Sibling Order Flavors The Coupledom: Oldest, Youngest, Middles and Onlies

Sibling Placement:  Another Factor To Consider in The Coupledom:  Most of us have siblings. Some of us do not but we marry someone who does. Then there are the ever increasing few who are onlies (NYTimes Style section on only children) and marry onlies.  All permutations and combinations of sibling order and mating are fascinating, relevant and deserve personal reflection. Just to add further spice to the topic, some are onlies for years, or youngest for years, only to have that ranking snatched away by the birth of a sibling/s or an adoption.  One can spend a decade as an only, or a youngest, with the correspondent birth order similarities to other onlies and youngest, and then join a new group of middles…..or oldests just like that! Snap. New identity card!

Changing Identities: Second marriages lend another permutation: younger half siblings, step siblings. The variations are unending. Birth order may be further modified by the emergence of a previously unknown biological sibling who was given up earlier to adoptive parents but enters the family dynamic just the same, though much later in the developmental arc of the family. Oops, now who am I?

Adopted and Biological Siblings Sharing The Same Parents: Another unique category of sibling order and identification is when one or more siblings are adopted and the other or others are biological. The impact of this significant and complicated nuance on identity, sibling order and The Coupledom is worthy of reflection as well. Adding to variations of sibling possibilities is the sperm donor half siblings (see research on children of sperm donors).

Surprises Are Not Fun: Trust In Childhood Sets A Pattern For The Future: When and how parents share this knowledge of other siblings in the world remains for a different post. No parent is perfect; no childhood without challenges and scars; but in our times, studies indicate that truth-telling with courage while children are young enough to incorporate the information as a piece of their identity is beneficial.

For the purposes of this discussion, how all these variations influence The Coupledom is fascinating, a bit mind-boggling and worthy of inquiry. 

Gender Makeup and Twinships: Critical to any analysis of sibling relationships on adult couplings is gender arrangement: all one gender, or the mix, and how that mix was packaged. Were the same gender sibs at the top of several, the bottom or spread out in a fairly alternating pattern? What were the alignments and how did they play out? Again, being curious about the patchwork in your family and how it impacts the new family, the couple you are now, can shed light on themes that may be at work in the relationship. Were you the only female with older or younger brothers? Does that influence how you approach your Coupledom? Or the younger brother of sisters? The oldest sister with a younger brother? Did you look up to the opposite sex or down …… birth order.

Twins provide another loop, whether shared gender identicals or fraternal.  Is that special communion so often noticed with identical twins influencing your Coupledom. Perhaps there was no one of the opposite gender who was your sibling…..and what element of intrigue or mystery or confusion, does that add to your Coupledom?

Observations: The relevance of sibling order to the Coupledom cannot be overestimated. As the youngest of three girls who married an eldest child and only son of five, with four younger sisters, I have been an ardent student of sibling order’s effect on adulthood relationships for decades. Clinically I have observed oldest siblings characteristically seizing responsibility where they need not, or shirking the very same after burdensome childhood experiences left them allergic to being in charge. I have witnessed middles honing the art of privacy to a fine science, territorially guarding their space, and youngest siblings begging desperately to be taken seriously yet enjoying/indulging the freedom of being the “baby” way beyond the terrible twos. Onlies can be observed valuing relationships outside of blood yet finding solo play time familiar and acceptable. Use to determining their own agenda, onlies may find decision making far easier then folks who were one of several in a sibling pack. Yet all these generalizations, though observed, are just that, generalizations.

Sibling History and Expectations in The Coupledom: What does seem to stick and yet often is not verbalized or even theorized, are the mostly unconscious expectations that sibling life has on our  intimate relationships in adulthood. If your place in the family line up involved dodging the bullets that flew at your older sibling, learning from his or her sufferings how to best avoid parental disapproval or wrath, then you will become expert at being “unlike” the older sibling who is getting nicked: instead you make seek the “good child” designation. If you are the oldest child, perhaps the first-born grandchild, then the pressures to be best, out shining all others, might become correlated with being loved, leading to a confusing competitiveness or conditionality even with one’s own spouse. If the oldest sibling and the youngest sibling stole the stage, and you were left alone in the middle or with another middle or two or three, the solution to keep a low profile or dominate a slightly younger sibling to make up for the domination above may have seemed necessary. Pecking orders of the past can color how you view your Coupledom in the present.

Special Talent: Perhaps you were the gifted child, who sang, or danced or hit home runs. Then in the Coupledom, where did that special position go? Is it still sort, demanded, its passing not yet grieved, instead replaced by confusion and an unexplained hurt that one is not seen by one’s partner as a “star”.

