The twin relationship - the beauty and the challenges

I work primarily with issues of identity, and there is an area of identity that most people rarely consider, where the individuals involved are faced with assumptions and prejudices from the wider world that are so ingrained that even we don’t think to challenge them.

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How lucky we should consider ourselves to be if we fit into this label! Any negativity we may experience around this type of identity is pitied, considered almost shameful. If we don’t fit into the stereotypes presented, we feel that we are ‘wrong’ or ‘failing’ at what everyone else expects to come to us so naturally.
 
I am talking about the twin relationship. A relationship where we always have the support or presence of another, where we are so closely entwined that we may know what the other is thinking or how they feel – they are our first priority always, even in utero.
 
The flip side is that we have often never known what it is to experience the mother-child dyad, as we are always a triad in the presence of our mother, and we are always one half of a twin – whether or not our twin is physically present. As a pair, we are often seen by others as a unit, not to be extracted or separated into two individuals: ‘the twins’. Our differences are often missed unless they are used to compare – the competition set up between twins can be far greater than for singletons, and it takes a higher level of conscious parenting to truly understand how to bring up twins or other multiples.

There are far higher expectations on us 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.
 
When one of the pair is absent, through loss in utero, infancy or adulthood, the impact on the remaining twin hits deep within our psyches, with many twins left feeling incomplete. And yes, this experience is very common, even when the remaining twin has never known their twin brother or sister, having lost their ‘pair’ before, during or soon after birth.
 
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. As singletons cannot imagine what it is to have a twin, so twins can’t imagine what it is to not have a twin. The impact of this should not be ignored or minimised. Where there are more than two, other multiples, many of the issues relevant to twins will be present and may be multiplied in complexity or magnification.
 
Parenting twins can be complex and if (for fun!) you throw in neurodivergence too, the chances of finding any appropriate parenting manuals or self-help guides are slim. What if you are a twin parent raising singletons, or a singleton parent raising twins? There are differences in deeply engrained life experience that neither side of the relationship will be able to fully comprehend, but knowing that the differences exist, and accepting your child’s reality, where it differs from your own, will be key to creating a supportive relationship.
 
When working with a twin (or other multiple) of all ages, key points to consider include:

  • Twin loss – whether through death or estrangement – has a very particular impact on a person, usually far more so than for regular siblings, even when the loss occurs in utero or shortly after birth.
  • There is a high risk of total family fracture if parents each take opposite favourites (obviously not advised generally, but potentially more damaging with twins).
  • There is a risk of polarising twins – for example, this one is the brainy one, this one is the pretty one, which can restrict and restrain a child’s full psychological growth and limit their ability to achieve their potential.
  • Many twins are seen as a unit, and it can be harder to develop an individual identity.
  • It can be harder to do things ‘alone’, especially for first times.
  • Twins are often judged as being composed of ‘the weaker and the stronger one’, and it is often taken for granted that the ‘stronger twin’ will support their ‘weaker twin’, thus placing quite rigid roles on both children at a very young age, and limiting their potential for full growth, and for exploring the entirety of their characters and traits.
  • 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.
  • 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.

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, that many twins often feel special or lucky, but this difference sets us apart and ‘others’ us. 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 therapy sessions.


References:

The Lone Twin – Understanding Twin Bereavement and Loss, Joan Woodward
The Twin in Transference, Vivienne Lewin
 
I also have 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), to which I have contributed time as a twin myself since the early 2000s. The work is 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.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Farnborough GU14 & Reading RG2
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Written by Ninoslava Shah, Gestalt Counsellor Dip MBACP Accred 111450, Reiki Master L3
Farnborough GU14 & Reading RG2

I'm Nina. I specialise in issues around belonging and identity, including those that relate to mixed culture, neurodivergence (suspected or diagnosed), or diversity around sexuality, gender or relationships. I offer remote therapy sessions via phone, video, messaging and email. I also offer remote walk and talk session via audio call.

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