The Impact of Breakups on Adoptees

adoptee breakups

Breakups have a way of opening up old wounds. As an adoptee and clinician who specializes in adoption, I recognize the unique ways in which breakups can trigger feelings of abandonment, rejection, shame, and lack of autonomy for adoptees. It can be hard for adoptees to open themselves up to others, especially romantically, given the complex trauma they carry from their adoption. Subsequently, when a relationship fails, regardless of the cause, it can further deepen the pre-existing metaphorical cracks of an adoptee’s foundational sense of trust and safety.

This blog is written from the perspective of an adoptee who’s not only gone through her own heartbreak, but helped counsel others through theirs as well. The goal is to validate adoptees’ triggered or re-wounded parts and provide tips on how to heal and move forward after their breakups.

How Early Rejection and Abandonment Affect Later Relationships

For many adoptees, rejection and abandonment can evoke their earliest childhood memories, even if implicitly. They are at the root of their life stories and can have a lasting impact on their bodies, minds, and souls in ways that extend beyond their full comprehension. Having lived through one of the worst versions of abandonment (i.e., parental), it is not uncommon for adoptees to later greatly fear relational abandonment and rejection. For some, the risk of feeling abandoned and rejected can lead them to, often subconsciously, form self-protective interpersonal walls that make it hard for them to be vulnerable with others, especially romantically. Therefore, when they do take the risk of romantically opening up and it results in a breakup, the result can sometimes feel earth-shattering. Having experienced one of their greatest fears, it can negatively reaffirm the protective parts of themselves that warned them of the danger and perhaps even anticipated the breakup. In such instances, some adoptees are not only dealing with their current heartbreak, but with their adoption heartbreak too.

Research indicates that early life experiences influence the way we perceive ourselves and the world around us for the years to come. Early childhood relinquishment can influence several factors that determine one’s self-esteem, including identity, sense of belonging, self-confidence, and feelings of competence and safety. It is therefore not uncommon for adoptees to struggle with low self-esteem and feelings of unworthiness throughout their lifetime because of their adoption. Inevitably, these negative feelings can be exacerbated when going through a breakup. Furthermore, getting broken up with can reinforce an adoptee’s learned narrative that expects people to leave them, thus further perpetuating unhealthy shame responses.

Breakups Can Trigger Learned-Trauma Response

There can often be an unsettling feeling of loss of autonomy and control when going through a breakup, especially when your partner is the one breaking up with you. For some adoptees, getting broken up with can elicit implicit memories and feelings from when they were separated from their birth parents. While likely varying in significance, there are some undeniable parallels between the type of emotional impact parental relinquishment and romantic breakups can have on an individual. In both cases, a life-altering decision that touches their most sensitive/inner parts was made for them. While they may be able to rationalize that their adoption and/or breakup was in their best interest, they may still be burdened with unsettling feelings of loss of autonomy and control over their life circumstances. Moreover, it is common for adoptees to struggle with change more than the average person because of the traumatic life changes often associated with their adoption. Neuroscience indicates that human brains are significantly impacted and shaped by early life experiences, especially between the developing ages of 0-2 years of age. Therefore, it makes sense that a breakup, regardless of whether it’s for the best, can trigger an adoptee's learned trauma-response (i.e., fight, flight, freeze, or fawn mode).

Tips for Getting through a Breakup — from One Adoptee to Another

1. Familiarity doesn’t always equal safety.

If I feel a sense of familiarity, then I must be safe, right?” … WRONG! It’s instinctual to gravitate toward what feels familiar and safe, especially for those who have experienced adoption-related complex trauma. The inability to differentiate between feelings of familiarity and safety is too often why individuals experiencing relational abuse will return to their abusers. The next time you start craving the familiarity that is your ex, stop and remind yourself of the valid reasons why you broke up. And ask yourself, “Even if the relationship is reassuringly familiar, is it what’s best for me?”

2. Avoid black-and-white thinking.

Black-and-white thinking is a common characteristic of developmental complex trauma. It can lead to habitually assuming the worst-case scenario and can easily feed into an adoptee’s interpersonal insecurities. With regard to breakups, black-and-white thinking can lead to exaggerated assumptions of yourself and others, such as, “I’ll never find love again,” “I’m unlovable,” and “Nobody likes me.” Furthermore, it places the blame on a single individual. Either you entirely blame your ex or yourself for the breakup. However, most things in life aren’t all-or-nothing situations. If this is the case with your break-up, a binary perspective can prevent you from seeing things objectively and in ways that allow you to learn and grow from your heartbreak. If you find yourself post-breakup falling into the pitfalls of black-and-white thinking, try to take a step back and remind yourself that there is a whole spectrum of gray areas between the black and white zones to consider.

3. Commit to self-compassion and self-love.

Acknowledging the ways in which your adoption trauma interpersonally impacts you opens the door for self-compassion, which is a key ingredient to personal growth and healing. There is an unavoidable risk that comes with entering romantic relationships in the way they subject you to possible loss and rejection. Many adoptees are hypersensitive to feelings of loss and rejection given their early history of relinquishment, which can make it challenging for them to be vulnerable and intimate in the ways relationships require. If this is the case for you, you should feel proud of yourself for taking the risk and facing your trauma-rooted fears head-on. Despite how awful you may feel, remind yourself that you will be okay even if nothing seems okay at the moment. Appreciate and tap into the resiliency that comes from being an adoptee.

4. Don’t go through it alone.

Given the nature of adoption-related trauma, some adoptees struggle with an innate feeling of loneliness that can be triggered by certain life events such as breakups. Breakups can be isolating experiences in which feelings of loneliness and seclusion can emerge as you adjust back to life as a single person. While others may not be able to know the exact heartbreak you may be experiencing, they can at the very least empathize and be a reassuring presence to the parts of yourself that may feel abandoned and alone. Moreover, confiding in others can help you escape the unhealthy thought patterns commonly associated with breakups and remind you aren't truly alone. In addition to seeking personal support, there is also the option to get professional help from an adoption-competent therapist.

Written by Mirela Caron
Boston Post Adoption Resources

About Mirela Caron, MA

Mirela Caron, MA, is a clinician at Boston Post Adoption Resources. To read her bio, please visit BPAR's Team page.