Twinship: A Unique Sibling Relationship

Twinship: A Unique Sibling Relationship

Vivienne Lewin


Twins are siblings of a particular kind. While they share many of the aspects of other sibling relationships, there are other dynamics that make the twin relationship unique amongst sibling relationships. The particular qualities of the twin relationship are the result of two sets of factors:


  1. The near identity of chronological age between the twins has consequences for each of the twins developmentally, in terms of both the ever-presence of the other twin in the minds of mother and father, and in the minds of the twins themselves.
  2. The practical factors to do with the individual care of each infant. For twins there will always be a juggling of attention by the caregivers as the needs of each baby are taken into account at any one time. Inevitably attention given to one same-age infant at one moment will affect the amount and/ or quality of attention given to the other.

But there are also deeper unconscious issues that affect both the twin relationship and our perception of it. Twins both fascinate and disturb us, and we tend to attribute special qualities to their relationship. I believe that this special interest in twins arises as a result of developmental factors that echo our own earliest longings.

Our fascination with twins is linked with the universal urge towards twinning. The phantasy of having a twin is ubiquitous (Klein, 1963) and is based on developmental factors linked with essential loneliness, a longing to be known, and the creation of a  sense of self within a primary object relationship. Both Winnicott (1953) and Bion (1967) describe the infant’s illusion of creating of the breast (its twin) in the (transitional) space created by the absence of, but essentially within, the infant’s relationship with the mother. These very early experiences establish a blueprint for closeness and intimacy that underlies the longing for a twin self, as well as later more mature object relationships.

The specialness, with which we regard twins, stems in part from our narcissistic wish to be totally understood and at one with an  object, as well as from a sense of the uncanniness of the double. Stories about doubles (Dostoevsky, 1846; Hogg, 1824; Saramago, 2004) centre around a sense of premonition of ill to come, of the horror and violence of the discovery of a double of oneself who has stolen our identity. The experience seems to presage emotional breakdown, as if a double represents the result of extreme splitting. Rank (1914) suggests that the double can represent the self, or aspects of the self—an alter ego. The double may be loved or hated, depending on what has been projected. It is essentially a narcissistic state of mind, and it may interfere with object love. While hatred and revulsion may be used as defences against the double, it can also be used as a reassurance against, as well as a representation of, death. As Rank suggests, it “finds its deepest foundation in the relationship with the mother” (p. 70).

While twinning may be regarded as a form of splitting, it is not necessarily destructive, as in the horrifying doubles described above. An alter ego may also be regarded as a close and supportive companion, such as the “daemons” in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (1995, 1997, 2000), or as imaginary companions that are so frequently used in childhood to provide support at times of developmental stress. The creation of an imaginary twin by the infant in its relationship with the breast, is essentially a creative act, and may well be the root of artistic creativity. I believe that an examination of both the general nature of twinning and of twinning processes as experienced by and exacerbated in actual twins, may lead to a greater understanding of developmental processes in both singletons and twins.

Twins excite all sorts of feelings and responses in others and are a source of considerable interest both scientifically and in everyday life. There are many books about twins. There are those written by a twin either to celebrate twinship, or to commemorate or compensate for the loss of a twin, either pre- or post-natally, at any and all ages. Parents of twins write about their experience of bringing up twins, both the pleasures and difficulties that they encounter. Scientists of all descriptions have studied twins for decades in the hope of learning the secrets of inheritability and the progress of both individual development and diseases. Children’s books explore the many facets and functions of a phantasy twin through the twinships of the children in the story.

As a rather charming example of the universal urge towards twinning, I was told recently of a five-year-old boy with his father. The father was explaining to his son how a sundial works, and the importance of the shadow in telling the time. The boy said he had a shadow, and that his shadow was his twin. It went everywhere with him. He added that his shadow was not only was his twin, it was also his imaginary friend. But it was not his only imaginary friend, he explained—he had other imaginary friends like Teddy and some of his other toys.

In one sense I approach the subject of twins as an outsider—I am not a twin, nor am I immediately related to one. However, in my psychoanalytic experience as a transference twin, I am an insider with an outsider’s perspective. As a psychoanalytic psychotherapist I have worked individually with a number of adult patients who have a twin, and through this route I have discovered the impact of the twin relationship on the psychoanalytic transference relationship. As a result, I have become particularly interested in twinning processes in both twins and singletons. The analysis of the transference twin seems to have been largely neglected in the psychoanalytic literature. I will outline in brief here the ideas I explore in depth in my book, particularly the creation of the twin in the transference and its implications for psychoanalytic work.

