Partners For Life: The Experience Of Being A Twin
As a single-born person, I have always imagined it would be really great to have a twin. A twinship is a partnership for life with its origins at conception or moments thereafter. How amazing to have another person with a complete history of shared experience in the world commencing with birth and ending when death do you part!
To get an inside look at the experience of being a twin, I interviewed five twins — four identical and one fraternal, two siblings of twins, a mother of twin toddlers and a friend of mine who worked with twins among the children she taught…
The Ultimate Soulmate
The twins who I interviewed for this article described their relationship with their sister or brother as the most intimate relationship in their lives. While intuitive knowing or psychic awareness is something we all possess, this experience is heightened when you are a twin. Even when twins are out of touch and out of verbal contact for a while, one twin can get an intuitive knowing it’s time to touch in because something important is happening in the other’s life.
Derek Beckwith, 43, has an identical twin brother Geoffrey born ten minutes apart.
“I feel very close to my brother. We were extremely close when we were growing up. We gave each other comfort and support, and intellectual stimulation. Ever since I was a small child, I always knew he was there. In some ways it feels like he is still an arm’s length away. I can always talk to my brother at anytime about anything that is happening to me. I have always felt the closeness with him that cannot be replicated in any kind of friendship or the bond with my sister.”
The level of intimacy and connection commonly experienced between twins is a foundation on which to build other relationships. It both provides a model of closeness and may be hard to replicate in even a love partner.
Anne and Liz Keliher, 37 are identical twins, born just three minutes apart. “I probably feel less alone in the world because I am a twin,” reflects Anne. “I have more of a sense of home. I have a sense there will always be someone who understands me — how I feel, how I think and even shares my thoughts and feelings. As long as Liz is here, celebrating special occasions, talking to someone who will really listen and care about me…I am guaranteed to have that in my life.”
“On the other hand, on your birthday it’s about you and someone else,” notes Liz, “so, you’ve never had the experience of it being all about you.”
Dhyanna Noble, 54, is an identical twin and a psychotherapist and educator specializing in twins and multiple births. She and her sister were born ten minutes apart. “Being a twin is having a bond that last forever,” says Dhyanna. “The individuation process, becoming distinctive, lasts forever too. People often say to me ‘I wish I had a twin…or felt I had a twin.’ On some level we all do. You call that person a soulmate.”
Yani Batteau, 45, has a fraternal twin brother born seven minutes before she was. They were the youngest of six children. “I loved being a twin. I loved the fact that I always had someone to play with that was in my own family. I never felt alone or lonesome. There was someone I could rely on. We each had different strengths, one being a boy and one being a girl. There was a sense of balance.
“I think, being twins, we knew each other pretty well. We always played off each other in terms of making jokes. We were pretty understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. He relied on me as being the social person. I’m outgoing. He is shyer. Yet he’s a musician and does performance. I am shyer about that. I am better at social events. I like to have parties. He’d rather just be with a few people.
“As adults we’re not as close as we were. But we still love each other dearly. We call each other periodically to check in. I think I’m more emotional than he is. If he tells me something important to him, I’ll support him no matter what he wants to do. To have someone on your side all the time is really important. And as a twin it is even more important. I want him to be proud of me as I want to be proud of him.”
Connection and Individuation
In her work with twins, Dhyanna has found a continuum of connection and individuation. On one extreme are twins like the eighty-something-year-old twins who live down the street from me. These sisters, like little girls, still live together and dress alike with seemingly no desire to separate or individuate. Never married (to anyone else), for years I have watched them walk down the street to Newtonville village for their morning walk dressed in matching outfits with matching sneakers. On the other extreme are twins that want nothing to do with each other, with no relationship with their sibling. In the center of the continuum are twins who either consciously or unconsciously have chosen to individuate to some extent.
Anne and Liz have worked hard to define who they are both as individuals and in relationship to their twin. “Even though we come from the same genetic code, as soon as we were born, we started to live separate experiences,” comments Anne. “There were nature and nurture. We were impacted by how we were treated by family, in classrooms…. The different experiences changed me both emotionally and physically. And while we look a lot alike, even physically there are many differences. My face is longer and narrower. I weigh less. We have different smiles and different color eyes. Some people think we look like regular sisters although a lot of people think we look like twins.”
