What Dating An Only Child Is Like, According To My Exes

The dumbest fight I’ve ever had with a significant other was about asparagus. On a sunny day in Los Angeles, I walked into my small kitchen to the smell of vegetables cooking. In front of the stove stood a man I thought I was falling in love with. And in front of him sat a bubbling pot of my asparagus (Cue: the voice of Ross from Friends saying “My sandwich!). I double-checked my fridge to confirm I’d been sleeping next to a thief. Then I ignored him for days.
A week later, he confronted me about my sulky silence. What’s wrong?” he asked. “You’ve been avoiding me for days."
“You ate my asparagus!” I countered petulantly. In my defence, I wasn’t only mad about the asparagus — it was the channel through which I chose to air more serious concerns I had about the relationship. But four years later, I don’t remember what those issues were. I do remember the asparagus incident vividly, though.
I am an only child. I grew up in a home where no one took my food without asking, and I’m self-aware enough to admit that I’m selective about sharing. For a long time, I believed the crux of my asparagus fight was directly informed by my only childhood. But after texting all of my exes and hearing from over a dozen therapists, psychologists, researchers, and authors, I’ve learned it’s a little bit more complicated than that.

The stereotypes that we’re selfish little balls of emotions, incorrigible narcissists, and independent to a fault aren’t really true.

Are only children the worst people you can date?
There are myriad theories out there about onlies like me and how we interact with the world. In 1907, G. Stanley Hall, the first president of the American Psychological Association said: “Being an only child is a disease in itself.” But there are also studies stating only children are more creative, flexible, and intelligent. So the stereotypes that we’re selfish little balls of emotions, incorrigible narcissists, and independent to a fault aren’t really true.
These assumptions can impact the relationships of only children — but not for the reasons you’d think. I’m not having relationship issues just because I’m an only child. The problems start when I blame all of my flaws on my sibling-less childhood. They also stem from my SOs drawing conclusions about me because I don’t have siblings, explains Lauren Sandler, journalist and author of One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child and the Joy of Being One.
“Stereotypes about only children can become a totalising narrative,” Sandler says. “I know plenty of only children who explain themselves in terms of their onliness… There’s also the aspect of how people perceive us. If you’re being defined by someone else in a certain way, that can shift the course of a relationship.”
There’s tons of conflicting data out there about how only children approach their relationships. One Ohio State University study found that we’re more likely to get divorced. But Toni Falbo — a professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin who’s been studying only children since 1974 — edited the book The Single Child Family, which cites a study that found only children “got married at about the same age as other people and stayed married as long as other people did,” as Falbo puts it.
Psychologists also have conflicting ideas about how only children operate in relationships. “They often have problems when it comes to delayed gratification, overly seeking attention, difficulty separating from parental influence, immaturity, independence, giving and receiving, [and] sharing,” John Mayer, Ph.D. and Doctor on Demand clinical psychologist, told me in an email. He recommends therapy for these “deficits.” But experts like Gabrielle Applebury, a licensed marriage and family therapist, told me that your relationship style had more to do with other factors like how your parents raised you “regardless of whether you're an only child, or you have 10 siblings.”
As you can see, the jury’s still out on whether only children are the best or worst love interests, but my exes and I have some theories.

Are only children more independent?

Having been raised as an emboldened little brat (JK that’s another stereotype!), I texted all of my exes to see if they thought my only childhood had an impact on our trysts. Some of them didn’t want to participate. Some were bros who could offer little to no insight (we all have a bro phase, right!?). One gave a detailed analysis — the kind of feedback I crave as an only child and journalist. Bless his heart.
This boyfriend from college said I was more independent than others he’d dated. “You didn’t need or want as much of my time,” he told me. “You took care of yourself, and didn’t need me constantly.”
“Only children are considered to be more self-reliant and independent,” says Dana Dorfman, Ph.D., psychotherapist and co-host of the podcast 2 Moms on the Couch. “Though they may have had parents readily available to them or not distracted by the needs of other children, only children are typically self-sufficient, learning to function on their own without the assistance of others.”
In my case, I was raised by two incredibly independent people. My mom is a business owner who almost dyed her hair grey in her 20s, just so people would take her more seriously. Once someone asked my dad what he would say if one of my boyfriends asked him if they could marry me, and replied: “I would ask them why they weren’t asking you.” The Longmans have a history of doing whatever they want, whenever they want.
So, the fact that I’m independent doesn’t just come from being an only child. Ronald Riggio, Ph.D. and professor of leadership and organisational psychology at Claremont McKenna College, tells me: “Molly, we call that ‘rationalisation.’ It is human nature and basic psychology for people to try to rationalise and explain their behaviour, and make excuses. There are many, many environmental factors that make us who we are. Birth order might have some impact, but it is likely small.”
Still, my independence — whether it comes from my parents or my only childhood — can pose a problem.
“I wouldn’t exactly want you to be more dependent on me, but I would have liked to spend more time with you,” another ex texted me.

Do only children have issues with attachment?

On the flip side of being “too independent,” only children also have a reputation for having attachment issues — especially to their parents. I call my parents almost every day when I’m walking to the subway or need help with a tax form.
Some people think this attachment causes us to become overly attached to our romantic partners, too. (Clearly, this wasn’t my personal experience.) But when you look at actual attachment theory, a psychological model attempting to explain the dynamics of relationships, it’s more complicated than it seems. Dorfman explains: “Only children’s attachment styles vary depending upon the quality and personalities of the child's parents.”
According to Dorfman, if your parents pay attention to you when you’re a kid, you should be able to develop healthy and secure attachments (read: relationships) in adulthood. But if your parents are neglectful and unavailable, you might develop insecure attachments. It has more to do with parents than siblings.

I take a while to attach, but once I do, I will aid and abet you with golden retriever-like loyalty for life.

“It should be noted that many only children develop strong, close relationships with their parents and are known to be fiercely loyal and devoted in relationships,” Dorfman says. (Internally exhales a huge sigh of relief.)
I take a while to attach, but once I do, I will aid and abet you with golden retriever-like loyalty for life.

Can Only Children Share?

Sharing has to do with more than asparagus. It also means sharing thoughts, feelings, and someone else’s time. (Oof.) Racine Henry, Ph.D., couples therapist, and founder of Sankofa Therapy, says only children are used to being their parents’ priority, so sometimes they expect that from their SOs. You have to learn to share someone’s time and know you won’t always be their number one. “You might be their 1A, but they also have a 1B,” she says. “As an only child, it contradicts how you’ve come to know what love looks like.”
But as Sandler points out, love looks different to everyone. The way we perceive and experience love might have to do with our siblings or our parents — but it also could be all those Nora Ephron movies we watched.
Going back to the asparagus incident: I probably wasn’t withholding asparagus sex because I’m an only child. “You’re doing the thing that people do, which is telling yourself: I’m like this because I’m an only child,” Sandler says. “Our relationships are these unique constellations that we try to understand through formulas that can only take us so far.”
We're not doing ourselves any favours when we hyperfocus on one element of ourselves and block out all the other things that make us who we are. We’re all more nuanced than that, and trying to analyse my romantic life by my lack of siblings isn’t helpful or accurate. Just as my peers with siblings will have ups and downs in the journey of love, so will I. But with self-awareness and the right amount of luck, I have to believe we only children can find the kind of love we deserve — with people who won’t eat our asparagus.

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