While the parents provide a developmental framework for each infant, relationships with siblings offer an opportunity to negotiate and manage peer social relationships. In fact, the existence of siblings propels us into having to confront issues that are not encountered in the parent–child relationship (Mitchell, 2004). The dynamics and tensions in the twin relationship are more intense than those in other sibling relationships, and are of a different nature from those between children and their parents. The absence of an age gap between the twins creates an inter-twin dynamic based on both a longing for sameness and an intense need for differentiation. The twinship lacks the developmental advantages offered by the age difference between non-twin siblings, but the twin relationship does provide an opportunity for unparalleled companionship and for an understanding without words, reminiscent of the earliest relationship with mother.

The existence of a twin may even ameliorate developmental difficulties in situations of maternal unavailability or neglect. However, a sound “friendship” is not necessarily a feature of the twin relationship. Many factors will affect how the twin relationship develops, and the extent to which each twin within the relationship develops a companionable rather than a narcissistic relationship with the other twin. Siblings and others may envy the closeness of twins, and the twins may use the twinship to create a barrier between the twin pair, isolating themselves from the parents and other family members.

I think it is important to state that I work from a basic premise that no two people are identical, not even monozygotic twins. To believe that they are identical is a defence against difference and separateness, whatever the genetic make-up of the twins. There are, to a greater or lesser extent, genetic, psychological, and behavioural differences between twins, as well as similarities. However, each twin has to struggle with his/her own processes of development to carve out a personal sense of identity. For each twin, this individuality will overlap to varying degrees with that of the other twin, and this may lead to aspects of a shared identity.

There are two central hypotheses that I propose. I will outline them briefly here:

  1. 1. Twins are fundamentally affected in their emotional development by the fact of being a twin

I am taking as a base the Kleinian view that the (unconscious) phantasies of the breast and of the parental couple are innate and are central to the development of each individual. Where then do the other twin and siblings fit in? I believe that the indelible twin relationship that is encountered in twins is linked with the infant’s earliest experiences with both its mother and its twin, including during the prenatal period. The central internal structure that gives us a sense of identity would be developed through the infant’s relationships primarily with its mother and, later, its father, and its acceptance of an oedipal parental couple of a different generation. For twins, this internal structure would be more complicated. (When I refer to the early dyadic relationship between infant and mother, I do not mean that father is absent, but that at this early stage father’s function is to “vertebrate” mother, as described by Resnik (1995). The maternal aspect has a containing function while paternal one has an organizing function.

The presence of the other twin leads to a situation in which mother and twins create a triad (prior to the oedipal triad), rather than the dyadic relationship that exists for singletons. As a result, for twins there would be three pair relationships: mother–twin 1, mother–twin 2, and twin 1–twin 2. The initial developmental process, say for twin 1, would be shaped both by the relationship with mother and by the relationship with twin 2. The relationship with twin 2 could theoretically be on a continuum between sibling rivalry and merging, and would include twin 1’s perception of the relationship between twin 2 and mother. It is through this complex structure that each twin will develop a sense of identity.

If the twin bond is strong, it will interfere with each infant’s relationship with mother. In addition, mother would be less available to each twin than she would be to a single baby. Whenever she relates to one twin, the other would be at least partially excluded. Placing father in the picture would create six pairs, and four triads, thus complicating the picture further. When mother and father are engaged as a pair, the twins would be excluded, and if awake, they would probably be an interacting pair. If the twins are together, even asleep, it is likely that they would still aware of each other. Awake or asleep, each twin is contributing to the formative experience of the other twin. Thus each twin has to engage with the processes of, and tensions between, separateness and relatedness to both the other twin and to mother, and later to father.

