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Understanding How Birth Order Impacts Your Marriage

Air Date 02/16/2015

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Psychologist Dr. Kevin Leman explains how birth order affects your relationships with your spouse, and offers advice on managing challenges in your marriage that stem from your placement in your family of origin.

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Episode Transcript


John Fuller: Dr. Kevin Leman is back with us on today's "Focus on the Family" with Jim Daly. I'm John Fuller and Jim, we're comin' off of Valentine's Day weekend. How was that for you?

Jim Daly: I barely made it home.

John: You were on a trip?

Jim: I was on a trip.

John: Oh, man.

Jim: I couldn't believe we planned it. I don't know how I got sucked into that one, but I did and so, I made it back Friday night. But it was a great weekend and I hope everybody had a good time celebrating Valentine's Day. And today we want to talk to Dr. Kevin Leman about maybe even improving that relationship, knowing more about birth order and how that applies to your marriage. And I'm lookin' forward to the discussion.

John: Yeah, we talked about birth order and how it affects us as individuals and how it affects us as parents. I don't know that we've ever taken a run at how birth order affects the marital relationship.


Jim: Well, I'm curious, because I think again, these are generalities. I'm sure it's the 80-20 rule, but we'll ask Kevin in a moment if that's the case. But his ground-breaking book years ago, The Birth Order Book, really helped people better understand themselves and how birth order plays a role in it. And let me say, Dr. Kevin Leman, welcome back to "Focus on the Family."

Kevin Leman: It's always great to be here. Thank you.

Jim: I've gotta ask you this question.

Kevin: Yeah.

Jim: You connect with moms and with women in such a powerful way. Why is that? Why is that unique?

Kevin: Well, I think like a woman. (Laughter) Do you, Jim?

Jim: (Laughing) I mean, seriously.

Kevin: Jim, oh, I love your hair. (Laughter) It looks adorable and your shoes. I love those; where'd you get those?

Jim: Well, I was talkin' to my wife, Jean about that.

Kevin: Yeah.

Jim: I said, "You know, he talks about kids being ankle-biters and—

Kevin: Yeah.

Jim: --they're stupid at 13" and—

Kevin: Yeah, don't lose my …

Jim: --I said, "Is that the language of moms?" And she said, "No, he may be a little gruff, but he just connects with women."

Kevin: Yeah, I do. You know, at a party where all the men are in the corner, like 7th grade revisited? (Laughter) I'm surrounded by five women havin' a great time. (Laughter)

Jim: Is that the same as junior high for you? Were you connecting with the girls? (Laughter)

Kevin: You know what? With God as my judge and He is my judge, I had more girlfriends than you could shake a stick at. (Laughter) And I ran with a popular crowd. We had fraternities in high school. But you know what? I was not a drinker. I never had a beer yet and I'm near death. And the parents liked me. The girls liked me, 'cause I could dance.

Jim: (Laughing) That's the key.

Kevin: 'Cause most of the guys were sittin' around with their hands in their pocket, you know. So, I always got along with women, had a great relationship with my mom. And I've written about, you know, the connection between a mommy and a son and a daddy and a daughter and how profound those things are. So, that's just part of who I am.

Jim: Well, and it's partly, I think the insights that God has given you, to even write The Birth Order Book. Before we get into the application about spouses, tell us generally the birth order. What gave you the idea? What point were you trying to make? And how did that catch your attention originally?

Kevin: Well, I was sittin' in a college classroom and my professor was talking about the firstborn child. And he described the firstborn as organized, doesn't like surprises, reliable, conscientious, a list maker, an achiever. There's a right way to do things. I said, oh, my goodness. He just described my sister and then he went to the middle child, opposite from the firstborn. Yeah, check. Hard to pin down, plays off of whatsever [sic] above in the family, a mediator, a negotiator, huge with loyalty and friendship.

Jim: Hm.

Kevin: And I thought, oh, my goodness, he just described my brother. And yet, my brother was an A student, like my older sister, okay. So, he was the firstborn male, let me point that out, as well as the middle child, okay.

Jim: So, both attributes.

Kevin: Yes and then he went to the baby and that was the clincher for me. Attention getting, fun-loving, never met a stranger.

Jim: Could dance in junior high.

