How Birth Order Can Impact Your Chances of Divorce

You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family. Or what order you are born in. There is plenty written about how the order in which you were born affects your personality and the way you deal with the world around you, but some believe that it can also affect your marriage, to the point that a mismatch can lead to divorce.

“There is a strong connection between birth order and divorce rates,” explained John Curtis, Ph. D. and former family counselor turned management consultant and author. “This has been studied very well from a psychological standpoint. The most successful marriages are those where the oldest sister of brothers marries the youngest brother of sisters.”

Think about it. The older sister of brothers all her life has been taking care of little boys growing up. The youngest brother of sisters all his life he has been taken care of by older sisters. It’s a natural fit. And there is a direct positive correlation between their place in their birth families and the stability of their marriage.

Dr. Kevin Leman concurs. Leman is a former family counselor turned author and public speaker. “When you get two first borns together, they tend to be bossy. They are typically the movers and the shakers, the perfectionists of the world. First borns are leaders,” said the 64-year old author of 32 books, including “The Birth Order Book.” When you talk marriages of first borns that is two sheep butting heads for territorial rights. It’s a bad match.”

It’s all in the math, apparently.

“A first born is much better with a baby. Notice there are extremes here. Babies of families, they are the little schnookies. They are the playful ones who always got away with murder. They often are laid back and manipulative,” said Leman.

“There is an interesting phenomenon that happens with the baby of the family. He is the last to leave, and parents will create more of a dependency in order to keep what looms large at bay, which is namely, going back to their adult life without kids. It’s scary. So they will often keep that last child around longer, keep him more dependent, and those traits will spill over into his marriage which, if he marries a first born daughter, can work out quite nicely as both of their needs are met,” said Curtis, author of “The Business of Love,” which applies successful management principles to marital unions.

But what if you are an only child? Who should you marry?

Don’t make the mistake of marrying someone just like you, says Curtis. “The highest divorce rates are when an only child marries an only child,” said Curtis. “It makes sense when you think about it. An only child is used to being the center of attention. And when the only child marries another only child, usually it’s hard for them to share the spotlight.”

Leman agrees, pointing to studies that show that only children are usually exceptional workers and perfectionists about what they do, but have little tolerance for each other in a marital union. “If you want the job done right, hire the only child. These are very capable people. They do extremely well in life because they are pretty much little adults by the time they are five, six and seven years of age,” said Leman. ‘But you don’t want them marrying each other. That can be very hard, especially when they turn the spotlight of their perfection on each other and find some flaws.”

The thing about birth order isn’t so much about who came out of the womb first, but who are the children modeling. First borns and onlies have as models their parents who are adults. To be blunt, our parents practiced on them. They were their little guinea pigs. Which is exactly how Linda Shields felt growing up. The 50-year old divorcee was an only child raised predominately by her grandparents. “My grandparents were very indulgent of me. I had anything I wanted when I wanted it. I was very mature and spent a lot of time with adults — old adults –“ my grandparents’ friends,” said Shields.

When she married, she was 27 and says she was looking for someone responsible, who would take care of her and provide for her financially. “I knew I could take care of myself. But I didn’t want to. I was tired of taking care of myself because I did it from a very early age. I was treated like a little adult,” she said. Finding a responsible, mature adult in the husband she chose, Shields married the oldest son of five children. “Rob was very responsible and very serious, to the point of not even being able to laugh,” she said.

But that level of responsibility began to create problems in their marriage as it turned into control. And her husband, who wasn’t used to being challenged, had problems with her independent nature. It wasn’t so much as him being in charge as it was in him undermining my self-confidence. “He was always doubtful about the decisions I made. I always made me feel I wasn’t right. Or that I should question myself,” she said.

But despite the eroding marriage, Shields stayed. And she stayed. For 23 years. “I didn’t want to be on my own. I was afraid of it. I hated it when I was a kid and I didn’t want to go back to that.” But she did. According to Leman, her marriage had some troubling signs to begin with. Namely that her husband, in addition to being the oldest, came from a family with alcoholic parents so the brunt of the child-rearing, as well as the effects of the disease, fell on him.

When it comes to dysfunction in the family unit, the question is, of all the birth orders, who takes the hit? It’s usually the oldest. “I call the oldest the ice cutter in the lake of life,” he said. “That’s what happens with the first born. They are closest emotionally to any of the dysfunction that might be in the family,” he said.

Other factors aside, according to studies, the couples with the best chances are those who come from the middle of the pack. “The middle child is often struggling with an identity issue. He can’t be first and he can’t be last. He becomes the peacekeeper and often fades into the woodwork of a multi-sibling system,” said Curtis, 58. “The middle children are more stable and ultimately healthier than the other ones. And when you get [a middle child] that marries one it often results in a stable relationship where there is not a lot of melodrama.”

The middle child is squeezed between the crown price and the schnookie. So in terms of marriage negotiation, they are able to get along. They let things roll off the back. “You are strengthening the probability of success when you marry a middle child,” added Leman.

“But problems can also arise with a marital match of two middle children. Two people who can go with the flow, sometimes they won’t tell you how they really feel and that can create problems in the marriage of people not being honest with each other,” said Leman.

“By and large, when problems arise in the marriage, which often happens later in life when each partner starts to get weary of the roles that they have assumed, many times it points to birth order. Let’s say in the instance of an oldest brother marrying a baby sister,” he said. “At first she may like being taken care of, and if her mom was a stay-at-home mom, and she wants to replicate that, it’s perfect if she meets man who was the oldest brother because in good likelihood they will replicate that, because he is in charge. But she may tire of that, and have a tough time changing the dynamic as she tries to create more equality in the marriage.”

While birth order shouldn’t be a deal breaker, it should be on of the factors that a couple discusses before getting married. “It’s a great indicator of kind of difficulties you will face in marriage,” said Leman. “It absolutely does matter. You should be looking at and talking about dynamics such as family history, birth order, socio-economic differences. Everything that is in your past can come into play in your marriage,” he said. “It should be one more piece of information to discuss. Birth order does matter. Forewarned is forearmed.”


Birth order plays a role into who we are and how we live our lives, but some believe that they also predict compatibility. John Curtis, author of “The Business of Love“ outlines a few tips to check to see if where you are born in your family is compatible with your spouse or ex-spouse.

1. Draw a Family Birth-Order Map.

Sit with your partner and draw a “birth-order” map for each of you that lists all siblings in your respective families, their ages and current relationship status, i.e. single, married, divorced!

2. Examine Sibling Personalities.

List the top three adjectives or descriptors both positive AND negative that come to mind that describe you and your sibling’s personalities in childhood, i.e. funny, whinny, bully and how those characteristics may be in keeping with the stereotypical images of 1st borns, baby of the family or only child.

3. Define Relationship History.

Talk with you partner about how, if at all, these characteristics may explain you and your sibling’s current relationship status/history, e.g. your whinny younger sister is on her 3rd divorce, the middle brother in your family has been happily married for 12 years, etc.

4. Recognize Your Shortcomings.

Identify the top personality characteristic connected to your childhood / birth order that might cause conflict in your current relationship and what you plan to do to prevent it, e.g. I was the baby in the family and felt spoiled, but I have come to realize that always getting may way will hurt our relationship.

5. Celebrate Your Strengths.

Identify the top personality characteristic connected to your childhood / birth order that might help improve your current relationship and what you plan to do to enhance it, e.g. I was the first born in the family and took on a lot of responsibility early in life, and I can assure you that you can count on me to take responsibility to keep our relationship happy and healthy.