Four Stages of Adult Adoptee Reaction to Reunion & Information-Sharing

There are a lot of blog posts around the bloggosphere as of late talking about reunion, rejection, and post-reunion rejection.  Since the first major reunion movements of modern adoption in the 50's, both adoptees and original parents alike have been theorizing about what causes reunions to work well, and what causes family members to reject one another.  Are there identifiable stages of reunion that can explain what emotionally is happening to each person within a reunion?

Some reunions work well.  In saying that, I can't exactly take a picture of what "working well" looks like to describe it because this is something that is self-defined.  "Working well" does not indicate a certain level of contact, a certain level of information sharing, or a certain level of family integration.  It simply indicates that whatever contact, information sharing, and integration there is, is respectful and satisfactory to those experiencing the reunion.  Even for reunions that have reached a level of homeostasis that involves a connected relationship can be tough work.  

For those reunions where the only stability that has been reached in the relationship is to discontinue it, the adoption community perpetually seeks to answer: what keeps long-lost family members from being able to establish the broken connection?  Other reunions offer dramatic push and pulls of high emotions, high hopes, and devastating let downs leaving those being taken for the exhausting journey asking...."is it OK if I just walk away?"

I read a 1994 article by R.A. Moran in which she proposes her theory of stages of reunion within the context of her autobiography of reunion as a therapist and adult adoptee.  Moran was born in the late 1940's; she searched and found her original parents and siblings.  She was happily reunited with her original father but was unable to establish a relationship with her original mother.  Her theorized "stages" are fascinating; although I must say I am not sure if her theory is based on literary research (she mentioned Lifton numerous times), observation of other reunited adoptees in a clinical setting, or simply based on her own self-awareness in the reunion experience.  These steps also pertain specifically to the adult adoptee in the reunion.

"[R]eunion is not the final step in an adoptee's search. The reunion is part of a growth process and is only one chapter in the life of an adoptee."

Stage I: Paralysis
Stage II: Eruption
Stage III: Loss & Grief
Stage IV: Empowerment

According to Moran, after a first meeting, an adoptee may be shocked and overwhelmed by finally seeing a face that looks like them--the face of the woman who gave them life.  They may be overwhelmed by the amount of information they have received or its content, causing a period of "lethargy."  An adoptee may withdraw during this time and need their emotional space.

After synthesis of pre-reunion assumptions and ideas of the original parents and the factual information shared by the original parents is completed by the adoptee, an "eruption" of emotion may occur.  

The reentry of the original parents into the adoptee's life may cause the adoptee to grieve over what life events that cannot be recaptured were lost with their original parents.  Adoption's many paradoxes come into play.

When an adoptee accepts what they cannot change, they can move forward to empowerment.  They can embrace the self-awareness it took to process the prior stages and acknowledge their own intrapsychic strength and personal resiliency at synthesizing challenging and often emotionally painful information and realities of life and adoption.

"I always felt that my past was like looking down a dark hallway. I could see the figures standing there but could never quite make out who they were.

As a child I knew someday I would have to walk back down that hallway. 1 knew I would have to find a way to cast light onto my past."
Moran recognized that other factors may be at play when it comes to each stage, stage progression, or the validity to how this theory may apply to a person at all.  For her, being a woman may have played a factor.  As she wrote, women are more likely to reunite, likely because we are socially permitted to be more emotionally open and because child birth of our own children may cause a sort of awakening that urges us to seek the mother who birthed us.  How other cultural factors may come into play in reunion were not mentioned.  Also common with stage theories is the idea that not everyone progresses through stages in the same way, in an established time-frame, or experiences each stage at all.  Sometimes someone may be stuck in a theorized stage and does not experience any of the others.  This was not discussed by the author for her theory.

Here's the thing about theories: they are not necessarily true, or exactly true, for everyone.  Theories can help explain our reaction to a life event or an emotion we have.  But they are not intended for us to cram ourselves into.  Human theories work on behalf of humans, not humans working to shape themselves to support theories.  This theory may bring comfort and understanding to some, which is why I shared it.  For others, it explains nothing--and I acknowledge this reality.

Do you feel as though these theorized stages shed any light on your reunion experience for you?

Moran, R. (1994). Stages of emotion: an adult adoptee's postreunion perspective. Child Welfare73(3), 249-260.

NaBloPoMo/NAAM Day #10