Kevin: Oh, I'm tellin' ya, well, listen. One of my claims to fame is, I talked my way into Disneyworld. (Laughter)

Jim: That's pretty good.

Kevin: Now check this out. Not one ticket, not two, but nine.

Jim: Don't tell Disneyworld.

Kevin: Well, I won't. let's keep this a secret, but I'll tell you.

Jim: Okay, have you ever paid them back for that? (Laughter)

John: A lot of publicity right there in the mention of it. (Laughter)

Kevin: Well, really, I mean, babies have the skill to sell dead rats for a living. In the business world, your CEOs or your presidents, your accountants, your engineers are your firstborn children. Anything where technology pays off huge, you're most likely to find the firstborn.

Your entrepreneurs in the business world, Donald Trump, yes, I know he has a family of four living in his hair, but he's a pretty gifted entrepreneur. Steve Forbes, Bill Gates, Jr., I mean, I know he's a college dropout, but the guy did pretty good. He's a middle child. So, middle children tend to roll differently than the rest of the flock.

Babies, charming, could sell dead rats for a living, like I said, got away with murder, most likely to retain their pet name. Her name might be Mary Lou, but everybody still calls her "Buffy," you know.

So, it's interesting to me how all these cubs come out of the same den and yet, they're all unique. Now today we're having smaller families, so we have a lot of "only" children, who are stepcousins, so to speak, to the firstborns. They're everything we said the firstborns are, only put the word "super" in front of it.

Jim: Ah.

Kevin: Super-conscientious, super-reliable, you know, they're little adults by age 7. And so, a lot of families like we have five kids, but we've got an only child in that five. Well, how do you do that? Well, there's variables that affect birth order.

Kevin: Big age gaps, for example, set that up.

Jim: Right. Let me ask you this question, that 80-20 rule. Do you find that because some people will say, "Well, that's not me. I'm firstborn, but I act like a last born." Does that happen and how frequent is that?

Kevin: It happens all the time and the variables of birth order, you really have to understand the variables or you won't grasp what we're talking about today. The variables are sex, No. 1. You have five kids in the family. One of 'em is a male. There's something special about one child in the family, so that kid could be in the second, third, fourth or even fifth position and still have firstborn-like qualities.

Jim: Because of his or her gender.

Kevin: Because of their gender, okay. Then you have age gaps. A five-year age gap between same-sex kids, you would draw another line in the family. So, that's where it splits off, okay.

Jim: Well, let me ask you about that. So, there's five kids in my family. I'm the fifth born, the last born, but I'm six years from my closest sister.

Kevin: Right.

Jim: They're all one year apart.

Kevin: Yeah.

Jim: And so, what category would that be?

Kevin: You're a firstborn son. Are you the president of Focus on the Family (Laughter) or did I not hear John Fuller right? (Laughter) Are you the boss? Are you the—

Jim: Okay.

Kevin: --boss?

Jim: Well …

Kevin: Well, are you boss? Answer my question.

Jim: I've got the title. I've got the title. (Laughter) I don't know. Actually, Jean—

Kevin: Do you see what I'm sayin'.

Jim: --Jean's the boss.

Kevin: But do you see what I'm saying?

Jim: Yeah.

Kevin: The gap sets those things up. Our youngest, little Lauren is very creative and very detailed-oriented and she's the baby of the family, but she's a functional only child. So, again, only children do logarithms in their head at age 7. I mean, they're advanced from the rest of us.

Jim: But I would think, especially, you know, in my case, I would say, I'm average in those kind[s] of discipline categories, but I'm more extroverted. I like people.

Kevin: But that's the influence of those sisters above you.

Jim: Okay.

Kevin: We're always affected by what's above us in the family, not what's beneath us.

Jim: Well, let me say publicly, thank you, Kim and Dee for that influence. (Laughter)

Kevin: Well, and here's other thing.Twins—

Jim: Yeah.

Kevin: --twins break up the birth order. If you want to pray for a kid a special prayer, pray for the kid that follows "the twins." (Laughter) Because the twins, whether they're fraternal or identical, get an awful lot of attention.

Jim: Right.

