Christian Living


Best Marital Pairings

Marrying in your own birth order can lead to problems, so the question is, What is the best combination for a happy marriage? From my own counseling experience, I draw this general guideline: For a happy marriage, find someone as opposite from your birth order as possible.

Opposites not only attract, they are usually good for one another in a marriage setting. Psychologists have done studies that prove this theory. According to their research, only children and last borns supposedly make the best match, followed by first borns and last borns. Next come the middle children and last borns.

Following is a quick rundown on six birth-order combinations and why they tend to go wrong or right in a marriage, plus some practical tips for each combination. Keep in mind there are no guarantees that a certain birth order combination will lead automatically to a successful or miserable marriage. But the point is that there are indicators in birth-order information that can help a couple deal with any tensions they may have. (For more information, see my book Were You Born for Each Other?)

First Born Plus First Born Equals Power Struggle

As we've already seen with George and Shirley, when two perfectionistic first borns get together, there is a bumping of heads (i.e., a power struggle). The issues usually focus on perfectionism and who has control. If you are a first-born or only child married to another first-born or only child, here are some tips for reducing tension and increasing harmony in your marriage.

  1. Stop "improving" on things your spouse does or says. To a perfectionist, this may be a real trick, but bite your tongue and do it anyway. The New Testament compares the tongue to the bit in a horse's mouth or the rudder of a huge ship (see James 3:3-4). This vivid metaphor says it all. The bit and the rudder control everything, and the tongue can literally determine the direction of your marriage.
  2. Stop "shouldering" your mate. For first-born perfectionists, criticism is second nature. If you are being hard on yourself and /or your mate, lower that high-jump bar of life. Once you quit trying to jump high, you can stop asking your mate to do so as well.
  3. Define roles carefully to avoid arguments over control. In other words, decide who does what. One spouse can do the shopping while the other pays the bills and balances the checking account. Help each other with assigned tasks and try to be considerate and aware of the other's responsibilities. Example: If one spouse does the shopping, the other should not complain about the high grocery bill. I counseled one couple where the perfectionist, critical husband complained incessantly until his wife told him, "Okay, you shop this week." He did and came home in "sticker shock," never to complain again!
  4. Get rid of the we've got-to-do-it-my-way attitude. The old cliche applies: There is more than one way to skin a cat (and your way is not necessarily best). One of the best sentences any first-born perfectionist can learn to say to his or her first-born spouse is: "You may be right. Let's try it your way."

First Borns Find Middle Borns a Paradox

The first born who marries a middle born should first take comfort in the fact that middles have the best track record for building a lasting marriage. At the same time, the middle child can be a vexing paradox. Middle children grow up having to learn to negotiate, mediate, and compromise, but they can also be secretive and play it close to the vest with their emotions. I have found that middle children typically will throw their first-born spouses a bone once in a while without letting them know how they really feel. Some practical suggestions for first borns married to middles include:

  1. Make it a point to have regular recaps and discuss feelings and what is happening. Do not let your spouse toss you a bone by saying, "Everything's fine." Ask what your spouse means by "fine."

    Daily recaps -- at least a recap every few days --are valuable in any marriage, but are particularly useful if one mate tends to be less inclined to share feelings. I know of one couple who did their recapping while discussing the sermon they had heard at church. Discussing their spiritual beliefs and values was a way to open up about feelings that were bothering one or both of them.

  2. Make your spouse feel special. Remember that the middle-child husband or wife very likely did not grow up feeling special, so anything you do--small gifts, love notes, saying sincere little things he or she likes to hear--will touch the heart and strengthen your marriage. While the following applies to every birth order, it's especially good for the first-born husband of the middle-child wife to remember: Every day women ask in one way or another, "Do you really love me?" Every day they need your affirming answer.
  3. Work on drawing out your middle-child spouse. Keep in mind that as a first born your natural inclination is to give the answer, solve the problem. Instead, back off and ask, "What do you think?" "Tell me how you really feel," or "Tell me more." First-born husbands of middle-born wives should always ask for their opinion, particularly on issues of people and feelings. Middle borns are not only more perceptive, but they like the problem-solving role and smoothing a way for everyone.

First Born Plus Last Born Equals Bliss (Usually)

According to one study of three thousand families, the odds for a happy marriage increase a great deal when the first born hooks up with the last born. What is at work here is the opposites-attract-and-are-good-for-each-other factor. The first born teaches the last born little things that may be lacking, such as being organized and having goals, while the last born helps the first born lighten up and not take an overly serious approach to life.

According to the researchers, the best possible match you can find is the first-born female and the last-born male. I took no part in this research so I can't be accused of making this claim because that happens to be the match Sande, my first-born wife, and I have. I'm just very thankful it happened.

