Relinquishment as a Critica Variable in the Treatment of Adoptees

Ronald Nydam. Handbook of Adoption: Implications for Researchers, Practitioners, and Families. Editor: Rafael A Javier. Sage Publications. 2007.

Strictly speaking, this chapter is not about adoption. If we take adoption in a narrower sense to refer specifically to the formation of a nurturing relationship between a relinquished infant or young child and (new) adoptive parents, then the focus of this chapter is not on the subject of adoption. Rather, the concern of these pages has to do with relinquishment—the break in the primary bond between an infant or child and his or her parents of birth and the manner in which this rupture in first attachments informs and sometimes influences psychological development. The first point to be made here is that relinquishment and adoption are different; each needs its own focus for us to understand adoptive development. To properly appreciate each, they must be carefully separated in theory and language. Furthermore, they are not only judicial moments in time when legal transactions occur with regard to ending parenting with one couple and beginning parenting with another; they are also wisely thought of as lifelong processes of development that inform and sometimes affect each other in a complicated fashion. The early narcissistic injury of relinquishment, if indeed it is that, may set in motion a variety of defenses that adoptees may use to protect themselves (Lifton, 1979, chap. 9)—dynamics that this chapter intends to explore. To the extent that language both explains and hides things from our awareness, it is interesting to note that today relinquishment is subsumed under the term adoption. For example, it is sometimes said that “adopted children have problems” when it might better be stated that “relinquished children have problems,” bringing light to bear on the real issue at hand for most adoptees, namely, the injury of beginning life by way of separation from one's parents of birth. Accordingly, in this chapter, as awkward as the language may appear, adoptees will always be referenced as relinquished and adopted persons.

Historically, in American culture, relinquishment has been accompanied by secrecy, deceit, and shame. It might be said that one of the major problems with the manner in which society has dealt with relinquishment is that relinquishment is related so directly with sexual shame. Unplanned pregnancy has, until recent times, been accompanied by significant guilt about illicit behavior and shame about oneself. For most of the 20th century, the punishment for getting pregnant in Anglo-America was relinquishment, that is, giving “up” the child to adoption. Many birth mothers who relinquished their infants within the closed adoption system of the past 50 to 60 years report that they in fact “surrendered” their children to a social system that demanded relinquishment to avoid the guilt and shame of unplanned pregnancy. Single White mothers were seldom given the opportunity or the family and social support needed to parent their children. Relinquishment was seen as the wisest way to deal with unplanned births. Such “shame-based” decision making served to protect birth mothers (and birth fathers too, although they were seldom seen as participants in anything beyond conception) as well as their families from the stigma of illegitimacy. Accordingly, pregnant young women were “sent away” to maternity homes with names like “The Home of Redeeming Love,” which most often fell far short of the meaning of their names (Solinger, 1992). In some instances, pseudonyms were given to these women to maintain secrecy of identity. Birth mothers who resisted signing relinquishment papers were sometimes drugged into doing so. When children were adopted they were given “new” amended birth certificates that (dishonestly) recorded adoptive parents as parents of birth and, in so doing, in some communities removed the ink of judgment, the words “bastard child” stamped on the original birth certificate. The secrets of conception needed to be kept.

Although such behavior may appear unprofessional and unethical today, it must be understood that in a different historical era, these practices were seen as helpful and, therefore, useful things to do. The stigma attached to the illicit sexual behavior resulting in pregnancy was so great that secrecy and dishonesty were seen as necessary to avoid the shame of illicit sexual behavior. Within the last 15 to 20 years, the tide has turned with regard to the degree of guilt and shame about sexual behavior in American culture. With regard to domestic adoptions, varying degrees of openness in adoption practice are now the rule. Birth parents make the choices about placement in terms of selecting new parents for their children. Whereas infants and young children were once “put up” for adoption (on railroad crates when the orphan trains of 100 years ago arrived in town), today, adoptive parents are “put up” for adopting in portfolios that birth parents review (Graham & Gray, 1995). Because decisions about relinquishment are no longer primarily shame-based decisions, secrecy and deceit play much less of a role in current adoption practice. Nevertheless, for many adoptees, societal attitudes toward their conceptions have set in motion dynamics that diminish or deny the reality and the importance of the loss of the first two people in their lives. This chapter attends to this: You can't fix a problem if you say it's not there!

Necessary Mourning


Adoptive families are usually formed out of loss. All the triad members may be dealing with the injury of losing people of importance. Birth parents obviously lose their children, which sometimes leads to a paralyzing lifelong grieving for birth mothers who never “get on with their lives.” Adoptive parents who have struggled with infertility face very directly the loss of the children-by-birth for whom they wished for several years. Although adoption is not a solution to infertility in that a couple remains nonconceptive, adoption does build a family. But it is usually a family of people who are at times grieving, and they are sometimes sad and angry, especially the adoptees themselves.

A case illustration may make the point.

But what were these tears shed months later in my office? How might we understand them? Do these tears betray a less than healthy relation to her adoptive parents? Are they to be seen as evidence of nostalgic imagination of another life in Korea that should best be forgotten? Simply put, are they healthy or pathologic?

