I just made a whopping marital mistake. More than a week ago I told Sande, my lovely bride of more than 40 years, that a TV crew was coming to our home in a week to tape an interview with me. I ought to have known better. As soon as I told Sande someone was coming to our house, she went into overdrive, thinking, What am I going to serve them? Mmm … maybe pulled pork sandwiches and a fruit salad … yeah, that might work.… Then she caught sight of a miniscule dirt smudge on the windows. Oh, no, they're a mess!
But why do I say it's a "marital mistake"? Because this week she told me several times: "Sweep the front deck and back porch. Wash the windows, and get rid of those spider webs. And don't forget — pick up the dog flops in the yard." At least she didn't ask for new carpet.
So why did I tell her so far in advance? Because I've learned the hard way that my wife doesn't like surprises. Telling her about an event at our home "the morning of" could result in critical wounds to my body. To Sande, a kitchen is only truly clean when all surface areas are wiped off and the toaster is put away. My thinking: Why put away a toaster when you're going to use it within the next 24 hours?
So why do Sande and I see things so differently? Part of the reason is our birth order — our place in our family of origin. I'm the youngest child in my family, and Sande is the oldest in hers. Because of our birth order, we had different experiences growing up, and those experiences have shaped our behavior, our personalities and even our relationship with each other. Understanding this has everything to do with our marriage thriving for more than four decades. With just a little knowledge about birth order, you, too, can build the kind of marriage that makes others say, "Wow, I want one of those!"
Why you are the way you are
Nothing in life is cookie-cutter, and birth order isn't, either. But understanding the basics provides clues about why you think, feel and respond the way you do. You learned to be the person you are based on the way your parents and siblings interacted with you. The little girl or boy you once were, you still are.
Here are a few insights about firstborns, middleborns and lastborns:
If you are a firstborn, you were the family guinea pig for parenting techniques. You were the first child to eat dead ladybugs, walk, plunge into puberty and drive. With the spotlight of parental expectations on you, is it any wonder you're a perfectionist?
Firstborns are well-organized list makers and leaders with lots of practice. (They were held responsible for their siblings.) They take life seriously, feeling the pressure to be better and do better. They crave details and are often critical of themselves and others. Take firstborn qualities and supercharge them, and you've got the only child.
If you are a middleborn, you took one look at the star above you and decided, No way can I compete with that. So you went in the opposite direction. Stuck in the middle, you learned how to negotiate peace between warring siblings. Since you were least likely to be noticed missing, is it any surprise you focused on friends and are very loyal?
Middleborns are great diplomats. They avoid conflict. They're independent and secretive. They don't often share feelings and are surprised when others pay attention to them.
If you are a lastborn, you grew up as the apple of your parents' eye. You manipulated siblings into doing your work, but they also used you to get what they wanted from your parents. Who could say no to you? You are the entertainer. Your life catchphrase is, "Don't worry. Be happy."
Lastborns are people-oriented and can sell anything. They're affectionate, engaging and act impulsively. They love to be the center of attention, and "Surprise" is their middle name.
So, how does birth order play out in your marriage, and how can you use it to strengthen your relationship? To answer that question, let's take a look at the unique dynamics of each birth-order matchup:
Firstborn + Firstborn
It's inevitable that two firstborns — perfectionists with a need for control — will bump heads. To reduce tension and increase harmony, define your roles. Who will take out the garbage? Schedule car repair? Balance the checking account? Having a clear division of labor will help. Marriage is a partnership, not a "Doing it my way" song. Prune "you should" out of your vocabulary. Say a simple thank you instead of "improving" on what your mate says and does. When a criticism pops into your mind, consider the consequences before you speak. Celebrate little and big successes … together.
Firstborn + Middleborn
Middleborns tend to avoid conflict, yet they're good compromisers. Since firstborns are strong in opinion, discussing events and feelings is critical in your marriage. Typical middle children will say, "Everything is fine," but need to be encouraged to share their real feelings. Firstborns can say, "Tell me how you really feel. I want to hear more," and ask, "What do you think?" The perceptive middleborn has so much to offer, including wonderful problem-solving skills.
Firstborn + Lastborn
Firstborns provide structure, goals and organization that is often lacking in lastborns, and lastborns heighten the much-needed fun quotient for overly serious firstborns. If you're the firstborn, let flaws go or gently suggest how to correct them. Don't set expectations too high. Would the world really end if a speck of lint resided on your mate's clothing?
If you're the lastborn, give your mate attention and strokes, even if he or she appears confident and in control. Make sure you run everything by your "detailed" husband or wife before scheduling it. Focus on serving each other, and always laugh together.
Middleborn + Middleborn
Neither of you is big on confrontation, and you've been reared to discount your opinions. That means you must work hard to make your spouse feel special, build up self-worth and show mutual respect. Brainstorm fun ways to keep your hearts close. Jot notes about important happenings when you're away from each other and use them as discussion starters for your meals together. Provide plenty of space for outside friendships, but don't forget the most important relationship — the two of you.
Middleborn + Lastborn
Middleborns like relationships to be smooth; lastborns like fun. Both birth orders specialize in friendships. To build a thriving marriage, middleborns need to blend their social interests with activities the lastborn thinks are fun. Lastborns must back off from always being in the spotlight and allow the middleborn to shine. Because middleborns take the path of least resistance, lastborns need to say, "I'd love your opinion on this." Above all, work on making sure the other person feels pampered and special.
Lastborn + Lastborn
Like otters in a stream, youngest children like to play, but life requires some structure, detail and attention to the mundane, such as paying bills. Decide who specifically will do what, and then find ways to build in mutual accountability — lists, alarms set on cellphones, whatever. Leave it to babies to come up with fun ideas for approaching the requirements of life.
And two become one
A thriving marriage isn't instant. It requires two people working together in an environment of love, support and mutual respect. Loving your mate means understanding how he or she views life, keeping in mind that birth order will influence that viewpoint. Regardless of how birth order plays out in your marriage, both of you can choose to change how you respond to and interact with each other.
Back to my wife and the TV crew. What would I, the freewheeling lastborn, have done differently in relating to my cautious, firstborn wife? I'd tell her just two or three days beforehand — not a full week before the appointment. It would save me a lot of housekeeping grief but still give her time to happily plan the menu and feel comfortable with the details. However, if capturing my bride's heart comes with a boatload of housecleaning, I wouldn't change a thing in how I handled the situation. This lastborn would do whatever was necessary to connect with that firstborn — in a heartbeat!
Dr. Kevin Leman is The New York Times best-selling author of The Birth Order Book and Have a Happy Family by Friday.