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June 3, 2019 | by  | in Features Homepage Splash |
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Inevitable Entanglement

I’ve known my best friend for 20 years. It’s like we were made for each other. We both love talking and reading and running. We can be quiet together. When she starts crying, sometimes I can’t stop. We’ve shared so much that sometimes I look into her eyes and know exactly what she’s thinking, because I’m thinking it too. I make more sense when I’m around her.

 

My best friend goes to uni in Otago. I saw her a few months ago, and we spent two weeks together. I got to meet some of her friends, who are lovely, and I am glad that she is happy. Of course, I miss her desperately.

 

My best friend is my twin sister. When we are together, I feel more whole, more known. Sometimes I feel like I don’t need anyone else—and that the people who know me without knowing her know only a sliver of who I am.

 

Shar, my twin, is my baseline: the friendship against which all the others are judged. None of my other friendships are like the one with her. Though I cherish my friends in Wellington and beyond, I feel guilty that these friendships aren’t built on shared experiences and values to the same degree. Can anyone really know me without knowing my twin sister?

 

I wanted to know if my experience of friendships as a twin was unique. Do other twins also find that their idea of friendship is shifted by having a twin? Are other twins friends with their twins? I spoke to nine twins—well, eight twins (including my own) and one set of triplets—including my own, about friendships, identity, comparison, and competition.

 

My twin sister and I shared our first friend, according to our parents. The friend was imaginary, because we lived on a lifestyle block hours from anyone else our age. For a few weeks, we chatted incessantly to this imaginary person. Then their disembodied appeal diminished, and we returned, as we always will, to each other.

 

There is something inherently fascinating about twins. My sister, Shar, says this is “[twins] are common enough that people know what it is, but rare enough that people are interested.” According to Statistics New Zealand, twins and other multiple births make up 1.5–2% of all births in the country. That means that 1.5% to 2% of the population has a predetermined best friend and partner in crime. Many of them stay close. I talked to several twins about how being a twin impacts their identity and friendships.

 

Fa’a Tau, 20, is an identical twin. He likes to write, and he tells me that he’s written a poem about his relationship with his twin. “My best mate before I ever knew I had one,” reads the first line.

 

Jacqui Gatfield-Jeffries, a fraternal twin, tells me that she considers her twin her best friend, but “[a]bove that, [my twin is] a person that I feel fully safe with and can be entirely myself.”

 

Meg Gavigan is very close to her twin sister. “When we were younger, we lost our mum, so ever since that we were forced to rely on each other,” Meg says. They both study the same degree—Commerce—and are in all the same classes. From sharing a room at boarding school to flatting together now, Meg and Lucy have always been inseparable. But that doesn’t necessarily translate to friendship. “I don’t consider her as a friend, I just do everything with her.”

 

When Meg has problems, she doesn’t share them with her twin. Instead, for the kind of stuff that she wouldn’t tell her parents, she shares with other friends, not her twin. “I trust my friends more to keep [secrets] than her.” If she tells her twin, then word might get around to her twin’s boyfriend and his friends.

 

Marc Wilson, a psychology professor at VUW, says these relationships can be understood through attachment theory. “Indeed, from about three years old, twins are more likely to use their sibling as an attachment figure than non-twinned siblings, and the nature of attachment development appears different [for twins].”

 

For me, the best part of being a twin is that there is someone who is willing to put up with my endless inanity. I trust Shar to care about the minutiae of my life, the fragmentary thoughts and peculiar plans. I can rehash conversations with her, tell her about ridiculous dreams, and make references without having to explain myself.

 

I am also dependent on Shar, in ways that I realise much more when we are apart. I trust her so totally, that I sometimes feel like I can only understand myself when I’m around her; that other friends may not want to hear about me as much as she does. I don’t know how much of that is being a twin, and how much of it is who I am—the two are impossible to separate—but my identity as a twin is utterly integral to who I am and who I am becoming, and writing this has shown me that I am not alone.

 

Jenny Argyle, a twin who is studying for a Master of Education at Vic, says “you don’t feel like you have to make as much effort with other people, especially if something goes wrong, because you have someone to fall back on. And that person is going to be doing things you want to do, while most of the time saying the things you want to hear.”  Like Jenny, always having Shar means that I am disincentivised to resolve problems in my friendships; slow to be vulnerable with those with whom I didn’t share a womb.

 

Zach Williams, a twin double-majoring in Computer and Information Systems, trusts his brother implicitly. He isn’t as good at asking for help from others. “I find it really difficult [to reach out for help from other students]. Do I trust what you’re giving me?… I’ve known you for two years, but can I trust your opinion?”

