Mistaking Intensity for Intimacy in Reunions

by Barbara Free, M.A., LPCC, LADAC

     Many adoption reunions start off with a great deal of joy and intense emotions, which the participants see as instant bonding and emotional intimacy. The very intensity can be frightening to some, and they may interpret the mix of physical attraction and feelings as sexual attraction, in some cases. Some of these intense reunions lead to negative encounters with other family members, especially adoptive parents or current spouses of the birth parent or adoptee. Sometimes these intense, whirlwind reunions lead to disappointment and anger on the part of birth parents and adoptees, and to estrangement or very little contact between adoptee and birth parents. The individuals involved, who had such high hopes at the outset, are left feeling betrayed and wondering what went wrong, after such an exciting initial scene.
     It may be that the exciting reunion is exactly what went wrong, in fact. We may have mistaken intensity for intimacy. Not only is this common in our culture, it is even more common among persons who have experienced significant trauma in relationships. Birth parents quite often had an intense, but not truly emotionally intimate, relationship which resulted in the conception of the person who is now the adoptee. Birth parents experienced trauma in several ways during their pregnancy and birth, even if they had supportive family and friends, which in many cases in closed adoptions, they did not. The physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual trauma of being separated from their child and not given the societal permission to grieve added to the trauma. While birth fathers may not have had the physical trauma of giving up a child they’ve carried in their body, they have had the trauma of not being able to nurture and provide for this child for one reason or another. The infant experienced the trauma of being separated and not understanding what had happened. He/she is “placed” with a family who, although full of love and longing for this child, has experienced the trauma of infertility with all that entailed physically, emotionally, financially, and spiritually. Nobody’s trauma has been openly acknowledged or healed and so it has become entrenched over the years.
     When a member of the triad decides to search, that is an effort to heal trauma and bring healing into their lives. It is not about “curiosity.” To dismiss it as such is to trivialize the importance of the search. It is about the need to know the other person, the need to connect, the need to heal. The searching person may have all kinds of expectations. The person being searched for may or may not have acknowledged these same needs, and has his/her own expectations, fears, and hopes. When a search is completed very rapidly, as may happen with Internet connections, there may not be time to contemplate these issues before the actual meeting. A longer search, frustrating though it may be, may actually allow for some sorting of priorities, thoughts, feelings, expectations, etc. A reunion that starts with a tentative contact by letter or telephone, or through a third party, may provide time for processing emotions, not only on the part of the person who has been found, but on the part of the person searching. Sometimes the searcher is so eager for the reunion that they have difficulty looking at the fact that the real goal is life-long healthy relationship. This is also where adoptive parents may feel threatened or left out, fearful for their loved one as well as for themselves. Birth parents’ spouses or other offspring may have these same concerns. When these concerns and fears are not understood or openly dealt with, it adds to the stress and possible additional trauma for everyone.
     When a physical reunion takes place, there may be a great deal of intense reaction to the physical appearance, gestures, personality characteristics, and other similarities between birth parent and adoptee. It is sometimes like looking at oneself, or seeing the other birth parent again. This recognition of similarities may be intense for adoptive parents as well, who may never have met anyone who resembles this person they’ve raised, and for the birth parents’ other offspring, if any, who may be startled at meeting someone like themselves, or like their parent(s). This reaction can feel overwhelming. We have no cultural model for handling such a situation, because our culture still denies it happens. For birth parents and adoptees, this recognition of the familiar is a powerful attraction. Because our culture tells us (overtly and covertly) that feelings of warmth and attraction in adults are sexual, people may assume that that is what is going on, when in fact, it is the same attraction parents and newborn babies experience. When it is a parent and infant, however, the parent has a cultural model for this attraction, and it is considered healthy and normal. The infant does not have boundaries yet, but is allowed to simply soak up the attention and affection.
