Boundaries: The Key
to Reunion Relationships

by Barbara Free, M.A., LPCC

     Boundaries is a term that gets bandied about a lot, but may be poorly understood, particularly as it applies to relationships connected with adoption. In all of my professional references concerning relationships, families, and boundaries, adoption is never mentioned. In all my references concerning adoption and reunion, the term boundaries is rarely mentioned, although the concept is there in some writings. My own research has shown that unclear or inappropriate boundaries are the main reasons that relationships do not develop in healthy ways, especially in adoption and in reunions. The failure to address boundaries as such seems significant.
     There are numerous definitions of “boundaries.” Most of us think of a boundary in terms of limits. We sometimes confuse boundary with barrier, and talk of “setting a boundary,” when we mean setting a limit that will act as a barrier against some perceived threat. Indeed, some people, and some families, have such rigid and inflexible boundaries that they have barriers against any new information, any new people, or any change. These are not healthy boundaries, and they are based on fear. The family becomes like a sealed room, in which the inhabitants will eventually run out of oxygen. These families tend to have a lot of secrets, which they feel they must protect, and in adoptive families, adoption may be one of the secrets. Individuals also have boundaries, and the secrets of relinquishment and adoption may be closely guarded by individuals with rigid boundaries, again based on fear.
     At the other extreme, families and individuals may have boundaries that are so diffuse, so permeable, they hardly exist. The family may be more like a group of persons who just happen to share a space or a name. An individual with poorly defined boundaries may not have a clear sense of who he/she is, what his/her personal rights are, or what others’ rights are. They may be both vulnerable and invasive toward others.
     In between these extremes, on a continuum, are those with flexible, healthy boundaries, where the family or individual is clear about their own identity, clear about where they end and others begin, open to new information and change, open to new relationships within and without the family. These families and persons are not threatened by others, nor are they vulnerable to boundary violations or to violating others.
     In addition to seeing boundaries as rigid, diffuse, or flexible, we also have to consider the various aspects of boundaries—physical, emotional, intellectual, sexual, and spiritual. The truth is, any boundary violation is a violation of one’s spirit, in that it violates one’s integrity. In adoption reunions, there is also a peculiar boundary that can perhaps be described as a time boundary. When a search results in a reunion quite rapidly, sometimes the persons involved feel invaded because there has not been enough time to adjust to the changes brought about by search and reunion. This may be true for both the searcher and the one found. Even though the one who searched had time to think, fantasize, and consider possible consequences, while the one who has been found may have been caught entirely off guard, both parties need time to adjust their previous thoughts and feelings to the new reality; they have to give up fantasies and accept what they find.
     It may be helpful to look at how boundaries develop, or don’t, in the first place. When a baby is born, he/she has no recognition of boundaries at all. Previously, while developing inside the mother, the fetus was literally part of her, totally dependent upon her for oxygen, nutrition, and safety. There were no boundaries. Now, this new person encounters the outside world of light and air. Ideally, the mother and others are there immediately to feed, hold, comfort and care for this child. Newborn babies do recognize their mothers immediately by smell and sound. When a child is relinquished through adoption or foster care, and the birth mother is no longer there, the infant experiences a deep disconnect. We have tried to alleviate this in some open adoptions by having the adoptive parents present at the birth (or even talking to the child before birth), or allowing the birth mother to keep the baby with her for a few days, and this probably does help, but the disconnect happens, nevertheless. A newborn normally experiences fusion with the mother; that is, there are still no real boundaries. The baby is held or carried, nursed at will, sleeps in contact with the parents, and only gradually becomes aware of being a separate person. Our culture has already lessened this fusion with hospital nurseries, bottle feeding or schedules, cribs, nursery monitors, car seats, and numerous other devices and ideas. Many babies, not just those who are relinquished, never have fusion and are forever yearning for it a deep level. Some adoptive parents go to great lengths to try to establish a bonding and attachment that resembles fusion, even including breast-feeding in some cases. Again, this is no doubt helpful. We know far more about bonding, attachment, and fusion than we did a few years ago. It is impossible to say whether an adoptee is better off being with adoptive parents all the time immediately, or whether it is more beneficial to be with the birth mother for several days. In a few cases, families have been able to keep both sets of parents and the baby together at first, but agencies, laws, and fears usually keep this from happening. There is no empirical data on what is best for the infant.