Kevin: So, people who say, I get letters from people, "Oh, this is non-biblical." I say, "Well, you're … okay, uh-hm. Okay, Cain and Abel." The original title on The Birth Order Book when it went to Revel Publishers with rubber bands and cardboard was, Abel Had It Coming. And the publisher said, "Kevin, you cannot have a title like that." I said, "I like it. It's got a nice family flavor. How about Jacob and Esau and a bowl of porridge?" I mean, there's a lot of things where brothers or sisters are diametrically different personalities.

Jim: Well, that give us kind of a good background. Let's dial it up now. When those firstborn, middle borns and last borns get older and now they're gonna marry somebody. We often talk about how opposites attract. I think in our marriage counseling here, similar to what you experienced, Kevin, you see that, that 80-20 rule usually applies. About 80 percent of us are attracted to people who are different from us. Talk about that magnetism and talk about how birth order plays into that attraction.

Kevin: Well, let's start with, if both of us were the same, there'd be little use for one of us. (Laughter) Okay?

Jim: Well, some opposites may have that thought.

Kevin: Yeah. (Laughter) But opposites do attract. I mean, as a baby of the family, I can tell you, I married Mrs. Uppington.

Jim: And where is she?

Kevin: Mrs. Uppington, of course, is my pet name for my firstborn wife, who loves restaurants with four and five forks. There's a right way to do things. She was color coordinated at birth, I believe. But you know, I can still remember as a young husband to be, standing at that aisle as she walked down the flower-strewn aisle. We spent $29 for flowers on our wedding. It was a big affair. And I remember looking at her little daisies she had--to this day she hates daisies--but I didn't realize that underneath that bouquet was a rule book.

Jim: Hm.

Kevin: And firstborns tend to be the rule makers.

Jim: Uh-hm.

Kevin: Firstborns are good at spotting flaws and that means a person who can spot a flaw at 50 paces, in the marriage and you've got trouble, because they're gonna be a flaw picker. That person isn't gonna feel like they're loved. Women in particular, who thrive on affection, need to know that their husband has their back at every moment of their life, okay. And many of us as men who aren't great wordsmiths, but we're great critics, can take the spirit of a woman and just level it with just a word or a look.

Jim: That's a majority of the relational component, isn't it?

Kevin: It is.

Jim: When you describe that—

Kevin: I mean, I—

Jim: --that's most marriages.

Kevin: --I wrote a book Smart Women Know When to Say No and it contrasts the controlling male and the pleasing female. It's a very neurotic relationship. And like a moth to a flame, these people find each other out.

So, there's opposites that attract that aren't good healthy marriages, because one person does all the controlling and the other is beaten over the head like a baby seal.

Jim: Let me ask you this. Some people are listening thinking, okay, this sounds good. This sounds psychological and I get it. Where is God in this whole thing? Why did He design us like this? There's only so many emotions that we can feel. There's only so many attributes that we have. There's only so many positions in birth order that you can be. And He puts that all together and then you're attracted to your spouse and yet, in most marriages, you have to learn to be selfless. You have to learn to give and why do you think God has done it the way that He's done it?

Kevin: Well, I think it goes back to the book of Genesis, where we see the word "completer" and "helpmate." And it just comes together at the very nature of how He's made the masculine and the feminine come together and make this tremendous explosion called "love."

Jim: Is it fair to say that if you put Christ at the center of your relationship, He can smooth out some of those rough edges?

Kevin: Well, that's what you hear all over the Christian kingdom. Just put Christ at the center of your life. The problem is, if you've married a woman who came out of a very dysfunctional family, who didn't have a loving father, No. 1, she's got all kinds of issues with God, because she--

Jim: So, it's gonna take a lot of sandpaper.

Kevin: --she doesn't even see God as the loving Father. She sees Him as the critical-eyed person. She runs on guilt. Now I know I'm steppin' on some toes when I say these words believe me, but we tend to in the kingdom of God, come up with these little platitudes [that] are profound. And so, yes, you want to rely on God for all things. If anything is gonna overcome this great dysfunction in a family, it's the love of Jesus Christ in one's life.

What I've learned is, it takes people sometimes decades to get to that point, where they really understand that the sin I'm gonna commit next week, you know what, Jim and John? It's already forgiven. See, Jesus came to this earth to put an end to religion, to put an end to religion, not start a religion. You know, it's all about a relationship.

