Vail relationships column: Why do some adoptees struggle with love as adults?
Dear Neil: I am a 55-year-old adopted male. I have three failed marriages. I have always felt so alone, I’m not close to anyone —and I don’t have a strong sense of family. This affects all of my relationships. Even in younger years, I don’t remember having best friends. When I vocalize my feelings, the fear of being judged keeps me from pursuing any depth of conversation on the subject. What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I love or be loved? I think this is about being adopted.
Needing Help in Barstow, California
Dear Neil: My boyfriend was adopted at birth and has struggled with it. He searched for his birth parents and discovered that they were both dead. He found half-siblings but has had a shaky relationship with them. Last week, he was fired from his job, and then he up and disappeared. It’s been more than a week and I haven’t heard from him since. He never took his things — he simply disappeared with the clothes on his back. Common sense tells me to move on, but I can’t help worrying about him. He is a kind, loving, gentle soul. I can’t understand why someone who has struggled with abandonment (from his biological parents) would abandon me — because he knows first hand what it feels like.
Disowned in Reno, Nevada
Dear Needing Help and Disowned: This is not true of all adoptees, but for a healthy number of people who were adopted, fear of rejection is the driving motivation behind many of their “keep away from me” behaviors.
They’re likely having conversations inside their heads such as this: “Lost my job? She’s going to dump me; My birth parents didn’t want me, so nobody else will either; In a close, love relationship? You better get out now while she still thinks well of you; Let anyone else in on my true feelings? No chance, they’ll think less of me; How do I allow myself to get closer to someone? I can’t. Getting too close to someone opens me up to getting deserted.”
This incessant fear of rejection or abandonment becomes an all-important driving force in how some adoptees behave in their adult relationships. If my own birth parents abandoned me, then why wouldn’t everyone else abandon me that I feel close to?
We all know that birth parents who give their child up for adoption may not be ready to be parents. They could be young immature teenagers who are too self-absorbed to responsibly care for a baby. It could be an “oops” experience from people who just met each other and are no longer together as a couple. A pregnancy could result from rape or incest where the female doesn’t have access to birth control, but definitely does not want the baby from the person who impregnated her. There have been car crashes where the parents die but the baby survives.
There can be lots of reasons birth parents give their babies up for adoption. But none of these reasons have anything to do with the baby not being lovable. It has to do with the parents not being able or mature enough to love and care for a child properly.
But some adoptees simply jump to the conclusion that the only reason they were given up for adoption is that they were not lovable enough, and their parents didn’t want them. And if you think that about yourself, but now you’re an adult in a romantic relationship, then it is not a far stretch to assume that your boyfriend or your wife will see you the same way as your parents did — unlovable, not good enough and that you don’t measure up.
So, to protect themselves, they leave before their partner decides to leave them — or they’ll make it so hard to be with to assist in their partner leaving. However, a relationship failure can also persuade an adoptee to seek healing from their patterns of having a close, loving relationship that they sabotage.
Neil Rosenthal is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Westminster and Boulder. He is the author of the bestselling book, “Love, Sex, and Staying Warm: Creating a Vital Relationship. Contact him at 303-758-8777 or visit neilrosenthal.com.