     If a baby has sufficient attachment in early infancy, whether to birth parents or others, he/she will gradually become aware of separateness, and begin to move away from fusion, secure in the belief that the parent will still be there. The key is that the child initiates the move, not the parent. If a parent initiates it too soon, the infant may respond by clinging harder, or by disconnecting emotionally. Babies who are subjected to numerous changes of foster parents often give up and stop connecting with others in meaningful ways, or go willingly with anyone at all, having no sense of their own personal boundaries. We call this attachment disorder, but we don’t always acknowledge that the disorder is about other people failing to attach to the child and remain with him/her, not the child’s deficiency. For the child, this is survival, an attempt to avoid further trauma.
     Foster care, by its very existence, implies that a child’s boundaries have been violated, because for some reason the child cannot be with family. In many cases, there has also been specific physical, emotional, or other trauma. Then the child is expected to conform to the customs and boundaries of the foster family. Some are fortunate enough to be in stable families without chaos, and may find permanent ties there; others are not so fortunate. Some are older kids who have already had much trauma and boundary invasion. They may become invasive themselves, having little idea of their own and others’ boundaries. It is not the child’s fault.
     The biggest boundary violation of all, of course, is that, in closed adoptions, the child and the adoptive parents literally do not know who the child’s birth parents are. How can a person know who they are if they don’t know where they came from? How can the adoptive parents truly know who their child is if they don’t know the child’s original parents? Not knowing necessarily results in either diffuse boundaries (we have no idea who we are) or rigid boundaries around who we claim to be but know we are not. The fears generated by this kind of uncertainty almost surely contributes to the reluctance of many adoptive parents to meet, or even learn about, the birth parents and the adoptee’s possible reluctance when a birth parent has located him/her. Closed adoption is all about secrecy and distorted information or lack of information. To maintain the secrets and lies, one must necessarily develop rigid boundaries. If the adoption is later opened, through search and reunion, adoptive parents may want to maintain the original misinformation they were given, and occlude new information, because it would mean changing their perceptions of who their son or daughter is, and consequently some of their own boundaries, in order to include the birth family in their definition of “family.” People sometimes have difficulty even including a new in-law in the family, so it is understandable that they might have trouble including birth parents. After all, our culture does not even have a word for the relationship between adoptive parents and birth parents. We also don’t have a word for the relationship between a person’s parents and the spouse’s parents. As a culture in general, middle class Anglo culture (the group most likely to adopt!) tends to be more exclusive than inclusive, to have boundaries that keep others out rather than bring them in.
     In addition to individual differences in boundaries, and family differences, there are also cultural differences in boundaries and how they are viewed. These differences may be important factors in how reunion relationships develop. For instance, as we have already said, middle-class Anglo families tend to have somewhat rigid definitions and expectations of what a family is, even sometimes declaring grandparents “not the immediate family.” This has become more pronounced with affluence. In generations past, as an example, when extended family gathered for holidays or family reunions, it was expected that everyone stayed together, even if it mean sharing beds, sleeping on the floor, taking turns in the bathroom or at the table. Part of the purpose was to be together and share. Now, most children do not share a room, let alone a bed, at home, and neither they nor their parents expect them to share accommodations at a relative’s home. Families get motel rooms, and may not even share most meals. With such rigid boundaries even for known family, many would not consider opening their hones, or their lives, to previously unknown persons called birth family. Add to that the possibility that the birth family is of a different cultural or ethnic background, which may be more inclusive in its boundaries, or even have very diffuse boundaries, and it’s a set-up for misunderstanding, fear, and hurt. There is some classism involved at times, also; the adoptive parents (and possibly the adoptee) may have assumed that the birth family was from a lower economic level, and therefore some lower social and educational level. While this might be the case, it also might not be. There is a rarely spoken, but frequently felt, bias that persons who have less materially are inferior by nature. This a big part of adoptive parents, even in some open adoptions, not wanting the birth parents to know the adoptive parents’ last names, addresses, or telephone numbers, and their insistence that contact be at a public place, or even only through the placement agency.
