In the UK? Click this flag:

Twin image

Identity issues around the twin relationship

Many people who have come across me and my work are aware that I am come from difference – specifically mixed culture and neurodivergence – and that this is primarily why I specialise in working with issues around identity. What most people do not know, is that I am also a twin.

When talking about identity issues, twinship or twinhood rarely crosses most people’s radars. However, I strongly believe that for those that are twins, it is a hugely influential part of who we are – unimaginable to non-twins, in the same way that being a singleton is unimaginable to us. It is a relationship where a person has never known being truly alone (until one of the pair is lost), as we have the constant comfort and permanent presence of our other, often so closely connected that pairs may know what the other is thinking, how they feel when they’re not together, or may even choose the same clothes independently. A twin, at least in childhood, is a first priority for the other twin.

However, twins face assumptions from society that are so much an undercurrent of our beliefs, that even we don’t think to challenge them. Surely we can only consider ourselves lucky, if we have the fortune of being born into a twinship? It is a relationship that is truly beautiful and special in many ways, but negativity or fractures experienced within this twinship are often pitied or considered almost shameful. There are far higher expectations on twins that we won’t fight, that we will get on perfectly, that we will adore one another; and when there are fractures, we are blamed for this more fully – after all, we are twins, we ought to know each other inside out. There exists an assumption that twins will be perfectly connected, in a state of complete harmony and balance, so there must be something wrong with twins that are not, that somehow manage to fail at the relationship that everyone else expects to come so naturally and easily.

Having twins is very often seen as a blessing, the ‘specialness’ of a twin birth somehow dusting their parents with a golden glow, but it can take a higher level of conscious parenting than is required for singletons, even multiple singletons, to truly understand how to raise twins or other multiples. For twins bringing up singletons or vice versa, the engrained rules and experiences of relationships will differ, and it may be impossible for each side to fully comprehend the other’s way of existence, but being aware of and accepting the validity of these differences is a very powerful and positive starting point.

The differences between twins and singletons begin at the first moments of life. Twins born and raised together never truly know the experience of the mother-child dyad, as there is always a triad in the presence of the mother, and twins are always seen as (and often feel to be) one half of a twin – whether or not the twin is physically present. Twin children are often described by others, for simplicity, as ‘the twins’, but this generates a sense that the twins are a unit, from which one cannot be extracted as an individual – the language used around children is powerful and helps to form deep beliefs about identity.

The differences between a twin pair can be overlooked, unless they are used to compare – and the competition set up between twins can have a far more damaging impact than between singletons. There is a greater risk of polarising twins – for example, this one is the clever one, that one is the sporty one. You only have to glance at popular culture or mythology to quickly find an example of an ‘evil twin – good twin’ dynamic. One must be bad and one must be good. One must be ‘the weaker one’ and one must be ‘the stronger one’. This type of subconscious thinking can lead to parents taking sides, creating expectations based on ‘role’, for example, that the ‘stronger twin’ will support their ‘weaker twin’; and in worst case scenarios, lead to a significant and damaging fissure within the family, or restrict a child’s full psychological growth and their ability to achieve their potential.

In addition, rivalry between twins can be intense, and twins themselves often focus on different traits or skills in order to reduce this rivalry, and to increase the harmony of the twinship, to avoid conflict. Inter-twin aggression must be managed by a mother who can ‘contain’ the relationship, that is to hold both children in her mind at once, their individuality (or sameness) and their needs.

When one of the pair becomes absent, through loss in utero, infancy or adulthood – and this loss will come to every twinship at some point – the impact on the remaining twin hits deep within our psyches, with many twins left feeling incomplete. The feelings of loss can also hit deep with estrangement as much as bereavement, and many reports indicate that this experience is common even when the remaining twin has never known their twin brother or sister, having lost the ‘other half of their pair’ before, during or soon after birth.

Following on from this theme, ‘splitting’ or finding independence, usually during the teenage years but sometimes delayed by many years, can be incredibly painful and complex for some twins, and can result in enormous feelings of abandonment or guilt on one or both sides.

As a therapist, to work effectively with someone who is a twin or who has experienced twin loss through bereavement or estrangement, it is vital to not dismiss the importance and power of the twin relationship. Singletons cannot imagine how it feels to be a twin, in much the same way that twins cannot imagine how it feels to be a singleton. The impact of the twin relationship should not be minimised. For other multiples, many of the same issues will be present, though the complexity of dynamics will differ.

