So how does the only child adult deal with conflict?

by on October 23, 2011

in Bernice's Posts

This is one of the issues that I have read many times in emails from adult only children. Most of us – and I include myself in this – do not find conflict an easy thing to deal with or negotiate successfully. Many of us have a tendency to avoid it almost at any cost. This can be achieved in a number of ways like: turning the other cheek, pretending we are not upset really, or just sulking. The continuum stretches from complete avoidance to out bursts of fury and hostility. What we find much more difficult, is to be calm, negotiate and find a win – win solution.

As a child in a family with no siblings we did not have the opportunities to row, be angry and fall out with children of a similar age. Being angry with a parent is a very different matter. If parents’  are good at handling conflict with each other we may learn from observation how to do this. However I doubt I learned very much that has been useful in my adult life watching my parents’ row. What I learned very quickly is that if I did not get out of the way I might well get their attention and often their anger.

At school, I found conflict just as hard to manage. I tended to freeze and then try to get away as quickly as possible. Visiting friends’ houses I was amazed at the level of anger and frustration expressed – but more than anything I could not believe it all blew over so quickly and things went on smoothly, well at least until the next conflictual moment.

But this is what the only child misses out on – what some people call the ‘rough and tumble’ of sibling relationships. I better began to understand this after having my own two children who like any normal kids often got angry with one another over toys, clothes, unfairness and all the other things that drive us all to feel put out. Observing how easily they fell out and yet how easily they could bridge the gap the conflict opened up and get on again, was a real eye opener.

Whilst I am not under the impression that all sibling relationship are idyllic where conflict is concerned – it does at least give every child an opportunity to experience conflict in the relatively safe environment of the family – where hopefully a parent will stop it going out of control and help the siblings make up

Many only children find it particularly hard to deal with conflict with a friend, as unlike a sibling, they can go home and never see you again! So our experience of conflict resolution, as only children, is somewhat under developed.  I remember the first time I allowed my anger towards another girl to surface and I ended up shouting at her and tearing her plastic-mac. I’m not sure who was more scared – her or me.  So I learned to sit on my anger and avoid conflict at all costs as I had no real sense of how to manage it.

Now in my later years I wish I could say things are completely different. But the reality is I still avoid conflict when I can – when I can’t, I always wait till I calm down before saying or doing anything. Except of course with my husband but he is an only child to so he is equally good at avoiding it too!

So I keep reminding myself of the importance of conflict and how by learning to resolve it – we bring intimacy into our relationships. When we learn to negotiate and meet each other in an authentic way we can find ways around our differences and this brings us closer. This is a good thing!

Ok it does not feel like that at the time but avoidance does not bridge the gap between us. It is only when we can really negotiate and share our feelings that real intimacy is achieved. So next time you see yourself avoiding the situation- think again- conflict brings us closer!


  • Asmira

    This is a really informative post, thank you.  It has answered a lot of questions for me.

    I was married to a man who was an adult only child. His parents divorced when he was a baby so from birth until he was in his early teens, it was just him and his mother.  She used to beat him apparently.  He’d see his father for vacations, but he used to beat him too. 

    It was not until I had been married for a few months that I realised this grown up only child didn’t know how to deal with conflict in our relationship.  He was  incapable of introspection or compromise in the context of trying to resolve adult conflict.  Even as a 46 year old man, he was crippled in that respect.  

    His  ’solution’ to resolving conflict was to simply walk out.  To disappear for hours or days at a time.  When he returned home, he could not and would not discuss anything with me. It was like trying to talk to a freezer.  Thanks to your article, I have half a clue as to why he either shut down, over reacted, ran away, ignored me, actively shut me out or blamed me for everything that went wrong in our marriage.