The question of grieving, even prenatally, has been in discussion for some time. The first sound that each of us as human beings ever heard was the sound of our mother's heartbeat, at about 24 weeks of prenatal life. Bonding of the fetus and attachment of the parent is thought by some (Verny, 1981) to occur before birth as the fetus hears the voices of others and responds to both calm and distress. It is argued that the emotional and physical well-being of the mother facilitates attachment to the baby before birth as well as after. The question has to do with the capacity of the “fetus-becoming-child” to be an “experiencing self,” who would then take note not only of a pleasing environment, but also react to distress and disengagement on the part of the birth mother. At birth and immediately afterward comes the possibility of a significant injury in terms of parental loss, to the degree that a neonate is bonded to heartbeat, voice, and person. The self of the infant is now thought to be in place much earlier in life than previously thought by people such as Mahler, Pine, and Bergman (1975) and Ainsworth and Wittig (1969). Daniel Stern (1985), for example, demonstrates how at as early as 3 days of age infants respond specifically to the scent of their own mother's breast milk (Stern, 1985, p. 39). How might relinquishment at such a tender age affect an infant? Nancy Verrier (1993) refers to this loss as a “primal wound,” and even the very young must manage to cohere in the face of such loss. She writes,

When the natural evolution [of birth mother and fetus bonding] is interrupted by a postnatal separation, the resultant experience of abandonment and loss is indelibly imprinted upon the unconscious mind of these children, causing that which I call the “primal wound.” (p. 1.)

Object-relations theorist Donald W. Winnicott (1957) calls this early loss and exchange of parents a certain “muddling” in the intersubjective space between mother and child, a developmental challenge that may be difficult for infants to negotiate. And again, you can't fix a problem if you say it's not there!

A second wave of grieving may occur when cognitive development moves beyond so-called concrete thinking to the capacity to conceptualize. A 3-year-old relinquished and adopted little girl was offered her first understanding of relinquishment when informed by her adoptive mother that she was grown in “another mummy's tummy” and then brought to her adoptive parents and that the other mother's name was Molly. After hearing this thoughtful explanation of her beginnings, she responded simply with, “Mom, Molly is the name of Gramma's horse!” The concept of a birth parent had not yet taken hold at age 3. But soon it would. Around ages 6 or 7 (for girls earlier than boys), relinquished and adopted children begin to figure out their birth stories, asking questions of interest, wanting to know more. Their curiosity is sometimes accompanied by sadness. With international adoptions, where “matching” with adoptive parents is obviously not a reality, curiosity and bewilderment may run higher.

Absorbing one's birth and relinquishment story, a tale sometimes told with moderate anxiety, is challenging, especially when adoptive parents communicate their own possible discomfort with the painful meanings of relinquishment and adoption. If conversation about relinquishment is laden with anxiety because of unresolved grief around infertility or of possible fear of birth parents returning and reclaiming a child, then children learn not to talk about these things, not to ask questions, and not to be innocently curious. And then the emotions of sadness and anger and fear and shame that surround such an important personal and developmental loss may submerge into less-than-conscious depths, outside the awareness of the relinquished child.

In adolescence, more grieving may occur; it often presents itself more as anger than sadness, but usually it has to do with further negotiations with self about loss. In what sometimes looks like an angry protest, a fiery demand that life be different, relinquished and adopted teens may register their struggle with the alternate, but so real, reality of adoption. To the degree that adolescence is about clarifying one's identity (Erikson, 1980), when pieces of the human puzzle of self are missing, there comes an understandable protest against the injustice and unfairness of relinquishment. The difficulty of constructing a clear sense of self is obviously more problematic when many unknowns about birth family, birth history, medical history, and cultural history remain hidden. In today's more open adoptions, certainly less is lost to view in terms of these histories, but losses, nevertheless, remain in terms of both fantasy and quiet attachment to birth parents. At some level, relinquishment exacts a price in the formation of self and, in a corresponding fashion, may elicit more mourning of the losses that occur. Relinquished teens may be lacking in the necessary healthy levels of self-esteem and sturdy sense of self required for continuing development. And “underneath” lingering depression or behavioral protest there may be tears of sadness yet to be cried, the tears that June cried when faced with the reality of parent loss.

With adulthood and its usual challenges, there may be yet another wave of mourning the loss of birth parents when certain experiences trigger grieving yet to be done. Medical histories that are absent or incomplete may remind the adult adoptee once again of both the difficulties and the injustices of relinquishment. With today's more open adoptions, less information and less of relation are lost, so less may need to be grieved, but many in the closed adoption system as well as the newer sizable population of international adoptees face significant lacunae in their medical histories. Some adoptees report that in the act of giving birth they have experienced a surprising wave of grieving the loss of their birth mothers. As aging continues and medical problems develop, relinquished persons are at a real disadvantage. With over 4,000 genetically related conditions existent, many adoptees are at considerable risk of knowing less than is necessary for early detection and adequate treatment of what may be life-threatening disorders. But more directly akin to the experience of mourning may be the exquisite sensitivity to rejection, what might be called “relinquishment sensitivity,” that adoptees sometimes face in the context of intimate relationships. For example, one 41-year-old client, relinquished and adopted at birth, found increasing difficulty maintaining closeness to his wife, especially when a new attraction turned his head toward a much younger colleague. In the course of his own psychotherapy, he came to the painful realization that he was truly seeking the love of his life that he had lost, some 40 years ago, the birth mother of his fantasies and dreams. With tears that had been carefully repressed for so many years, he cried, “Why didn't she love me?” in a therapeutic moment of the dawning of awareness of his grief.

Mourning the loss of loved ones, even ones lost at birth, may be one of the most important developmental challenges that relinquished persons face. It may be a lifelong echo, a song of sadness and irritation that needs careful management for an adoptee to become a healthy individual. Again, you can't fix a problem if you say it's not there. Up until the present time North American society has carefully hidden the injury of relinquishment from careful review. One thoughtful adult adoptee, after clarifying her own grief about the loss of her birth parents (who she searched for and found), made this comment: “I love my adoption, but I hate my relinquishment!” Because she was able to see the injury of losing her birth parents, she was able to grieve their loss. Teasing relinquishment and adoption apart from each other, and helping relinquished and adopted persons grieve the losses of relinquishment, helps them become well.