Separation from the other twin would be more problematic than separation from mother as the twinship offers a narcissistic refuge that lacks generational difference. At times when frustration may feel difficult to tolerate, twins would, to varying degrees, seek from each other some form of gratification, using the other twin either in phantasy or physically, thus filling the gap and avoiding the space that is necessary for the development of symbolic thought. Twins lack the maturity to be a true container for each other (Bion, 1962). The rather concrete nature of some aspects of twin relationships may be linked with this area of lack of symbolisation. There may be a confusion of ego-boundaries between twins and a relative and variable lack of a separate sense of identity. Most importantly, for twins, the twinning is not only an external phenomenon. The other twin would be a potent and active internal object, and would be a source of transference manifestations. The emergence of a transference twin in psychoanalytic work would lead to an intense and tenacious relationship between analyst and patient, echoing the internal twinship.

This internal twinship is inescapable and lasts for the lifetime of each twin, even after the death of one twin.

The intense sense of closeness between twins is felt by twins to be a special and unique aspect of being a twin. The twin relationship may profoundly affect the resolution of both the early and later oedipal conflicts, thus having a lasting impact on the structure of the inner world of the individual twin. With the acceptance of mother and father as a couple that are not of the generational sameness as the twin couple, development towards the depressive position can proceed. Where such development is hampered, and where there is in any case an additional binding, internal relationship with the twin, problems are likely to ensue. The twinship may be used as a “psychic retreat” (Steiner, 1993).

The nature of the infant’s affectional bond with the mother has been shown to affect the development of brain structures connected with emotional relationships (Schore, 1994). I propose that differential brain development ensues as a result of being a twin. With the inescapable presence of the other twin, persistent psychobiological patterns will be created between the twins and in each twin in relation to mother. These psychobiological patterns would affect all their relationships, especially the most intimate relationships in their lives, such as those between husband and wife, parent and children.

The internal twinship is a representation of the relationship with an actual twin, alive or dead, overlaid on each infant’s twinning with mother in the earliest days. The internal twin object is inextricably linked with the “self”, as are parental and other sibling imagoes. However, the chronological closeness of the twin pair leads to the development of a unique bond with a consequent internal object relationship that is of a different order from other object relationships. Separation from the internal twin may, therefore, be experienced as a threat to the integrity of the self at a primal level. Analysis of the twin transference would threaten the unity of the internal twin pair and may be resisted by the patient, even when desirous of separateness from the actual twin.

  1. Twinship is generally sidelined and treated as largely irrelevant in current psychoanalytic practice

Despite Freud’s (1900) recognition of the importance and permanence of sibling relationships in our internal world, twins and siblings have been rather neglected in psychoanalysis. As a result the presence of the twin in the transference is largely ignored, or is paid insufficient attention by many analysts. I propose that there may be two possible explanations for this lack of proper attention to the transference twin.

It may be that analysts underplay the significance of the twin relationship because they are nudged into a collusion with the (twin) patient who feels driven to maintain and to defend the twinship against any interference in it, even when overtly seeking to separate from the twin. Separation from the twin may be experienced as extremely threatening, even catastrophic, as it exposes the patient to a loss of known boundaries, with the consequent fear of dropping into a void or “nameless dread” (Bion, 1962a). This may result in a narcissistic collusion between analyst and patient, echoing the narcissistic twinship, and designed to maintain the “special” relationship between them and to cover up the painful and difficult developmental matters that are being avoided by the patient.

I will mention a few examples in brief:

Lacombe (1959) describes work with a twin patient whom he regards as having suffered from a mutilated identity as a result of being a  twin. He describes how he doubled the length of session time to make up to the patient time lost, to restore to him his “full share” of attention, sacrificed because he was a twin. Instead of analysing the transference relationship with the patient, Lacombe enacted various roles assigned to him in the transference and explained why this was necessary to repair the damage done to the patient.

Ortmeyer (1970) postulates that twins suffer a personality deficit as a result of the experience of being a twin. He described a therapy with a twin patient where the therapist, himself a twin, enacts for the patient the role of the missing twin who speaks the patient’s thought on her behalf, because she is unable to do so. He suggests that the patient suffers a deficit that can only be made good by such an enactment.

Burlingham (1963) describes the therapy of twin brothers Bert and Bill. This too involved the therapist in an enactment to get past an impasse he and his patients had reached. He justified this in terms of using the “Aichhorn Technique”.

In each case, the therapist has explained in detail why he has deviated from standard psychoanalytic routine. However, I think that the tendency of some of the analysts to justify this sort of enactment supports the view that the analysis has reached an impasse, and there is a cover-up of a state that is too painful to recognise.

