If more people understood the complicated dynamics between identical twin girls, the public might be less inclined to treat them as a unit and lump them together. When I work with adult female MZ (monozygotic, or identical) twins, I am amazed and dismayed at their underdeveloped and unsophisticated knowledge of themselves and one another. Since they have had few opportunities to be separate and have primarily shared a peer group, they are shockingly unaware of their personality differences until an external event or a longstanding period of distant behavior propels one or both to go to therapy to attempt to heal the rifts and navigate the misunderstandings in their relationships.
It’s interesting to note how often twins and their parents recount delightful memories about how quickly fights erupted and just as quickly blew over when the girls were growing up. While this was undoubtedly a twinship perk, instantaneously making up without resolving the underlying issues can handicap a couple’s attempt to have authentic intimacy. Having missed out on the opportunity to fight it out because they felt it more important to maintain peace and harmony, as young adults many twin pairs have little insight into their own emotional makeup or their twin’s. What transpires when conflict arises is an inability to recognize how one’s sister feels or acts through the lens of two separate beings.
Recently, I was working with young adult twins who were suffering a myriad of issues. One of the major challenges was the fact that Twin A was not involved in a serious romantic relationship. She was sad and enraged that her sister seemed unwilling to recognize the pain she was feeling; as a result, Twin A’s disappointment in her sister’s inability to be responsive or caretaking was crushing. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to see both women together for one session. It seemed achingly evident to me that each twin was woefully out of touch with the other’s adult self and emotional organization.
My patient’s rage over her sister’s insensitivity was blatantly clear. Unlike Twin A, Twin B was not someone who was particularly sensitive, emotionally attuned, or self-reflective. It seemed clear from their upbringing that Twin B has consistently been more of a black-and-white thinker. She does not delve heavily into feelings and feels uncomfortable and annoyed when put in that position. Twin B lovingly asked her sister how she could help her and expressed frustration with Twin A’s inability to articulate what she needed. Twin A was astonished and heartbroken to recognize her sister’s inability to be an emotional mirror. Twin A expressed that she had always put her own needs on the back burner so that her sister could have or be what she wanted. Twin B corroborated this perception, noting that she never understood why Twin A always took a backseat. Twin B explained that she was never tied into any specific twin dynamics and viewed Twin A as a sister, not a twin. She was genuinely perplexed by Twin A’s discussion about how she had always taken care of Twin B by mitigating any competitive situation that may have caused conflict between them. Twin B defensively replied that she had no understanding of this and never asked Twin A to make any sacrifices.
Twin A has had a hard time accepting her sister’s practical and logical approach to Twin A and her problems; nonetheless, her newfound perception of their diametrically different emotional styles will be profoundly important. Instead of operating within the dynamics of their earlier twinship, Twin A has painfully begun to see her sister in a more realistic light. Twin A has had to come to terms with the fact that her twin sister cannot be her best friend at the moment. She has to work on feeling whole, as she said, recognizing the shattered belief that her sister cannot be her special nurturing, supportive, or caring sister.
The process of deconstructing these twin delusions feels strikingly catastrophic to the twin. I believe Twin A is suffering from extreme loss and grief. The twin sister she had intrapsychically constructed for more than twenty years is not the twin she sees now. All she can feel at the moment is betrayed, enraged, and despondent. She is angry with herself for having sacrificed so much of herself for her sister, feeling deceived into expecting payback or reciprocity. Nevertheless, her sister is the person she has always been. Twin B is sad for her sister but unapologetic about her lack of emotional support.
I reassured Twin A that emotional benefits will arise from this rupture. The earlier the heartbreak occurs, the fewer complications and fewer lives at stake. I am confident that she will work through this grief and begin to discover what she feels and needs instead of reflexively thinking about her sister first and expecting that her sister will reward Twin A’s attentions with help and empathy. She will develop the space within herself to find and seek out other relationships where she does not have to be the caretaker or sacrifice herself for another.
Adult female twins suffer mightily when coming into their own at different developmental junctures; however, the painful growth and separation will ultimately lead to a healthier twinship as both women grow into themselves and find emotional strength and resilience to form other intimate connections as well as a healthier twin attachment.
Image credit: FreeImages.com/Andrzej Kaminski