Special Cases: If you had a special needs sibling or were that special needs sibling, whether challenged by dyslexia, ADD, medical, cognitive or emotional hurdles, these are all factors that can impart quite a wallop on interpersonal relationships. In the Coupledom, as the sibling who struggled, you may face fears of being seen as the inadequate partner, often feeling a rung down the ladder from the spouse. Or if you were the “more normal” child, then the ambivalent and often guilt ridden nature of that designation may predispose you to such complexities as enabling a seemingly “less competent” partner, taking on more than your share, inadvertently underestimating your partner or assuming unnecessary burdens in the relationship.

Sibling Play and The Coupledom: Competition, Teamwork or Both? How did you play as children? Were you one amongst several siblings, did you play as a group, were you the leader, the follower, the loner? Do you still seek out this form of “play” in adulthood and are disappointed  or miffed when your partner does not  comply? Was there a lot of competitiveness, good-hearted or the kind that draws blood?  Were comparisons often made by parents that fueled the competition? Did you seek the “high moral ground” and find yourself still chasing after that designation in your adult relationship?

The Precocious Only: As an only child, becoming expert in social arrangements/play dates might have been the modus operandi. Or were you thrust most often into adult social settings, with the rapt attention of elders, leading to rather precocious maturity?

What sorts of “play” were characteristic amongst the siblings and how do those same characteristics spill into your adult relationship? An oldest or only may be accustomed to alone time. Whereas a middle or youngest may feel there is something missing if they are not sharing experiences with their partner. For them seeking out their partner to “play and share” is natural and necessary. Yet if the partner were constantly disrupted in childhood by demanding younger siblings, shutting a door, or walking into an empty room could feel like a bit of  heaven. Learned behaviors from the past are often acted out in adulthood, without awareness and sometimes with unfortunate consequences.

Sibling Squables and The Coupledom Spats, A Match? Often in my office, I am amused by the similarity between couples fighting and sibling quarrels, the methods, the language, the intensity. How one fought and played with siblings leaves an imprint on future relationships. The car seat location fight, jostling for position: the one who controlled the remote or managed never to get “caught” for sibling crimes; or the one  who tended to be the “decider” while another sib was left with the default position, conceding control in order to calm the family waters?  Or found yourself most often in the “reactive posture” of interpersonal options, passively waiting for the “bossy” siblings to decide your fate?  Were you the sibling who was left at home, after everyone went to college or married, feeling abandoned or irrelevant?  Or the one one who couldn’t get out fast enough? Did you score high points as the “know it all” who to this day views that designation as an essential part of self-esteem and identity?

What Relics of Childhood Identity and Behavior vis-a-vis one’s siblings or peers remain operative in your Coupledom today?  Which enhance the shared life? And what attitudes, beliefs and behaviors should be viewed as obsolete, a vestigial structure of childhood, needed then for survival sake’s, but now threaten to dismantle or cast a shadow over the new family order?

A Model for Exploration: My observations are a composite of study, clinical and personal experience, not hard science. Each family provides its homegrown variety of sibling interaction and significance. And each Coupledom weaves together the products of that history. What I am proposing is that couples explore together how their sibling relationships impact their partnership; the good, the not so good, always with the aim to clear out the distortions from the past and create together a healthy reality for the future.

The Children: And as an added perk, examine how these factors influence your view of your children. Projections, identifications, fears and dreams can be passed on in powerful ways that are worthy of self-examination and shared exploration. Go for it! If you need help, flag down an “expert”.

©jill edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2010

3 Responses to “Sibling Order Flavors The Coupledom: Oldest, Youngest, Middles and Onlies”

  1. gmwilliams

    I am a proud only child. We only children are more self-sufficient, better adjusted, and do not have the drama that people with sibings. I would only date and/or marry other only children as I have things in common with them. I WOULD NEVER date and/or marry ANYONE from a LARGE FAMILY because they are clannish, needy, and insular, and put their family of origin first before they do anyone. I know people who are from LARGE FAMILIES who put their siblings first before THEIR OWN HUSBAND and children. Besides, people from LARGE FAMILIES are peculiar and have a poverty consciousness and they end up poorer than people from SMALL FAMILIES. Furthermore, people from LARGE FAMILIES have DIFFERENT VALUES than people from SMALL FAMILIES do. I avoid people from LARGE FAMILIES like the plaque-they are from a different planet!

    • jilledelmanlcsw

      Dear Grace,

      Thank you for providing this forthright and unique perspective on sibling order. I hope that it promotes discussion on the site.



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