Butt Out!

I frequently hear from moms looking for help with their adult twins. In most instances, the issues involve one sibling doing better than the other. The mom feels particularly conflicted when one twin is thriving while the other is struggling. Her desire to equalize the situation is understandable. However, her intervention may actually polarize the state of affairs even further. The mom’s well-intentioned efforts to help her discontented daughter may result in both girls feeling unhappy and undermined. While this same dynamic might happen among different-age siblings, twins feel particularly vulnerable because they have been compared and competitive for most of their lives.

Feeling powerless to fix the problems, the mom will often attempt to coerce the flourishing twin to help solve her sibling’s issues. A twin in her late twenties, whom I will call Tara, found herself in these exact circumstances. Her identical twin, “Terrie,” has a history of physical and emotional problems that Tara has helped to manage since their sophomore year of college. Since then, Terrie has been plagued with several somatic and emotional complaints that appear endless and untreatable. The twins’ mother has tried her utmost best to provide medical and psychiatric treatments to address these various issues; however, none of them have worked for Terrie. She still experiences tremendous pain and serious depression. Even though she is married and able to work, she remains angry with her parents and her sister for not making her life better.

Terrie constantly berates Tara for accomplishing goals Terrie has been unable to attain. For instance, Tara plans to attend graduate school, which angers Terrie because she could not finish her undergraduate studies due to her own chronic physical problems. She has little empathy for others and seems incapable of taking responsibility for her own behavior. She inevitably initiates confrontations with Tara about inconsequential past events because that gives Terrie a sense of control.

Tara misses the healthy Terrie. She tears up when recalling their intimate moments and shared confidences. Nonetheless, Tara is happier now because she has worked diligently to become separate from her sister without feeling intolerable guilt. She no longer wants to be burdened by or held responsible for her twin’s struggles. Moreover, her relationship with her mom has become more honest and authentic. In a conjoint session, Tara was able to tell her mom how upset she feels when her mom deliberately downplays Tara’s successes in Terrie’s presence so she does not feel devalued. The mom quickly understood Tara’s perspective and apologized for her inability to manage the discrepancies between the twins. Tara also said that she thought her mom enabled Terrie to get away with insufferable behavior because the mom felt guilty and sad about Terrie’s plight. Tara’s mom agreed and has been working on minimizing those tendencies.

I constantly reiterate that life is not fair, and twins are not equal. The earlier parents become comfortable with inequities, the sooner their twins can embrace their individuality and feel freer to be themselves in the face of inevitable differences.

Image courtesy of Rod Wattington (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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