So, yeah, I mean, I can tell you, I don't know how people make it without God in marriage if that's the question. I know people do, but I don't know how they do it. Because there's times when you have this intimate union with this person where you'd want to either UPS 'em to a far-off land or kill 'em.

John: Well, we here at Focus on the Family, we want to help you in your marriage. We want to help you thrive and Dr. Kevin Leman is our guest today on the program. And if you'd like to find out more, we do have details about his book, The Birth Order Book: Why You Are the Way You Are over at And I'd encourage you to call us today. Make a donation of any amount and we'll send the book to you as our way of saying thanks for standing with us and supporting this family outreach. Our phone number is 800-232-6459; 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY.

Jim: Kevin, let's get practical. Let's talk about those combinations and put some meat on the bones of what we've talked about. Talk about two firstborns who marry. Is that typical? What percentage of the population would that represent?

Kevin: Not typical.

Jim: Okay.

Kevin: We tend to, now we're speaking in generalities, we tend to marry outside of our birth order. And that's a good thing, because simply marrying outside of your birth order increases the probability of success in marriage.

Jim: So, opposites attract really does apply.

Kevin: Oh, they do, yeah. Now when you have firstborns and firstborns together, they spend a lifetime it seems like, "shoulding" on each other. You should do this; you should do that. They're the great improvers, okay. They see something that's out of place and they immediately go over and straighten it up.

Jim: So, what are some tools that you would recommend that they could do it better?

Kevin: Well, the division of labor's really important. I'm gonna take care of this and you take care of that. And we'll report back and trade notes. I always tell women at my seminars, oh, where are the firstborn women? And I see all these hands go up. I say, "I got a great suggestion for you. Have a wallpaper party and just invite your firstborn girlfriends to help you wall paper a room. And here's my prediction. By 11 o'clock in the morning, you'll have blood on the floor." (Laughter)

Why? Because you have all these people who know exactly how life oughta be. So, you're a firstborn and you're talkin' to your firstborn wife, okay. Now lots of times you might just say, "All right, listen. This is what we're gonna do." Bingo, the hairs go up. I mean, the ears are back. "Hey, honey, I'd like to ask your opinion about somethin' that I've really been struggling with." Now the ears are open. The heart's open. You're on the right track.

So, when you say, put some meat on the bone here for us, those are the kinds of things you learn to say to your bride or to your groom.

Jim: Boy, there's so many combinations, Kevin. We can't cover them all, but let's go through a couple more.

Kevin: Yes.

Jim: Let's talk about firstborn and middle born.

Kevin: Pretty good match. Why? Because middle children never had their way in anything. No one ever said to a middle child, "Honey, what do you think we should do?" They were submerged by the firstborn, little Miss Bossy, little Miss Goody Two Shoes or Mr. Great Student in school and little Schnooky, the baby of the family that got away with murder.

So, middle children are a little bit like going down to the blood bank and find the universal donor, 'cause they go with about everything.

Jim: Ah.

Kevin: A middle child is a good match for a baby. A middle child is a good match, a great match for either an only or a firstborn. They add balance in a very natural way. They never had mom and dad to themselves. They negotiated for everything they ever had in life. So--

Jim: And they're comfortable with it.

Kevin: --so, that's a good skill to bring into marriage. So, hooray for the middle children.

Jim: They're the ones that keep peace.

Kevin: Right, they're the peacemakers. They are.

Jim: Let's talk about the other combo, the oldest and the youngest.

Kevin: Well, that's a naturally good combination. It really is. A firstborn and baby and only born and baby are very good.

I remember coming home from CBS television in New York and I said to Mrs. Uppington, I said, "Hey, you never said that you liked my spot or not?" And she said, "Oh, you were good." (Laughter)

Jim: That communicates a message. (Laughter)

Kevin: Oh, yeah, That's what you call a spit in your soup, by the way. "Oh, you were good." So, that just sets me up to say, "All right, what's the problem?" And this is cruel. This is so embarrassing to say. She says, "Did you have to blow your nose in your tie, really?"