Liz acknowledges, “Defining my identity and working on individuation have taken a lot of my energy. It has been a big focus for me. Being a twin was a nice base to have. I don’t think I have wrestled with my twinship being a source of identity confusion as much as Anne. The only times I’ve wrestled with it are when people have negative perceptions.”
“Being a twin has been the impetus to explore my identity,” says Anne. “I’m a very reflective person. There’s so much more to explore, to reflect on because I’m a twin. The world puts the question to me — how are you different from your sister if you look so much alike? I take that cue from the world and reflect on it.”
Derek also recognizes the work he has had to do to individuate and define his own sense of self. “Being a twin made it harder for me to have my own clear sense of self. It was harder for me to have a sense of deserving — I need this, I want this, I’m going to get this. My life was more about the WE than about the I. I think, overall, it meant that my sense of self developed later than it would have if there weren’t a twin.
Derek continues, “Being a twin has accentuated what I think is people’s natural desire to work together, to communicate with people and to be in synch with folks around them. Because I always had my brother there to count on, it did have an impact on my independence, my individuality. I had a sense of self but I also had a sense of the two of us that was intertwined. This was more so when I was a child than now. It impacted my risk taking. Because my brother was there for me I could use him to help me solve problems, to think about things. The two of us as a unit helped each other through difficulties growing up. Because I didn’t have to do those things on my own, I developed a different set of skills than I think would have as a single-born person. We would balance and work with each other even when we didn’t realize we were doing that. We understand that more now looking back than when we were in it.”
Although a fraternal twin, with her sibling being a brother, Yani reflected similar sentiments as Derek. “Being a twin makes it harder to have a well defined sense of self. Some of the strengths that if I were on my own without a twin, I might have developed more or sooner. The fact that I had a brother and the strengths that he needed to develop, he did. I may not have worried about those things. I may have let go of and not developed some traits as much as I needed to. There was a unity between us from the unconscious level.”
Anne and Liz spoke also of how being a twin can simultaneously make you feel more connected and more alone. “You expect an affinity with people that isn’t achievable, at least not easily,” comments Liz. “So, I’ve experienced a sense of aloneness more deeply and a sense of connection more deeply.”
“There is a sense of separateness from other people who don’t understand or fear being a twin because it is different,” acknowledges Anne. “That’s where the sense of greater aloneness comes from.”
Twins and Partnering
How we individuate effects how we connect and merge. While the twins I spoke with had models of profound intimacy with their sibling, it was not always so easy to translate this backdrop into a close friendship with an unrelated person or a love relationship with a primary partner.
Derek and his brother are both married and have children. However, being close with other people was challenging as a twin. “I think the fact that I am a twin, growing up made it difficult for the two of us to find best friends or very close friends that didn’t include each other. I have a very close friend now, but for many years it was hard for me to have a best friend that could match the closeness that I had with my twin. I haven’t formed the kinds of friendships I have observed other people having with people outside of their family.” Both brothers are married and have children.
“There are some things I just take for granted in a close relationship — the feeling of knowing that you are secure in that relationship,” says Derek. And so, it surprises me sometimes when the person I am with doesn’t feel the underlying, natural, no-need-to-verbalize the fact that the relationship is as important as it is.”
“I haven’t yet found a soulmate,” says Yani. “It’s hard to trust that the partner I’m choosing will go deeper than my twin. I always leave room for him. I am used to a kind of intimacy that’s hard to replicate.” Yani’s brother is married and his wife just had a baby girl.
“I like partnership in that I want to be with someone, knowing that someone is there,” continues Yani. “I don’t think everyone understands that. I like to have someone around to play with, as a play partner. I think we are both very sensitive and really listen to the people we are with. I am pretty attentive and insightful with the person I am with at lots of different levels. I think he is too. I think some of that results from being a twin.”
Liz speaks to her experience. “I think you’re always looking for a bond with people that approaches your understanding with your twin with romantic relationships. I seek an intensity that most people feel is unattainable. My boyfriend thinks I have unrealistic expectations of how much he can understand me, because I have an understanding with Anne I don’t have to work for completely.”