     In many cultures, a person defines him/herself first in terms of the culture, usually “The People” (as in Diné), then by clan or extended group, then by parents and family, and only lastly by individual name and separate identity. In New Mexico, with our blend of cultures, this is better understood than in some places. Many cultures have a view of family as much larger than the individual and his/her biological or (not and) adoptive parents. Additionally, some cultures tend to have more diffuse boundaries for families and individuals than do others. What is considered too close, even enmeshed, in one culture, may be considered normal, not even close enough, in others. If the adoptee is from a culture or family with different boundaries in these ways, one set of family may feel rejected as the reunion progresses, while another may feel invaded, overwhelmed, and threatened. One individual may expect to move in, or feel hurt that the new-found family or person does not want that physical or emotional closeness. Some persons, and some families, indeed, do have an unhealthy lack of boundaries, and may assume it’s okay to move in, borrow money, tell others how to behave, or otherwise enter someone else’s space. Sometimes, especially when an adoptee is young and a birth parent has done the search, adoptive parents may need to help the adoptee maintain boundaries that are comfortable, setting some limits when necessary. Other times, a birth parent may need support in maintaining their own boundaries and not allowing boundary invasions based on their own sense of grief, guilt, or shame about having relinquished. This is not the same as trying to control all the relationships, or trying to prevent contact between adoptee and birth family. Such control is a violation of the adoptee’s and the birth family’s boundaries.
     There is a natural, but perhaps unfortunate, tendency to see the initial intensity that may occur at the beginning of adoption reunions as intimacy. This is much the same as when one enters into a new romantic relationship and sees the intensity as true intimacy. When one has a new child, whether by birth or adoption, that same intensity is almost always present, and, indeed, is an important part of bonding and eventual attachment. However, true intimacy takes longer to develop. Long ago, a professor in a marriage and family course this writer took made the analogy of a fire, where the initial intensity (”falling in love”) is like kindling, that burns hot and intense, but briefly, and long-term intimacy is like the oak log, that burns steadily and for a long time. In family relationships of any type, both of these types of “fires” are important, but they are not the same thing.
     As reunion relationships develop, and true intimacy, rather than just initial intensity, begins to develop, if it does, then boundaries also shift. The individuals and families involved become more open, allow more access to information and each other’s thoughts and feelings, and are less threatened. They are no longer worried about secrecy, confidentiality, or anonymity. They are more interested in connections than in cut-offs. Some individuals and some parts of families may be able to do this sooner, or more easily, than others. Eventually, families become more interested in collaboration than in competition. They can accept that these families are forever joined by the very fact of the adoption.
     That does not mean they no longer have any boundaries as families or as individuals. It does mean they might still need to negotiate who spends holidays with whom, how often people are together, etc., just as families joined by marriage negotiate these matters. Healthy families are able to discuss and negotiate these things “without rancor or resentment. Many families find these issues difficult. Families joined by adoption may still have different ideas about privacy with regard to physical and emotional expression, even intellectual sharing.
     Some writings about adoption reunions have used the term “honeymoon” to describe the atmosphere around the time of the initial reunion. That implies some kind of intensity that masquerades as intimacy, and also implies a state destined not to last. It is unfortunate, it seems to this writer, that this term has been used, because it sets people up to expect something negative to happen at some time. It also implies some kind of emotional fusion. Again, although fusion is normal and healthy for infants and their parents, it is not normal when a thirty-year-old meets his mother for the first time since his birth. The yearning may be there, but she is not going to undress him and count his toes, for instance. He has boundaries now, as an adult. Healthy boundaries are a function of self-esteem, and a person with appropriate boundaries (neither too rigid nor too diffuse), has a sense of how close they wish to be to another person, physically, emotionally, and intellectually.
     When adoptees and birth parents first meet, however, there may be some confusion because we do not have a cultural custom for this reunion. Probably no culture does, in fact, because relinquishment, closed adoption, and eventual reunion is not the norm in any society. That is not to say we should pretend it doesn’t happen, because every society has some way of handling informal or formal adoption situations. It will always be the exception to the norm, however.