First-born females are often mothering types and last-born males often need mothering. I started out being fortunate to be the last-born brother of my first-born sister, Sally. Eight years older than I, she mothered me quite a bit and taught me a lot about women. For example, she taught me that girls don't like being approached by a bunch of boys who are show-offs--pushing each other, talking loudly, and doing stupid things that guys often do. Sally also told me girls want a guy who is tender, understanding, and a listener, who realizes manners have not gone out of style.

Most marriage counselors agree that men do not understand women very well. So any extra learning a boy can get while growing up is going to help him later when he has a wife and family of his own. Of course in my case, I certainly didn't come into our marriage a finished product. I still needed some work, and Mama Bear was happy to oblige.

How Mama Bear Reformed Cubby Bear

It may be a good rule of thumb to say any combination of first born and last born has a better chance for marital success than do other combinations, but success doesn't follow automatically. Good marriages are made, not born. Two people must work together on being considerate, caring, and mutually supportive. When I married Sande, it was a classic matchup of the pleaser Mama Bear taking on the playful Cub. Naturally the Cub took advantage of his new caregiver. Sande had to put up with my fussy eating habits and picking up my clothes after me wherever I dropped them.

This went on through the early years of our marriage. One day, while I was working on my doctorate, Sande heard me expostulating on how to discipline children and hold them accountable for their actions. The light dawned. If holding children accountable for their actions is good, holding a husband accountable might be even better, Sande thought. She went into action.

Soon I found my little piles of clothing where I had left them. In no time the apartment became covered with my piles. Then came the day when I could not open the door because Sande had shoved a giant stack of my clothes against it to make room for whatever she was doing. That got my attention. Sande and I had a long overdue talk and shared our feelings.

She said: "Look, I want to be your wife, not your mother. You learn to pick up your own clothes and put them where they belong. Also, I'm going to fix different things for dinner. I expect you to at least try some new dishes. You owe that much to yourself and to our children--if you want to be the good role model you keep talking about."

I said: "Okay, I'll try to do better, but you have to promise me that you'll serve only canned peas and corn--no frozen peas!"

Learning to pick up my clothes and eating different foods was just a start as Cubby Bear learned how to grow up and become Papa Bear.

Here are some tips for first-born/last-born couples:

  1. Don't let the last-born spouse take advantage of you. Sande was gentle-spirited but firm. She started expecting me to be a leader in our home and take an active role in meeting responsibilities. At times, she reminded me of my high school English teacher--the one in whose class I never goofed off because I knew better. I even learned that changing diapers is not off-limits for a psychologist with a doctor's degree, and when our children started to arrive, I did my share of diapers, giving baths, and other baby care. In short, Mama Bear taught Papa Bear that parenthood isn't woman's work.
  2. First borns prone to faultfinding must back off. If you want to find your last-born spouse's flaws, you certainly can because they are all over the place. Accept all the flaws you can or make gentle suggestions on how to correct them. And if you're the last born, remember not to flaunt your flaws in your first-born spouse's face.
  3. If you're a baby, remember others need the spotlight too. Last borns are notorious carrot-seekers as in, "Look at me, I'm performing--toss me a carrot." First borns may act as if they don't need any attention or strokes, but they do, and their last-born mates should provide some.
  4. Last borns must remember they are not a one-man team. Because they have that first-born spouse who is probably keeping things organized and running smoothly, last borns may go off on their impetuous own now and then--to buy something, schedule something, or just do something without letting their spouse know.

One of the best bits of wisdom I ever received concerning marriage came from Dr. James Dobson, author of such bestsellers as Dare to Discipline, The Strong-Willed Child, and Hide or Seek and founder of Focus on the Family. An only child, Dr. Dobson is scholarly, organized, conscientious, and reliable. So one day while Sande and I were having lunch with him, I asked, "Jim, if there was one bit of advice you could give me, what would it be?"

He glanced at Sande and then back at me and said without hesitating, "Kevin, before you do anything, whatever it is, run it by Sande first."

Obviously Dr. Dobson's advice applies to any birth-order marriage match, but it especially applied to the last-born Cub and Mama Bear! I said to myself, If an only child with Jim Dobson's credentials thinks that's a good idea, then I do too! I've tried to follow his advice ever since and it has always paid off.

Middle Plus Middle Can Equal a Muddle

As we have seen, two married middle children will probably not communicate well. They tend to feel it isn't worth the hassle to confront each other. They may also discount the value of their own opinions. These attitudes are typical of middle children.

