How Childhood Trauma Affects Twins in Their Adulthood

TILTING AT WINDMILLS

Many psychotherapists feel disheartened and discouraged when treating a couple who appears to be unable to reestablish trust and stability. And so it goes, as well, with some twin pairs who struggle to get their relationship back on track. It requires a tremendous amount of effort, dedication, and commitment to work through upsetting events and traumatic feelings.

I am working with a pair of identical female twins in their mid-fifties to facilitate their capacity to listen to one another and attempt to rekindle their connection. Since their mother died a year ago, both recognize and acknowledge that the only family they have left is each other. Feeling desperate about their inability to get along and recognize the other as a separate person, they contacted me for help. A multifaceted number of variables has hindered the evolution of their relationship for many years.

Both women have diametrically opposing personalities, which is one of many factors contributing to their lack of connection. Sally is outspoken, energetic, fast-paced, and extroverted. Her sister Serena is methodical, low keyed, shy, and orderly. When Serena gets upset by something that her sister says or does, she shuts down completely. She becomes anxious when she hears Sally express frustration, anger, or impatience; consequently, she cannot respond to Sally’s feelings in any meaningful way. Serena shared that it took her two years to muster up the courage to tell Sally that she hated visiting her apartment because it was so messy and unkempt.

Sally, on the other hand, is mystified by why Serena cannot respond to her feelings at all. Since Sally believes that she puts her feelings out there in a clear and concise manner, she becomes emotionally distraught about Serena’s inability to take care of her in these moments. Sally is also triggered into a panic state when Serena thwarts her efforts to be Serena’s emotional caretaker. Sally played this role throughout their lives and feels stripped of her function and duty when Serena rejects her offers of advice and counsel. Telephone conversations end up being empty and meaningless because Serena’s need for quiet self-reflection and passive responses leave Sally feeling empty, alone, and abandoned. 

Both women endured tremendous emotional and physical trauma growing up. As a consequence, Sally has adopted a persona who comes across as dogmatic, controlling, and powerful. Serena, on the other hand, says that she never felt heard or recognized in her family because Sally was the stronger twin. As a result, Serena is reluctant to assert herself in any real way when her sister is involved. She reverts back to her childhood, feeling isolated and alone in her attempts to handle overwhelming fears. It is tragic that sisters longing to feel safe and loved by the other are paralyzed by old defensive patterns. Both are understandably too fearful of changing or trusting the other, hiding their vulnerability behind these childhood roles. Their interpersonal difficulties spill over onto other relationships outside of their twin connection. Both look for friends who can mirror exactly what they need to feel safe and recognized.

Our goal will be to tackle the traumatic childhood experiences that continue to drive a wedge between the sisters and hopefully establish a safe emotional place for each of them. If they can agree to disagree and find a place of mutual recognition, each will be able to work through their emotional distress—Sally allowing Serena to be herself and Serena learning how to manage Sally’s wrath without fear of incrimination or retaliation.

I have titled this piece “Tilting at Windmills” out of a desire to show that many of us, not just twins, deplete ourselves emotionally by fighting off outdated psychic demons that are no longer pursuing us. Psychoanalytic psychotherapy enables the patient to understand the developmental root causes of presenting issues and work toward a healthier resolution in the future.

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