Case Study 1


June sat in my office with photos from a recent trip to Seoul, South Korea. There, at the offices of Holt Children's Services, she met her birth mother and half sister as well as others in her extended birth family. For the first time in 19 years since her relinquishment by parents unable to care for her, June was held by her weeping birth mother who could not help but express a litany of “I am sorry”s to her in reference to the decision to leave her at an orphanage. As June presented her album of digital photos to me, tears flowed freely, because now that she was back in the United States she missed these people. Two weeks of reunion were not enough. June had come for psychotherapeutc treatment some months before this trip to her homeland, complaining of low-grade depression, a dysthymic condition that had plagued her since leaving for college, which was a break in the good attachment that she had to her adoptive parents. (Another 22-year-old adoptee reported, “I was sad all my life; I just didn't know why.”) Once in college, she had felt the freedom to pursue this melancholy more directly, arranging a brief internship assignment in Seoul, hoping to search for her birth family. Her search was successful; reunion was a rich and painful experience.

Complicated Identity


Personal identity, one's inner sense of self, is initially a fluid psychological construct that solidifies with time and experience in a manner such that persons come to some clarity about the “me” that they have come to be. Identity formation is an ongoing process of self-definition and self-presentation that has to do with the ebb and flow of many variables, some that are relatively constant and some that are always changing. Relinquishment at birth, or as a young child, affects identity formation in a variety of ways. First of all, an adoptee must usually draw on four psychic representations of parents, not two, because indeed there are at least four people involved in the story of relinquishment and adoption. (When single parents adopt, the number is three.) Early adoption theorist Paul Brinich (1980) writes,

Every child uses a combination of personal experiences, cultural materials, and constitutional givens to create mental representations of himself and of people around him. These mental representations are organized into a “representational world” used by the child to predict the outcome of his interactions with people and with his world. Thus, the child's mental representations of himself and others influence his object relationships. The adopted child must include two sets of parents within his representational world. He must also integrate into his representation of himself the fact that he was born to one set of parents but has been raised by another set of parents. (p. 108)

An adoptee's sense of self develops out of this “split-life” experience of living betwixt and between what may be two different families, sometimes quite unknown to each other.

Identity formation usually has to do with the internalizations of primary caregivers that flow from attachment to those persons. For example, consider the delightful comment of the 3-year-old in Osh Kosh B'Gosh overalls who startled his father with an opened quart of oil held sideways in his hands. As he observed his father changing oil in an old Ford Maverick, he reported with great confidence, “I want to be an oilman like you, Dad.” We develop our sense of self by taking in the qualities and values and styles of those to whom we are most deeply attached in early development. For adoptees, it is sometimes the case that this is an especially difficult task.

Although identity formation may become a primary task in adolescence, as Erik Erikson (who learned at age 16 that he was adopted by his father … and renamed himself the son of himself) suggests (1980), the development of identity is an ongoing constructive process from the earliest days of life. A sense of belonging to parents is foundational for a sense of self. Some adoptees report that belonging has been a nearly lifelong struggle and that, within their adoptive families, they never experienced themselves fully as one of the family. When awareness dawns that there are other parents, “ghost parents,” who are both real and unreal in the experience of the child, then identity formation becomes more challenging. Relinquishment impinges as adoptees are usually left without the necessary building blocks of identity, especially when information is legally locked away in closed adoption files, or when relinquishment occurs in other countries where no records are available, or when infants are left at police stations or fire stations without record of parents. (In the past few years, nearly all the states in the United States have passed legislation in support of baby abandonment laws, which allow such practice.) How does one construct a sense of self when pieces of the puzzle of self are simply missing?

Constructing an identity is, for some adoptees, as much a matter of inventing oneself from creative imagination as of deep internalizations from caregivers. It should be no wonder that over the past several decades adolescent adoptees have been overrepresented in clinical populations (Fullerton, Goodrich, & Berman, 1986; Senior & Hamadi, 1985; Simon & Senturia, 1966; Tec, 1967; Toussieng, 1962; Weiss, 1985). They are often registering their angry protest against the injustices of relinquishment and its unfortunate results, specifically in terms of not knowing their birth parents and not knowing about them. Again, with today's more open domestic adoptions, the losses of personal relation and birth parent information may be lessening, but nevertheless the loss of closeness to birth parents extracts a price. (Identity formation is more difficult for the relinquished child. It is heartening to note that adoptees are not overrepresented in adult clinical populations, wherein the percentage of adoptees is exactly consistent with their presence in the general population, namely, an incidence of 2% [Brinich & Brinich, 1982].) Adoptees' struggles with identity in adolescence are best interpreted as an understandable reaction to one of the overwhelming challenges of their development.

