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The Caretaker Twin And The Cared-For Twin

by Dr. Joan A. Friedman

When Does the Caretaking Twin Call It Quits?

Those of you who follow my blog are familiar with the caretaker and cared-for dynamic within twinships. Essentially, one twin assumes the role of looking after the other—either consciously or unconsciously. This behavior can emerge organically or be influenced by parental expectations. I have been so fortunate to work with twins of all ages who seek my guidance when this dynamic is disrupted.

Many caretaking twins simply become overwhelmed by their sibling’s demands. The caretaker begins to feel bitter and angry about the years she has spent putting her twin’s needs and feelings ahead of her own desires. She experiences accumulated feelings of resentment about the lack of reciprocity or appreciation. She wants to pull back or flee.

However, at the same time, she feels a compulsion to satisfy her twin’s demands because the thought of abandoning her charge is unfathomable. While her caretaking role may be exhausting, she covets a connection with her sibling and struggles with change. The caretaking twin suffers tremendous emotional angst as she attempts to define a new normal for herself. The biggest hurdle seems to be her guilt about fulfilling a moral obligation. How can she justify taking care of herself at the risk of hurting her twin?

The cared-for twin is less prevalent in the therapeutic milieu; nonetheless, when she does seek advice, she complains that her sibling is controlling and dominating. The caretaking twin refuses to recognize that she is no longer needed in some fundamental ways. She is reluctant to relinquish her pseudoparental position. The cared-for sister attempts to tell her twin that she no longer wants to feel dependent or second rate. She loves her sibling but wants to be recognized for her independence and growth rather than reproached for appearing ungrateful or manipulative.

Either way, a systematic shift occurs in the twin relationship. Understandably, a rift may emerge until both siblings can adjust to the new parameters with mutual understanding and an acceptance of each other’s position. As those of us who have worked through these conflicts can attest, we do not stop feeling empathy for our twin. Rather, our compassion for and overidentification with our twin does not inhibit our own capacity to feel joy about our own lives.

Dr. Joan A. Friedman

Dr. Joan A. Friedman is a prominent and well-respected twin expert who shares her passionate views and insights about twins and their emotional needs with twins and their families throughout the world. The fact that she is an identical twin and the mother of five, including fraternal twin sons, makes her ideally suited to this task. Her commitment to twin research and her treatment of twins of all ages demonstrate the breadth and depth of her skills and experience. She conducts groups for parents of twins and provides consultation about twin-related matters such as school placements, developmental discrepancies, behavioral issues, and individuation struggles. She also offers individual telephone and online consultation and therapy sessions.

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