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Appendix 5




Birth order refers to age and sex differentials between and among siblings in a nuclear family. The term nuclear family is a term used to define a family constellation consisting of biological parents and their biological offspring.

A nuclear family in Bowen systems terms does not include grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, or even stepchildren or stepsiblings. These additional family members form a wider collective known as the extended family. And while these extended family members exert an important influence, it is the dynamics of the nuclear family that impact the most in terms of future adult character and role development.

This is particularly the case concerning one’s sibling position, or birth order as it is otherwise known, within the nuclear family.




Let’s start with a scenario that is played out again and again in families. A couple marries and has two children: this young nuclear family, therefore, is composed of four individuals – father, mother, child A (a first-born male child) and child B (a second-born female child).


As fate (or fortune) would have it, the couple divorces in time. The mother retains custody of the couple’s two biological children as the parents distance themselves from each other and marry new partners.

The mother with children A and B marries a man with two children of his own from a previous marriage, although his children remain in the physical custody of their biological mother. He has visitation rights where he sees his children on a scheduled basis.

This new marital pair forms a household with [six] persons including her own two children and regular but non-custodial visits of the new spouse’s two sons from his prior marriage.

This diagram shows the couple and their previously unrelated children in the new marriage:


People typically refer to children in such a merged household as stepsiblings; meaning, each child in the household has only one biological parent present but they develop a parent-like relationship with the other non-biological adult/spouse.




From a nuclear family perspective, the children from their mother’s [first] marriage retain their absolute sibling positioning in relation to each another. Child A (a first-born male) is still the oldest brother of a younger sister. And Child B (a second-born female child) is still the younger sister of an oldest brother.

The mother’s biological children do not suddenly become younger siblings of the 2nd husband's two older male sons who remain with their biological mother but have visitation time with their father in his new marriage.

This is true no matter how many years they all live together in this merged family.

The mother's children retain their original nuclear family sibling positioning in relation to each other, as do the two brothers from their own original nuclear family.

In other words: the oldest (step) brother’s sibling position is still that of an older brother of a younger brother; and the sibling position of the younger (step) brother is still that of a younger brother of an older brother, neither having the influence of female siblings.

The original nuclear family arrangement is always the defining factor in a child’s birth order position.


When remarriage occurs very early on in the lives of children, and they grow to emancipation age with stepsiblings, then these stepsibling relationships do have somewhat more influence than normal. The children of the merged family unit still retain their nuclear family sibling positions and all associated characteristics, but their personalities will reflect some enhanced influences by virtue of living longer within a wider circle of immediate household members.



An only child who spends his or her entire life in close proximity to a small nuclear family (of mother, father and child) will have a more insular approach to life in general. They will tend to be loners and they will tend to form a ‘best connection’ with parents instead of with gaggles of children outside of the family.

In contrast, an only child who spends time at residential summer camps, attends a boarding school, and/or belongs to enduring groups like in a band or theatre group, and has close cousins to hang out with, will evolve a markedly more interactive personality. This is what is meant by enhanced influences. The more people that come into their lives early in life, the broader an only child's experiences with members of both sexes.

Stepsiblings share such enhanced influences. When the stepfamily experience is a positive one, those influences have a positive effect on their overall development. [And visa versa.]

The term stepsibling, however, is an innately confusing one because it causes people to [assume] things that are not necessarily true about their early behavioral and emotional underpinnings.

Even the term stepparent is problematic, since a child does not lose a biological parent in the process of a parental divorce -- only in the case of death does this happen. And even then they still only have one biological mother and father to call their own for the remainder of their lives.

THE BEST 'STEP' DEFINITION IS THIS: Stepparents are adults who happen to be married to a child's biological mother or father. Stepsiblings are new relationships that happen to come along with the biological mother or father's new spouse in a new marriage.



People who grow up with the same birth order position tend to have important characteristics in common.

First-born children, for example, tend towards leadership positions in life while youngest children generally are more content to be followers -- or at least not leaders. Younger and youngest siblings tend also to be more laissez-faire while their first-born siblings, especially, tackle life with greater seriousness overall and certainly with a need for more personal control over their surroundings.

