Western culture and American culture particularly prizes the independent personality – the man and presumably woman – who can get on with his/her own life, make his/her own decisions, be self–sufficient, go it alone, beholden to know one. Only children can be brought up to be particularly independent, sometimes by design, at other times a result of being on the periphery of their parent/s relationship. (The opposite, of course, is the only child who is overly protected, coddled and who is anything but self – sufficient – however this post is not about them!)
Learning to be independent is a good thing as we cannot expect to rely on someone all of the time – this has been a problem with some Chinese only children who have been so cocooned from the harsh realities of life that they often have a sense of entitlement which makes living with others hard. However many adult only children feel they have to be independent and I believe behind this is a fear of dependence. I know my own love of independence feels healthy and something I admire – but owning to my dependency needs – is so much more difficult! However we all need people and ‘ No man is an island’. We need other people because we get a sense of who we are, from the reflection back that we receive, from the other person’s experience of us. How they react to us tells us something about ourselves.
I think one of the difficulties for the independent adult only child is that they do not have a clear picture of who they are. We gain our sense of who we are, initially as children, from the people who surround us. Firstly this is parents and/or carers, siblings and later people we meet in our everyday lives. However what is reflected back to us will be coloured by the hopes and expectations our caregivers have and how they approve of the way we are. Of course some parents are very open to their child emerging as a unique individual and they allow and encourage this development. Other paretns are more inclined to see themselves personified in this new little person and give clear messages of what they expect:– an unconscious reflection of themselves.
The ‘little adult’ is an example of the reflection of a parent of those behaviors of which that parent approves i.e. acting like an adult, not being childlike or demanding. Th ‘little adult’ embodies behaviours such as being independent, confident, having an opinion, directive etc. All of these characteristics are expected in an adult but, I believe, do not fit well on a child. The other problem is that these behaviours reflect how the parent wants them to be, not how they actually are as a child. In my therapeutic experience, this often leads to the child moving from childhood to adolescence and adulthood with a poor sense of self. This is covered by a seeming confidence but belies a lack of real confidence or a strong sense of who they are, and can be combined with feeling a fraud.
‘Never to have needs’ is another message learned by the only child. When the parent is needy themselves and finds it difficult to cope with the needs of an infant – the child will quickly unconsciously pick this up. The message they receive is to have no needs and because they depend on the parent for their welfare, they must be sensitized to the needs of the parent in order to remain connected. This means in practice that as they grow they have lost sight of their own sense of self, are independent, but so attuned to their parent’s needs they have difficulty separating themselves from them. Having needs is equated with dependence and the only child has learned to be independent to survive.
So what happens when they get into a relationship?
On the one hand they may fight the need to be in a relationship at all. They can be lacking in commitment, as that would reveal their dependency needs. Almost for certain they would find it hard to ask for anything preferring to try and sort it out themselves.
But how does this impact on their partner?
This will of course depend on the partner and their own needs. However my own research has revealed a number of ways. It can mean:
- The partner feels left out or even shut out.
- The partner feels they are on the periphery of the relationship.
- The partner feels they cannot ask for anything themselves.
- The partner feels de-skilled as they are never able to contribute meaningfully.
Or a combination of all of these. I have often seen partners of only children get infuriated by the behaviours listed above because they cannot have a dialogue and are met, when attempting to help, with dismissive: ‘I can manage’ ‘I can cope’, or even a refusal to listen. Combined with an over developed sense of responsibility to their parent/s this can be a detrimental to the relationship.
Well these are some of my thoughts – I would love to hear from other adult onlies!