A mother of seventeen-year-old identical twin girls recently contacted me for advice about helping her daughters rebound from repeated social calamities. She described a pattern that started when the twins were in the ninth grade: the girls would be happily accepted by a social group, then inexplicably excluded. Sometimes they were given a lame explanation; but for the most part, the rejection seemed swift and unexpected. Naturally, both girls were upset and puzzled about why this keeps happening to them.
I spoke with both twins together. They describe themselves as incredibly nice and giving, always looking out for others’ needs and making sure that no one feels excluded. Both girls shared stories that demonstrated their immense kindness and thoughtfulness. One mentioned that she always tries to be there for a friend, sometimes listening endlessly to a girlfriend’s personal woes. Her sister shared that she almost missed an online exam to care for a friend.
Both viewed themselves as individuals who care deeply about others and strive to exhibit caring and helpful behavior in every possible way. So, one can imagine how shocked and devasted they felt after they find out that they were abandoned by girls they considered good friends.
Of course, this same dynamic can and does play out for singletons. However, I believe examining this issue from a twinship perspective is important. I have written extensively about how caretaking behaviors inevitably evolve within twin relationships. While these habits work beautifully for many twin pairs, they can wreak havoc on other twin bonds as well as individuals outside the twinship. I can attest that the caretaking dynamic is so endemic to twins that it can become their subjective reality. They are encouraged by their families, friends, and society at large to be best friends and soul mates. How many opportunities do they have to emerge from this bubble and experience friendship in a different context?
The advice I hope to impart to these young women is similar to what I have told other twin pairs. Being “too” nice is a trait often devalued by others. Instead of viewing the sisters’ generous behaviors as positive, I suspect that those so-called friends had little respect for the twins. Many people think that “kindness overkill” demonstrates a lack of boundaries and self-esteem. In other words, the inability to assert one’s own needs and be self-ish alerts others to the possibility that one will not stand up for oneself.
I believe these young women have little understanding about such issues because they grew up expecting the same reciprocity in their friendships that they experienced in their twinship. Moreover, they were conditioned to avoid conflict in favor of maintaining sibling harmony. However, the sad and evident truth is that friendships usually do not mimic twinships. Friendships need to be cultivated among individuals who can be authentic, assertive, and reciprocal. If twins assume that mutuality is built into all relationships, they may be caught unaware and consequently mistreated, rejected, and sometimes manipulated by unenlightened people. Parents will hopefully stay alert for caretaking behaviors that may interfere with their twins’ social experiences.
I urged both girls to make friends separately to break the cycle of sharing and losing everything together. While niceness is a lovely trait, giving too much and not establishing boundaries will limit rather than enhance healthy friendships. If these twins cannot learn to cultivate gratifying social relationships, they may eventually conclude that outsiders cannot be trusted. In the worst-case scenario, this can lead some twin pairs to wall themselves off from others and live an enmeshed life.