Adoptees and the Double Standard

By Nancy Verrier, MFT

One of the things that people in relationship with adoptees complain about is that adoptees don’t seem to realize how they affect their partners, parents, or friends. Although they are exquisitely aware of how they are affected by others, they seem oblivious to their effect on others. There seems to be a double standard. This is one of the chief reasons many relationships fail. Here is an example of this phenomenon sent to me in an email many years ago by a woman who was planning to leave her boyfriend of two years. As she was getting ready to leave, her partner begged her to read The Primal Wound as an attempt to get her to understand his behavior as being his reaction to loss and pain. She read it and did understand better, but she wrote to me:

I have tried so hard in this relationship—I have tried to understand and to love him. I have tried to make him feel secure and I have tried to accept him. But… he has made it impossible to love him and impossible to receive love in his life. I have felt that I have been living with a child, and I hate to say it, but a monstrous child at times. The violent, uncontrollable outbursts, and the “tests” he has set for me have been a normal part of our life for two years. I am exhausted with the battle, and now understand how he can comfortably continue to participate in it. From three months after we first met, he has been working towards the day when I will leave.

And it has come.

This is the self-fulfilling prophecy of many adoptee relationships. This woman recognized many wonderful qualities of her partner: gifted, intelligent, and passionate. These qualities were evident in the beginning of the relationship, before it got more serious and intimate. However, the closer they got, the more dangerous it felt to her partner and the more he felt he had to distance himself by childlike, abusive behavior, which eventually contaminated the relationship. The woman sat up all night reading PW, but it was too late. Too much damage had been done and she wasn’t willing to wait for him to “get his act together.”

Why is it so difficult for adoptees to understand that they do, indeed, have an impact on others? I believe it begins when the first mother disappears. Picture this: A baby is born ready to be welcomed into the world by his/her mother. However, he/she is whisked away by a nurse and placed in a nursery (or sometimes placed into the arms of a substitute mother). The baby cries out for the woman whom he would have recognized as mother through all his senses. That mother doesn’t come. After a while the baby gives up, goes into shock, and loses all hope that mother will return.

At the time that this is happening, 100 billion neurons are beginning to be connected in the brain. Those neurons are connecting as a result of the experiences the child is having. Will there be a difference between the neurological connections of a baby who was placed right after birth into the loving arms of its mother and the baby who is separated from her for good? All the crying didn’t help. What this does is leave the baby with neurological connections which convey: “I’m not important; I don’t matter; I have no impact.” These early neurological connections are deeply imprinted in the brain of the newborn, especially when it happens during the trauma of having mother disappear. Ten, twenty, thirty, forty years later, the effect of that early neurological imprinting remains.

Adoptive mothers know about this. A child who has had one mother disappear, never to be heard from again, isn’t going to trust the second mother to be there either. Not allowing her to get too close is a frantic attempt to keep devastation from happening again. The child doesn’t want another mother to disappear. She may act this out in one of two ways: by being disruptive and defiant or clingy and compliant. Depending on the circumstances, a child may vacillate between the two. Usually in adult relationships the adopted person will go back and forth between these two ways of acting: Clingy and needy when the partner isn’t as attentive, and distancing, disrespectful, and abusive when the partner gets closer. Although they don’t seem to understand just how difficult it is for their partners, they do say things like “If he did to me what I do to him, I wouldn’t stick around for a minute!” There is some kind of intellectual understanding that what they are doing is wrong and hurtful, however the belief is that they don’t matter, so what they do doesn’t matter.

In my second book Coming Home to Self I explain in much more detail how all this plays out in relationships and make suggestions as to how to overcome the deficit of those early neurological imprints. Adoptees, the first step in changing your attitudes and behaviors is awareness. Knowing that your early experience set you up for these kinds of difficulties is important. You can’t change what you don’t know. However, even if the belief system keeps interfering with the intellectual understanding of “I do matter and have an impact,” you have to act as if you believe it, and intentionally change your behavior. In other words, even if you don’t feel as if you have an impact on the important people in your lives, it is critical to act as if you do, because YOU ACTUALLY DO. The next step is to become more aware of how you are affecting others. Stop, look, and listen. Notice how you are affecting the other person, and then make the appropriate changes in attitudes and behaviors. It isn’t going to work to paint a large A on you foreheads and expect to be excused for bad behavior. There is a difference between love and approval. We may love you, but we don’t have to approve of or accept disrespect and abuse. If one wants an adult, mature, reciprocal relationship, accountability and changes in attitudes and behavior have to happen.

It helps, by the way, to learn to become more authentic after living in a non-biological family for so many years and attempting to adapt to that way of being. That is another subject, which I won’t go into here, but it helps when one is trying to be accountable to also be authentic. As adults, this is your responsibility. Ask yourselves, “Am I acting as an adult or like a child?” As children you were just trying to be safe in the only way you knew how as you coped with the loss of your first mother. Forgive yourselves for your behavior as children. However, as adults don’t descend into childlike behavior. Do you really want a three year old to be in charge of your relationships? If not, keep the triple A’s in mind: AWARENESS, AUTHENTICITY, ACCOUNTABILITY. These will lead to more mature and fulfilling relationships.

~Nancy Verrier, MFT~
Author of The Primal Wound
and Coming Home to Self