We saw that adolescence is characterised by forming an identity, separate from parent ideals and expectations.
Young adulthood is characterised by achieving some degree of intimacy through relationships, as opposed to remaining in isolation. Children with siblings spend more time together and relatively little time alone, thus giving them many opportunities to be with another human being of a similar age and stage. (it is believed approximately 33% of the day siblings interact with one another). This is very different for the only-child who has probably spent their 33% of time on their own, playing with toys, imaginary friends or pets. Whilst this gives them useful experience of being alone and finding ways to amuse themselves, the detrimental side is that it is not a good basis for learning to negotiate relationships. In particular it tends to lead to one of the challenges many adult onlies face: negotiating the balance between dependency and independence, closeness and space.
If, in adolescence, a clear sense of who you are has not developed, there is far more chance that you will fear losing yourself in a relationship. The only-child, who is paradoxically familiar with both intense relationships (with a parent), and with being alone, can end up fearing commitment. This can manifest as craving intimacy on the one hand, but fearing it on the other. Alternating between fear of taking on the commitment of a relationship, preferring independence, and the human need to be loved, cherished and cared for.
Some adult only children grapple with self-exclusion, which refers to the tendency to isolate oneself from love, friendship, and community. These are all tendencies in the only child that can develop from a lack of social interaction with other children. Here is a recent email sent to me by Paul that I think encapsulates some of these challenges:
I spent time with my grandparents
I went to three clubs with my parents
I was quiet at school
Did not mix with others
I won an award for effort
I have few friends now
Had no refs for jobs
A charity found me a job
I was made redundant from this factory job
The Charity dropped me.
As the young adult only child enters this life stage and is unable to find ways of negotiating their need for seperateness and togetherness they can often find themselves becoming involved in activities, such as work, or an interest that does not always involve others, in which they may excel, but find it difficult to maintain longer lasting, intimate relationships. This can be exacerbated further if they have a parent or parent’s who cannot let go, often making it difficult for them to leave home, or maintaining very close ties with them when they do – sometimes to the extent that the young adult does not feel the need to fly the nest and make their own way in the world. Others, even though they want to, can find parental pressure so great, and expectations to be available so demanding, that they are continually in a state of guilt. Guilt that they are not fulfilling their parents’ needs and guilt because at some level they also know they are not fulfilling their own.
In the next post on Life stages I will look at the generativity stage that follows young adult hood when people are actively engaged in raising children or in some way contributing to future generations.