Valentine's Day. For some, it means romance, cards, chocolate and gifts. For others, it is the only day of the year when buying flowers is not an act of apology or does not arouse suspicion of misdeeds.
Some treat it as a celebration of love and connection. Others greet it with cynical disdain. It is the annual reminder of singledom and loneliness. Ultimately, it is about relationships, or the lack thereof. It may evoke unpleasant memories of lost loves, but the nostalgia is normally forgotten by the time the flowers wither and the chocolates disappear.
Or is it?
What if Valentine's Day, or relationships in general, were a stark reminder of the most painful and distressing events that you ever experienced? What if they triggered a trauma so terrifically challenging that it forever altered your approach to life?
Welcome to Valentine's Day, and relationships, for adoptees.
Take a moment to baulk at such a provocative, nonsensical claim; that saving a child through adoption could lead to a life of relationship problems. It is ungrateful and even accusatory to altruistic adopters. It is insulting to those battling depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other psychological issues associated with adoption.
Yet believe it or not, the development of intimate relationships can be a major challenge for adoptees. Their first and most important relationship was irreparably destroyed. The person supposed to love them most disappeared inexplicably. Then they were passed to strangers and expected to pretend that nothing happened.
Seemingly banal relationship problems are not to be overlooked, minimised or dismissed. The impact of that severed relationship is colossal. It permanently alters everything they were destined for. It alters how they attach to people. It causes bonding problems. It leaves them angry, sad and helpless. It interferes with emotional development and instils a persistent fear of abandonment within them.
This fear impacts future relationships. Many adoptees fear that what happened once might happen again. They fear that each new relationship, like the very first one, will not last. If their own mother abandoned them, then why won't others?
It affects their ability to trust. Their trust in adults was shattered when they were most vulnerable. The idea that their mother loved them so deeply that she gave them away is a confusing paradox. Connection, intimacy and love are forever intertwined with rejection, loneliness and abandonment. Being unable to remember the traumatic events only compounds the problem.
So it should be no surprise that adoptees often have tumultuous adult relationships. For partners, it can be an emotional rollercoaster. Adoptees are sensitive to criticism and have difficulty expressing long-suppressed emotions. They have hair-triggers and lack impulse control, frequently overreacting to minor stresses. They can be manipulative, intimidating, combative and argumentative. Total absence of control over childhood decisions gives them an unrelenting need for control in adulthood.
They employ various distancing techniques to avoid the vulnerability of intimate relationships. They withdraw and isolate themselves, often acting emotionally absent or completely disinterested, ensuring that the partner feels unloved and assuming that the relationship is decaying. They constantly test the limits of their partner's patience, pushing them to see if they will leave or simply pushing them away before they get close enough to abandon them. This counterphobic reaction of 'reject before being rejected' is a classic sign of stunted emotional development and unresolved trauma.
That is not to say that adoptees do not want intimacy. They often want to 'give everything'. They yearn for a close, trusting connection. They want to let someone 'in', but the openness and vulnerability is petrifying. Letting someone 'in' also opens the door to rejection.
That is why adoptees are drawn to others who are deeply wounded. They pick partners who are equally unavailable emotionally, physically or socially. They are attracted to those who reflect their suffering. Their partners are often unable to express emotion, angry about a previous injustice, not over past relationships or possess similar histories of abandonment. They pick those who avoid and run away from stressful situations. These partners will collude to keep everything at a superficial level. Eventually though, they will do what they fear most - abandon them.
Even if partners recognise that deep, sensitive wounds exist, they tire of walking on eggshells. The emotional rollercoaster is exhausting. They become sick of the 'parent-role' they often assume. Even if the adoptee matures and gains insight into their behaviour, the damage may have been done. Partners reach breaking point and leave.
But who is to say that failed relationships cannot be a blessing in disguise?
Failed relationships can exorcise the scared, wounded child and force adoptees to realise that their coping mechanisms drive partners away. Sometimes it takes a failed relationship to admit dormant, suppressed or hidden secrets. Experts even suggest that if adoptees are ever inclined to seek help for adoption issues, it is often because they were triggered by a failed or difficult relationship.
Painful and consistent relationship failures can actually prompt a realisation which is ultimately positive; that childhood trauma needs to be healed and the paradoxical yearning for intimacy but fear of connection must be addressed.
In any case, maybe the deep wounds caused by a failed relationship might only be healed through a failed relationship. For adoptees, the important lesson might be that you sometimes need to fail in order to truly succeed.