This is even more pronounced in only children who, by and large, grow up in an adult-oriented world. Many only children even have only children themselves as if to replicate the insularity and relationship simplicity of their own growing up years.

Youngest children who find themselves in leadership positions as adults have a leadership style that is quite different from that of a leader who is a first-born child in their family of origin.



Then there is the much-maligned middle child position. Middle children who are fairly close in age to older and younger biological siblings have a broader range of sibling relationship experiences than if they were, say, a youngest sister of older brothers, or an only child.

Indeed, a large sibling constellation prepares a true middle child well for the world of adult relationships because of their wide-ranging experience with older and younger members of the opposite sex while growing up.

A 'true' middle child is one who has both older brothers and sisters as well as younger brothers and sisters, such as can be seen in the following diagram:



Such a scenario is not without its complexities, however. Let's look at another version of the above family scenario that includes the same number of siblings.


In this new case the middle child's older siblings are all close in age but, if you notice, there are six years between our middle child (above) and her younger siblings.

middle sibling scenario 2


FAMILY VERSION II actually has two sibling groups, one of which is far more influential than the other for our so-called 'middle' child. The older grouping causes the middle child's sibling position now to be that of a youngest sister with older brothers and sisters. No longer is she a middle child llike we saw in FAMILY VERSION I.

Siblings closest in age tend to influence each other more profoundly than siblings more distant in age from each other. [Age] serves to separate siblings into distinct sibling groups within a single family.


Note the 14-year old male in the above scenario. He is, in FAMILY VERSION II, the oldest brother of younger brothers and sisters (or, more specifically, the oldest brother of a younger brother and two younger sisters). Even though he has five older siblings, the emotional influence of those older siblings is far less than the influences associated with his close-in-age younger siblings.

It is not always easy, therefore, to determine one's sibling position in a family by casual inspection. Whenever there are significant age differentials between siblings then the sub-grouping effect occurs -- and changes everything!

Take the example of two 20-year old male best friends (Tom and Harry) who share the position of last born (youngest) child in their respective families. When asked about their birth order positions, both will say they that their birth order is that of 'youngest.'

Upon closer inspection, however, this turns out not to be case at all. Yes, they are both 'last born' but the age differential in their respective sibling lineups changes things significantly.

Tom's family, shown below, has siblings close in age and therefore Tom is definitely a 'youngest' brother of an older brother and sister with all the personality traits that go with such a 'youngest' position.


Harry's family is a different story, as you will see. There is a span of 7 years between Harry and his next oldest sibling, which means that Harry's family has two sibling groups even though there are only three silblings total. In fact, Harry is a "quasi-only" child. He is not a 'youngest' at all.


Well, this means that Harry's experience in his family is more like that of an only child, given the significant number of years between himself and his older siblings. When he was 10 his next older brother was 17 and on the brink of finishing high school. The older siblings had little in common with Harry as children growing up in the same household; indeed, they were more like ships passing in the night. Harry basically had his parents all to himself during his developmental years.


Technically, Harry is what I call a 'quasi-only child of the youngest sort.' There are also 'quasi-only children of the oldest sort' as you shall see.

The 'youngest' version of this birth order position (i.e., Harry) has parents who are more mature and more established and relaxed in life, and such children consequently come out quite mature and generally quite different from the typical 'youngest' child in families.

In contrast, the parents of a 'quasi-only child of the oldest sort' had a child first, and then school or jobs or perhaps marital discord caused a significant delay before any more children came along: perhaps it was the discord stemming from an unplanned pregnancy that effectively forced the marriage into being; perhaps it was the discord stemming from too early a marriage between young, immature spouses; perhaps the marriage was in some other emotionally chaotic state when this first child was conceived and born.

quasi-only oldest sort


Regardless of the reason, the risk is for this child more than the others in the family to become engulfed in marital anxieties of the parents. And they forever after remain a symbol of a troubled era of their marriage. This leads to elevated anxiety and to generally lessened maturity in the burdened off-spring.

Both versions of 'quasi-onlies' have distant emotional relationships with their siblings.



Age is an important factor in sibling dynamics. Biological siblings close in age who grow up together are vastly more influenced by their adjacent siblings than are children whose siblings are far more dispersed in age.

