Often, in a relationship, we risk losing ‘I’ and becoming ‘we,’ as we adopt each other’s behaviors. But what happens when you look like you could be your parter’s twin? Tatum Dooley writes from experience.
The myth of Narcissus goes something like this: equally beautiful and vain, Narcissus rejects love from everybody who worships him. One day, he catches a glimpse of his own reflection in a pool of water and is smitten, unable to tear himself away from his own image. He gazes at himself until he eventually grows old and dies. Narcissus, the OG narcissist.
In my bathroom the mirrors are placed at right-angles, working to double me, and, like Narcissus, I stand in front of them, looking at new versions of myself. When I’m not looking at myself, I’m looking at my boyfriend, another form of looking in the mirror. We share so many of the same traits that a chorus of family, friends, and strangers subject us to the refrain: you look like twins. I can’t think of a good response, so I just reply: I know.
The similarities in our appearance come down to being the same size, having the same hair color and sometimes style, similar eyes. This likeness announces to the world that what we find ourselves attractive, that we, like Narcissus, like looking at our own reflection. People remark on our twinness either with amusement and fascination, or disgust: telling two lovers that they look like twins drips with eroticism, it implies the ultimate taboo of sleeping with your sibling.
Bernardo Bertolucci’s 2003 film The Dreamers is one of the only films I watch over and over again. During the 1968 Paris student riots, a pair of twins take an American student under their wing, inviting him to stay with them. In their apartment, the twins engage in a cat and mouse game of jealousy and tension, cumulating in all three—the twins, and the American—partaking in a menage a trois.
In one scene all three bathe in a claw foot bathtub, their faces reflected in a triple-paned mirror. Their limbs are intertwined in the organic way that only siblings legs and arms can be. Their faces are all so similar that it could be a replica of the same person, sharing enough of the same traits that they don’t look in the mirror, they just look at each other.
When people comment on the physical twinning of me and my partner, sometimes I deflect to this film. Doing this is a wink: it tells them I know what they’re suggesting, and then shocks them by agreeing with it. But sleeping with your twin—someone who looks so much like you—can just be another form of sleeping with yourself.
All images from The Dreamers
Rather than a fascination with the physical qualities of our likeness, I worry about the psychological twinning that can happen in a relationship.
In German folklore, doppelgängers – the archetype of the double – were frequently bad omens; if a character encounters their doppelgänger, their life is in danger. This ominous sense of the uncanny rings true in my experience. Dating someone that closely resembles you physically sometimes results in an expectation that they will also mirror you emotionally. Believing that somehow our similarities extend beyond the physical means I’m always let down when he doesn’t act in the way I would have. Perhaps dating your doppelgänger doesn’t herald physical death, so much as the death of the relationship – as in German folklore, one cannot know one’s double. Holding your partner to the impossible standard of always behaving in exactly the way you want is both unreasonable and narcissistic.
Which begs the question: how much of being in love with someone is becoming them? Am I dating him because he’s similar to me, or have we been together so long that I’ve adopted not only his image, but his interests as my own?
A central premise of Ingmar Bergman’s film Persona is the blurring of two identities. The story follows two women—one mute and one overflowing with speech – as, isolated from the rest of society, their personas begin to merge. Alma is a nurse charged with accompanying the actress Elisabet – who has suddenly gone mute – to an island retreat. As the film progresses, Alma finds it harder to differentiate herself from Elisabet, while similarly losing touch with the boundaries between reality and fantasy.
The myth of Echo runs parallel to that of Narcissus. Echo is a mountain nymph cursed to repeat only the ends of sentences she overhears. She falls in love with Narcissus, who rejects her. As with all myths, there are multiple potential interpretations.. Echo as the girlfriend who assimilates herself and becomes a replica of the person she’s with, or as Kate Zambreno elaborates poetically in Heroines:
Echo. Another myth of voice and silence. She is supposed to be in love with Narcissus, but really she’s mesmerized by the sound of her own voice. One version writes that she becomes a ghost, invisible, yet still speaking.
Echo as another version of Narcissus, in love with herself. It is often assumed, maybe because of the close physical similarities, but also because I’m a woman, that I am the Echo who repeats; that I have assimilated my own image – physical and intellectual – into his. In reality, I’m closer to the Echo that Zambreno writes, mesmerized by the sound of my own voice.
Mirroring a romantic partner’s thoughts rhymes with mirroring their image: not the same, but working in tandem, as a kind of echo. Romance entails a certain closeness, a folding into each other through conversation, secrets, ideas, bodies. This blurring into each other transcends the physical and becomes intellectual, I no longer know whose ideas are whose—interrelationship plagiarism, or a blending of minds? In his essay “Tristes Tropiques,” Hilton Als muses on the concept of twinning:
The truth is, I have not been myself lately, and for a long time. In the three decades or more since Sir or Lady—or SL—and I have been friends, I have felt myself becoming him, to a certain extent. I’ve adopted his vocal intonations, his vegetarianism, and his candor. He is my second but longer-running we.
The concept of becoming ‘we’ that Als explores does more than link two people grammatically, it links them metaphysically. Becoming like the person you are with is expected; when you love someone you can start to love what they do by default. But is there a risk in losing the ‘you’ when becoming a ‘we’?
Our twinning has confused the line of where I end, and he begins. It seems like this possibility – and its adjacent fear – is amplified when you resemble your lover. The assumption others make is not so much that we are the same, but that I have shifted my own passions to more align with his. The fact that it’s never assumed his interests are based off mine is sexisim at play: the notion that a women morphs herself into her partner’s desires. I am constantly defending that my interests out-age my relationship, that I’m my own person, despite the twinning—physical and intellectual—with my partner.
Tatum Dooley is a writer living in Toronto.