I have always been part of ‘a couple’.
Published on AARP’s The Ethel on November 22, 2021
By Diana Ballon
“I have always been part of a couple.” These are the words I used to begin my wedding speech back in 2001. I was affirming my new committed relationship to my husband, but at the same time, I was making it clear that I wasn’t uncoupling from my twin. We were still connected for life!
I’m 56 now, but it is only in the past few years that I have realized how much my identity, my attachments and my struggles for independence have all been related to this identity as a twin.
When my brother Reed and I were born in 1964, twins weren’t so common. But now, with fertility drugs and women delaying childbirth, the prevalence of twins has exponentially increased.
Worldwide the rate of twinning has increased by about a third since the 1980s — from 9 to 12 per 1,000 deliveries, according to an article published last March in Human Reproduction. That translates to one twin in every 42 children being born. Fraternal twins are about twice as common as identical ones.
Twins tout their partnerships proudly at the annual Twins Day Festival in Twinsburg, Ohio. Since its inception in 1976, more than 80,000 multiples have registered. People have always asked, “What is it like to be a twin?”
As I delve into twin research and speak to other twins, I can corroborate that my experience is similar to many other twins’. Regardless of whether you are fraternal or identical, you have a primary attachment to your twin: You shared a womb, your parents’ love and attention, and many of your childhood experiences. This act of sharing, and the fact that each twin also has an individual identity, have a profound effect on how we develop relationships and form connections with and separate from our twin, explains Barbara Klein, a Los Angeles-based psychologist and educator who has written extensively on twins. Klein has found in her own consulting practice that some fraternal twins have a harder time than identical ones.
“They are less likely to be overidentified or enmeshed [in each other],” says Klein, adding they can still experience a lot of conflict. Like identical twins, they can’t help but compete with each other, comparing their accomplishments. From the beginning, my mother said we were very different: She would need to feed me first or I would throw a fit. I remained “needy,” as she described it.
But I felt comfortable and safe with my brother, whom I was with almost all the time until about age 10. But then my parents felt we were too close, and I was too reliant on him. They encouraged us to have different friends and classes. In fifth grade, the separated us into same-sex schools. It was around this time that I developed separation anxiety. Reed was like my other half. He was better at math and science. I was better at languages and literature. He could fix things around the house, drive the boat at the cottage and build almost anything.
In many ways, we were what psychologist Klein would refer to as “split (or opposite) identity twins” who are essentially “half of a whole personality.”
Our differences were accentuated by how our parents responded to us, so that the gender stereotypes became more pronounced.
I relied heavily on Reed from the time I was very young — to walk with me home from school, to help with my geometry homework and, years later, to help me move into each new apartment I rented! As twin expert, psychologist and author Joan A. Friedman states, twins can become surrogate parents for each other, or — as in our case— “one can become the caretaking twin.” The most traumatic separation was at age 18, when Reed started a serious relationship with a woman, whom he married.
When he was starting a family, I floundered with a long series of boyfriends, jobs, homes and overseas travels until I finally met and married my husband almost 20 years later, at the age of 35.
Although my husband and twin are very different, they definitely like and respect each other: I don’t think I could have married someone who couldn’t appreciate what my twin meant to me. When I look back now on those years, I reacted like a jealous girlfriend who had been broken up with by someone she loved. I went through terrible periods of loneliness, which is also something that is not uncommon for twins.
According to Friedman: “When you feel abandoned by your twin [whether because of a new relationship or going to university or other significant life shift], it can cause the other to feel bereft, like they are no longer a twin.” But life has definitely improved with age.
My husband and I have two children, both 10 years younger than their two first cousins. Reed and I have stayed close, despite pursuing very different paths. He went into the finance business and has had the same employer his whole adult life. I became a travel and health writer and editor with a shifty restlessness and constant desire for change. Now we both live in Toronto, and Reed and I connect by phone at least once a week.
We have a special four-hour dinner at a restaurant — just the two of us — to celebrate our birthdays each year. While I still feel irrationally lonely at times, these feelings pass, fortified by my deep love for my partner and our children.
Admittedly, I often still inadvertently call my husband by my brother’s name. They remain the two favorite men in my life.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Diana Ballon is a Toronto-based writer and editor who specializes in health and wellness, and travel, and has a background in mental health communications. You can follow her thoughts and travels on Instagram at @dianamaryballon.