Most people would bristle at the thought of sharing a birthday card or receiving a joint gift. Ditto co-ordinated leopard and zebra festival outfits, or matching space buns. But for my identical twin sister and I – frequently referred to as the singular collective “The Twins” – doing things together is a way of life.
I’ve long relished the unity and security that twinship offers. In my twenties, especially, I came to think of it as armour against the onslaughts of life – break-ups, friendship dramas, then, later, unsteady jobs. From our teenage years spent traipsing the heady streets of Beirut, to afterparties back in our London pad, to hunting down the best crab bao buns in Lisbon, our twinship has been a constant source of comfort. And, while our bond has always invited bemused and inquisitive looks from bystanders, to me, it’s entirely unsurprising that identical twins tend to have closer relationships than those between other siblings.
It’s equally unsurprising that a Danish study found that twins are less likely to get married than non-twins. As twins have a partner from birth, the study suggests that they may not have the same desire for marriage as singletons. I can attest to this; for most of my twenties, I’d been in relationships that were somewhat half-hearted affairs. I couldn’t conjure the same connection I had with my twin sister, and I’d quickly become frustrated if a boyfriend couldn’t understand me the way my twin did – after all, we had decades on them.
Popular culture and literature exacerbated the notion that twins are a monolith without the nuances of separate lives. Rarely do twins’ lives diverge – and if they did, as was the case with Phoebe and her twin Ursula in Friends, for instance, it was portrayed as an anomaly. I grew up on a diet of Sweet Valley High, The Parent Trap and Double Act, where even if the pair were wildly different in both personality and style – as my twin and I often were – there was the implied suggestion that no life event – be it separate schools, universities or boyfriends – could lead to twins being forced to diverge.
All this is to say that, when I got engaged to my boyfriend James last year, myriad emotions were triggered: elation, surprise – but also loss. My impending wedding seemed to suggest that I was moving on with an entirely separate and distinct life from Salma. Even though the rational part of me knew it wouldn’t jeopardise our twinship, I felt like I was somehow sacrificing something of my closeness with my sister.
It’s not like we haven’t ever been separated. At 18, we headed off to opposite ends of the country to attend different universities, her in Sheffield, me in Kent. Later, I studied abroad in Miami and, two years ago, lived in Dubai for a short stint. We’ve both been in long-term relationships, too, and it’s never caused an issue. Still, this time around feels more significant.
“As we know from family dynamic research, every individual change in a person’s life is going to impact the entire family system. This is particularly true for twins,” says Dr Avidan Milevsky, author of Sibling Issues in Therapy and associate professor of psychology at Ariel University. He argues that it is “practically impossible” for twins to continue an identical relationship after marriage, and that feelings of loss are inevitable. “Considering that marriage is one of the great lifespan transitions, all these feelings are clearly going to come up to the surface during this time of transition.”
There are some deep-set identity issues bound up in this too. As a British Muslim, I’ve often been asked whether these two identities can ever be compatible. Equally, as someone who is ethnically ambiguous, my Britishness is called into question so often that I can pre-empt the perennially exhausting, “Where are you from?” with a quick reply. As a twin, nobody questioned whether I belonged or fit into this dynamic. Instead, my only concern was how best to respond to the inevitable, “Are you twins?”. Perhaps the fact that the one identity I felt was so fixed and immovable was being threatened by my upcoming wedding was behind these worries, too.
My fiancée James has been surprisingly understanding about my emotional turmoil – perhaps because he’s a twin himself. He understood from the beginning that my bond with my sister wasn’t something to feel threatened by, unlike other boyfriends. When we got engaged, it transpired that he’d already spoken to Salma separately, to reassure her that our relationship as sisters won’t ever change.
Dr Milevsky is adamant that our relationship as twins could even improve after I get married. “The quantity of time spent together may change, but it does not mean that the relationship has to become weaker – it could become even more emotionally connected,” he says. I think back to when we separated at university, and we perfected the art of cramming a day’s worth of anecdotes into a dedicated time slot, and email threads so long they could have rivalled a Vikram Seth novel. Deep down, I know that our twinship can survive beyond living in each other’s pockets.
That said, we’re long overdue an honest and realistic portrayal of twins – and one that mirrors the direction my life is heading in. So, it’s refreshing then that in recent months, literature has been reflecting the realities of what happens when twins diverge. Take A Saint From Texas by Edmund White. Set in the 1950s, it follows two 14-year-olds who are “identical in body alone”, who as the decades unfold, leave their East Texas home, with one twin ascending to the highest ranks of Parisian society while the other dedicates herself to a lifetime of worship in Colombia. Meanwhile Sisters, by Daisy Johnson, explores the changing bond between twins July and September as they move to unsettling surroundings in Suffolk. And Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half is perhaps the most refreshing portrayal of twinship in adulthood – when twins diverge and take different paths, it’s not easy to replicate what was once the strongest bond.
They’ve helped me to realise that my identities as a twin and as a wife can – and will – work in tandem. No matter where the next stage of my life takes me, I know that no relationship will threaten my bond with Salma.
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