However, adoptees not only often face gaps in their own birth narratives and birth parent history but also sometimes deal with information they do have or hold in fantasy that is negative. Brinich (1980) writes,

The tragedies, inabilities, and failures of both the biological and the adoptive parents are reflected in the adopted child and his psychological development. For the “realities” of the adult world mean little to the young child; the sudden death of loving biological parents may be experienced as a malicious abandonment; his adoptive parents may tell him that he is “chosen,” but he may choose to believe he was stolen. No matter how often the adopted child is told that his adoptive parents are now his “real” parents, he may never completely ignore his first parents and the fact that they gave him up. (p. 107)

This “twoness” of adoption is a fundamental reality that informs the way in which adoptees experience and think of themselves. For example, one relinquished and adopted adolescent who knew something of her beginnings reported in treatment that “I am just a broken condom,” giving voice to a negative sense of self as a child of accident of time, not intended, an unwished-for child, only optional at best. This negative internalization served to guide her own self-abusive behavior in word and in deed. When relinquished adolescents reflect on their birth parents in fantasy they sometimes create negative images of these abandoning figures—greasy-spoon waitresses, even prostitutes on unknown streets—in some attempt to explain to themselves why relinquishment or even termination of parental rights occurred. When such tragic fantasies are held in mind and heart by adoptees, their sense of self, their foundational identity, is experienced painfully. For example, one teenage adoptee took to the streets, rejecting the care and resources of his adoptive parents, smoking marijuana, and living with friends on the fly. In conversation about these choices, images came to mind of his own birth parents, wondering if that's exactly where and how they lived. When such negative, broken pictures of birth parents play a role in identity formation, it should be no wonder that constructing a positive identity with good self-regard becomes a difficult challenge. When, intentionally or inadvertently, birth parents are described by others in negative terms within the earshot of adoptees, those comments may serve in the unfortunate construction of a poor sense of self, a less-than-worthy human being. Again, relinquishment has its price.

As Brodzinsky, Schechter, and Henig (1992) suggest, “All adoptees engage in a search process” (p. 79), if only in their minds. Every adoptee does something with the reality of “ghost parents” out there somewhere. Efforts at search and reunion with one's birth parents within the closed or international adoption systems were at one time seen as indicative of poor attachment to one's adoptive parents, as if to suggest that were these parental connections stronger there would be no need for such curiosity. This is thought about differently today. For example, in the case of June, although search and reunion in Seoul led to tears of sadness with regard to loss, she also achieved something useful in terms of identity. She knew more about “who she was.” Her sense of “me” became more clearly defined. Adoptees consistently report that they feel “more complete” when reunion occurs, even if the reunion is a conflicted experience. They relate that as their curiosity about their birth narratives is satisfied, and the puzzle of their identities is better resolved, they have a stronger sense of who they are.

Identity is of interest in that once one's self-definition is firmly in place, it can be more or less “forgotten” as matters of intimacy, of empathic closeness to others, come to the fore. With one's identity established, the focus of living usually turns to others things, especially relationships. (Consider Erikson's stage development from “identity vs. role confusion” to “intimacy vs. isolation” [Erikson, 1980].) Unselfconsciousness might be seen as a mark of human maturity. However, with a sense of self not firmly in place, nagging self-doubt and insecurity may leave an adoptee more fearful of intimacy and less capable of the empathy that is the bedrock of healthy human relations. Accordingly, relinquished persons, whose identities may have been, in part, kept from them, or internalized with negative value, or else held in fantasy, may be at risk in terms of adequate self-definition. Naming, for example, is a very important concern for many adoptees. A Korean American adoptee named “Elizabeth Chin Chin” is given the opportunity to claim both parts of her international identity—more adequate self-definition. There's so much in a name!

Compromised Bonding and Limited Attachment


There is a part of every adoptee that can never be adopted. This has to do with what is forever connected to birth parents, namely one's genetic line and blueprint, one's birth narrative, one's birth culture, and what some might call one's spiritual bond (Nydam, 1999) with one's birth family. Accordingly, these losses from the experience of relinquishment of necessity compromise adoption, if by adoption we intend comprehensive substitute parenting. In this sense, adoption can never be complete. There is always a part of an adoptee that is connected in some way to his or her primal family; this is the “twoness,” the split-life nature of adoptive experience.

Strictly speaking, bonding is the term used to describe what a child does initially in forming a relationship with caregivers, and attachment is the term used to describe the activity of parents in connecting to their children—hence the phrase “bonding and attachment.” Today, attachment usually refers to the relationship between child and caregiver including both directions of care. In this mix of relational negotiations, adoptees sometime face a particular difficulty. The Catch-22 of adoptive development has to do with the manner in which managing the narcissistic injury of such loss and abandonment, even prenatally or at birth, may make comprehensive bonding to adoptive parents a formidable task. If relinquishment, as this chapter argues, is a primal wound to be reckoned with, then the infant's first environment is experienced as arbitrary, as less than trustworthy. The psychic energy needed to facilitate connection to (new) adoptive parents may be tied up in defense against further loss, less available for the needed nurture of parental affection. The heart of the adoptee, bruised by relinquishment, may not be entirely available for the emotional attachment that adoptive parents may very much seek to offer. That is to say, the disruption of relinquishment may result in a child's being less available to the very care needed for maturation. Put differently, the mirroring of adoptive parents that serves as the fuel for emotional development may not be readily accessible to the relinquished child; it may be constricted, compromised, by narcissistic injury and fear of further abandonment. The child, even at an early age, may be too fearful to take the risk of closeness. If the early experience of a child's world is less than trustworthy, that child's capacity for connection may then be compromised in such a way that adoptive parents may never be able to reach the heart of their adopted child with the care they offer. The Catch-22 is that adoptive parent care, so necessary for healthy emotional development, may not be sufficiently accessed by the relinquished child. As a result, the emotional strength needed to become a healthy person—needed to do the grieving of parent loss and the construction of identity—may be in short supply. How much adoptive parents adopt a child may be one question; how much the child adopts the adoptive parents may be another.

