Competition is an expectable dynamic within most sibling relationships. This issue can be particularly troublesome for twin pairs because they are constantly compared and defined by their differing skills or personality traits.
In my work with adult twins who have intense competitive feelings, I have learned how unresolved envy can cause havoc as siblings mature. The case of an identical twin woman in her sixties, whom I will call Terry, illustrates how her connection to her sister is undermined by rivalrous feelings. Terry often reacts with knee-jerk outbursts to positive developments concerning her twin’s children, house, friends, gym membership, or weight. Terry feels as if every aspect of her sister’s life is better than hers.
I often counteract her litany of persecutory complaints by pointing out the distinction between being different and feeling separate. In other words, Terry believes that her sister has everything she wants, so she feels inferior, second rate, and alone. This notion is rooted in old, underlying childhood issues. While I reassure Terry that feeling jealous is perfectly reasonable, I reiterate that her reactions often seem overblown. What lie beneath her hair-trigger responses are traumatic feelings stemming from her twin’s decision to individuate during their high school years. Terry concluded that her own volatile and belligerent behavior precipitated her twin’s desire to pull away. Terry could not fathom why her sister needed space to find herself and create change. So, Terry defended against the loss and sadness she experienced with anger and vehement envy.
As soon as we connect these feelings, memories, and reactions, Terry’s rationality returns. She has become adept at recognizing how she is feeling and why when she gets triggered. Previously, she would find herself in a raging, destabilized mindset without any ability to self-soothe or manage the emotions that surfaced. Now, she can process her thoughts, self-regulate, and find a place of self-acceptance and calm. More importantly, Terry now has the emotional tools to appreciate her twin relationship because she can take responsibility for her behaviors and thoughts and talk through misunderstandings with her sister.
Many twin pairs reflexively tap into a reservoir of competition that formed an integral part of their developmental history. The more successfully one individuates, the less one feels susceptible to debilitating and self-destructive competitive episodes. Rivalry and jealousy reside in most of us. For twins, understanding the origin of these sensitivities and managing the consequences are vital to strengthening their twin connection.