Are You Ruining Your Open Adoption?

Open adoption (where the adoptive and birth families know about each other and usually have some contact--offers many benefits for adoptees, birth and adoptive families. It answers questions about health history. It helps adoptees answer questions like "Why was I placed for adoption?" It gives birth and adoptive parents more of a sense of control and understanding.

Open adoption also opens up a whole new can of worms in terms of relationship challenges. Are you prepared to avoid the pitfalls that cause many open adoptions to fizzle or even fail?

Open Adoption Mistake #1 : Making Assumptions

This is a common mistake in any relationship, but open adoption throws people together who otherwise are unlikely to meet. Birth and adoptive parents are commonly separated by distance, life circumstances, age, and all kinds of other differences that can sometimes make connecting or understanding the other person's perspective difficult. If you don't have much of a frame of reference for the way the other person lives and thinks, then you cannot assume that you understand what makes them tick. Therefore, open adoptions require extra effort to get to know the new members of your family. If the other party is not saying straight out what is going on for them, give them the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes feelings are overwhelming, hard to figure out, or difficult to admit.

Open Adoption Mistake #2 : Avoiding the Hard Questions

One of the most common things that leads to making assumptions is avoiding difficult questions. We all do this...and many times for good reasons. We want to be polite. We don't want offend or put someone on the spot or turn them off--especially during the matching process when pre-adoptive parents are desperate to be chosen and birth parents are feeling extra vulnerable. But if we avoid the hard questions, we are left with assumptions. (See Mistake #1.) Often, this leads to misunderstandings that can build resentment over time. It can become easier and easier to just disconnect. 

Open Adoption Mistake #3 : Thinking That the Absence of Contact Equals the Absence of Love

This is a hard one--especially for adoptees to understand as kids. It is not uncommon for visits to be planned and contacts to be promised, but then it never happens. Maybe the birth parent gets overwhelmed and just stops answering calls. Maybe the adoptive parent gets busy, and the pictures and phone calls slow down or stop for a while. Adoption brings up a slew of strong, often opposite feelings at once--insecurity, jealousy, fierce love, longing, joy, sadness, and protectiveness to name a few. It takes a very special person to be able to handle all these feelings at once. Most of us are not fully equipped for this and, often, the easiest answer is just to pull back. For most, the rest of our lives and relationships are more simple. Focusing on them does not necessarily mean that they are more important--just easier to handle.

Open Adoption Mistake #4 : Promising More Than You Can Deliver

Often times, we get wrapped up in the gratitude of a new adoption and forget that things will change. Life gets busy. People move...sometimes far away. People get married, have other kids, change jobs. Adoptive relationships need to be flexible to accommodate all these changes. It's okay to make promises--as long as you can keep them. So, if it's for specific things like the frequency of contacts, just keep those promises in the short term. Long term promises should be reserved for more general principles like showing respect and honoring the relationship. If everyone is accepting that things are going to change and willing to adapt as necessary, you are less likely to get bogged down in hurt feelings.

Open Adoption Mistake #5 : Trying to Be Something You are Not

Adoptive relationships are just like any other relationship. You have to be yourself or the whole thing feels forced. Be honest about how you are feeling. If you think how you are feeling is going to hurt the other person's feelings, then spend some time sorting through how you want to say it. You might also find another outlet to sort it through, but don't pretend that you aren't feeling it. Feelings of anger, grief, jealousy, and guilt are all normal feelings associated with adoptions--for all members of the triad. They do not define who you are and will not define your relationships unless you avoid them and do not work them through. Being honest with yourself will allow you to be honest with everyone else.

No one ever said adoption was an easy way to build a family, but it can be super rewarding and fulfilling. Steer clear of these relationship mistakes and you will be on your way to building a non-traditional family that you wouldn't trade for the world. If you need some extra help putting these suggestions into practice, consider Adoption Relationship Coaching--paving the path towards smooth, connected open adoptions.

Traci W. Pirri, LCSW

Traci W. Pirri, LCSW is a top anxiety therapist, depression counselor, and adoption therapist in Austin, Texas. She is also licensed in North Carolina. She is passionate about working with people whose lives or professions have caused them to struggle, but still desire a life worth living. She helps people find the connections they want with their relationships and daily lives.

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