Jim: (Laughing) Oh, my good ness! (Laughter)

Kevin: She says, "People read your books. They look up to you. You're a respected psychologist and there you are, blowin' your nose in front of Harry Smith at CBS." I said, "Well, honey," and I explained to her. I said, "The floor director was giving us the wrap, okay. I know Harry did not see that signal. And so, Harry went to ask a question. In fact, we were talkin' about birth order that day. He said, "Dr. Leman, we never got to your birth order. What's your birth order?" Well, the guy's countin' down with fingers, you know? I mean, we've got 10 seconds. So, I took my tie and feigned that I was blowing my nose in it to communicate that a baby of the family would do anything for a cheap laugh. (Laughter)

Well, Mrs. Uppington did not appreciate her husband's humor. Let's just put it that way. But she straightened me up lots of time, but I would tell you in reverse, that a Saturday night dinner at our house starts on Thursday. And I'm the one that helps lighten her up with things, because she takes things way too seriously, okay.

And she needs me, to put it bluntly. And I think that's the message with the firstborn and the baby, that we really need each other, 'cause the firstborn can be too perfectionistic. And remember, perfection is slow suicide.

Jim: Ah.

Kevin: And the only time that we are gonna look perfect is that one split second when we meet our Maker someday. And because Jesus died on the cross for each of us, we're gonna look as the old song says, "white as snow." And we're gonna enter into His kingdom forever.

John: I didn't ask, Jim, if we could do this, but it'd be kind of fun to hear you give an assessment of where he and Jean might be (Laughter) as a couple.

Jim: Hey, wait a second. I was gonna (Laughter) ask that about you and Dena.

John: I've pre-empted you on that.

Jim: Who's driving the show here?

John: So, 'cause you're the baby of the family …

Jim: I'm the baby, by—

Kevin: But is a functional—

Jim: --six years.

Kevin: --firstborn son.

Jim: So, I'm like a baby firstborn.

John: Kind of a functional firstborn, as Kevin said.

Kevin: Is she a firstborn?

Jim: No, she's a third born daughter out of six kids.

Kevin: Okay.

Jim: But she's not the last. There's a brother underneath her. She's the last-born daughter.

Kevin: So, she's the last-born daughter.

Jim: Yeah.

Kevin: I'm gonna tell you straight to your face. It could work. (Laughter)

Jim: Well, 28 years it seems to be movin' along. How about you and Dena, John?

John: Well, I'm a firstborn married to a middle child who sometimes acts like a firstborn.

Jim: Is it possible for a child that's in the middle, I mean, Jean, last-born daughter, but tends to have firstborn attributes of a bit of perfectionism. Is that typical?

Kevin: It can happen all the time. Once you get to large families and again, today a large family is a family of four, for Pete's sake. But you have those families that are eight, nine, 10 kids, within the family there's at least three sub-families in all probability.

Jim: Just because of the age grouping.

Kevin:Because of age grouping or the sex or something, one of those attributes. And I think that's what made The Birth Order Book sell well over a million copies, because everybody's got a birth order and everybody understands that all the cubs came out of the den—same den—and yet, they're very different.

Jim: Talk to the other birth combos. How does a last born and a middle child in a marriage, how do they communicate better?

Kevin: Well, last borns have to understand one thing, that they're not the only person in the union. (Laughter) And I'm here to tell you, that's what us babies are good at. There's times I'm ashamed of how I think, ashamed of how I act, 'cause it's so easy as a baby to think about only yourself.

Jim: Center of the universe.

Kevin: We practice what we call "natural tithing" in the Leman family, which means, if we see a need in someone's life and we can help meet that need, we do that. That's really good therapy for me, just to give things to people without anything comin' back.

And I think babies in particular, have a harder time being a good husband or a good wife, because they tend to be, by their nature, too self-centered. And you have to be other-people centered.

Middle children are great at other-people centered. And that's why I mentioned earlier, middle children are tremendously loyal. They have friends outside of the family. No one ever asked a middle child, "What do you think?" So, you always want to be making sure that you're tapping into the feelings and ideas and concerns that your middle-child spouse has.

On the other hand, as a middle child, you have to understand this spouse needs a few fish thrown their way, like you'd throw a few fish to a seal. Arf, arf! (Laughter) And us little babies need strokes.

