When you’re a twin, it’s hard not to notice how fascinated the rest of the world is by your sibling relationship. The two of us can speak from direct experience: Barbara has an identical twin sister and Amanda has a fraternal twin brother, and we’ve both spent much of our lives fielding questions about what it’s like to share a life with someone you once shared a womb with. We’ve also spent plenty of time thinking about the source of all this intrigue: What is it, exactly, that people find so fascinating about twins? We’ve pondered the question separately — Barbara in her research as a psychologist, Amanda in her writing — and discussed it together, and over time, we’ve landed on a working theory: Twins indulge the fantasy that it’s truly possible to have another half.
Research backs this up. As psychotherapist Vivienne Lewin, author of The Twin Enigma, wrote in the 2006 anthology Sibling Relationships, “the idealization of the twin relationship is based on essential internal loneliness.” We all want to find someone who understands us intimately, and who better than someone you’ve known since before you were born? “The myth of twinship,” Lewin argued, “is one of perfect companionship and understanding.”
Not to burst anyone’s bubble, but the idea that twins typically share some sort of ideal relationship really is a myth. Especially in childhood, maintaining closeness and harmony between twins can be hard work. Beyond the usual rivalry and spats between brothers and sisters, there’s the additional pressure and frustration that comes with always being lumped in with, and compared to, another person. From an early age, twins often feel intense competition as they struggle to forge their own identities beyond one half of a duo.
The upside of all this is that it forces twins to become relationship experts by default. You can’t “break up” when things get hard — living under the same roof and sharing the same family and friends, you don’t really have a choice but to learn to figure things out. “By the time they’re 1 or 2, they’re like an old married couple,” writer Patricia Malmstrom explained in her book The Art of Parenting Twins. “They fight, but they love each other. They know that they have to live together.”
In other words, twins have to learn early on how to navigate conflict in a way that most people don’t — which often means that they’re better equipped from an early age to form and sustain close relationships. One 2012 study, for instance, found that twins who had a strong bond with each other also reported more intimate relationships with others. Growing up as a twin, then, sets you up for a lifetime of dating just a little bit differently.
For one thing, maintaining a strong sense of individuality while in a relationship — something that can be a fraught process for anyone — is especially challenging, and especially important, as a twin. And that’s because it’s something we’ve already struggled with in a different context for much of our lives.
At conception, a twin’s first identity is as a pair. Research has shown that as babies, twins are particularly tuned into each other’s moods and actions, comforting each other at the sound of thunder and reaching for each other in times of distress. Eventually, though, that pair identity becomes less of a refuge and more of a burden. Especially in adolescence, when everyone is already working to figure out who they are, twins are working double time: first to define themselves, and then to differentiate themselves from the other half of their twinship. When I (Amanda) went away to college, “twin” was one of the first words I used to describe myself. I couldn’t believe my new friends could really know me without meeting my brother. It was only once I began to get a better sense of my own interests — taking writing classes, identifying as a climate activist — that I felt my identity as a twin receding to the background of who I was.
But even with separate life experiences — different colleges, friends, interests — to help them draw those lines, the process of creating boundaries around the self isn’t always easy. As an adult, Vincent Arthurs, a nurse who lives in New Brunswick, Canada, attended a twin support group to learn how to live as an individual. “Being in a group helped me to say I instead of we. To think in a singular way instead of constantly thinking for two,” he says. “Now, as my individuality is maturing, I have come to understand I can go on as a single person.”
A separate but related challenge: realizing that you may be used to different levels of sharing and closeness than the person you’re dating. As I (Barbara) explained in my book Twin Dilemmas: Changing Relationships Throughout the Lifespan, twins often have high expectations for their romantic partners, looking for someone who seems to automatically understand them on a deep level. I’m one of those twins — too many dating experiences left me feeling frustrated and confused by the lack of connection I felt. I was used to something more: I wanted someone to understand me instantly, and often without words, the way my twin would.
Obviously, it’s not exactly a realistic need — which means that as a twin, it can be an ongoing effort to keep your relationship expectations in check. “Living in a non-twin world means learning to be satisfied in relationships without feeling [as] deeply connected,” says twin Sarah Moukhliss, a university librarian in Florida. “Only now, well into my adult life, have I recognized how so much of my frustration with relationships has been because I expect to be able to connect with and understand others as I do my twin.”
The flipside of this, though, as Barbara noted in her 2003 book Not All Twins Are Alike: Psychological Profiles of Twinship, is that that the need for a deeper connection can help to foster greater levels of empathy in twins. “I’m beginning to understand my ability to connect with and understand another person as deeply as I do my twin as an asset,” says Jackie Martinez, a professor at Arizona State University. “But I need help learning how to make my capacity for connection and understanding work for me rather than against me.”
For all those fascinated by twinship, then, let’s dispel the myth that being a twin is easy. It’s not. But it is an intense training ground for building close relationships, one that teaches us to value emotional intimacy and then to work extra hard to find it. Having an “other half” may be a fantasy, but by beginning life automatically bonded to another person, we’ve gotten as close as anyone can. It’s a tough act to follow.