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The Truth About Adopted Adults and Relationship Issues

Research studies about adopted adults and relationships are few and far between. But, that doesn’t stop adoptees from claiming that difficulties in their platonic and romantic relationships can all be traced back to one moment — when they were placed with a completely new adoptive family.

Adopted adults and relationships issues are unavoidable, some people say. Adoptees can’t properly bond with anyone in their life due to the trauma they experienced at the hands of their birth mother when placed for adoption.

The reality? We can’t know for sure whether adoptee relationship issues are a direct result of relinquishment and placement — but we can’t say they aren’t. Like many aspects in adoption, adopted adults and relationships are complicated. Every adoptee is different, and sweeping generalizations don’t do anyone favors.

Below, we’ll take a look at adopted adults’ relationship issues – what the studies say, what individuals say, and what you can do moving forward to harbor successful relationships in your life.

Please note: American Adoptions is not a licensed mental health professional. If you’re struggling with adoption and abandonment issues in your relationships, please reach out to an adoption-competent therapist for guidance.

What Does Research Say About Adopted Adults and Relationships?

There’s little research about exactly what impact adoption may have on people’s future relationships. In fact, no research exists at this time to squarely blame adoptee relationship issues on their placement. In all likelihood, any challenges an adopted individual encounters in their relationships are a result of a multitude of factors: their personal circumstances, trauma experienced throughout their life, their adoptive parents’ relationship, and more.

That’s not to say that their placement plays no role at all. It’s just to say that research cannot pinpoint an infant placement as the sole reason why some adoptees struggle with relationships.

Take for example one 2007 study, which explored the impact of adoption on an individual’s attachment security and relationships outcomes in adulthood. While the results indicated that adoptees were more likely to report insecure attachments styles, only 7% of the variance could be attributed to a child’s adoption. Instead, “self-reports of parental bonding were more powerful predictors” of a child’s attachment than adoptive status.

In short? Adults’ relationship styles and experiences were more closely connected to their relationship with their parents, adoptive or otherwise. Attachment styles in relationships were similar for both adoptees and non-adopted individuals.

Other studies show that the more cooperative and positive a relationship is between the adoptive and birth family, the better an adoptee’s socioemotional outcomes. American Adoptions has known that open adoption is best for all members of the triad, but this research indicates it has positive effects on an adoptee’s developmental outcomes — and, in turn, on their future relationships.

What Do Adoptees Have to Say About Their Relationship Struggles?

While research may not indicate a connection between adoption’s abandonment issues and relationships, anecdotes continue to persist.

Every adoptee is different, and no one knows an adoption story like the individual most affected. Some adoptees believe that their adoptee relationship issues stem from their placement with adoptive parents. Because every adoptee’s experience is unique, they may very well be right, for their situation.

If you believe you are dealing with adopted adult’s relationship issues, you might find solace in other people’s stories. Keep in mind: Even though an adoptee’s experience is different from yours, theirs is still valid.

Issues involving adoptees and intimate relationships are often assumed to be the result of the original trauma from birth mother separation. Some adoptees and adoption researchers hypothesize that when an infant is separated from the woman they bonded with for the nine months in utero, it affects their future attachment styles.

In fact, adoptive mother Nancy Verrier in “The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child,” suggests that, upon separation from a birth mother, an adoptee “has learned that the environment is hostile, the mother may disappear and love can be withdrawn.” She suggests that this experience affects the adoptee’s future relationship with their birth parents and any future significant others.

Other aspects of adoption that may impact your current and future relationships?

  • Low self-esteem: While there is no evidence that being adopted causes low self-esteem, some adoptees do experience feelings of low self-worth when they don’t know why their birth parents placed them for adoption. They may feel unwanted, which can result in them feeling unworthy of love in their future relationships.
  • Fear of rejection: Some adoptees inherently fear that someone else will “reject” them, due to unresolved feelings about their birth parents’ adoption decision.
  • Fear of abandonment: Some adoptees, especially those who were adopted out of foster care, may have developed a belief that those they love will leave them in time.
  • Fear of change: An adoption journey is full of change, no matter the circumstances. Some adoptees don’t cope with it well, and it may result in them staying in unhealthy relationships longer.

It’s important to note that these fears and emotions can come from any life situation, not just from adoption. That’s why many adoption researchers believe being adopted is only one aspect of an individual’s possible relationship issues.

What Can You Do If You’re Struggling with Adoptee Relationship Issues?

Knowing the potential reasons behind your adoptee relationship issues may help — or it may just further confuse you, especially if you still have no clue where your relationship fears come from.

A licensed mental health professional can make all the difference in this situation. We encourage you to seek out an adoption-trained therapist to work through any recurring adoptee relationship issues and concerns. A counselor competent in adoption can help you examine your fears about relationships, get to the bottom of them and provide some helpful guidance moving forward.

Every adoptee’s journey is unique, and there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution. However, it may also be helpful to read blogs and books from adoptees like you to gain new perspectives.

In the meantime, we encourage you to seek out the help you may need. Remember: You are worthy of love, and there are people out there who will love and support you, no matter what. All you have to do is ask for help when you need it.

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