The Truth About Twins

Twin deceptions aside, being a twin is an interesting and complicated experience.

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If you’re not a twin, it’s easy to make assumptions about what twins’ lives might be like.

We’ve all heard stories about “twintuition” and the old “twin switcheroo,” and, sure, some of those stories are backed up by reality—a mother of twins, Blair Brodie Resare was quick to share just how devious her 2-year-olds can be. “My twins are crazy crafty. They are only two-and-a-half and have recently been tricking people to believe one is the other,” she says. “I firmly believe identical twins would be able to pull off anything they set their mind to as far as deception goes. Even this little, their minds work together to formulate crazy ideas and plans, with limited communication.” Of course, as fun as these anecdotes might be, focusing on them too much can put twins in a box, and at worst, proliferate misconceptions. For instance, many people still believe in twin telepathy, even though, according to Live Science, research has yet to back up the assumption that twins know what the other is thinking. Life as a twin is incredibly special, but it’s also complicated—there’s much more to being a twin than playing elaborate tricks on the people around you or dressing in matching outfits.

First, twins aren’t as rare as you might think.

In fact, twins are becoming more common over time. In 1975, twins accounted for 9.5 of every 1,000 births in America, and by 2011, that number increased to 16.9 out of every 1,000 births, according research published in the Population and Development Review. Just three years later, in 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention observed a record number of American twins being born, with 33.9 births out of every 1,000 being twins. Why are twin births increasing over time? Researchers believe there are a two big factors at play, the research in Population and Development Review says. Firstly, more births are the result of medically assisted reproduction, like in vitro fertilization; medically assisted reproduction increases the likelihood of a multiple pregnancy. Secondly, more women are waiting longer to give birth, and twins are more likely if the mother is considered to be of advanced maternal age.

Growing up as a twin is complicated.

Twins have an inevitably special connection—they’ve spent a lot of time together, after all. Unfortunately for many twins, misguided early education practices in schools in the United States have made growing up as a twin perhaps more complicated than it needs to be. For some twins, the transition to school can be difficult, especially if their school has adopted the practice of splitting them up. Many schools observe this practice, according to twin research published in the journal Educational Policy, but this practice might do more harm than good. According to this research, school administrations have a tendency to hold false stereotypes about twins and are more likely to believe twins should be in different classes in kindergarten to avoid an unhealthy attachment to one another, but they’re actually wrong. There isn’t proof that separating twins is beneficial, which leaves some parents (and twins!) fighting for what is best. For some twins, this means a rocky start to school when the security of having their twin nearby is stripped away. Of course, not all twins are better off in the same classroom, but it seems that this might be a decision better left to the people who know them best—their parents.

The pressure is real.

The way most people think about twins actually creates pressure for the twins themselves. Twins are expected to be close and to have a unique connection with each other, and they often do. But not all twins get along and those that don’t struggle to be honest about their feelings, according to Dr. Joan A. Friedman, a psychotherapist and author specializing in twin research and therapy.

“Twins have a hard time enjoying their own success or their own happiness if their twin isn’t having the same success or the same happiness at the same time.”

“If they don’t get along with their twin, they’re made to feel bad or strange or wrong for feeling that way and parents often feel that they’re failures when twins don’t get along,” she says. “There just doesn’t seem to be a lot of understanding, room, or space for recognizing that there are good reasons why twins, as they grow up, might not get along.” While reasons for a twin rivalry can vary, one common cause is competition. Twins are often compared to one another and put in a spot to compete for the attention of their parents, which can breed competition between twin siblings, according to Family Education.

Individual success comes at a cost.

Of course, being a twin in no way guarantees similarities across all aspects of life; many twins have vast differences in abilities, interests, and personalities. Unfortunately for many twins, it can be difficult when one experiences success while the other struggles, according to Friedman. “Twins have a hard time enjoying their own success or their own happiness if their twin isn’t having the same success or the same happiness at the same time,” she notes. “Because they’ve grown up in tandem and have experienced or expected that life is going to be equal for each one of them for so much of the time, when they’re faced with life’s normal inequalities, they’re not prepared to handle them.” On her blog, Talk About Twins, author and mother of twins Barbara Baglivi Tinglof discusses how differences at a young age can be challenging for twins and their parents. Allowing one twin to explore their gifts without making the other feel ashamed for not experiencing the same success is typically a challenge, she says. For twins navigating big differences between them, the tendency from parents and teachers to make comparisons between the two only makes matters worse.

They eventually hit a fork in the road.

Growing up, twins share much of their lives. They share the womb, they share a room, they share a classroom, and they might even share friends. As their high school career draws to a close, many twins choose separate paths. They then face a rocky transition to living adult lives separately from one another, says Friedman. In her article for The Odyssey Online, twin Julianna McDowell shares her experience with this in her article “The Struggles and Benefits of Having a Twin in College.” At some point in high school, she and her sister, Mirabella, decided to apply to different colleges. McDowell describes near constant homesickness since separating from her twin but she also describes a unique sense of freedom that she hasn’t experience until now. “I’ve been forced to shed the dependence on her that I had comfortably cocooned myself in for much of my life, and without it I have found, as she has too, a new sense of self. And although I know she is always just a phone call, text, or train ride away, my life on my own without her has finally begun to feel like just that; my life.”

The truth about marrying twins.

New relationships for twins, especially romantic ones, can present unique challenges for twins. After sharing an intense bond for their entire life, marriage can be difficult for twins who might not have experience developing intimacy with others.

“We’ve learned that it’s important to have our own interests and pursuits.”

In her blog, Dr. Barbara Klein, school placement and parenting coach and a national authority on twins, explains some of the the factors that make romantic relationships such a struggle for twins. Twins may begin their search for romance with unrealistic expectations, searching for someone to replace the connection they feel with their twin, she says. At the same time, twins often do not have the experience building relationships “from scratch” because they have always been able to rely on the presence of their twin.

Tracy Cochran is a writer and the editorial director of Parabola Magazine who teaches mindfulness meditation at the Rubin Museum of Art and throughout the New York Metropolitan area. She is also a fraternal twin married to an identical twin. She says that they have been able to cultivate a strong relationship, even as co-workers, but that her marriage has faced challenges unique to being a twin. She shares that she and her husband have noticed that the competition unique to twins can easily sneak its way into their marriage. “Being a twin married to a twin is also double-edged. Twins are able to ‘twin’ with others, to mirror and to relate to them—at least I’ve been told this is true,” she says. “My husband and I work together, co-editing Parabola Magazine … [but] over the years we’ve had to work out a marriage where we don’t kind of compete for the same space. In other words, we’ve learned that it’s important to have our own interests and pursuits.” Friedman has often experienced this in a clinical setting, sharing that she speaks with clients who are twins and whose spouse has developed intense jealousy of their twin. In some cases, the non-twin spouse may even ask the twin to sever communication with their twin because they cannot accept the connection the two share.

Twins in Science

Being genetically identical, twins provide a unique advantage in collecting data on everything from mental health to the age old argument of nature or nurture, according to Smithsonian Magazine. (Francis Galton, the first scientist to recognize just how valuable studying twins could be, actually coined the phrase “nature versus nurture” himself.) Sharing an identical set of genes allows scientists to study the differences they possess and draw conclusions about environmental factors that may have caused these differences. This can help researchers study, for instance, why two people who share the same genes choose such different lives or why one develops a mental health disorder while the other does not.