It is interesting to note that the beginnings of attachment theory are first presented in the work of theorists like Renè Spitz (1946), John Bowlby (1969, 1973, 1980), and Donald W. Winnicott (1957), who observed young children who had been separated early in life from their parents by incarceration or by the ravages of World War II (Karen, 1994). The settings for their observations, the clinics outside London, where children managing loss were housed, are not unlike many of the orphanages found today in Eastern Europe, where children lose their parents for other reasons. Children adopted from these countries (e.g., Russia, Ukraine, Romania) may demonstrate behaviors quite consistent with those described by these early attachment theorists.

Lilly's presentation, like that of many adoptees from difficult circumstances, exists on the right end of a continuum of attachment described by Bowlby (1969, pp. 27–28) as secure attachment on one end with anxious attachment or detachment (disengagement) at the other. The critical questions along this continuum with regard to maturational progress have to do with the depth of injury that an infant or child endures in relinquishment or abandonment and the manner in which the child negotiates the suffering resulting from these injuries.

When the intensity of suffering moves beyond a certain threshold, “psychic nerves” may be cut to avoid fragmentation. An infant or child can only protest so long (as Bowlby suggests) before new psychological defenses are arranged to cohere mentally. (Here may be the beginnings of characterological formation.) Anxious attachment or detachment inevitably results if adequate relations with a caregiver are not restored. For example, behavior described as “indiscriminate friendliness” is sometimes observed in children for whom the losses and neglect and possible abuse have been too much to manage. Such children may appear playful and well-adjusted at first view, but it is quickly noticed that they behave so with anyone and everyone, exhibiting no significant attachment to another person. They have learned to survive by operating more than by bonding to any caregiver.

But what if the injury was too massive to manage? What if this child had been adopted a year later? What if, in addition to parent loss, neglect and abuse had been a significant part of the story? Further along on the continuum of limited attachment, this child may have become of necessity less available for the care of parental attachment, less available for the very nurturance needed to become a person (the Catch-22 of adoptive development). Expressions of affection may, at times, not “get through” to the heart of the child. Efforts at cognitive treatment later in life may have little effect. In such cases, parents are left with few resources beyond structure and behavior influence by reward and consequence to assist a child in taking the risk of vulnerability to form an attachment. They may of necessity default to very firm regiments of care, whereby they learn to be both clever and objective in the interventions that they create to promote bonding and manage oppositional behavior (Gray, 2002; Hughes, 1998, 2000; Keck, 1998). Otherwise, at times, adoptive parents may be held hostage by the acting-out impulses of relinquished and unattached children, a very difficult challenge for parents to endure.

With relinquished children who are adequately bonded to adoptive parents, this closeness becomes the necessary emotional supply for healthy development. They are then equipped to face the challenges of adoptive development. They can seek comfort in the midst of their necessary mourning; they can construct a sense of self bolstered by adequate self-esteem; they can enjoy the pleasure of this critical connection, the vital foundation for intimate relations in their future. All this is to say that adoption can go well; families formed out of the losses of relinquishment or abandonment and the possible tragedy of infertility can be the sources of nurture that facilitate growth and maturation, if they are families that honestly address the given realities of relinquishment.

Case Study 2


Lilly, for example, came to the United States at age 20 months, adopted by parents who had made the required visit to the orphanage and then appeared in Russian court, assuring the judge that she would not be sold. Whenever she was stressed, Lilly would bang her head against the wall, creating significant anxiety in her newly adoptive parents. This head-banging behavior is associated with significant neglect in early life; it serves the purpose of psychic cohesion through the experience of pain. In the orphanage, Lilly had to somehow manage the neglect and isolation and discovered this pain-inducing behavior to be useful in terms of warding off the agony of abandonment. Her adoptive parents worked to hold her close and rub her head whenever she started banging it against a chair or a wall. The behavior subsided in about 6 months, after which bonding with her adoptive parents was able to occur.

Case Study 3


A very distraught adoptive mother called to report her deep frustration with a newly adopted Chinese daughter. At 3 months of age, this infant had been retrieved from China by her adoptive parents. Now, after 3 weeks of time together, this child continued to be inconsolable, crying constantly, arching her back when the adoptive mother tried to bring comfort. At such a young age, this was a powerful protest against the new arrangement in her life, and this was a form of resistance to these parents' care. The mother was advised to partially unclothe and gently hold her naked child, skin to skin, for 20 minutes at least 3 times a day. Five days later in another phone conversion this mother reported, with tears in her eyes, the good news that the child was beginning to bond, allowing herself to be held in times of distress. This infant had negotiated the transition to new parents enough to seek security in the arms of a new mother, a very critical first step toward healthy development. The injury of her relinquishment was becoming more manageable.

Patterns of Intimacy


Probably no other emotional phenomenon demonstrates so clearly the profound impact of relinquishment on adoptees as the experience of genetic attraction. This relatively unknown and puzzling sexual impulse (of which clinicians and adoption specialists must be aware) often occurs in the midst of reunion with sought-after birth parents or birth children or birth siblings (Lifton, 1994, chap. 15). At first called genetic sexual attraction, this is a reference to the eroticization of the newly experienced connection between birth parents and birth children or between birth siblings, whereby strong feelings of sexual attraction emerge out of reunion. Those involved are often blindsided by this incestuous impulse and understandably frightened by the wish for a sexual relationship with their own mother or father, son or daughter, brother or sister. It is an emotional tempest that usually subsides after the excitement of reunion has abated, but nevertheless it is powerful and puzzling and a challenge to manage. But genetic attraction also testifies to the reality and psychic significance of connection to one's birth parents. Relinquishment of a child inhibits (disallows the development of) the “incest taboo” common in human experience. In search and successful reunion, along with the “discovery” of long-lost parents, children, or siblings, may come this powerful sexual interest. What may have been repressed, put away from consciousness, blocked from awareness now erupts into profound hunger for that lost person. This experience may begin with looking, then staring at one's birth mother, attending to common physical features, then touching, holding hands, and walking arm in arm; and then a sexual wish emerges. Yet it is not so much about sexual experience as it is about primal connection to someone lost. One telling comment by a birth mother who erotically kissed her birth son and narrowly avoided intercourse with him was this: “Yes, I wanted to have sex with him but I also wanted to count his fingers and his toes.” The point to be made with regard to genetic attraction is that relinquishment turns development on its head and, when reunion occurs, the wrong of relinquishment is temporarily righted in a powerful cry for deep connection.