Thus, the enactment of the twin relationship in the transference may be the result of a narcissistic collusion against an experience of fragmentation. The inter-twin relationship has early and primitive origins affecting the sense of identity of each twin. The analysis of the nature of the twin transference in the consulting room may be experienced as, and may indeed be, a dismantling of a psychic relationship upon which the twin is relying for emotional security and identity.

Erotic relationships with siblings are not felt to be transgressive in the way that the oedipal situation is. Incest barriers between siblings are more fluid and less anxiety provoking than those between parent and child. Klein (1932) regards sexual relationships between siblings as a basis for adult heterosexuality. Twins and other siblings may turn to each other for physical or emotional comfort, or sexual exploration, in an attempt to avoid fears relating to the oedipal conflict.

This may then add to the pressure for enactment in the consulting room of the twin transference, rather than its analysis.

It is important to distinguish between a transference relationship based on a twin relationship, and one based on the phantasy of a twin, as in the creation of the twin breast or imaginary companion. The twin transference in a twin tends to be intractable and is based on the indelible experience of a relationship with an actual twin overlaid on the early infant’s longing for a twin breast. The phantasy twin of early infancy wanes with development, but persists in a modified form as a narcissistic core in all of us.

We believe that the parental relationship provides the framework for emotional development, and we tend to analyse in terms of infant/child–parent, as central to the analysis. It may also be that the analyst’s recognition of the central importance of the twin relationship and hence of the transference twin, would lead to an experience of the analyst feeling threatened with a loss of parental authority and power. To “actualise” (Sandler, 1976) the transference twin involves the analyst in becoming, at least momentarily, a rivalrous clinging/ conflictual sibling rather than a more distant and powerful parental figure with enhanced capacities for understanding. Together with the twin patient’s anxieties about separateness and difference, recognition of the twinning and the creation of “sameness” between the analytic pair may cause the analyst considerable discomfort. It may, of course, also play into his/her own longing for a twin.

There is another perplexing issue that seems to occur almost without comment or question by either professionals or the wider public. I have heard of instances, most commonly amongst monozygotic twins, in which the twins are regarded, and regard themselves, as interchangeable as mothers. Thus we hear of a woman suing for the custody of her twin sister’s child after the death of the twin (Segal,

2001) on the basis that the twin women are assumed to be genetically identical and, therefore, interchangeable. This notion ignores the fact of difference in genetically similar (not identical) twins who are developmentally each a product of both their genetic make-up and their unique experience of their environment and familial bonds. To suggest that we are no more than a product of our genes is genetic determinism gone mad.

I have also been surprised to hear a psychoanalytic discussion about a mother giving her newborn infant to her twin sister who had lost her own child, in which this “gift” raised no concern. Perhaps the rivalry in the twin mothers is appeased in this way, but the “gift” is made in the face of the fact that the infant is the child of one, not both mothers. Perhaps it is a function of our fascination with the nature of the twin relationship that such actions seem to raise little comment. The delusional belief embedded in the idea that twins are interchangeable, notably as mothers, is based on a lack of differentiation in both the twin pair and in the public eye. The twin mothers are seen as having achieved the perfect, universally longed for state of “at-oneness” with another. It is as if twinship has been elevated to a magical sphere where reality is ignored and the “rules” regarding relationships are unique.

I think the terms “identical” or “non-identical” twin are useful only in relation to the underlying psychic dynamic processes that are active at any particular moment, rather than to describe the genetic status of the twins. While there are certain to be differences in the development of each of these types of twins as a result of their zygocity, I have found that the emotional processes explored in analytic work do not particularly reflect this difference. Twinning processes go on in each type of twinship and are reflected in the transference relationships with the analyst and in many other relationships.

The analysis of the transference twin and the origins of this transference relationship deserve particular attention. It is important to understand more fully the processes involved in the twin relationship from a psychoanalytic point of view. Where an analysis of the twin transference does not take place, an essential aspect of the twin patient’s developmental experience and relationships will be left untouched and “un-understood”. I believe we do need to take note of the developmental processes in relation to twinning and twins; the underlying dynamics in analytic work with twins and the associated transference phenomena; and the enduring nature of the twinship.




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[This paper appeared in Siblings in Development: A Psychoanalytic View, 2009, Ed. with Belinda Sharp, Karnac Books, London and New York]