A few months ago I received an e-mail from a gentleman asking for marital advice.
He had been married for four years to his wife, an identical twin. He described that his wife grew up in a terribly dysfunctional alcoholic family. She and her sister survived the ordeal by relying on one another. While I am not privy to many details, I have imagined or assumed what must have transpired to give rise to the marital difficulties. The husband described that he is upset and angry that the twin relationship has become his wife’s primary connection. Consequently, he feels abandoned and angry—feeling shut out and secondary.
It appears plausible to assume that this husband is a rescuer. I surmise that he fell in love with his wife and had a strong desire to protect her, nurture her, and give her the experience of a healthier attachment. He probably did not realize that his care-taking behaviors and desire to control would be met with competition, animosity, and pushback because of the twins’ relationship to one another.
The personality traits of individuals who fall under the rubric of rescuer or enabler have specific dynamics in common:
- Being constantly preoccupied with another person’s behavior
- Feeling guilty when not taking care of that person’s needs
- Often taking on the role of victim or martyr
- Using excessive denial to ward off feeling pain and loss of security
- Believing that one can maintain healthy relationships by avoiding conflict and nurturing dependency
More than likely, this man’s wife and her twin sister have a highly ingrained and intense codependency. Growing up in traumatic circumstances can surely contribute to this dynamic. Not knowing any of the real details of this situation, I can only assume that the twins’ interdependence has been rekindled and that there is certainly not room for the husband in this powerful, lifelong connection.
My advice to this young man is to gain awareness of his own needs and to examine his predilection to be a rescuer so that he can work through his troubled feelings about his inadequate self-worth.
Many times I have encountered twins in my practice who have to come to the realization that their loving and loyal behavior often masks a tendency to deny their own feelings of helplessness and insecurity. While care-taking behaviors and self-sacrifice in healthy dosages are integral to all relationships, a codependent person has to come to understand his own worth and power rather than deriving a sense of self by inhibiting another from taking personal responsibility and learning how to tolerate frustration, failure, and conflict.
I remember when my sister came to visit me in Boston during my junior year at college. I was living in what I felt was a fabulous apartment with three female roommates. It was the first time I had lived in an apartment and not a dorm and was so thrilled with my own room. Jane looked around and for whatever reasons did not share my enthusiasm and joy about my new living space. She mentioned that the apartment seemed dark and old and very different from her modern, well-furnished, and up-to-date apartment where she was attending college.
I remember feeling at the time that maybe Jane was right. Perhaps I was not recognizing all the distasteful aspects that she was commenting about. This conflict about not being able to hold on to perspectives that don’t match or mirror your twin’s experiences or tastes is a commonplace happening between twin pairs who do not yet feel separate or individuated.
The feeling was that if Jane does not like what I like, maybe she is right and I am wrong because we need to see things in the same way. If we don’t share a mutual view, then it is possible that one of us is right and the other one is wrong.
At that point in our emotional lives, we were not able to appreciate and accept our differences; rather, our opposing thoughts brought us in conflict with one another because the balance of our connection necessitated agreement and symmetry.
I didn’t feel capable of thinking or saying, “Well, I really love this apartment. I guess it’s not what you are accustomed to, but I love my personal space and shared living arrangements.” Perhaps different age siblings might be much more comfortable giving a tactful, honest opinion, and that opinion would be tolerated and noted. Twins, however, feel much more compelled to agree on subjects because conflict needs to be avoided and contained.
I was reading an interesting article about how families can deliberately or inadvertently enable family members who abuse drugs or alcohol. There was an interesting discussion about the dynamics involved in the persons who “enable” substance abusers. The central characteristics of this personality involve
- Avoidance of conflict
- Belief in the notion that enablers are heading off worst case scenarios by giving abusers what they say they need
- The enabler’s false belief in the addict blaming others for the addict’s self-created troubles so that the enabler/rescuer can feel needed and powerful
- Commitment to care for the addict at all costs, putting off or obliterating the enabler’s own needs
These dynamics are very applicable to those twin pairs where one twin plays out the role of victim, martyr, or rescuer in order to assure that the other twin is feeling safe and happy. The rescuer will sabotage personal desires and needs under the guise of being “loyal”—a very confused designation when the real word is “accommodating” or “enabling.”