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Why Loneliness Can Be More Painful for Twins

An experience-based reflection.

Twins and other multiple-birth individuals can suffer from much deeper and troubling loneliness than single-born individuals. Separation anxiety, which often begins at birth, is the underlying cause of loneliness for twins. Gradually, as twins give up their need for in utero closeness, crying eruptions tend to diminish. However, parents and caregivers need to learn that infant twins are sensitive to the physical absence of their twin (co-twin) and will often cry for comfort until the twin returns to their side.

Deeply felt separation (and anxiety about separation) from their twin gradually lessens as the connections between adult caregivers become cemented in their emotional sense of reality. In other words, young twins do learn to trust and rely on other people for comfort. The twin attachment remains essential in childhood and diminishes gradually throughout the lifespan. As I have said many times: “Once a twin, always a twin.” By this, I mean that twins always seek out close relationships. It is very hard to disavow your twin identity.

Of course, this learning curve of trust outside of the twinship is not experienced in individual infants and toddlers. A single-born child connects with her mother or the primary caregiver without any primitive comparative reactions.

Imagine if twins were able to have a conversation with non-twins about trust and the reliability of their caregivers. The conversation might go like this: “Mom is what you get when it comes to comfort,” a singleton would tell his non-twin friend. But a twin friend might say, “I like my twin brother better than Mom.” Of course, infants cannot talk, but I can speculate that this conversation might be going on internally (nonverbally).

Separation anxiety is complex because twins most likely have two primary attachments—to their mother and to their twin. Primary attachments are irreplaceable and create a deep sense of loss and instability for twins and all individuals. More is known about the separation process between child and parent than the separation process between twins. My experiences working with twins have shown that loneliness is a side effect of separation anxiety that all twins experience. Separation anxiety deeply affects all twins.

The parental role is to help twins manage emotional issues when they separate from one another. When separation anxiety between twin and twin, or between parent and twin, is not handled adequately there are serious side effects, including fear of being on their own. In cases of childhood parental neglect, twins often do not separate completely but remain the primary person in each other's lives. Obviously, separation anxiety evolves from infancy through old age. Loneliness is also different at different stages of life.

My Struggle with Loneliness

My own struggle with loneliness is a common one, which I share to illustrate and protect other people's confidentiality. As infants and toddlers, my twin sister and I preferred always being in close proximity. Eventually, we were placed in separate classes after kindergarten. We had our own friends and shared friends. Even as we grew up it seemed we were always within close range of one another.

Loneliness as a state of mind started when I went to college. I was rooming with my sister but missed my first boyfriend, who was at a different university down the freeway from me. My loneliness was unbearable and I started to date other college classmates. My sister was my companion on our walks to campus and to the bakery to buy donuts. She teased me about missing Jim and also showed me some true compassion and suggested coping strategies when I was literally a “wreck.”

Interestingly, my sister and I did not miss each other in college. Knowing full well that we had different interests and different friends helped us to look out for each other. Our competitiveness was understandable because we were not one person. Fighting and conflict were not worth the loneliness I suffered when we did not get along. As a teenager and young adult, loneliness was horrific—to be avoided by being popular and always being busy with school and social events.

My sister and I separated from each other when we graduated college and got married (within a few weeks of each other). She went to Sweden with her husband, and I went to graduate school with my husband. Managing loneliness after our undergraduate years was a serious challenge because I dreaded it and avoided the emptiness I felt as much as possible. Even though I was married and had two children, I missed the closeness my sister and I shared and the ability to read each other’s moods and minds.

At first, not being a twin was fun and easier in some ways. I pretended that I was not a twin and no one asked about her (my twin). But my game of being a singleton ended soon enough as I had trouble being a twin in a non-twin world with or without my sister by my side.

To deal with my loneliness, I fell back on achievement. I wrote books and got a doctoral degree, then another. In my own psychotherapy, I realized that my sister and I could not get along. The loneliness got worse instead of better. People were disappointing and could not understand me. My sister was absent, mean, and critical; and my husband was busy. My children filled my lonely hours.

I started talking to twins about estrangement and these conversations helped me more than any of the good feelings I held onto from my academic achievements. Knowing that other twins had problems with their twins (co-twins) put my loneliness into perspective. I was able to contain my desperate and confusing feelings of missing my sister and feeling unsure of myself. And still, loneliness was my most serious enemy to be warded off with a great deal of thought of how to get around it. When I felt lonely, I felt like a failure even though my actual identity suggested that I was very successful.

What Has Helped Me to Deal with Loneliness

Have I mastered loneliness? The answer is no or probably not, although I continue to try to not succumb to my dreaded fear that no one “close” is close to me. I am 75 percent better. Here are some strategies that have helped me and the other twins I have spoken with.

  1. Understand your twin loneliness through reading, psychotherapy, and self-reflection.
  2. Make friendships that are based on deep relationships.
  3. Avoid long periods of time when you are alone.
  4. Spending time with own children and/or working with children can often alleviate or dispel loneliness.
  5. Speak with close others about your loneliness.
  6. Find twin support through a group or organization for twins.
  7. Lower your expectations that non-twins will understand your twin issues.
  8. Find a therapist who knows about twin identity issues.

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