In working with patients and in reflecting on the special relationship I had with my identical twin brother, I’ve thought a lot about how people yearn for symbiotic relationships. Without realizing that total symbiotic relationships are a fantasy – whether with a romantic partner, a parent with a child, friendships or others – people enter relationships with the unconscious need to be completely known and understood. When there is a break in the symbiotic fantasy – when one feels the other does not understand, expresses anger, criticizes or functions differently – the shock of separateness can cause a primal rupture that threatens the relationship and evokes feelings of insecurity and instability.
Symbiotic rupture is most frequent and most threatening between romantic partners and between parents and children. The unconscious yearning to have partners and children be a reflection of ourselves is very powerful. We fall in love, have children, and create close friendships with the desire that we will merge with the object of our affection and be safe from our innate aloneness. When this merging is threatened, we feel rejected or confused and judged. Instead of the beauty of the other’s differences, we feel the loss of the other’s sameness and protection from isolation. Instead of celebrating and learning from the other, we experience the pain of separateness. This pain threatens feelings of having found “our other half” or our children being a reflection of us.
Being an identical twin gave me the primal experience of near complete symbiosis with another person. Not only were we a merged unit from before birth – albeit also two separate individuals – we looked very much alive and sounded almost identical. It seemed natural for me to go out into the world expecting the same symbiosis in my relationships with others. It was with a lot of difficulty that I learned that the kind of relationship I had with my brother could not be repeated with others – whether partners, friends, or children.
This window into the special merging experienced in my twin relationship illuminates the yearning and desire of those I work with in my practice. Through my own acceptance of the limitations of relationships other than the one I had with my brother, I help my patients work with the pain of not being able to fulfill the unattainable fantasy of total merging with others.
Intimacy between two people does not evolve from having the other be one’s own reflection. Rather, intimacy grows because of the excitement and discovery of the other’s differences. Working through differences that are both complimentary and challenging deepens the bond and the intimacy we crave with others.