Managing the Stress of Separating From Your Twin

The importance of understanding twin attachment.

Posted Jun 30, 2020

with permission Johanna Keogh
Source: with permission Johanna Keogh

The difficulties that twins encounter as they separate from their twin and seek understanding and acceptance of their identity as unique individuals begins at birth and grows and evolves throughout twins’ lives. Feelings of freedom alongside guilt and shame are common as twins struggle to see themselves as individuals. Separation struggles emerge from the in utero attachment that establishes connections that precede any psychological individuation.

In other words, twins know themselves first as a unit. The result is that even as twins begin developing an individual sense of self, their shared verbal and nonverbal communication makes it difficult to see or feel themselves as separate. Because young twins experience themselves as “one,” something as basic as not paying attention to each other is difficult to achieve. A hard-to-put-into-words special closeness develops. Playing together is almost automatic when twins are toddlers and young children.

As twins learn more involved nonverbal and verbal communication, their basic level of profound attachment remains alive and crucial. Understandably, the separation process creates anxiety and fear for twins and can be manifested across a variety of emotional dimensions throughout the life span, including sadness, loneliness, crying, anger, rage, acceptance, or estrangement.

It is not uncommon, for example, for young twins to have strong reactions when reminded of the absence of their twin. Simply being reminded that their twin is not with them commonly triggers serious bouts of crying. As twins grow, the process of developing individual identities creates strong feelings of anger and resentment that conflict with childhood harmony.

When feelings of wanting and aggressively seeking to be an individual motivate separation between the twins, anger, loss, and estrangement is the result. Often twins have powerful and painful loneliness in adulthood because they see themselves as different from their twin. Intense and recurrent arguments over who is right and who is wrong are painful but common for adult twins.

At birth, twins’ proximity to each other is crucial. Infant twins are inconsolable when they are not placed next to one another. Separating twins because of illness or adoption can create traumatic experiences for both twins, which are manifested later in life. The effects of early separation are always traumatic. This trauma is well-described in the book Identical Strangers: A Memoir of Twins Separated and Reunited (Schein & Bernstein, 2007).

From a perspective outside of the twin relationship, it is easy to see that young twins enjoy being together and that they like the attention they get for being twins. It is also easy to see the opposite side of the twin relationship, as when twins fight constantly over belongings, activities, friends, etc. And yet, I have found in my work with young twins that no matter what the daytime fighting is about, twins want to and seem to need to spend bedtime together.

This observable reality makes me believe that the on-again, off-again nature of twin relationships begins very early in life and is very hard to control. Changeable moods in relationship to your twin are much more intense than sibling alliances are. Maintaining a more consistent sense of your twin takes a very long time if you work at this.

For parents, it is often difficult to contend with the nonstop twin inclination for “double trouble.” “Double trouble” is a shorthand way of describing how intertwin closeness provides a deep comfort and stability that often establishes an alliance through which twins can make life very difficult for parents and outsiders.

As the creators of their very own specific and private world, twins can wreak havoc as they learn how to break through the rules of the family and outside world. Twins using their close attachment can be the ultimate tricksters, playing games that confound family members and others who interact with them. The twin attachment gives the twins power to create a reality that is well-liked by both.

As twin pairs grow into adolescence, more dramatic identity struggles surface. Anger and resentment between twins often fester. Each twin begins to take their own direction more seriously. Harmony is harder to hold onto for adolescent twins. Serious differences can erupt.

Eventually, teenage twins feel seriously misunderstood by “onlookers,” who idealize and trivialize the twin relationship. Adult twins struggle to form nontwin relationships.

Being a twin in the nontwin world can be a lifelong experience of fragmentation, regret, and possibly, renewal. For many twins, including virtually all of those who have shared their stories with me, renewal of the early twin relationship remains elusive. The anger, disappointment, and often, estrangement, that are common for twins are, relatively speaking, unexplored or ignored by family and significant others outside of the twinship.

The distorted belief that twins can naturally get always along easily is a destructive fantasy projected onto twins. For those of you who long for perfect closeness, let me tell you that twin conflicts create horrendous anger and animosity. Mature closeness in adulthood is most likely juxtaposed to the conflict of past misunderstandings. A healthy adult relationship is achieved through hard work in psychotherapy, maturity, and the ability to appreciate your twin’s separate identity.

Suggestions for Recreating Your Childhood Harmony With Your Twin

  1. Accept that establishing harmony with your twin as an adult is arduous. You will need patience and outside support.
  2. Appreciate the way you are different from your twin and try to understand and embrace differences as much as you can.
  3. Do not fight about your differences of opinion. No twin is right. Having different points of view from your twin is important.
  4. Learn as much as you can about twins.