Reunions, Siblings, and Triangulation

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

     An issue that has rarely been addressed is that of sibling relationships following reunions between birth parents and relinquished offspring. In some instances, the birth parent’s(s’) other offspring may have initiated the search, but in most cases, either a birth parent or the adult adoptee has initiated the search. We are referring, of course, to closed adoptions. In open adoptions, search and reunion are not issues, although meeting siblings may be. In closed adoptions, the siblings may not have even known of the adoptee’s existence prior to the reunion. If the adoptee also has adopted siblings, they may find they have emotional issues about the reunion, too. This article will explore several possible dynamics related to reunions and siblings.
     A common scenario is that of a birth mother who relinquished her first child at birth, in a closed adoption, then subsequently married (not to the child’s father), and had other children, which she raised. Because of society’s attitudes about adoption, relinquishment, and unmarried pregnancies, she rarely, if ever, talked about the child she relinquished. In some cases, these children were told of the first child’s existence at some point; in other cases, they were not. In many instances, even the husband was not told of the first child. This was, in fact, recommended in the past by many doctors, adoption agencies, social workers, and certainly by the birth mother’s parents. At the point at which a search has been made and the birth mother and relinquished child (now an adult) have located each other, the birth mother faces a decision about telling her other children. If they already knew of this half-sibling’s existence, she still faces the decision of having all her children meet each other. Should she meet her adult child alone first? Should she and her spouse meet with him/her first or with the adoptive parents, if they know of the search and are willing to meet with her? To what degree are her other children to be included in this reunion? The fact that the adoptee is now an adult needs to be considered, as adoptees often feel that they have never had any control over major decisions about their lives. Each family has to work these issues out in their own way, because our culture does have a settled tradition about any reunion situations.
     Now, let’s say that the birth mother and her current spouse have met the birth child, had a successful initial reunion, but the other offspring have not yet met their older half-sibling, perhaps due to distance. The younger siblings, particularly the next in age to the one who had been adopted, may have feelings of being replaced as the first-born, may even feel he/she has been lied to about being the first-born. Frequent comments from them may minimize the importance of genetic relationships or any traits the half-sibling seems to have in common with the others. It may more appropriate to see this as a fear of being replaced in the mother’s affections rather than true indifference. Some who already knew of the adoptee’s existence report they were always afraid that if they weren’t “good enough,” they too would be “given away to someone else.” Even though all siblings may be grown by the time of the reunion, the mother may need to assure the children she raised, particularly this second-eldest, of her love for them and their position in the family. The youngest child may have the least problem accepting the new-found sibling, because she/he has always been the youngest of all and that is not changed.
     The adoptee, on the other hand, may have grown up as an only child, and now finds him/herself regarded as one of several, or may have grown up the youngest and the only one of that gender, and now finds the birth mother had other children of that gender. For some, this is a dream come true, or appears to be. For others, they dislike sharing the parent’s love and may have fantasized that their mother had no other children, or they may think, “If she raised them, why couldn’t she have raised me?” Comparisons of financial states of the two families is common, from both sides. If the new-found adoptee comes to visit, or less commonly, moves in with the birth mother, there may be comparisons of behavior, treatment, and expectations. This new eldest sibling may receive special privileges, or may feel lost in a herd, and may seek out a special relationship with. the birth mother. The current spouse may have difficulty with this person’s existence, or with the adoptee’s relationship with the mother, or may find he has new feelings of jealousy regarding her past relationship with the birth father. He may be frustrated by not having even a name for his new role. She can call herself a “birth mother,” but what is he to this person, a “birth step-father”? Failure to recognize and address these issues leaves everyone unsure of what to do or what to feel. Again, our culture has nothing to say about these matters, because society has pretended such situations do not exist. When adoption is recognized, the story has been “The adoptive family and adopted child all lived happily ever after and forgot anyone was adopted.”
     A term that is used in family therapy is “triangulation,” denoting an indirect way of communicating, where one person in the family, instead of telling another family member their thoughts and feelings concerning that person, tells a third family member, and they in turn tell the second person. This happens in unhealthy families of all descriptions, either out of fear or protection or anger. Instead of a triangle, it may, in fact, resemble some polygonal structure, similar to the children’s game of “Gossip,” where messages get garbled as they get passed on. The same phenomenon may occur in reunited birth families, involving birth parents, adoptees, siblings raised by the birth mother or birth father, and the adoptive parents. The persons involved may have a difficult time recognizing what is happening, and may not be sure how else to communicate. Should birth parents talk directly with adoptive parents or let the adoptee be in charge? Does this put him/her in an awkward position? Should all the siblings relate to each other individually, or all relate primarily to the birth parent? And if the adoptee has adopted siblings, or siblings that are the biological children of the adoptive parents, where do they fit? Sometimes they feel completely shut out of this newly extended family, where their brother or sister suddenly has two sets of parents and more siblings.
     Because there are no clear-cut rules and few precedents to give us answers, as families or as professionals, the best solution may be to allow everyone involved to voice their concerns, fears, hopes, and expectations, without judgment, and to encourage families and individuals to remain flexible and develop their own best answers as the various relationships evolve. For therapists who have no adoption connections themselves, or who already have preconceived ideas about what the ideal healthy family looks like, this may be a difficult thing to accept. Support groups such as O.I. can play an important part, as members share their experiences and insights. Triangulation is not a healthy or clear way of communicating in any family, let alone an unconventional one such as the reunited family, but it may be even more common, because no one is sure of their role and may be trying to be polite, or protective, or may be taking their anger and fears underground. The birth mother may become the conduit for siblings’ indirect communication with each other, or the adoptee may take on a mediator’s or rescuer’s role between sets of parents or between adoptive parents and adopted siblings, or even between birth mother and birth father.
     If you have had sibling-related adoption experiences, we invite you to share those at O.I. and in writing for this newsletter.

Excerpted from the January 1999 edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 1999 Operation Identity