Does birth order matter?

by on September 11, 2011

in Bernice responds

Whilst birth–order as a subject for research is highly debated, many interesting aspects of such research have been collected by Frank Sulloway in his book: Born to Rebel. In my experience only children vary enormously but there are certain characteristics which are not uncommon in people with siblings but often constellate in only children as a result of their parenting – particularly if it has been overly intense which can lead them to be distant and hard to negotiate with. Here is an email, which is an interesting perspective from an eldest child. Bernice

Email from Rob
I’ve just found your blog and want to tell you how important this has been for me. I’m 42 years old and have just experienced to most upsetting experience of my life with a only child partner that I was deeply committed to and had believed that we both were looking forward to having children and spending the rest of our days together.

Suddenly it’s gone & I’m experiencing heartbreak greater than ever. In looking for answers I investigated the idea of birth order (she was an only & I the oldest of 4 siblings). I found your site and found incredible resonance.

The ability to draw lines in the sand, the self seeking and self-centered behaviour, emotional brittleness and overpowering parental expectations and reincarnation, and inability to work externally with a partner, really stand out.

I really feel like a victim of a relationship with an only child. Giving everything and getting less and when questioning being shut out until an emotionally incompetent explosion like a cork from a bottle.

Would it be possible for you to make a section for adult partners (potential ‘victims’) that helps us understand what might be critical for anyone in a relationship with an only. Just as business profilinaids communication in work teams, if I’d have been aware of how important some of these traits were it would have been potentially helpful way to work through issues.

The ability for an only child to cut off emotion, hide within themselves, and pursue relationships on the own terms can be a cruel thing for both people as I’ve experienced. Just a thought

  • Guestanonymous123


    I’m sorry for your loss. I think there is a lot of variation between the personalities of only children, yet I see some similarities between what happened to you and the relationship I have with an only child.  I am married to an only child and we are in love, yet I often wonder if my wife’s quirks are related to her not having any siblings or if they are innate or the result of her upbringing.  If Bernice set up a section for the partners of only children I would appreciate it.

    My wife is an only child who, unusually, did not have cousins, aunts, or uncles either.  Her nuclear family is extremely close emotionally and she is a very dutiful daughter, both in terms of calling her parents and trying to become a professional success.  She shares less emotionally than every other girl I ever dated, but then again, I dated an only child a month prior to meeting my wife who shared quite a bit, so I question if that trait is inherent to only child status. 

    My wife is also good at drawing “lines in the sand.”  She is exceptionally confident and tells people bad news without any sugarcoating it, although sometimes I don’t think she realizes that what she is saying is considered bad news.  She is frank in disagreeing with people.  Then again, I dated other only children before my wife who were not like this. 

    With my family she is inconsistent.  She never had big family holidays growing up (remember, no cousins, aunts, or uncles either), so she does not understand how important family gatherings and holidays are to us.  Then again, if sometimes I don’t feel like doing something with one of my siblings she will say to me, “You are lucky to have siblings, you should go.”  (Officially she wishes she had a sibling, although she does not dwell on it and is proud of how close her family is.)

  • Cp

    Dear Rob, 

    I am sorry that you have had a painful break up but could you please refrain from using the term ‘victim’ to describe how you feel when specifically relating it to the sibling-less status of your ex. 
    I find it offensive. Some of the traits you describe reminded me of a man I was in a relationship with and he was the eldest of three!

    I don’t deny of course that aspects of ourselves are fashioned by our upbringing,  but I think it’s important  not to pathologise human beings because of their birth order etc 

    Best wishes,

  • Jjjacqui

    Dear Rob, 

    I second the need for a section on advice for people who date only children. I understand your pain, it happened to me and I (and all his friends) definitely felt ‘victim’ was appropriate and conveyed their hidden opinion of surprise at our union in the first place. His behaviour warranted a complete cut off from me (unusual as I am friends with all exes) however I have taken it as a learning experience about what I need to watch out for in future. I am still friends with everyone and apparently he regrets his behaviour. 

    Obviously compromise, communicating feelings, supporting each other in unhappy times and respect are key components of an adult relationship. If this person never demonstrated it then please know that you have luckily avoided a horrible relationship and (even worse) a horrible example for your child or children. I firmly believe it is better to be single without children than ever have stayed or had him as a father. I hope, desperately, that they are all not like that and that the Little Emperor thing is just pop-psycho babble. It is very important for you to realise that the next relationship will not be so cold, lonely and one-sided. I think people can change/adapt about 20% of their personality/upbringing if they want to.

    What might be useful are some checklists if you meet another:
    1. Ask what their past relationships were like, listen to how they describe exes (it’s you) and their  friends and make sure they have a network of long term (not convenient local) friends they make effort to keep up with.
    2. Don’t do everything on their terms and don’t allow them to not provide you with support or emotional communication because ‘some ex made me do that.’
    3. Get rid of them if they make no effort with your family and friends. This reciprocity should have been learnt by now. Old dog etc…
    4. Watch how they share, often (I’m eldest of six) I admire their ability to put themselves first, but make sure they know how to share, host a small dinner etc… normal college-uni socialisation stuff
    5. They may be overly critical, however this is good as long as they can handle it reciprocated. You may need to remind them that you’ve just listened to four criticisms before they get the point. I don’t particularly mind this one, unless the criticism is vicious. 
    6. If they sulk or walk off after a fight or argument. Let them have time and then go talk to them quietly and calmly. If it’s a pattern, let them know it’s not on and perhaps get counselling or get them to go see a counsellor for assertiveness/conflict sessions. Otherwise dump them.

    I’m sorry it hurts, it will get better. You are better off if you were completely cold shouldered. Family is a given, but if your ex fails at every relationship they’ve ever chosen, you’re not to blame.


  • Mg768

    What a ridiculous email.  Why don’t you spend some time looking at yourself rather than trying to find reasons to explain why someone else didn’t act in a way that suited you.  This ‘only child’ hating is verging on a kind of racism.  People’s characteristics are hugely more complicated, and influenced by, any one particular one, like not having brothers or sisters.  I know plenty of people with siblings who are selfish etc. Get over it, maybe you just weren’t ment to be.

    • Jenny17070


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