Along those lines, I remember talking with a mother once who had six children, each six years apart in age. She produced, in other words, six different quasi-only children, not to mention what she did to tie herself down to more than thirty-six years of childrearing. This kind of family would not be characterized as an emotionally ‘close’ family.


NOTE: Much older parents have less intense and more distant relationships with their children than do younger parents who are typically closer in age to their children.

The same is true for a marriage between an older man and a much younger woman. [Or visa versa.] That marriage is less intense and more distant emotionally than are marriages between spouses considerably closer in age. This isn't always bad, but it does have its downsides.



As if things aren’t already complicated enough, the sibling positions of parents heavily influence their relationships with their children.

With this subject we are entering the wider world of the multigenerational family that affords us a view of the extended family over two, three, and even four generations or more.

I once talked with a young woman in my outpatient practice who looked so much like a male when she entered the room that I was floored when I suddenly discovered that she was actually a female; it was only when she started recounting certain experiences with her father that I realized my mistaken perception. She called herself 'Jon.' Her great grandfather, grandfather and father were all first-born males and namesakes, and then (KLUNK) she came along. She was so systematically ignored by the family because of this birth order accident that she did absolutely everything in her power to please her father, even to the point of looking and dressing and walking like the first-born male she was supposed to be.

This predicament evoked significant anxieties in 'Jon' as you can imagine and it affected the quality of her relationships with her younger sisters because her intense focus elsewhere.




EXAMPLE: A youngest female with 5 older brothers is quite a different person emotionally than a first-born female with 5 younger brothers; or even a first-born female with 5 younger sisters. Their approach to life, as well as their approach to intimate relationships, will be significantly impacted by these sibling experiences. And they will be better or worse for it depending on the additional mix of females to males in both parents’ families of origin.

EXAMPLE: Some families prize male children over female children, not only in this society but also in others around the world – and for a variety of reasons, none of them very helpful psychologically.

EXAMPLE: Some marriages more than others are complimentary, meaning; two first-born spouses are not nearly so compatible emotionally as a first-born male (with a beloved youngest sister) married to a youngest female of older beloved brothers. Their sibling relationships in this second case will very clearly enhance the marital relationship and it is considered a classic form of complimentary marital partnership. The spouses' sibling experiences growing up prepared them uniquely well for this marriage.

EXAMPLE: A younger male child who grows up with a “wicked witch” of a first-born sister will constantly be on the lookout in life for any more such “wicked witches” who could pose a serious problem for him. Mostly certainly he will want to avoid selecting a first-born female as a spouse in the event that she turns out to be a "wicked witch" herself.

EXAMPLE: A first-born female ‘surrogate mother’ for numerous of her younger siblings will forever be forging a motherly role towards others in life, with both good and sometimes not so good consequences, especially in marriage.

All of this is to show that birth order is a much more complex influence than most people realize.

There are even differing intensities of birth order influences.

A family of all brothers has a different relationship intensity about them than a family of all sisters. In the same way, a marriage between a man with five brothers and a woman with only sisters has a very different intensity and emotional affect than a marriage between a man and woman with fairly compatible mixed-sex sibling experiences between them.

It is not uncommon for women from a pronounced sisterly background to experience intimacy barriers with a spouse, in the same way that women with all male siblings often have trouble treating their spouses as something other than just another brother. Worse yet is a situation where the woman actually despised her brothers growing up, all of which sets her up to have a very negative marital experience later on no matter what.

Nuclear family sibling relationships are predictive of the level of intimacy that can be achieved (or not) in intimate relationships like marriage.




Birth order effects are also seen in business and even in political relationships that are built around power and money. The intense combination of power and power makes the workplace second only in importance to one's family of origin in terms of its influences. It is no accident that many U.S. Presidents have been first-born males because that sibling position has more emotional power associated with it than almost any other sibling position.

Sibling position dynamics are as predicative of a person’s overall approach to others in the workplace and in the world as they are in marriage.

Board room dynamics within powerful corporations, congressional interactions, physician relationships in hospital emergency rooms, relationships within secretarial pools, teacher-student and professorial relationships in universities, military relationships -– all of these workplace relationships and more are affected by a person's birth order and that of work associates. Incompatibilities can cause more than a little consternation on many different levels.



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