If the impingements of relinquishment are adequately managed in terms of mourning, identity formation, and bonding in the first years of adoptive life, then the challenge of creating and sustaining intimacy in adult life may proceed in good fashion. If children are relinquished and adopted at a later age, these challenges are more significant and at times overwhelming because later breaks in attachment or, worse, a series of breaks in attachment may disallow trust in the formation of new relationships. (Much of the earlier research on adoption outcomes did not attend to the age at which relinquishment and adoption occurred.) Understandably, for some adoptees, dealing with one's relinquishment in an ongoing way may be the organizing principle around which adoptees arrange their relationships of love. When this is the case, a variety of patterns of relating may develop.

Some who are relinquished and adopted may make the less-than-conscious choice to be alone, to avoid intimate relations, to carefully manage the possibility of being rejected again. The safety of being alone then carries the price of isolation, usually experienced with some sadness. Other adoptees who are more bruised by relinquishment or abandonment and/or abuse may be indifferent to the need for closeness to another human being. For these persons, life is more about survival than it is about connection. These were the relinquished and adopted children for whom their adoptive parents were never able to connect to their hearts—hearts damaged and hidden by too much human suffering. And for them, the need to stay distant from their adoptive parents plays itself out in the need to stay distant from others as adults.

Usually, however, the human spirit seeks its own healing by responding to suffering by living within the tension between psychological defense and relational risk. Inevitably, this dance of relating leads to intrapsychic struggle and interpersonal conflict, but it may also open the way to the restoration of the relinquished and adopted self. Sometimes, powerfully so in adolescence, physical intimacy is taken for love and connection. Skin-to-skin warmth is experienced as opposite to the coldness of parent loss and, at least for the moment, satisfies the human need for deep connection to another. As relinquishment interferes with the most powerful of human relations, the bonding of a child and the attachment of its mother to the child, it is understandable that correctives to this disruption may take on their own fierce intensity, especially in terms of sexual experience. The wish to restore the lost relationship may overpower and overshadow a more informed, careful approach to intimacy.

Another pattern of relating that adoptees sometimes choose is that of arranging a relationship around concerns for security. Again, if dealing with relinquishment serves as a guiding principle in relating, one way to make one's life successful is to guarantee one's safety, secure from being relinquished again. One method to accomplish this is to relate from a posture of control. In so doing, that is by choosing a passive, adaptive partner and being very much in charge of the relationship, an adoptee can gain a sense of security, free from the fear of rejection. Whereas in his or her relinquishment an adoptee obviously has no say, in relating in a controlling fashion, an adoptee has all the say. Passion is sacrificed for safety, as being married to a “pet rock,” but the value of security is paramount. An opposite approach with the same goal of security is that of arranging relationships wherein one is very much controlled, the passive, adaptive partner, the “pet rock,” who carefully adapts, never creating conflict, so as to be assured of the safety of acceptance. Reminiscent of the “good adoptee” who keeps his or her true self carefully hidden, but self-assured that one will not be relinquished again, this method of relating sacrifices real passion for a sense of security, leaving the adoptee without a true voice in the relationship. The tragedy of these safety-net approaches to intimate relationships is that real and unguarded closeness is never achieved. To the degree that awareness of these dynamics dawns in the mind and heart of the adoptee, low-grade depression or mild anxiety may be the price that is paid.

The most dramatic presentation, however, of relinquishment-guided relationships occurs when adoptees less than consciously recapitulate their early-in-life relinquishments by recreating them in the context of romantic love. This scenario sets the stage for conflict in an intimate relationship of the adult adoptee in such a way that adversarial behavior rises to the point where the relationship becomes impossible for one's partner to tolerate and a second rejection results. The “primal wound” of the adoptee is then reexperienced in the context of one's current relationship, bringing the adoptee “back to the scene of the crime” for further review and possible repair. But the compulsion to repeat the injury of relinquishment seldom accomplishes healing, and more human suffering results.

Case Study 4


Leslie, for example, a 22-year-old adoptee (adopted at 3 months of age), entered psychotherapeutic treatment to learn ways to manage her romantic relationships. She reported a series of short-term very physical relationships, which she found to be both important and meaningless at the very same time. Efforts at search and reunion had succeeded in locating and meeting both of her birth parents but without their sincere interest in her. She felt the subtle sting of a “second rejection” from both and, more alone than ever, she found physical intimacy a useful antidote to the inner emptiness of not being wanted. The men in her life, in her own words, “want me.” Only when this interpretation opened the way to more grieving did her sexual behavior change. Relinquishment has its price in relationships.

Case Study 5


Anne, a stunningly beautiful 22-year-old adoptee, had the regular attention of many of her college co-eds, although courtships rarely lasted very long, despite her best efforts to be loving. After some reflection about failed attempts at sustaining intimacy, she noticed her own attempts to sabotage these relationships, and then added the words, “I know that they will reject me, so I give them a reason to.” The cloud of relinquishment sometimes casts a long shadow over love.

