Some believe that our compatibility is determined before we meet and even before we know our own names. Using birth order as a personality indicator is yet another way in which we can attempt to figure out our relationships and ourselves. With the constant influx of relationship advice out there, could something as simple as our roles within families make or break a harmonious union?
Singled Out: The Only Child
People who grew up without siblings were the sole recipients of their parents’ attention, which may explain their tendencies to be self-focused and highly motivated to the point of being perfectionists. Males set high standards for themselves career-wise and are driven to succeed independently, while females feel more comfortable listening to the advice of others before acting. They mature quickly and find it difficult to share attention, possessions, and so forth.
The only child may fare better with a partner who is used to catering to the wishes of others, since he or she is used to being demanding with positive results. Delia*, a social worker (and youngest child) in her early twenties, had a difficult coupling with an only child. “He was really emotionally needy and self-absorbed in the relationship,” she shared. “It was always about how he felt.” Someone who has older siblings might be a better match for sibling-less people because he is used to being bossed around and catering to the wishes of someone else before himself, which is what the only child has come to expect.
Babying a Baby: The Youngest Child
Those who are the youngest in their families are social by nature and find comfort in being around others. They are creative, energetic, thrive on attention, and are daring in their pursuits. They can also be rebellious or competitive as a result of being compared to their older siblings for most of their lives. Because they’re the youngest, they tend to be spoiled, or at least expect to be spoiled, and can mature less quickly than others.
Youngest children desire attention and empathy from their partners. One of my work colleagues is a youngest child who finds herself drawn to people in the middle child position. “In my previous relationships, I was always the volatile one,” she shares. “I would often pick fights if I felt like I wasn’t getting enough attention. The only guy who ever put up with me was a middle child. I felt like he had infinite patience, which always led me to realize how ridiculous I was being.” She found that oldest and only children were constantly dismissive of her pleas for attention, which only angered her more and made for combative relationships. Another coworker has found happiness with an only child. “Being the baby of the family, I need a little push to get things done,” she explained. “He is very independent and can do anything on his own. On the other hand, I think he’s learned to ask for more help.” She feels that they balance each other out this way.
Overcoming the Jan Brady Syndrome: The Middle Child
Middle children are classic people pleasers. They’re used to keeping the peace among their siblings and try to maintain that in all aspects of their lives. They are calm, rational, and avoid making waves or creating problems as much as possible. However, because they’ve had to compete for attention with the youngest and oldest, they might also be competitive with others and feel a need to rebel as a way to stand out.
Susan was once a youngest child, but became a middle child when her dad remarried. She’s found that, in the majority of her relationships, she’s taken on more of a peacekeeper role. “I notice that I would strive to avoid conflict or to negotiate it rationally, whereas [my boyfriend], an only child … is more reactive, with less of an instinct to put his feelings on the backburner.” This is a common theme in relationships with middle children, and possibly why middle children and youngest or only children work well together. The middle siblings are the only ones who can stand that kind of demanding behavior. However, the middle child’s inability to handle conflict can also be a point of contention. “[My ex-boyfriend] would almost never stand up for himself,” another woman I spoke with told me, “and it really irritated me.”
Eager Overachievers: The Oldest Child
Most of the firstborn children I know have grown up into ambitious adults who easily take the lead in situations and prefer things under their control. Because they fell into the responsibility of being role models for their younger siblings, they tend be mature, levelheaded, and giving. Being caretakers comes easily and naturally to them. However, they can also put a lot of pressure on themselves to live up to the expectations of their parents and siblings and try to project a perfect image at all times.
Oddly enough, two people I spoke with who dated older children found that their partners’ supposed natural-born practicality was lost in the relationships. “He was way less responsible than me,” one woman explained. Suzy, a thirty-one-year old musician, agreed, saying, “I’m definitely the more responsible and pragmatic person in our relationship.” Logic would dictate that firstborns and youngest children would go well together—the firstborn would curb some of the youngest’s erratic impulses, and the youngest would inspire the oldest to let loose once in a while. But maybe, as the two examples suggest, oldest children use romantic relationships to escape the burden of responsibility placed on them in other parts of their lives.
Granted, this empirical evidence can’t predict the likelihood of a relationship’s success. As the increasing usage of online dating services has shown, even perfect compatibility on paper won’t necessarily yield a love match. But it is interesting to explore how our familial roles shape our personalities and extend into our romantic relationships. Who knows, maybe “Oldest or youngest born?” will become yet another question we check off of dating questionnaires, along with “What’s your sign?” and “Smoker or non-smoker?”
*All names have been changed.
Updated July 23, 2009