Healthy Relationships 1.7: Sibling Position, Part 1

Family Constellation

In 1961, Dr. Walter Toman published Family Constellation, which described his research findings regarding sibling position. He identified ten basic sibling profiles that, all things being equal, predict a large body of knowledge about a person. These ideas provided a new dimension in family systems theory toward understanding how a particular child is chosen as the object of a family projection process.

Typical Sibling Profiles, Differentiation and Projection

The degree to which an individual’s personality fits the profile of his or her sibling position provides a way to understand the level of differentiation and the direction of the projection process from generation to generation. For example, if an oldest child fits the typical profile of an oldest child (calm and responsible), it is good evidence of a decent level of differentiation. If, however, an oldest child turns out to have the profile of a youngest child, that is strong evidence that he or she was the most triangled child in a poorly differentiated system. If a child shares some of the characteristics of the appropriate sibling position profile but some of other profiles, too, that is strong evidence of a moderate level of undifferentiation.

The way we think about ourselves and others starts with how our family members relate to us as males or females, and as first, middle or last born. There’s an infinite number of combinations of birth order positions, depending on the number of siblings, their gender and their relative ages. If there are more than five years between siblings, each will be more like an only child. When there are large gaps between siblings, sub-groups will form, with the individuals in the sub-group developing the characteristics of the position they occupy within that group. The smaller the age difference between siblings, the more they influence each other.

Descriptive, Not Prescriptive

The profiles of each position are descriptive, not prescriptive. No one fits his or her birth order profile exactly because there are many other family variables that modify these characteristics, but the typical patterns can help you identify the possible origins of some aspects of your personality, the personality of your mate, and those of other loved ones, too. It is particularly helpful to see how the mix of your partner’s and your birth order positions may affect your relationship. All things being equal, matches usually work best when birth order and gender order are well matched, meaning that the couple most nearly duplicated the age and gender arrangements both were used to as children.

We aren’t always attracted to someone with whom we are well-matched in birth order position, however. For example, two oldest children may enjoy the kindred spirit they share and the common burdens and frustrations they carry, but when they are living together, they may find a constant battle over who’s boss.

Two youngest children, on the other hand, may also enjoy a kindred spirit, but when partnered up, may find that no one takes the lead, creating paralysis or stagnation.

Tomorrow we’ll look at the ten most common sibling position profiles, and then you can figure out how your own position in your family of origin may have influenced your personality, all things being equal. Of course, all things are never equal, but we can start from typical sibling position profiles and understand variations to them when we add other variables the mix.



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