Abandonment Trauma in Adopted Adults

Adoption can create an experience of rupture at the earliest moments of an individual’s life. The physical bonds with the birth mother that have been developing through pregnancy come to a sudden end, and the experience of separation that the newborn baby goes through can be difficult to live with and comprehend.

In many cases, the process is handled so well that the baby is to some degree insulated against the pain of the separation. In others, for people who are less fortunate, the experience is much more painful and ultimately devastating. Instead of a seamless transition from the birth mother and family to the new adopting mother, the baby is left with a sense of life interrupted.

So a kind of psychological gap is left in the core of the baby/infant’s sense of themselves. When this happens a sense of rupture may remain and go on to be the mainspring of enduring emotional distress.

Adoption is complicated because on the one hand, something wonderful has happened and the adopted person has the sense that they have been chosen. But on the other, there remains an enduring sense that you have been rejected too.

Anonymous client

For some people who have been adopted this can leave a lasting sense of abandonment trauma

For such people forming attachments may always be fraught. The adopted child can grow up to be someone who can never take the emotional permanence of the relationships around them for granted. People who have experienced abandonment trauma like this may find they have to do a lot of work to maintain their emotional stability.

Emotional permanence refers to our sense of ongoing emotional security. It refers to our sense of things continuing to exist even though we might not be able to see them.

As children, as part of ordinary development, we might build up a sense of the world around us that we then go on to internalise. We can then carry that picture in our minds, and it provides us with the psychological coordinates we need to live, work and thrive. It nurtures us.

Certain events, such as adoption, can create fault lines in this internal model, and the problems that result from those fault lines can be enduring and may go on to be the origin of complex problems in our adult lives.

This is what Nancy Verrier writes about in her book The Primal Wound. In her book, she argues that there is a “primal wound” that develops when a mother and child are separated by adoption shortly after childbirth. Verrier describes the mother and child as having a vital connected relationship which is physical, psychological, and physiological, and explores the effects of such bonds being disrupted.

Michael Balint coined the term; The Basic Fault (1968) to point to the archaic and primitive areas within ourselves in which our original psychological traumas are located and held.

Emotional Permanence and Adoption

Adoption, family breakups and separations, can destabilise our sense of emotional permanence. Events like this can make our ongoing emotional stability a complicated and fraught lived experience.

These kinds of experiences can bring a quality of shame with them, and this in turn increases the problem of acknowledging them, and of being able to speak openly about them. So the emotions and feelings that stem from abandonment trauma in adopted adults can become secrets. Keeping secrets cuts us off from other people, so out of these secrets a further sense of separation develops and is compounded over time.

I know it might not make much sense, I always knew that I had been adopted, but at the same time it was like it was a secret. It was like it shouldn’t be spoken about. Like we all knew but we shouldn’t say anything. And it weighed on my mind, I had all these worries and thoughts but didn’t feel I could say anything about them.

Anonymous client

It is like a geometric pattern that repeats and replicates itself. With each repetition, we become more isolated. We are no longer connected to other people in the way we thought we were.

Emotional Permanence and Addiction

For some people, this becomes the driver of addictive states of mind which are driven by a perverse desire to be alone. When we are drunk or on ketamine, or gambling or absorbed in obsessive ideas, or when we compulsively spend money, we are doing things that distract us from our feelings. In the grip of such addictive and compulsive states, we might have a perverse sense of feeling that we are in the right place. We aren’t. We are like sailors who have heard the lure of the sirens calling to us. We have mistaken a fire on a beach for a lighthouse. We are being drawn nearer to shipwreck and greater danger.

Isolation and Abandonment Trauma in Adopted Adults

There are so many possible variations on these destructive and isolating patterns, some people turn to co-dependent relationships, some people become addicted to spending, and they spend money to feel better and ease the pain of feeling separate abandoned, and alone.

Life is much more difficult when we do not possess the ordinary attachment bonds that help us navigate ourselves. Abandonment traumas in adopted adults can surface in the form of unhealthy obsessions.

We attach obsessively because we crave some sort of emotional permanence

  • The thing about being absorbed by obsessional fixations is that it temporarily makes us feel whole, better, like ourselves again. But when we come to our senses, we realise we were mistaken.
  • We are still no nearer to a sense of emotional stability, permanence or wholeness and in many cases, we have made our situation worse while we were consumed by the unhealthy solution.
  • In cases involving abandonment trauma in adopted adults, where trauma has been impossible to process, it ruptures our sense of emotional permanence.
  • The child grows up to become an adult who retains a sense of being damaged at the core, the sense of emotional permanence has been ruptured.
  • People who have been through experiences like this might be left with a profound sense of psychological fragility. They have the experience of going from a sense of wholeness to being shattered very quickly.

The challenge is how to live without being overwhelmed by the sense of emotional fragility. How can we work through these critical issues?

In psychotherapy, it might become tempting to discuss notions of cure, but often that is a confusing term. People who have suffered and been left living with the scars of early or profound trauma, such as the abandonment trauma of adoption, have to find a constructive way to live with their experience.

Because of stigma, shame, and guilt, and the complicated relationship we may have with trauma and emotional disturbance, people who live with these kinds of emotional wounds often have no chance to explain what has happened to them.

One of the consequences of this is that they themselves remain unclear and confused about what they have been going through. I use the verb ‘have’ because these traumas remain alive and ongoing in the psyche of the victim.

Certain kinds of traumas remain ongoing. Although the time in which they happened may be in the past, the unconscious mind doesn’t have a past. So traumatic experiences, experiences that are too much for us to process remain ongoing.

Fragments of the experience are scattered through the fabric of our minds where they continue to exist. They are like stars, deep in space. Often, we forget all about them. Then they are back orbiting us, and we feel their gravity pulling on us, like the moon shifts the tides. And when that happens, all too quickly we become disturbed, upset, and unbalanced.

What can be done about this?

It’s not entirely clear but one of the things we can do is try to talk about it. People who have been through these kinds of experiences often have never found a way to speak about what has happened to them. People who have suffered abandonment trauma in the process of adoption may have an uphill battle finding a way to speak and process their experiences.

In 2022 we may have become better at speaking about things and thinking about mental health, but not long-ago things were different. Children were supposed to be seen and not heard, this was doubly problematic for traumatised children or children traumatised by the experience of adoption.

How could the child tell other people what had happened to them when they were stuck in a culture that wasn’t interested in them? One of the consequences of this is that the child learned to ignore him or herself, and her internal fears. Their parents may have been too busy with their own problems to pay attention to the nightmares their children were battling with.

Speaking in therapy, in a confidential relationship may provide a chance to start to tell the story.

Contact me

Having the chance to speak in a confidential setting is often the key to developing a clearer understanding of the state of our emotions, of our internal worlds, and of our attachment patterns. To understand more about how these developed, and of how they might need attention now.

By giving yourself a safe space to look at these things you may start to discover a greater sense of possibilities, and this may be the beginning of developing a greater sense of understanding how to relate to yourself and others.

The chance to reflect on ourselves, our feelings and experience can be powerful and transformative.  Out of this, you may be able to develop a clearer understanding of how you and your sense of your problems have developed.

I have been working with people on issues such like this for more than twenty years.  My work is built around helping you to develop greater insight into who you are, and how you live. 

Contact me to arrange a free telephone consultation to discuss how my approach might help you.


Email: toby@tobyingham.com