Fantasy Resolution


Although the current practice of more open adoption may mitigate some of the need to fantasize about one's birth parents, as more of the “picture” of them may be known and experienced in visitation and ongoing relating, it is nevertheless the case that adoptees sometimes struggle to feel “fully real” because of the unknowns about themselves set in place by relinquishment. Adoptees in more open adoption arrangements still wonder about their birth parents and birth siblings—what they are doing, whom they love, what they are like. These gaps in knowing and relating become a complicating variable because the construction of a self, a personal identity as discussed above, can only be built on the foundation of reality, on a real assessment of human experience. In this sense, even bad news is good news because it is real news. Adoptees need to know their stories. (Although this chapter focuses on clinical practice and therapeutic benefit and does not attend to the ethics of adoption practice, at some point, it ought to be noted that adoptees have a civil human right to their stories. No other citizens have such unjust restraining orders against them without crime.) Depending on the degree to which adoptees must invent themselves, as opposed to discovering themselves, there remains a lingering sense of unreality. Imagine hearing an ethnic joke without known reference to your own ethnic identity and “inventing” your laughter, pretending hilarity to be part of a group. This simple illustration demonstrates the “unreality” of adoptive experience that must somehow be managed. Relinquishment has its price in terms of lived reality.

Adoptees within the closed adoption system report an unusually rich fantasy life, a world of imagination that they are seldom asked about (Nydam, 1994). Fantasies about birth parents range from the very positive, even glorified images of royal birth parent splendor, to very negative images of prostitute birth mothers and one-night-stand sailor birth fathers who always leave. Many adoptees report fantasies of rescue wherein a birth parent returns to reclaim the once lost birth child/adoptee. One relinquished and adopted adult remembers the following as a child:

We had a summer cabin up north and I always fantasized about being able to stay there (at the cabin) by myself and live in Wisconsin because I, for some reason [take note], felt that was where this person, this perfect person, was going to drive down the street and take me away.

This fantasy of rescue may have served the purpose of keeping the adoptee connected to his or her birth parents, that is to say, kept them alive in fantasy so as to keep the relationship in place despite the estrangement of relinquishment. In Winnicottian object-relations terms, these birth parent fantasies may serve as transitional objects that assist the adoptee in transitioning from the one reality of birth story to the other reality of adoptive existence (Nydam, 1994; Sugarman & Jaffee, 1989; Winnicott, 1971). But they are stuck in place precisely because the real presence of the missing object (the parent) is needed on occasion to facilitate movement out of intersubjective space into clear visions of one's given reality. The missing objects—birth parents—remain missing, so progress toward a more focused reality is interrupted. In this sense, adoptees are stuck in time in a way that does not allow for further self-construction as far as one's self relates to being relinquished.

Without full grounding in reality, relinquished and adopted persons are left to fend in life without a complete sense of self. Not knowing one's whole story leaves an adoptee at a disadvantage, not only in terms of grieving and identity and intimacy concerns but also in terms of a foundational sense of being real. It should be no wonder that adoptees who experience reunion with birth parents make comments like, “Finally, I feel real as a human being.” Accordingly, the more that is known about birth parents and birth family, the less that is left to fantasy, the greater the chance for the adoptee to make successful adjustments in his or her own reality as a human being with a full sense of self. Even when the real “news” about birth parents is sad or tragic, even when they are finally met by touching the cold granite of a gravestone, the truth about these important people can set the adoptee free. One adoptee reported the painful disappointment of finally meeting his birth mother in a state hospital, a schizophrenic woman who showed no recognition of him or his story. As painful as it was, he stated that he finally had his truth, a truth with which he could live. Other stories are less dramatic. Another adoptee, age 29, finally boarded an airplane to visit his birth mother and birth siblings. As pleased as he was to meet them, he expressed sincere disappointment that “they all listened to Rush Limbaugh!” In this regard they were not “like him.” Time and different adoptive circumstances had had their way. Nevertheless, he was pleased to know his story and his first family. He was able now to more clearly define himself. Again, even bad news is good news because it is real news. To whatever degree fantasy can be resolved into reality—through curious inquiry, open conversations with adoptive parents, efforts at search and reunion—the adoptee stands on firmer ground, because this gives him or her the opportunity to develop a stronger sense of self as comprehensively real. In so doing, the impingements of relinquishment are mitigated by a new reality. We all need our truths to be truly free.

Implications for Parents of Adoptees


All parents of a relinquished and adopted child will respond with greater wisdom and empathy to that child if they more deeply appreciate the challenges of adoptive development. If, simply stated, parenting is about being a resource to one's children in a way that maximizes development, then both birth and adoptive parents have much to contribute to the lives of their children. As said in the outline of this chapter, this begins with adoptees' parents understanding the necessity and the importance of grieving. Birth parents are called on, as difficult as it may be, to acknowledge the injury that adoptees sustain in relin-quishment. Certainly, there is a resiliency in the human spirit that helps us face the pain of loss, but the loss must be addressed and grieved in some way. For some birth parents, this means moving beyond personal guilt and corresponding shame to an empathic stretch toward the heart of the relinquished child. They may choose not to parent, but they may not choose not to care. As they attend to their own experience of loss, they can become people who appreciate the grief of their children. Care from birth parents takes the form of interest in the child, acknowledging birthdays and holidays if allowed to do so, regular reporting on health concerns so that medical history is continuously updated, and patience with birth children as they clarify their relinquished and adoptive experience. Adoptive parents will parent well to the degree that they understand their children. Parenting by guessing as to what a child is facing is much less effective than parenting with confidence because one knows what a child may be communicating by his or her behavior. For adoptive parents who have dealt with infertility, that grief must, to some degree, be behind them, otherwise it will negatively affect their attachment to an adopted child. Adoption is not a solution to infertility; no adoptee can ever replace a wished-for child-by-birth. Nor is it fair to the adoptee to be asked to make such an effort. Part of effective adoptive parenting is at times helping a child be sad, to touch the heart of an infant or child grieving relinquishment.