 

On the flip side, most twins see separation as a way to challenge that codependency. The disentangling is inevitable: sooner or later, you can’t do everything together. Most of the twins I spoke to who no longer lived with their twins said that space from each other had been good for them.

 

Being interchangeable can be a struggle for twins, and they work to differentiate themselves. Marc Wilson says that “one of the challenges for anybody is to develop a sense of independent self, the line where you begin and others end, and it’s not unreasonable to think this could be compromised when any child is made to feel interchangeable, or treated as inseparable from someone else.” As a twin, you know who you are, but your identity forms in relationship to someone else—cemented by constant comparison from others.  

 

These sharp edges of comparison can often be a downside. For Zach, this manifested academically and beyond. “My mum used to say that we were in heated competition as friends and as brothers.” He competed with his twin over scholarships to university, school awards, and video games. Now they compare how much university work they have to do, and Zach says that his brother (who studies Mechatronic Engineering) always tells him that, with a double science degree, Zach has nothing to complain about. Competition can be a constant. Ironically, though they live apart, playing video games now helps keep them connected.

 

Sarah Harvey, a triplet who has an identical sister and a brother who was born at the same time, finds that comparison is the most painful aspect of being a twin. She says comparisons are “always negative! Like saying one’s fatter than the other, one’s better looking, and so on.”

 

Moving beyond comparison takes time and energy, but that’s what friends are for. Meg Gavigan says that her friends see her as an individual, not a twin. “People say they don’t even consider us twins anymore because we have different personalities, and once you get to know us, we look different.”

 

Interchangeability can be fun, of course—I (and several other twins I spoke to) have tried, on occasion, to swap places with our twins. But as Wilson points out, it can also alter your sense of self. When she was younger, Jenny felt that she was on the “Jenny and Rosie Show”. Because she looks similar to her sister, she often finds that relationships stumble when people think they’ve been ignored by her—when it was actually her sister they saw. I, too, often felt like Shar and I were lumped together; that acquaintances wouldn’t take the time to learn that I speak fast, and Shar is more susceptible to peer pressure.

 

And sometimes the grouping becomes meta—twins are lumped together with other twins. When I was around 12, a guidance counsellor with too much time on her hands decided to convene a Twins Club for the six sets of twins at our school. We filtered into a classroom after school and drank mango tang, and were asked to discuss what it was like to be a twin, draw pictures about our feelings about being a twin, talk about our differences and similarities. At the end of about six weeks, we ate pizza from cardboard boxes and watched The Parent Trap together.

 

While this was well-intentioned, I wonder if it further reinforced the idea that as twins, we were different to everyone else. For what it’s worth, by the end of high school six years later, I wasn’t particularly close to any of the other members of the Twins Club.

 

As part of the work of differentiation, it’s important for twins to have both mutual and separate friends. Tau said that “although I don’t mind having the same mates as my twin, I definitely have my own who are different in thinking and speaking and give me more to see in the world.”

 

Zach has found that since separating from his twin and their mutual friend group, he has developed his own set of friends, but it took time and energy—more than he was expecting. “For the first four or five months, I didn’t have any friends in Wellington… I feel like I’m a very social person, but it didn’t bother me.” He would call his parents, his partner, and his brother, and that was enough.

 

While Isabelle McNeur, a fraternal twin who studies creative writing and English literature, thinks it’s important for her friends to know her twin, she sometimes felt possessive over her friends, especially as she went to a different high school. “I would get a friend and then they’d come over and Evid [her twin] would chat to them and I would be like, ‘Stop taking my friends!’”

 

Friends are not possessions, but with twins, things can get tangly: questions of ownership and identity, comparison and differentiation, feeling both reluctant and glad, are themes that loop again and again in conversations about and with twins.

 

In this spirit of sharing, I interviewed my sister for this article, because I thought that she deserved a voice in this piece.

 

I asked her, my best friend, why we decided to separate—a decision that haunts me every day. Whenever I talk to her on the phone, I wonder if I should just say ‘screw it’ and move to Otago. I want to live next door to her in the future, and I worry that by going to different unis and pursuing different degrees, we’ve shifted our trajectories so there is no chance of that ever happening.

Shar said that we knew we were going to separate. Our mutual conviction to go to different universities catalysed that inevitability. And we’ve made lives apart, but they are lives peppered by frequent texts and phone calls and visits as often as we can manage. Maybe most families do this, call it growing up—but with twins, it is that much more acute, the threads we tie around each other pulled and stretched and warped, but never released.

 

Once, Shar told me, “I felt like I didn’t need anyone else, because I had you.” Now she has “very great friends, but it’s just a different relationship.” We are learning to live apart, accept that relationships with other people will never look like what we are to each other. Without a twin, I might have had different friendships—but without a twin, I would only have known one kind of friendship.

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