I have the privilege of working long term with several young-adult twins who are enmeshed. In many of these situations, the parents are either ineffectual or absent. One pair of identical female twins stands out because of their almost absolute dependence on one another. Ironically, they came from a large family and were the youngest of five children. Nonetheless, they seemed to grow up emotionally isolated from their siblings and parents. When the girls were adolescents, the older children were already out of the house.
Both described their parents as emotionally crippled and absent. They expressed sympathy for their father because he has battled severe PTSD for many years. Nonetheless, they expressed tremendous contempt as well; they felt obligated to take care of him and make allowances for his depression and anxiety. They had compassion for their mom because she had to assume a multitude of responsibilities due to her husband’s limitations, yet both girls resented her practical, no-nonsense approach and her cutting criticisms of their appearances and work ethics. The girls realized they had little to no room to articulate their own needs and emotions.
When I initially met these twins, I felt like they had been physically and psychologically imprisoned for a long time. Their world was devoid of other people. They had few outside social contacts—high school was a demoralizing and traumatic developmental experience for them. Both seemed lost and incapable of determining their future.
Fortunately, one of the twins, whom I shall call Opal, demonstrated an uncanny ability to simultaneously hold the perspectives of herself, her sister “Holly,” and the rest of their family. This role was empowering but also complicated. The fact that Opal was able to sustain Holly’s emotional health was miraculous. Holly barely spoke to her parents. She was angry, withdrawn, and depressed. Without Opal’s support, I do not imagine she would have survived psychologically as well as she did. Holly relied on Opal to speak for both of them. Opal attempted to maintain separate space for each twin by identifying their differences, differentiating their individual struggles, and commiserating with Holly about the painful experience of being emotionally adrift and alone. Naturally, this role left Opal confused about her own thoughts and feelings.
The sisters left their home a few months ago to attend college. They would not have weathered this massive adjustment without each other’s help. Understandably, both continue to struggle academically and socially. However, leaving home has induced some surprising transformations. For the first time in a long while, both girls feel that their parents are being supportive and engaged. Although the twins anticipated acute criticism of their struggles to function independently, both the mom and the dad are exhibiting patience and compassion. Opal and Holly are awestruck. The parental shift has made both sisters hopeful. Holly seems less angry and self-loathing, while Opal feels freer to enhance her autonomy and independence.
I have been fascinated by the changes that this reparative parental adjustment sparked. Maybe the whole family will be able to make up for lost time and find ways to be more emotionally supportive and adaptable.