     Another aspect of the emotional confusion is also that physical and personality similarities between birth parents and reunited offspring strongly attract the individuals to each other, but without the background of growing together throughout the offspring’s life, there is not a built-in context for this attraction, so the feelings may be interpreted as some sort of sexual attraction, when, in fact, it goes deeper than that. It is a yearning for the self, for one’s past, possibly for the past partner. Awareness of these feelings and their true meanings may be helpful to people experiencing them in early reunion, and can give the perspective that might prevent inappropriate behavior.
     A new way of looking at adoptive and foster families which respects everyone’s boundaries and various identities, is to see them as intentional families. This includes those families with “step” connections. Rather than labeling these as “blended families,” which many people feel implies they have been pureed in a blender into some mixture without recognizable boundaries or differences, the term intentional families would imply , that the persons involved have made a conscious decision to be a family. Just as marriage or committed cohabitation is an intentional relationship, so are adoption, foster care, and step relationships, not inferior to birth relationships, but not exactly the same. Intentional families have several characteristics in common, most basic of which is that intentionality.
     Perhaps this was the good intention behind the “chosen child” approach, even though it has come to be associated with secrets, lies, and denigration of the birth family. Parents today who choose to have biological children may begin to fit this idea of intentional families, also. Where choosing to conceive, or choosing to continue a pregnancy, planned or not, is an option, parents can own their decision to have the child (not own the child). In healthy families, there is at once an on-going intentionality and yet the luxury of being able to take the relationships for granted in that they are regarded as permanent and irreversible. In this view, all children are “chosen,” and so are partners, although no infant or young child chooses their parents. Hence, they should not be expected to feel particularly grateful or obligated toward their parents just because those people are their parents.
     In intentional families, there are apt to be more than two parents involved at some level, possibly several sets of grandparents, different types of siblings (full, half, step, adopted, foster), and possibly some informal (as opposed to biological or legal) “second parents,” “like a brother,” “like family” relationships that function as familial relationships rather than friendships. In many Native cultures, there are also “cousin-brothers,” “clan mothers,” etc. In Hispanic cultures, there are “consue-gros,” “compadres,” “commadres,” and other terms that don’t exist in English.
     Even though family and individual boundaries are narrower and more rigidly defined in Anglo culture, by and large, the boundaries between parents and children may be more permeable than in other cultures. We may let children in on information that they neither need nor want, and accept more information from them that influences our decisions about money, time, and priorities.
     Finally, it is important to look at our English common law history with regard to adoption. Because of the laws concerning inheritance, and the patriarchal mind-set of trying to be sure one’s son is an actual biological son, adoption was long illegal in Britain, and certainly second-best. This has greatly influenced our cultural and deepest-seated thoughts and feelings about adoption. So, even though adoption is legal and promoted as desirable, there is deep underlying anxiety, fear, and even shame regarding relinquishment, becoming adoptive parents, and being adopted. It is impossible to separate these thoughts and feelings from the adoptee’s actual neurological or psychological “primal wound.” For this reason, the term “disconnect” may be less emotionally loaded than the term “primal wound.” Adoptees may feel and think their most basic boundaries were violated by the acts of relinquishment, foster care, and adoption. It is true that the natural progression of fusion and later individuation were interrupted or not well established, so the basic foundation has something missing. By understanding this, and not blaming birth parents or adoptive parents for this, all parties involved can establish healthy, intentional relationships with appropriate boundaries and openness.


Carnes, Patrick. The Betrayal Bond, Health Communications, Inc., 1997.

Friehl, John and Linda. Adult Children; The Secrets of Dysfunctional Families, Health Communications, Inc., 1988.

Lerner, Rokelle, Boundaries for Codependents, Hazelden, 1988.

Parkhill, Nancy. Healing the Adoption Experience, Bookman Publishing, 2004.

Rosenberg, Elinor. The Adoption Life Cycle, Free Press, 1992.

Stern, E. Mark, Editor, Psychotherapy and the Grieving Patient, Haworth Press, 1985.

Thompson, John and Karen Foli. The Post Adoption Blues, Rodale Press, 2004.

Verrier, Nancy. The Primal Wound, Gateway Press, 1996.

Excerpted from the January and April 2006 editions of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2006 Operation Identity