She continues, “There are certain unique things a romantic partnership could encompass that ours can’t. In terms of shared experience, it is hard to compete with that. With Anne, the foundation is a given. There is an understanding of where the other person is coming from because you were there for all of it — the whole childhood thing. That makes communication easier.”
“Doing relationship counseling with twins is very similar to doing couple therapy,” nods Dhyanna. Some of the marriages or partnerships of the twins she has worked with have been enriched by the fact that a partner is a twin. The level of understanding and compassion the twin brings is high. “In getting a window into the psyche of twin, a partner might say, ‘Now I understand why my spouse can be so intimate with their friends or fellow employees so quickly and I can’t.”
Twins and Their Siblings
Twins create a very powerful presence in a family unit and sometimes all relationships in the family are defined primarily in relationship to the twins. Martha Harrington is 50 and has 54-year-old fraternal twin brothers born 14 minutes apart. In her family, her brothers were not treated separately. “I got my own room. They didn’t. I got one thing. They got one thing. They were treated as one instead of as two. They were ‘the twins.’”
Sally Marcus, 48, is the youngest of four kids. She has a brother who is two years older and identical twin sisters who are six years older than she is. “I think as a kid growing up, they were always referred to as ‘the twins.’ We did see them as a unit. As a kid I didn’t know anything different. Because of the age distance between the twins and me and my brother, there were two subgroups of children. My brother and I kind of identified ourselves as twins in some way. With the specter of twinship hanging over the family, there were two twin units, so to speak.
“It is hard to know what issues were related to the fact that they were older siblings and what issues were unique to being twins. They got a lot of attention. I used to enjoy the stories of how they could sometimes trick the people in school because they did look a lot alike,” recalls Sally.
“My impression in the family dynamic was that my brothers and sister were protectors of the twins,” expresses Yani. “The youngest of six children, we were the special ones and the ends. One of my brothers would take us out go-carting. My mother referred to us as ‘the twins’ all the time. It was good and bad. It felt we weren’t individual. Sometimes I resented that.”
Anne and Liz have a younger sister Meg, who may have suffered in the shadows of the twins. “The happiness when shared with my twin is deeper, but the suffering is easier to feel as well. It’s easier to feel my twin’s suffering than my other sister’s,” describes Anne. “The biggest polarization in our family was bad cop/good cop,” adds Liz. “We were the good ones. Our sister Meg was the bad one. We got good grades. Meg didn’t. Our parents looked at us as an entity. Liz was the extroverted side. Anne was the introverted side. You need both sides for the entity to be whole.” As a single-born sibling, things were dramatically different for Meg.
Dispelling Myths about Multiples
Having specialized in working with twins for the past eight years in addition to her own experience as a twin, Dhyanna has articulated eight myths of being a twin and has also revised them. Her myths and revisions become a useful educational model.
Myth #1: Twins should always want to share.
Revision: Twins have the right to choose to share or not.
Myth #2: Twins should never be angry at each other.
Revision: Twins can expect to have a range of feelings for each other, like they would for all human beings.
Myth #3: Twins should always want to be together.
Revision: Acknowledge the importance of physical boundaries and personal space. Nurture time together and time apart.
Myth #4: Twins should watch out for each other.
Revision: Teach each child that care for oneself is as important as care for the other. Parents can model this behavior.
Myth #5: Twins should developmentally be at the same stage with the same wants and needs.
Revision: Twins will experience different needs and wants developmentally, like any two kids.
Myth #6: Being a twin is everything a child is.
Revision: Being a twin is one aspect of who a child is, not the only aspect.
Myth #7: Twins always know what the other twin is thinking or feeling.
Revision: Our thinking, feelings, and opinions are unique to ourselves. Celebrate the diversity.
Myth #8: Parents’ relationship with each twin should be the same.
Revision: A parent spends quality time with each child separately. Their unique relationship can then develop.
Linda Marks, MSM, is a body-centered psychotherapist practicing in Newton and the mother of a single-born 6-year-old son. Many twins have found their way into her office over the past seventeen years, and she enjoys all unique aspects people experience in the human journey. If you are a twin or a partner of a twin and would be interested in participating in a dialogue about the experience of being a twin, contact Linda at LSMHEART@aol.com or (617)965-7846