    • Alisonrothkopf

      I am so happy to read this as I have been married to an only child whose mother was also an only child and her mother and her grandmother etc – a long line of onlies.
      I am number 4 of six children so have a very different upbringing, used to living at close quarters with older brothers and younger sisters and all the sibling rivalry!
      My husband and his mother both have “no go areas” – especially involving negotiation, understanding other people’s emotions – and conflict. They both freeze and refuse to talk when there is a disagreement. Both are masters of changing the subject and deflecting anything analytical or personal.
      We married quite young- I was 23 and at first I enjoyed the light-heartedness that prevailed, but as soon as anything difficult happened I was alone with no one to discuss issues with. When my father-in-law died my husband was a nightmare of hostility and inarticulated rage. I am blamed for everything as my husband seems unable to accept adult responsibility for his emotions or to understand that everyone else has feelings and needs too.
      Our conflicts revolve around him acting out his emotions like a teenager in public and in front of our children.
      He seems unable to see himself as part of the human race or to grow up emotionally. My mother -in -law too feels she is unique and special and so the laws of life don’t really apply to her. They both have a perpetual childlike quality but a very confident social manner.
      I find myself explaining how everyone has similar responses to problems and that honest discussion is the way to resolve things.
      I am not sure that it is too late and by the time a child is 7 he is set in his soliatry ways.

      • ChildOfOnly

         This is really interesting. My mother is an only child in late middle age. I was very struck by you statement that “They both have a perpetual childlike quality but a very confident social manner.” and how your husband and mother-in-law both freeze or change the discussion. I get “We won’t talk about that now.”, which I find so frustrating as the issue never gets aired and so it doesn’t get sorted … and what’s worse it then might come back again … for another round of “discussion”,  aargh! I’m a middle myself and so used to dealing with conflict from the other two siblings, not that means that I like conflict but I know I have to deal with it all the same.
        It’s fascinating to read about the perceptions of only children, especially the myth about spoilt onlies. My mother gets this from some of her cousins and she’s always frustrated by it. While I always sided with her, I now understand that this is a common perception and that is helpful.
        The thing is, how to get the onlies who won’t discuss issues to do so? Surely until they realize that this is causing them and their nearest and dearest a problem, they won’t be able to deal with it? Does Bernice have any suggestions about how to get an only, of whatever age, to start beginning to gain perspective on life?

        • Anonymous

          I have not found a way to get anyone to discuss something they won’t. Perhaps they have not developed a deeper way of thinking and that may have nothing to do with being an only child.
          However -sulking is something my husband does a lot and I believe it is the way he  learned to deal with conflict as a child. Because he was always the child interacting with an adult, my husband was never the one in charge. He never had to control the argument or even fight on equal terms. He knew his mother would sort out the problems and soothe his feelings. By sulking he demonstrates his hurt feelings and waits for the adult- now me - to soothe them.
          His mother also expects me to manage her emotions too. It is only with siblings that you learn to manage  intimate emotions on an equal footing.

  • NonExist

    I was an introvert only child to begin with. And so I just became a recluse to avoid as much conflict as possible. Never had an issue discussing anything but I refuse to deal with someone who is angry or otherwise emotionally charged. And over the years my observation has shown me that at least in the people I know, 85-90% of the conflicts are over what one would consider non essential issues. And it just really makes more sense to agree to disagree and move on.

  • PassivePeopleSuck

    I personally think people like this suck, not this author in this case because she made a conscious effort to realize that when you resolve conflict, you actually become a lot closer. IMHO I think passive ppl need a rude awakening. People like these are basically overgrown babies, and lack the communication skills to sort things out. They will not be able to grow their careers, motivate others, raise children, or seek reason. People like this create psychopaths and killers. All because they don’t know how to talk things out. In most cultures, walking away from someone when they’re talking to you (especially an elder) is down right rude and disrespectful. My parents beat me too, and I’m glad they did, cuz at least I don’t carry one like one of these “entitled” people who think they are god’s gift to mankind, blaming everyone else but themselves. I totally encourage beating a kid to teach a lesson (not to maim them). this soft approach of taking away things just makes them more materialistic. It will create a generation of ipad hungry pussies who will run away when it really is needed for them to stand their ground.

  • wkwk

    Hi thanks for this post. It clarified why conflict is so hard for an only child to deal with

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