One simple little device that I have used with great success when counseling a middle married to a middle is the suggestion bowl. Place a clear bowl or jar in a prominent place where both of you can see it and deposit in it your suggestions. Keep pads of paper and pencils or pens handy. The husband should use one color of paper; the wife another. When the husband wants to tell his wife something, he writes a suggestion on his pad and drops it into the bowl. And when the wife wants to give hubby a suggestion, she does the same.

Some spouses--particularly men--think the suggestion bowl is too much of a crutch, but I talk them into trying it anyway because, the fact is, some of us simply can't look our mate in the eye and tell him or her what is on our mind. Some other tips to keep the middle-child marriage healthy include:

  1. Build up each other's self-esteem. Middle children often have a poor to only fair self-image, so let each other know you appreciate the other's strengths and abilities. Be sure to make sincere comments, not obvious pat-on-the-head remarks designed to flatter or manipulate.
  2. Provide plenty of space for outside friendships. Remember that as middle children you both are probably big on having friends and social acquaintances. Encourage each other to make these kind of contacts, but only with the same sex. I know it's the '90s, but my files (and the files of thousands of other counselors) are full of examples of affairs that started because one spouse had a "special friend" of the opposite sex.
  3. Do special things for each other. I've already mentioned this, but it bears repeating: Middle children usually don't grow up feeling very special because they are squeezed and ignored. You don't have to spend a lot of time or money. Love notes are always good. A single rose, a small bottle of cologne, a special dinner--it's definitely the thought, not the amount of money, that counts.
  4. Above all, show each other mutual respect. You show respect when you telephone if you're running late; check with your spouse before making commitments; refrain from talking about your marriage in front of others; back each other up in front of the children, particularly on discipline matters; and never bad-mouth each other in the presence of others.

Middle Child Plus Baby--a Pretty Good Match

According to birth order studies, middle children and last borns rank right up there as potentially successful pairings for marriage. The middle child, typically strong in negotiating and compromising, pairs up well with a socially outgoing baby of the family.

And somewhat paradoxically, this kind of marriage has a high probability for good communication--sharing feelings and rolling with the punches. Yes, I know I said earlier that middle children tend to clam up and not share emotions, but the plus factor here is that middle children are not as threatened by babies of the family as they might be by meticulous exacting first borns. So, the odds--and remember, all of these birth order pairing observations go by the odds--are good for decent communication. Here are some tips for making a fairly good blend even better:

  1. Middle-child spouses should work things out, but guard against being condescending. Last-born mates will smell that in a moment because people have been writing them off in a condescending way all their lives.
  2. Blend your social interests with your last-born spouse's desire to have fun. If you're a typical middle child, friends are important and you enjoy having people over and other social outreach. If your last-born mate is typical, he or she will always be ready for adventure and trying something new. When daily connections and pressures make it impossible to get away, the middle-child spouse should grant in fantasy that which is impossible in reality by saying something like: "Honey, I'd love to go with you to that bed and breakfast, and we will as soon as the kids settle down a little" (or as soon as things settle down at work).
  3. Last-born spouses should realize they have a selfish streak and a desire to hold the spotlight. Work at backing off from your demands for service or attention. Do everything you can to make your middle-child mate feel pampered and special.
  4. Don't have fun at your spouse's expense. This is good advice for any birth order, but it applies particularly to last borns who want to have fun, play practical jokes, and get in sarcastic little digs--all just to get a laugh. Keep in mind, however, that many middle children battle feelings of inferiority and it's easy to press the wrong button or push too hard. The general rule is always try to laugh with your mate, not at him or her.

Last Born Plus Last Born Equals Chaos

I have already touched on how last borns can get into financial trouble in a marriage. They have a big problem with answering the metaphorical question, "Who is running the asylum?" And before long their home has turned into a real one.

Two last borns must put their heads together and decide who will pay the bills, who will do the shopping, who will cook and clean up, who will take charge of the social calendar, who cleans house, and who is point guard on disciplining the kids. Notice I said "point guard" for discipline, which suggests that Mom and Dad are a team, but that one of them may have to take the lead while the other one is backup.

If last borns don't get a grip and make firm decisions on these practical matters, they can arrive in big-time trouble fast. Babies of the family have a tendency to forget or assume their spouse was going to do what needed doing. ("Was I supposed to gas up the car? I thought you were going to!")

Last borns have a built-in tendency to pass the buck and blame to someone else, and who is handier than one's spouse? But if your spouse is last born, guess who's catching the buck and throwing it right back in your face? Here are some other tips for the last-born/ last-born couple:

  1. Beware of selective listening. Remember that you're both manipulators. You may wind up playing games with one another and selectively hearing only what you want to hear. Then when you're finally called to account you'll come back with the old standby: "Oh, I didn't understand it that way at all. I never really agreed to do that. Why didn't you tell me? I had no idea!"
  2. Learn to be active listeners. The best cure for selective listening is active listening, which means you listen with more than your ears. Look directly at your partner and sense his or her feelings as well as trying to understand the facts being communicated.

