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What’s It Like To Be An Only Child When You’re An Adult?

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Personal Development

What’s It Like To Be An Only Child When You’re An Adult?

The quirks of an only child

Although disputed by scholars past and present (Polit & Falbo, 1987; 1988, Newman, 2011), the popular belief is that only children are self-centered, spoiled, in constant need of the spotlight, and socially inept. Nevertheless, more and more American couples are choosing single-child families. The percentage of women who have one child has more than doubled in the past 20 years up from 10% to 13% (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2011). In 1970 families averaged 2.5 children compared to today’s 1.8 (The National Center for Health Statistics, 2011). The Only Child (2011) reported that there are 20 million only child households in the United States alone.

The changes are in part, economically driven: raising one child costs less than raising two or more. But people are also marrying later in life and in so doing, there is less time to have more than one child. Career-oriented women in particular have been having babies later in life. Susan Newman’s recent book, The Case for the Only Child: Your Essential Guide (HCI, 2011) addresses many of these issues.

While I do not wish to dispute the research which casts a positive light on only children, I would like to share a few personal quirks which I believe are a result of my being raised an only child. Please keep in mind this isn’t meant to be a sweeping generalization of the only child. I’m well aware that not all only children are raised alike. I also realize that some adults who grew up with siblings may have the same quirks. I’m simply sharing 10 personal idiosyncrasies with the hope that some will resonate with you. If you find them somewhat humorous, all the better:

  • 1. I’ve never liked staff meetings or consensus building organizations. I’m not used to talking over people or fighting to make my point. I particularly dislike being constantly interrupted, especially by people smarter than I am, and with much better ideas.
  • 2. I can’t say I’d like to be in charge of anything because I don’t like the hassle of people constantly coming to me, or of me going to them.
  • 3. I’d rather go to small music venues than larger ones. I’m not paranoid; I’m just not used to a lot of noise or a lot of people around. Too many Americans in one room seems kinda dangerous to me.
  • 4. I like to have friends–and I have a handful of good ones that I’ve had for years–but I seem to have a built-in egg timer (the kind my mom used to let her know when her eggs were boiled) that lets me know when I have to go. Sometimes it feels like I’m getting a “fix” of friendship and then I need to withdraw.
  • 5. I think I would’ve made a great military sniper–if I could’ve gone out with other snipers– otherwise I’d been too lonely.
  • 6. I like to be seen as “special,” but I don’t like the spotlight.
  • 7. I don’t like losses. I’d rather keep something awful at a distance than give it up completely.
  • 8. I fight hard to keep myself from becoming triangulated into messy situations. This bodes well for me as a couple’s therapist but makes me nervous around lawyers.
  • 9. I’m a big fan of J.D. Salinger. He was able to be special while living in the woods.
  • 10. I relate to other only children, but some get on my nerves when they act like me.

[Stephen Betchen]

Dr. Stephen J. Betchen is a licensed marriage and family therapist and certified sex therapist, as well as a critically acclaimed author and regular contributor to the popular Ladies’ Home Journal column, “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” He currently serves as Clinical Assistant Professor at Thomas Jefferson University. For more than 25 years, Dr. Betchen has helped couples repair their relationships and reach new levels of happiness, whether they’re battling about in-laws, sex, parenting, infidelity, money, careers—or anything in between. (Case in point: He once treated folks who were at odds over the wife’s weight and the husband’s constant criticisms!) Dr. Betchen’s approach to couples therapy is refreshingly simple: He offers no gimmicks, slogans or quick fixes to nagging problems. Instead, Dr. Betchen believes that individuals change only when they discover what’s really driving their behavior—and that relationships change only when couples develop empathy for their partners and understand what really drew them together. (Turns out that physical attraction is just part of it.) Dr. Betchen provides in-depth analysis of couples’ attitudes and behavior, enabling them to see themselves and each other in a new light. And from there, he delivers real-world advice that teaches couples how to change themselves—and their relationship. Dr. Betchen is the author of numerous professional articles on relationships and makes frequent media appearances. His expert opinions often appear in national publications, including Family Circle and Men’s Health. In addition to Magnetic Partners, Dr. Betchen is the author of Intrusive Partners-Elusive Mates.

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