The Indelible Twin Identity

I hear these questions in one way or another every time I talk to a twin. And quite frankly I have always wondered and worried if I could have helped my twin more. Or, “Why didn’t she support me or rescue me when I needed her?” When do I get to be the center of attention?

            Issues of how much one twin deserves from the other is a basic dilemma between the pair that begins at birth or maybe in the womb. Memories of closeness from hours-on-end of childhood playing; double trouble fun on parents, siblings and friends; playing sports; and doing homework together leave an indelible mark on identity for twins. Recalling twin closeness can bring back blissful memories well into adulthood.

            From working together, common goals lead to child-focused shared decisions. Unspoken but understood through feelings and actions, young twins take on roles related to who is responsible for doing what. For example, Mike is more outgoing and talks for the pair. Matt is the organizer who does the planning for the pair. Or Sally is the caregiver and Susan is in charge of fun and adventure. Of course there are other divisions of responsibility that revolve around the family structure and the inherent personality differences in each child. What happens when twins want to find their own path without their sister or brother? I can tell you it is very hard to fill in the gaps that your twin took responsibility for. The journey of the caretaker twin involves learning how to take care of him- or herself first. The impulsive twin’s path to self-reliance involves learning self-control.

            In childhood, twins learn that they are more secure when they take care of or rely on one other no matter what. Surprisingly, but in the realm of my own experiences, young twins will fight like cats and dogs and still need to sleep in the same room. Sometimes sleeping together is the only thing that young twins can agree on. (I forgot until now that my twin and I always shared a bedroom.)

            Growing up and developing a unique sense of self makes unilateral decision making unrealistic. Conflicts develop if you don’t put your twin first. New friends and new interests divide twin loyalties. In my experience, siblings do not have intense struggles over loyalty and disappointments or the responsibility to take care of one another.

            As differences between twins develop in adulthood feelings of betrayal become more exaggerated. One twin marries and leaves the other behind. Deep sadnesses are experienced by each twin, who suffer in different ways while actually enjoying being apart and experiencing life from a different angle. Children, careers, success and disappointments continue to make abject loyalty impossible. Fighting begins and may never end. “Who is right?” and “Who is not right?” consume adult twins and may be the cause of estrangement. Detailed communication between the pair is common but in most instances unsuccessful when decisions that affect both are involved.

            “Who is the center of attention?” creates guilt and unhappiness for both when the primitive and primary attachment of sharing is not possible. The impulsive twin can never get enough from others. The caretaker twin does not know how to ask for his or her share, always assuming he or she will get the leftovers. Life teaches twins how to be the individual center of attention when an emergency arises. For example, the center of attention is determined by the event, such as the child who is ill, or a parent who needs one twin and not the other. Both twins out of necessity build their own separate identity that is totally individual. What lags behind or stays behind is the shared twin identity that won’t or can’t grow up.

            Giving up twin identity patterns with others—thinking, perhaps unconsciously, that your new partner needs to be treated as your twin—can monopolize your psychological real estate. It is easy for twins to remain living in the past, hanging on to twin closeness. Seeing others as capable of a close connection is important and very difficult. Success as an individual requires determination and support from family, friends and therapists. Getting over the idea that you can’t be okay if your twin is not okay takes twins a lot of time and energy that singletons can never imagine unless they are very invested in healing their companion. Feeling that you “must” do something to make close others happy is a serious problem in adulthood.

            In my experiences with my sister and listening to the stories of many, many other twins, I know how hard it is to accept that you can’t make things better. Your relationship with your twin is what it is and wishing that it was better or that you could explain your point of view clearly is understandable. Unfortunately it is impossible to change your twin. And why would you want to anyway? You have to tame your childhood need or identity to see the world through the same perceptual field and emotional sensitivity as your twin. Put your childhood twin identity in the past. Agree to disagree.

            I have found that as twins grow older the pain of being different diminishes. The childhood twin identity fades into the background but is always indelible.


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