Jim: Kevin, that is good advice. Let me ask you this. So many young people are waiting to get married. So, we have more 20-something singles and 30-something singles. They'll hear this, too. Thankfully, they're listening to "Focus on the Family" and I'm grateful for that. How do they apply that? I would think a firstborn applying what they've heard in the broadcast, could take a real technical approach and begin their search for a spouse and that could be the topic of discussion.

Kevin: Great question.

Jim: Where's your birth order?

Kevin: Listen, that is such a good question for all of you who are looking for Mr. or Mrs. Right. Listen to what this old man has to say. This one oughta get right to the heart of the matter. Does this person love God? If a person really loves God, if they really love God, they're gonna do what the Bible tells 'em to do and they're gonna be a good husband and good wife. You're already on first base.

Now does this person you're marrying have a temper? Uh-oh, yellow flag, big time. Now why would I pick on temper? Because temper equals control and that's why I say to all your parents who are listening, if you got kids who when they lose, they throw a temper tantrum and stuff, you better deal with that right up straight right now quickly.

And so, if really gets back to does he love God? Does she love God? Does this person have a temper? And what's the relationship like between this woman you're gonna marry and her father? Well, he was abusive. Well, get ready for a long road, a tough road in that marriage, okay.

Jim: But understand it. It's a—

Kevin: You have to—

Jim: --good thing.

Kevin: --understand it, yes. But it's like making a cake, Jim. In one of my books, I talk about daddy attention deficit disorder. And it's like making a cake. And if you make it, I'm not much of a cake maker, for sure, but if you make a cake and you leave out one major ingredient, I got news for you. The cake is gonna fall. It's not gonna be a good cake.

Now again, I'm steppin' on a lot of toes here, 'cause there's a lot of women and men who have grown up in a home where the critical eye reigned and you were put down. You were discouraged. You weren't encouraged. You were just hammered and in fact, in many cases, you were at least verbally abused, but sometimes physically abused.

Think of the kind of husband you need to have. Do you want to pray for something? Pray for a husband that's near super human, because he's gotta come around and just love you. He's a guy that needs not ever demand anything from you and just to accept you, so that you have a chance at loving this husband that you've fallen in love with. I mean, it is a barrier and a half to get through.

And when you reach for imperfection and understand how broken you are and I need this man. I need this woman in my life, that's the point where you have the intimate connection, to realize that this person loves you whether you have morning breath that could kill a cockroach at 4 ½ feet or whether you have a habit that drives you up the wall. I mean, that's what's great about just being thoroughly married and thoroughly connected.

Kevin: But isn't it nice to know that God loves you despite all of your frailties that you know that's a part of your life? That's what cool about marriage, I think, that this person loves me at an intimate level and I can connect. And then there's not the performance stress, I think, on the kids. We're creating adults. You're not rearing kids. You're really rearing adults. And that's why you give responsibility to kids. That's why you don't let 'em run over you. But you're training that son or that daughter to be a good husband or a good wife.

Jim: Well, and that's what's so wonderful. We have to, especially again, I would say to the Christian community, we have to celebrate our differences and understand how to deal with the noise and the pain of being different. So, Dr. Kevin Leman, author of the book, The Birth Order Book, we're grateful to have you here. Thank you for bein' with us.

Kevin: Oh, my pleasure. Thanks.


John: It's always good to have Kevin Leman here and let me add that we're gonna keep rolling and then we'll have some questions from our studio audience and we'll include those on the CD and download of this conversation. You can get that, along with The Birth Order book by Dr. Kevin Leman when you get in touch.

And if you can make a generous donation to Focus on the Family today of any amount, we'll send that book to you as a way of saying thank you. Our number is 800-232-6450 or you can donate online at

Our program was provided by Focus on the Family and on behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for listening. I'm John Fuller, inviting you back tomorrow. We'll have Vicki Courtney with us, talking about having an authentic faith. That's next time when we bring more encouragement to help your family thrive.

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Kevin Leman

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Dr. Kevin Leman is an internationally known family psychologist and an award-winning, New York Times best-selling author. He is also a popular public speaker and media personality who has made countless guest appearances on numerous radio and TV programs. Dr. Leman has written more than 50 books including The Birth Order Book, Have a New Kid by Friday and Making Children Mind Without Losing Yours. He and his wife, Sande, reside in Tucson, Ariz., and have five children and several grandchildren. Learn more about Dr. Leman by visiting his websites, and