Relationship Patterns and Sibling Position Combinations
from The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory: A New Way of Thinking About the Individual and the Group by Roberta M. Gilbert, M.D.
What do we learn when we begin to think family systems about the sibling positions and relationships? The particular flavor that relationship patterns take is especially influenced by the gender and rank of the participants in their family constellations. Oldest children seem to be at risk for overfunctioning, just as youngests are for underfunctioning. Often noticed by those working with families is the proneness of two oldests as spouses, to engage in conflict. Youngests, rather than fight, will give in, so two youngests in a marriage will flounder, all things being equal, from lack of decision-making. By the same token, marriages of a youngest and an oldest will tend towards overfunctioning/underfunctioning reciprocity, with the oldest in the dominant position and the youngest accommodating, of course. Only children may be more distant in their relationships (need more “alone” time) than their mates are comfortable with. They may have to work harder than others to stay connected.
How Is It That All Things Are Not Equal?
How do all these fascinating and useful research findings fit in with the rest of Bowen family systems theory?
In the first place, as Bowen recognized from the very beginning, this information completes the theory. There would be a very large hole in Bowen theory without it. In addition, the theoretical and the research data mesh perfectly in some interesting ways.
Further, Dr. Walter Toman often pointed out that his research applied statistically, or in the aggregate, but not necessarily in a particular case under study. Thus, his “all things being equal” phrase. How, then, do we account for the exceptions?
Things are rarely, if ever, equal. Because of the inequality of the family projection process, some people come out of their families more mature, or at a higher level of differentiation, than others. At the higher end of the scale, people will be less typical of their sibling position, with more of the strengths and fewer of its weaknesses. At the lower end, the opposite will be the case. They will be more likely to follow the portrait, or be “bound” by it. In this way, when the sibling position research is seen through the lens of the rest of Bowen theory we can begin to see why the research may or may not hold true in individual cases.
The sibling position descriptions are merely a starting point – one of many – for beginning the work on the self. It is differentiation of self that shows us how to work out of the weaknesses of sibling position, family generational history, or any other weakness we may find in ourselves. At the same time it teaches us about maximizing our strengths. Taken together, Bowen’s and Toman’s work round out a picture of human functioning we could have in no other way.
Therapists often read out of Toman’s book to their clients, to reactions of astonishment: “How can someone who never met me describe me so perfectly?” This can open the door to new and energized effort. The sibling position information certainly takes one right back to the original family for answers to some of the questions we all have (or need to have) about ourselves. For the coach, sibling position is one more piece of the puzzle in understanding the families that sit with us, as well as our own family relationships. It often takes the sting out of relationships that aren’t going well, to realize “He is just acting like a youngest,” or “I don’t have to go toe to toe with this person just because he (she) and I both happen to be oldests.” So the understanding of sibling positions becomes one more way of taking relationship glitches less personally. It can be a great help for stuck relationship patterns, when sibling position does play a part, for people to understand how the positions tend to work together in relationship combinations.
People definitely bring the strengths and weaknesses of their sibling positions into their organizations. In addition, they can be pressured by the organization into a functioning position something very like a sibling position. Degrees, experience and qualifications may help bring one into the organization. But once there, the system acts emotionally as families do. The ones who have been there the longest often behave like the oldests in a family. The last-to-come may be treated more like youngests – told what to do, or treated as if they don’t know much. A very immature group can actually treat newcomers with cruelty. This is seen in the wild when young male primates migrate (in certain species where this is the norm) to a new group. At first the immigrant may be greeted with suspicion, rough play, or even violence. As human society has become more anxious, hazing of freshmen in various educational institutions has at times taken on criminal proportions.
A higher level group may treat newcomers better than that, even in anxious times, though prompting from the leadership may assist to bring about such a culture. For example, parishioners who are not welcoming to visitors are merely doing what they feel like (acting on emotion, not out of principle). In order for a group to grow, or even simply function better, however it may need some coaching on high level behavior. Doing better (acting more out of basic self) is often counterintuitive. The fact that leadership most often comes easily to oldests and onlies does not mean that people in other sibling positions cannot learn to be high-functioning leaders.
Who’s On First? — Birth Order and Gender Position in the Family of Origin by Lois Richardson. (pdf) From the book: Family Ties that Bind: A Self-Help Guide to Change through Family of Origin Therapy by Dr. Ronald W. Richardson
Optional Resources on the Genogram
A Family Genogram Workbook by Israel Galindo and Elaine Boomer
Genogram Video Tutorial (15:39)