    A counseling device I often use with couples is to sit them in chairs facing each other with their knees practically touching. Then they hold hands and talk about their problems. They have one rule: While one person speaks, the other cannot interrupt; and before replying, the one who has been listening has to "feed back" to the speaker's satisfaction everything that the speaker said.

    Yes, this is a ponderous way to have a discussion. But it does wonders for helping spouses learn how to hear each other and understand what each other is saying.

  3. Hold each other accountable. I suggest trying a simple plan: Sit down once or twice a week and ask some pointed questions. "How are we doing on the budget?" "Is the checkbook under control?" "Are we both aware of our next important date or engagement?" "Do you think I'm really trying to listen to you?"

    That last question might open up the door for practicing more active listening, as long as you avoid being defensive. And that brings us to the next tip:

  4. Stay loose and laid-back. Those are your natural qualities anyway, so use them when things get a bit tense. Remember, as the baby of the family, you "earned a living" by looking up and learning how to get around all the older kids and other insurmountable problems. You can get around marriage problems too, if you work together with your spouse. And that suggests one more tip:
  5. Keep your sense of humor and never give up. But remember what I said to the last-born spouse of the middle child. It applies here as well. Don't make fun of each other. Laugh together, not at each other.

An Arrow, Not an Answer

Now that I've touched on the so-called "best" and the statistically "not so hot" birth-order combinations for marriage, have I left you encouraged or discouraged? Maybe you're a bit puzzled because you're supposed to have a dandy marriage but things aren't going that well. Maybe you're indignant because you aren't considered a good match and you get along just fine, thank you! So what does Leman know about anything?

All of these discussions of which birth-order combinations make strong or weak marriages follow the same principle that I have been repeating and will continue to repeat throughout this book: When talking about birth order, all general statements are indicators, not rules.

In other words, all these general guidelines are arrows, pointing in a certain direction, but that hardly means that the fate of your marriage has been decided by your birth orders. And they aren't an excuse for saying, "Well, it's hopeless. We're both first borns and that means we're doomed to divorce."

I know plenty of marriages where two first borns get along very nicely. My own first-born sister, Sally, is an example. She married first-born, Wes, a meticulous perfectionist who is a dentist. You would think that by now Sally and Wes would have picked each other to pieces, but not so. They have built a great marriage around a common faith in God, a sense of balance, and plenty of hard work, and they have three super kids to show for it.

So the good news remains the same. Birth order is never a final determinant of anything, only an indicator of problems and tensions that you may discover or create for yourselves. No matter what your birth order and that of your spouse, what counts is how you use your particular strengths and how you modify or deal with your particular weaknesses.

There is no big mystery in making your marriage work, but it is always difficult. Knowing birth-order characteristics of you and your mate is just one step toward learning how to get along and have a happy life together.

Another important step is understanding each other's life-style. In the next chapter we'll talk about what happens when a man and a woman try to build a home and family by putting their individual (really unique) life-styles together.

A Quiz for All Spouses

1. Do I nitpick? Do I find fault with what my mate wears, says, or does? How often?

2. Do I take the time to encourage my mate?

3. Do we talk things out? Have we set aside time "just for us"?

4.When was the last time we took a weekend away from the children?

5.When was the last time I gave my mate a compliment?

6. When was the last time I gave my mate a special present for absolutely no particular reason except to say, "I love you"?

7. Speaking of "I love you," when was the last time I said those three little wonderful words to my mate?

8. What is the one thing I know my mate would love to have me do? Am I planning to do it this week?

9. Do we worship together? Or are we like too many couples who seem to have decided that God is like the Edsel, obsolete?

10. Do I take the time to find out what my mate is really interested in? Do I take the time to understand the "ins and outs" of his or her favorite pastime or activity?

  1. When was the last time I "kidnapped" my mate from the office (or maybe from the ironing board), taking him or her away on an overnight?
  2. When was the last time I came home early from work to take care of little Buford or Festus and let my mate go window shopping or run some errands?
  3. When was the last time I said, "I am sorry. I was wrong. Will you forgive me?"

Excerpt from "Chapter Eleven: Birth Order Marriages Aren't Made in Heaven" in The New Birth Order Book Copyright 1998 Kevin Leman. Published by Fleming H. Revell, a division of Baker Book House Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan. Reprinted with permission.

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