With regard to identity formation as well as the challenges of fantasy resolution, all parents of a relinquished child need to play their roles in helping the adoptee become a self-defined person. Birth parents do well to provide their own personal and medical histories and stories, as well as the specific birth and relinquishment narrative that informs adoptees of their own stories. Even if one's history has significant suffering in it, these building blocks of identity are to be honored and explained so that adoptees can ground their identities in truth and reality. Adoptive parents are challenged to acknowledge birth narratives honestly. (Adoption specialists no longer tell adoptive parents that a child's birth parents were killed in a car accident.) Furthermore, adoptive parents assist in a child's positive maturation by honoring the reality and the voice of birth parents by initiating conversations about them and concern for them. Denying their reality, “making believe” as it were that they do not exist, or casting them in a negative light (e.g., years ago adoptees were called children of “bad seed”), sets adoptees up for lifelong struggles with healthy self-regard. All parents of adoptees can assist in providing a solid foundation for adoptive development by bringing truth to the conversation in a caring way and empathically appreciating how an adoptee must draw on all four parents to construct a solid identity.

Finally, with regard to the importance of strong attachments, all the parents of adoptees can contribute to their strength in sustaining intimacy with others by acknowledging the difficulties in doing so. Birth parents can be seen as partners in the formation of families who support the efforts of adoptive parents for attachment. For example, one birth mother wrote her son a note in response to his interest in her style of discipline, and she said, “Carl, if you lived with me you would have to do your homework too!” That simple acknowledgment sent Carl on his way to stronger connection with his adoptive parents. Birth parents who are honest with themselves about their issues with trust (sometimes in a society that punished them for illicit sex) can ironically be empowered to lend a supportive ear to the struggles adoptees face in trusting the family they live within. Adoptive parents who appreciate the Catch-22 of adoptive development can assist their children in the formation of attachment to them, first of all, by understanding their fears of closeness, by providing the security of structure in family life, and by learning methods that build relationships with sometimes fearful relinquished and adopted children. It is at times a struggle to find the hearts of their children; understanding the inner experience of their children can guide them toward useful approaches to care.

Best Clinical Practices


Adopted children are first of all relinquished. Specialists in adoption counseling and practice will, first of all, take care not to collude with societal interest in denying the reality and the impingements of relinquishment. When children lose their parents, at whatever age, good clinical practice dictates that this loss be acknowledged and reviewed in a careful fashion. As stated before, to treat a problem one must first acknowledge its reality.

  • Interpret intrapsychic and interpersonal difficulties that an adoptee might present in the light of the necessary mourning of early losses in life. The process of grieving includes not only the tears of sadness but also the fist of anger and the wince of fear, all part of coming to terms with loss and facing an uncertain future.

  • Solicit information along with all its emotional weight with regard to an adoptee's birth parents and birth narrative as well as past and present fantasies about these birth parents and birth stories. Asking questions about birth parents and the birth narrative is not to be thought of as “leading the client.” Conversely, not bringing these figures into review is colluding with societal denial of painful reality, which only serves to heighten the difficulties of adoptive development.

  • Consider struggles with bonding and attachment as normal responses to parent loss (as well as possible neglect and abuse). This means avoiding pathologizing adoptees in terms of attachment disorders until a clearer picture of emotional relating takes shape. (Relinquishment itself must be seen, to some degree, as the behavior of [pathological] shame-based decisions in society. Systemically, adoptees are not to be seen and treated as scapegoats for societal anxiety about sexual behavior.)

  • Observe problematic patterns of intimate relating for adoptees in the light of central struggles with the ongoing impact of relinquishment on development. To whatever degree relational difficulties in adult adoptee life emerge, they may best be understood by way of reference not so much to adoptive parent relations as to birth parent relations, that is, seeking the lost objects.

Closing Comment


Adoption must be honest, attending to all the verities of what life is like when one begins with one set of parents and is raised by another. Certainly, relinquishment is the “dark side of adoption,” needing to be balanced by the positive value of creating families for relinquished children. From a clinical perspective, however, it is expedient, in contrast to recent societal practices of secrecy and deceit, to see the challenges of adoptive development in the light of daytime reality. Places that are dark keep fear alive and inhibit the necessary trust that is critical to strong, healthy human relations for adoptees. This chapter is very partial; it has only examined the relationship between adoptees and their birth parents, paying special attention to the event and ongoing implications of being relinquished. It has not taken note of the very important role that bonding to adoptive parents plays in adoptive development. Further research needs to be done to carefully examine the manner in which relinquishment informs and affects the bonding relationships adoptees create with their adoptive parents. In such inquiry, clinicians and adoption specialists may gain a new and deeper appreciation for the hard work that adoptees do in becoming persons.

Reflection Questions



  • How has managing the societal stigma of adoption informed adoption philosophy and affected adoption practice in the past 100 years?

  • What are some of the difficulties in accurately assessing the experience of the infant or young child in terms of parent loss?

  • How might the historical societal instruction that “relinquishment does not matter” affect adoptive development?

  • What is involved in developing the strength to sustain intimacy in human relationships?