Twin Lethargy — Not Twin Synergy

When I was in fifth grade, we had to complete a class project that involved choosing a proverb that had special meaning and artfully making it into a parchment manuscript. I have always remembered the maxim I chose: “The easy way is not always the best way.” While I had little realization of the unconscious meaning of that idea in my ten-year-old thought process, I can make meaning of my choice in hindsight. While this is a subjective interpretation on my part, I recognize that this truism relates to my passion about understanding twin relationships.

I recalled my fifth-grade maxim after seeing a pair of fraternal twin women in their thirties. They came to see me because their interpersonal conflicts had escalated into physical fights that horrified and frightened both of them. While they certainly had a history of raucous verbal exchanges, their tensions had never before intensified into literally punching one another.

Their history together is sad and upsetting. Like many young people, they moved to the West Coast from Rhode Island more than six years ago to see about establishing acting careers. Both had experienced tremendous satisfaction and success during their high school years and hoped to achieve some modicum of professional success as aspiring young adults. One of the women had finished college, and her sister dropped out of her separate college to pursue a less traditional course of study that included artistic and culinary pursuits.

While the news abounds with stories about how twins successfully motivate one another to achieve their best in academics, sports, and business, most nontwins do not realize how extreme twin togetherness can engender the opposite dynamic in some twin pairs. Frequently, as in the case of these young women, the familiarity, comfort, and excessive twin interdependence create an emotional complacency that begets a lack of initiative and momentum. Instead of galvanizing each other’s potential, this unfortunate situation leads to an emotional laziness and paralysis that prevents either of the dyad from moving on or moving forward. Instead of twin synergy, we see twin lethargy — an unspoken or unconscious shared belief that moving ahead, taking risks, or encountering failure will jeopardize or undermine the twin connection. An unspoken truce emerges whereby each defaults to a position of being stuck and staying stuck. This can occur outside of each twin’s conscious awareness, as the singular focus becomes the struggles involved in getting along with one’s twin.

The interpersonal conflicts deflect from the fact that neither one of them is propelling the other to move ahead with what they felt long ago was their shared collaborative dream. The longer this goes on, the more depressed and paralyzed each individual becomes, until something overt — such as the physical abuse in the case of these women — brings the other issues to light. Of course, one cannot ascribe the totality of this dilemma to the twinship, per se. Naturally there are other familial and developmental dynamics that come into play. Nonetheless, since the twin discord is the presenting problem, understanding the genesis of the difficulties defines the therapeutic beginning.

I believe that the proverb I used for my project illustrated my feeling that being a twin made many things easier. Jane and I moved across the country with our family when we were nine years old and instantly experienced social success and a facile adjustment owing to our twin star status. Perhaps, for some twin pairs, this “easy” way to feel known and accepted sets up an expectation that one does not have to work hard to feel liked, included, and self-confident. Moreover, when these lessons about peer relations and self-reliance are not learned at an age-appropriate time, it becomes more challenging to face these deficits as one gets older.

The frustrations that both these women feel have given rise to the present difficulties. As they begin to talk to one another about their individual thoughts and feelings, I am confident that each will be able to move away from their conflicts about money, friends, possessions, and careers, focusing more appropriately upon how each can move forward to cultivate satisfying and productive independent lives.

Dr. Joan A Friedman, Ph.D. is a psychotherapist and the author of Emotionally Healthy Twins: A New Philosophy and The Same but Different: How Twins Can Live, Love, and Learn to be Individuals.

Originally published at on April 3, 2017.

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