     When a parent and a grown offspring meet for the first time, however, it is entirely different. Fusion, such as experienced by parents and newborns, is normal for that time, but is not healthy or normal for adults in any relationship. Adults have a conscious awareness of thoughts and feelings, and culturally defined boundaries. When both persons do, in fact, have healthy and appropriate physical, emotional intellectual, and spiritual boundaries, they can acknowledge this powerful attraction of birth parent and adult offspring, and figure out how to act appropriately. The problem is that many persons with adoption connections do not have healthy boundaries and become confused, feeling guilt and shame, adding another layer of trauma to their lives.
     When these intense reactions are mistaken for intimacy, apart from any sexual thoughts or feelings, the misunderstandings can easily lead to disappointment, anger, and hurt. An expectation that the relationship will be just like a parent-child relationship that has been intact since birth is certain to lead to trouble. An expectation that the birth parent will “take over” as a primary parent is not healthy or realistic, no matter whose expectation that is. The adoptee is not going to be anyone’s little girl or little boy. Birth parents who did not raise other children may be especially vulnerable to this expectation, because they were not able to fill this role of parenting an infant or young child. Adoptive parents who did not also have their own biological children may be more apt to have this fear. Adoptees who did not “match well” with adoptive parents may be more prone to this expectation. Expectations or fantasies of constant approval, of being the long-lost princess or longed-for perfect parent will not lead to healthy relationships. But when people see each other for the first time in reunion, this longing is powerful. There is a term, “mirroring,” to describe what happens between parents and infants as they forge a bond, and for birth parents and adult adoptees, or for siblings who meet, it may be almost literally like looking in a mirror. Studies of reunited twins, particularly identical twins, have demonstrated how overwhelming this sensation is. A television story of identical twins who were reunited in middle age clearly showed them finding themselves by find each other, a falling in love with themselves.
     Reunions shown on television reinforce our ideas and fantasies of intense, glorious reunions, but provide us no information on the long-term process of living in reunion, of how these families are joined in what is now an open adoption, or of how the individuals learn to work through all the issues involved. When a search results in a hesitant contact, or lack of contact, or news of the previous death of the person being sought, the person who searched may feel cheated, or may feel that they are not good enough for the other person, did something wrong, waited too long to search, or searched too soon. They may not get the support and affirmation they need and may have difficulty seeing reunion as a process, as a journey of finding their truth. This is one of the roles of a good adoption support group with members from all parts of the triad and extended family, where people can share their experiences and validate each other.
     True intimacy takes time. Real intimacy has emotional intellectual, and spiritual aspects as well as physical. Some initial reunions will be intense, with lots of hugs, kisses, declarations of love, tears, and laughter. Others will be much more low-key, even cautious. Some reunions will start with letters or calls, and proceed to a personal meeting only after a time, while some will involve a face-to-face meeting right away. While neither is necessarily right or wrong, better or worse, it is important to bear in mind that the overall goal is a life-long relationship, where everyone involved is comfortable, feels honored and valued, and can be honest, where no one’s boundaries are violated, and where people can acknowledge and celebrate both their similarities and their differences. Initial intensity that is not followed by the slower and deeper commitment to building genuine intimacy will lead to more trauma.
     This does not mean we need to deliberately refuse to meet the other person until a certain number of weeks, months, or years have passed, which would be artificial and contrived, and hurtful in itself, but it does mean will would do well to develop patience with ourselves, with the other persons involved, and with the life-long process of reunion. It may take several years for this now very extended family to develop a level of comfort with each other that feels natural. Some persons may never get there. The more open we can become about our thoughts, feelings, hopes and fears, the more we can deal with reality and become bonded to each other in healthy ways. Reunion is not a television drama, but is real life, and much more important. It is important enough to deserve the time and commitment needed to develop genuine intimacy rather than just initial intensity.


Carnes, Patrick. The Betrayal Bond. Carnes, Health Communications, Deerfield Beach FL, 1997.
Gediman, Judith S. and Brown, Linda P. Brown. Birth Bond. New Horizon Press, Far Hills, NJ, 1991.
Lerner, Rokelle. Boundaries for Codependents. Hezelden, Center City, MN, 1988.
McColm, Michelle. Adoption Reunions. Second Story Press, 1993.

Excerpted from the October 2000 edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2000 Operation Identity