Fight or Flight—Standing Up to Your Twin

“I never really knew who my twin was until . . .” Forcefully attempting to reconcile the twin of one’s childhood with the adult version is quite traumatic. Many twins are shocked to realize that their closest sibling has personality traits and character flaws that were not apparent while growing up together. Though this same recognition can happen with different-age siblings, coming to terms with a twin’s true persona is particularly shocking, especially when it results in adverse consequences for the relationship.

An identical twin man in his late twenties contacted me for help with understanding how and why his brother’s inappropriate behavior interfered with his relationship with his girlfriend. Although the breakup occurred more than a year ago, this man, whom I’ll call Alan, hoped to gain clarity about the situation so he could learn from his mistakes and be prepared the next time he finds himself in a relationship.

As we reflected upon the circumstances that he described, we realized that his brother, “Ben,” had hijacked Alan’s relationship with his girlfriend, whom I will call Emily. Ben was judgmental and critical of her. He regarded himself as a better caretaker and protector than Emily could ever hope to be. Ben deliberately butted in when Emily attempted to make decisions and plans that involved Alan. Ben brashly justified his actions by claiming that he knew Alan better than anyone else.

Of course, Alan’s dilemma was his inability to speak up and tell Ben to leave them alone. Alan worried about hurting Ben’s feelings but was simultaneously enraged and incredulous. In their relationship, Ben displayed a larger-than-life personality while Alan was reserved and self-reflective. While growing up together, Alan had no issue with Ben’s need to be the life of the party; he did not feel negatively impacted because he was disinterested in that role. However, now that he is an adult who needs to stand up for what he wants, he lacks the courage to confront his brother and counteract Ben’s overprotective, controlling behaviors.

Ben touts their twinship as often as possible because it forms a major component of his identity. Alan, on the other hand, does not consider his twinship the most salient aspect of his identity. He does not want to be known as Ben’s twin. Often, Alan has to either ignore or be unavailable to Ben. In fact, since Ben enjoys exploiting the twinship for his own advantage, Alan shies away from joining his brother’s projects because he mistrusts Ben’s motives and wants to avoid guilt by association.

I applaud Alan for being aware of these dynamics and working to set boundaries with Ben so that he does not suffer the consequences of another failed relationship. Alan must practice asserting his own needs and prepare to manage Ben’s anger and hurt when he feels rejected or ignored. Working through the guilt of separating from one’s twin is tricky. Hopefully, constructive communication and goodwill can transcend the acrimony so these twins can enjoy a healthier equilibrium.

Image courtesy of Alan Light (CC BY 2.0)

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