In summary, if you are a twin, if you are a parent to twins, or if you work with a twin client, you may need to ask some questions of yourself. Things such as:

  • What beliefs do you hold around twins or the twin relationship?
  • What assumptions do you make around twins?
  • What views have you gained around twins or the twin relationship via popular culture?
  • What are your thoughts around the cultural, religious and mythological depictions and polarisations of twinship – a united pair that cannot survive without each other (e.g. Castor and Pollux), versus a pair in perpetual conflict and rivalry (e.g. Esau and Jacob, or Romulus and Remus)? How might a balance or middle ground be achieved?

In addition, you may need to keep uppermost in your mind some key issues, that might differ between twins and singletons:

  • Issues around identity and attachment
  • Twin loss – whether through death or estrangement – is highly significant, even when the loss occurs in utero or shortly after birth
  • There is a high risk of family fracture if each parent takes a favourite
  • There is a risk of polarising twins e.g. good versus bad, strong versus weak, clever versus sporty – this can limit their potential for full growth, and for exploring the entirety of their characters and traits
  • Twins themselves may adopt different traits and skills, in order to prevent rivalry and conflict, and increase harmony within the twinship – and here it is important to consider, at what cost is that to the twin(s) – are they actually letting go of something that is important to them?
  • Twins are often seen as a unit, making it harder to develop an individual identity
  • It can be harder to do things ‘alone’ especially for first times
  • Where twin relationships are extremely close and/or idealised, it can be difficult to find separate identities or to form strong and healthy relationships with others – indeed, a new relationship for one twin may be felt as catastrophic abandonment for the other
  • Where twin relationships are difficult, especially for one side of the pair, the intensity of negative feelings can be unbearable, suffocating, and, again, have negative consequences on later relationships – a new relationship for one, may be experienced as deep abandonment by the other

— so as a parent, again, I would add, when your children are starting to enter this period of wanting to separate and find their own identities, it’s going to require a lot of conscious parenting, a lot of thought and skill on the part of the parents, to help them navigate this, to help support them, with what may feel like abandonment on one or both sides —

  • A therapist may automatically enter into a twin transference with their client, and should be aware of this from the start

While it may be impossible for non-twins to understand the twin experience, a good starting point is to set aside any voyeurism around the specialness of the bond, such as experiences of telepathy – it is undeniable, many twins often feel special or lucky, but this difference sets us apart and ‘others’ us (makes us different). For therapeutic work, it is important to view a twin as an individual in their own right, with an invisible bond that may not always feel freeing or healthy, no matter how highly it is valued, and that this other person may well be sitting on the periphery of all therapy sessions.

I would like to end by stating that for parents of twins, as for all parents, mistakes will be made, but I highly recommend doing some further reading, in order to increase parental understanding of the dynamics of twinships, and of the greatest risks to a healthy twin relationship.

 

Further resources

The Lone Twin – Understanding Twin Bereavement and Loss, Joan Woodward

This book is excellent for:

  • Adults who have lost a twin, at any stage of their lives, including in utero or during infancy
  • Parents and carers of all twins, particularly those who have lost a twin at any time, including in utero or after birth – it can be particularly helpful in guiding parents as to whether, when or how to inform the remaining twin that they are actually twin

The Twin in Transference, Vivienne Lewin

This book is mostly useful for practitioners and therapists in understanding the developmental and psychological impacts of the twin relationship, but may be of interest to parents and twins themselves.

 

My background 

I have professional experience on the e-Volunteer Advisory Panel (eVAP) for TwinsUK, at the Department of Twin Research and Genetic Epidemiology, King’s College London (2022-2024). The work was to contribute to and advise on the shape of future research of the unit, with my focus being to bring experience from my personal and professional backgrounds in mental health, therapy, neurodivergence and mixed culture.

Personally, I am a dizygotic (non-identical) twin, and I have contributed time to TwinsUK research as a twin since the early 2000s.

Share this post

Latest Posts

In memory of dad
Uncategorized

A kaleidoscope of feelings around Christmas

Today would have been my dad’s 86th birthday. It’s his first birthday with him absent …

Read More →
Different paths
Uncategorized

What is it to be neurodivergent? A personal perspective

I live in world so infused with knowledge about what ADHD and autism are, because …

Read More →
Uncategorized

Info dumping versus collecting the strays

I came across a post yesterday by @unmaskedbyanna (IG) about ‘autistic info dumping’ and the …

Read More →