Chronologically, the order of your family is all-important to your emotional development. How you deal with this accident of fate will affect all your future relationships.
Where you come in the ‘birth order’ of your family is one of a number of factors – the genetic makeup you inherit, your educational background, your parents’ personalities, whether you were born in peace or during wartime – that determine the person you will eventually become. Not only is it one of those factors, however, but it is also one of the most important.
Sometimes known as the ‘family constellation’, the birth order of your family is a game played out for as long as the players – the members of your family – are alive.
Whether you are the firstborn, a middle child, the youngest or the only child is a crucial factor in creating not only your attitude to those you share your home with, but also to everyone in the world outside, which includes your future life partner.
The only child
Being an only child is more often than not the subject of envy for those from bigger families, who focus on the apparently endless ‘spoiling’ and being the centre of attention. To outsiders, being the only child is like having everything – all the toys and all your parents’ love and time – but to those who have experienced it, they know that it is also having to be everything. The sense of isolation and responsibility can be overwhelming, and the effects can last for ever.
Problems surface as soon as the only child tries to make friends. They often discover that, although they are perfectly behaved with adults, they have no social skills whatever with other children their own age. Not only do they have no conception of sharing, but one way or another they seek the centre stage (a high proportion of actors are only children, strangely enough). They also tend to have a more than usual amount of problems associated with letting their feelings show, with expressing their anger and with dealing with conflict – being nice to their parents has ensured that they see explosions of emotion as being totally unacceptable.
All of this can have disastrous effects on any future close relationship they form. At first all might go well, and they will try very hard to be what their partner wants them to be, perhaps too much, too intensely – but soon the cracks show as they seek their own space and try to control their partner. Most only children also have a real problem with spontaneity, finding the idea of just taking off for the weekend with a toothbrush in your pocket and nothing else romantic in principle, but totally alarming in practice. For them, life must be organized and scheduled, even though they may naturally be untidy and scatty.
Many only children save their teenage rebellion for much later in their lives. Not having had the opportunity, or perhaps the desire, to rebel as children or young adults, because of the close nature of their relationship with their parents, many will save up their rebellion for their thirties, or even sometimes their forties and fifties. Coupled with the gradual release of pent-up anger, this can make for spectacular marital bust-ups and truly epoch-making middle-aged crises!
Not all only children, of course, turn into fiery egotists. Just being with someone else, someone who loves them and allows them to be themselves, often has a softening effect. Once they learn to lighten up and enjoy life, they are just as likely to be good lovers, parents and friends as anyone else. Only children will rarely take a relationship lightly and will devote time and effort to making it work – as long as they are given space!
It can be very hard to be the firstborn. Of course, for a while you are the only child, and you have all the benefits and drawbacks which that implies But then the cosy threesome of you, Mum and Dad is shattered by the arrival of another. This alone can cause a crisis of self-confidence in the firstborn. Whether or not you carry this burden with you through the rest of your life is due not only to your natural resilience, but also to the way your parents handle your emotions at the time. Many parents stress that you are the pathfinder; you have responsibilities towards your sibling. This makes you proud, but also a little worried. From then on life becomes that little bit more earnest.
In one sense the pressure is off you – there is the new child to fuss over – but in another the pressure is very much on. It is up to you to be the role model, the star, as your parents see it, that all other children have to follow.
In some families there is a distinct sense of dynasty, regardless of whether you are a male or a female firstborn. The family name depends on you.
In your later relationships there will often be a tendency for you to lay the law down, to fuss and to over-explain. You may miss out on fun because someone has to be responsible, and get into rows with your partner who insists on doing wild things in public on New Year’s Eve! But, like an only, you too can learn to relax and enjoy your emotional and sexual life. Firstborns take relationships very seriously and rarely run away from them when they become tense. You have many strengths, including the ability to deal with crises and to be supportive and caring against all the odds.
A middle child
For a while, you have been the baby, and that was rather nice! Big brother or sister may have resented you, but all in all you were looked after and cosseted to your heart’s content. But then along came another sibling and you found yourself in the mixed position of being neither Firstborn nor Baby. Then life really began to get a bit tough.
Middle children often grow up feeling picked on by everyone, and they tend to give in, to become the confused and ineffective person others seem to think them. Somehow they are not expected to dazzle, and mediocrity is handed to them on a plate.
One father of three teenagers says, ‘I’ve only just realized how appallingly I treat my middle son. The youngest gets encouragement and a lot of my time. The eldest is the star, the real apple of my eye. But I hear myself patronizing and criticizing the middle one, even though I love him just as much as the others. It seems to me he can never do anything quite right and seems to be a bit of a loser.’
Middles can become sullen and uncooperative, which means that relationships can easily become fraught, moody and unsuccessful. Middles often carry an inferiority complex around with them like a banner, and they tend to attract people who will abuse or neglect them.
The upside, however, is that they do know all about the rough and tumble of life and the need to share, and are often very caring with a lot of love to give, and have the ability to be tolerant of others’ foibles.
Being the youngest in a family means that no matter how long you live, you will always be ‘the baby’. Frequently this takes the form of getting your own way more than is good for you, but it can also mean being alternately cuddled and punished, or simply being bullied by everyone.
Babies are likely to have problems with authority – even when they turn out to be conformists, they still have a rebellious streak. They also have the tendency to find someone to seek revenge on their behalf, just as their older brother or sister used to come to the rescue for them. In very big families, when they were the last of a long line and their parents were well over the phase of being thrilled by babies, they might even be regarded as a burden, and grow up unusually timid, frightened of authority and with very low self-esteem.
Although it is common for most people who have had good relationships with their parents to seek out someone with similar characteristics as a partner, it is extremely common for babies to seek parental figures in their relationships. Even if their lover/spouse is not much older than themselves, they will tend to be dominant – at least on the surface. For one of the noticeable features of the baby is the ability to get their own way through a battery of tactics from tantrums to emotional blackmail. On a much more positive note, however, they can be enormously affectionate and appreciative. They are also great fun, thanks to their great capacity for spontaneity. And their unfeigned admiration for other people’s opinions is very attractive and endearing.
If you don’t fit the bill…
Everyone is different, and all of our families organize things in their own way, so these stereotypes are just a guide. Every individual is, of course, capable of rising above the handicap of their birth order and becoming the well-adjusted and loving person that they were meant to be.