I recently spoke with several twins whose relationships have been adversely affected and undermined by a lack of proper boundaries. This can be an ordinary consequence of navigating a twin connection. However, when boundaries are improperly managed, twins may have serious difficulty recognizing and eventually reconciling the importance of respecting and acknowledging separateness and space.
An article from the Journal of Infant, Child, and Adolescent Psychotherapy entitled “Holding the Line: Limits in Child Psychotherapy” stresses the importance of boundaries:
Developmental research clarifies children’s needs for external limits. Children reared with nurturing yet firm parental guidance generally exhibit the best developmental outcomes, whereas children raised in families in which limits are unnecessarily harsh or overly loose often show emotional and behavioral difficulties. . . . The caregiver’s attuned reflection, regulation, and modification of the child’s states teach the child to label, tolerate, organize, and manage emotions. Caregivers’ containment of children’s negative affects enables children to regulate themselves. When caregivers fail to provide such regulation, children’s emotions can overwhelm them and lead to feelings of frightful omnipotence or disorganization.
A pair of identical twin men in their fifties are contending with this issue. One called me to help him cope with his sadness and anger about losing his connection with his brother after many tumultuous years of conflict and animosity. According to his account, neither he nor his brother were able to understand why they could not work through their difficulties. Both blamed the other for the rift in their relationship. Their burgeoning differences and disappointments with one another escalated into anger and resentment. Over the last ten years or so, the rift worsened to the point that neither brother feels there is any hope of working things through. In many ways, their situation is akin to a divorce in which both parties are convinced they have little chance of reconciliation.
From what I can piece together, the brothers initially had a very enmeshed and codependent relationship. One of them needed considerable help, and his brother felt good about being able to meet his twin’s needs. However, as the years went by, the needs of the cared-for brother changed. While grateful for his brother’s ongoing ministrations, he wanted to be more independent. He recognized that he needed to be on his own rather than feel worried or guilty about hurting his brother’s feelings if he did not take his brother’s advice.
After he started to resist his brother’s continued involvement, tensions escalated. His twin felt powerless, diminished, and disappointed about no longer being needed. As a result, he became hostile and even more controlling. Understandably, the caretaking twin felt rejected and devalued by his brother’s decreasing need for his support. He felt unappreciated and sad. He had expected the relationship to provide lifelong, unrestricted access to his twin.
The years of acrimony resulting from the brothers’ inability to understand each other resulted in a schism that will most likely remain unchanged unless they can muster the desire to establish a new normal in their relationship. For valid reasons, both men feel betrayed, upset, and pessimistic about trying to manage their incompatible personality styles.
I only wish I had had the opportunity to meet with both men earlier in their journey. Both twins and singletons have to put in the work to maintain a connection with their siblings. Being a twin does not automatically ensure an eternally seamless bond.