Double Take

When her twin brother met his mate, Amanda Medress discovered that the joy of being a twin also presents its challenges.

By Amanda Medress, published July 4, 2017 - last reviewed on September 4, 2017

Four's Company: From right: Amanda Medress, her twin brother, Zack, his wife, Emily, and her twin sister, Kate, on Zack and Emily's wedding day.  Photo by Matt and Alison Edge courtesy of Amanda Medress

Standing before a microphone in an ivy-cloaked courtyard, I took a gulp of champagne and prepared to toast my twin brother, Zack, and his new bride. For months, I'd worried about this moment. What if I started crying? What if I became overcome with jealousy? I looked at Zack—his thick dark hair and sloping eyebrows a match to my own—and remembered how much of our life we'd shared. Though ashamed to project anything but happiness for him at that moment, I privately reckoned with loss.

As fraternal twins, Zack and I came from two separate eggs. We each had our own amniotic sac and placenta. We shared no more DNA than single-birth siblings. Yet we had belonged together. We belonged together when we emerged from the womb, my first breath taken two minutes before his. We belonged together when we slept swaddled beside each other, reaching out when the other cried.

As small children, we belonged together when we hid under the table and traded licks of molasses off a spoon, and when we locked ourselves in the bathroom and dropped tissues into the toilet until it overflowed. As we grew, our sense of belonging manifested as protectiveness. Zack stood up to the boy in the sandbox who stole my shovel. When Zack threatened to run away from home, sitting on the front steps with a box of Legos on his lap, I begged him not to leave. 

In high school, our belonging translated into teamwork. Together, we edited the school newspaper and studied for the SATs. Together, we lobbied our parents for a later curfew and went to our first real party. When I drank a little too much, it was Zack who knocked on the bathroom door to make sure I was OK.

We went our separate ways for college. I couldn't fathom how my new friends could understand me without knowing him. Living away from Zack, I experienced an unfamiliar sense of loneliness. A part of me felt missing.

For six years, I tried to find a stand-in twin. There was Miriam, my college best friend, and Jacob, my first love. With each new relationship, I sought the type of constant closeness and sharing that's normal for twins but not for others. The intensity of the twin bond was the type of connection I was conditioned to seek.

Thinking I'd be happier nearer to Zack, I moved to San Francisco, where he lived. On my first night there, he introduced me to his new girlfriend, Emily. As it turned out, she was also a twin, with an identical sister.

Naively, I expected the primacy of my bond with my brother to prevail. A few weeks after showing up in town, I made plans to meet Zack for coffee. He walked into the cafe with Emily. After the three of us spent an hour together, I went outside and unlocked my bike. Zack came out alone to say goodbye and found me crying.

"I'd wanted to talk only with you," I said.

"Emily's your friend now, too," he said.

"I'm glad to have Emily as my new friend," I said. "But I miss twin time—just you and me."

As I began to grasp that Zack and Emily now functioned as a unit, something happened that was unexpected, yet in a way not surprising. I developed an easy, tight bond with Emily's twin sister, Kate. With her warm and energetic demeanor, Kate taught me how to rock climb, providing guidance and encouragement as I fumbled my way up the wall. When I hatched a plan to chop off my long hair, she came along to the salon and documented it via photo montage. When we went on a double blind date and decided the guys were tossers, we took off to a dance club and ended the night at 2:00 in sweaty shirts. 

Strangers marveled at the romantic comedy-like circumstances that gave rise to our friendship. One night at a bar, a guy asked how we knew each other. "My twin sister is dating her twin brother," Kate said. "Wait, what?" he asked. After a moment to think, he proposed an idea.

"Why don't you date each other?" 

"Trust me, if we were gay, we probably would," Kate joked. 

All four of us had been born in the same month, so we threw a joint birthday party. The invitation played up the twin theme: We are four pals, two neighbors and one couple. We are four bodies from three eggs and two wombs. We are science! Isn't that worth celebrating?

Pair Bonding: Medress and her brother at age 2. As is typical with twins, their identity had lifelong consequences.  Photo courtesy of Amanda Medress

Enmeshed in this tangle of twins, I began to wonder if we really do have unique relationship needs, and if so, why. Turning to research, I learned that in utero, twins synchronize movements, heartbeats, and sleep states. They can't tell their bodies apart for the first four months of their lives, and long before they can talk, they mirror each other's emotions and turn to each other for comfort. Their attachment to each other and their identity as a pair affect most aspects of their development. 

At adolescence, experts find, twins begin the process of differentiating their identities. In so doing, they may experience separation from each other as the loss of part of themselves, as I had in college. According to twins researcher Barbara Klein, multiples tend to look for relationships that approximate the closeness they once shared with their brother or sister. 

When twins apply their expectations to nontwins, however, they often face disappointment. "Having shared such a primary attachment and ultimate closeness and understanding," Klein writes, twins "have extremely unrealistic ideas about how much attention and closeness to expect from another person."

Perhaps for this reason, twins marry later than nontwins and are also more likely to never marry. Some twins overcome the difficulty of mismatched expectations by pairing up with another twin, and in some especially rare cases, two pairs of twins marry each other. 

My own situation started to make more sense. I understood that Zack had found a partner who, as a twin herself, was preternaturally oriented toward a certain type of closeness. Likewise, my friendship with Kate was so fulfilling because we were comfortable with the dynamic of twinship, which involves a heightened level of attention, sharing, and understanding.

Zack decided to propose to Emily. The ring he'd ordered wasn't ready, so I lent him a dress-up "diamond" I had worn as a child. He popped the question on a hike in the redwoods and texted me a picture of the two of them beaming, Emily's hand, adorned with the ring, draped across his chest. That evening, our families gathered to celebrate. When we had a moment away from the group, I asked Kate how she was doing, knowing that she more than anyone could relate to my complicated feelings. "I'm sad to give Em away to Zack," she confessed.

"Growing up, your twin is your person," I said. "Our twins have new people now."

A few weeks before the wedding, I sat down to write my toast. Reflecting on my twinship with Zack, I realized it was time to say goodbye to my sense of belonging with him and to a childhood that was not mine but ours. I was truly happy that he had found a new belonging with Emily. I was also grateful for the understanding I'd gained of the relationship needs of twins. Now, armed with the knowledge that twins seek a special type of intimacy tied to their earliest days, I knew what to look for in my own partner—twin or not.