only child’s sense of self. We have seen that the stereotype of the only child consists of views that they are spoilt, privileged, and have it all; that they are considered to be socially challenged; are unable to share; and are lonely. The stereotype exists whether or not it is valid or invalid and affects how only-children are perceived and how they perceive themselves. The matrix also shows the positive stereotype, promoted more commonly in the US that only-children are high achievers, successful, independent and mature.
All three circles interlink and give rise to what is described as the only-child matrix, which holds these three worlds together, indicating where they overlap in the personal, private and public. The lines around each circle are broken to reveal the fluidity of the model as the, intra, inter and extra psychic worlds interlink and merge.