A Family Affair: The Impact of Reunion on Spouses and Siblings

by Denise Roessle. Written in PACER’s Spring/Summer 2008 newsletter

“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around  her leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” – James Stewart as George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life”

Reunion doesn’t take place in a vacuum. Its impact reaches well beyond the reunited, disturbing the peace, changing the lives and altering the relationships of everyone in their circles.

I told my husband about my relinquished son before we got married. Henry knew I grieved the loss of my child and that I hoped someday we would find each other. He knew that I registered with ISRR shortly after my son turned 18, watches as the years went by and my hopes waned, and listened when I considered actively searching (which I never found the courage to do). He rejoiced along with me when my son and I were reconnected through Soundex 12 years ago. He had no idea what we were getting into. Neither did I. The years that followed have been emotionally traumatic for all of us. That our marriage survived is evidence of Henry’s love and the strength of our commitment.

Over the years I’ve heard many stories of marriages tested and even broken by reunion, and of cautious, jealous, and angry siblings. As Jean Strauss wrote in Birthright, spouses, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, sons and daughters, and grandparents (on both the birth and adoptive family side) constitute the “fourth side” of the adoption triad.

“While they may not be the direct focus of the search or reunion, the lives or these individuals are nonetheless greatly impacted,” Strauss said. “Spouses, in particular, seem at risk. The upheaval of a reunion tests the bonds of even a strong marriage.”

For Better or For Worse

Along with finances, careers and remodeling, a new baby is one of the major stressors on a marriage. For birthparents, reunion is very much like having a baby – and most often that baby belongs to only one of you. Spouse often feel the sing of lost attention.

“My reunion had a significant effect on my spouse and my marriage,” Suz shared. “It also contributed greatly to my divorce. My searching, eventual reunion, and constant attachment to the computer annoyed my husband. As I awaited every little scrap of my daughter’s life, he stood behind me disgusted that I had rarely put that amount of

“It bothered my husband that my reunion has taken so much of my thoughts and energy, and he kept waiting for me to ‘get back to normal.’ He didn’t get that this is the new normal.”

gusto into caring for him. When we found her (and he was instrumental in this), he asked me with a broad smile if I was finally ‘over it’ and would I now get on with my life. I was not over it and while I would get on with my life, it would not be the life we once led.”

Dale, another birthmother, explained, “My husband was initially very upset that I gave permission to open the adoption records and tell my son all without consulting him. My other two children did not know about the son I surrendered in 1967. They were very angry with me for keeping him a secret.

“The first three months were awful at home. My husband and I would face off at the kitchen table and talk, all very hard and emotional. He did come with me on both visits to see Marc and he was my knight in shining armor during these events. It bothered him that this has taken so much of my thoughts and energy, and he kept waiting for me to ‘get back to normal.’ He didn’t’ get that this is the new normal.” Dale reports that after nine months into her reunion she and her husband have a stronger, more living relationship than ever before.

“My husband was amazing about my reunion,” birthmother Kim said, “He didn’t turn away when I talked and talked and talked about adoption during the first part of my reunion. I had to go over and over what and why and what if and if only.”

“It was a turning point, because with reunion I felt whole,” said another birthmother. “I always felt like something was missing and it was my daughter. Reunion made me realize that I had must settled. I eventually got the courage to divorce and marry the love of my life.”

“My wife feels threatened,” said Pat, a birthfather who, along with his old girlfriend, found their grown son almost tow years ago and only recently met him. “My raised children are half-waiting to see how Mom handles it and half-hiding their feelings. The last two years have been a battle of emotions. People wanting to know why couldn’t I have just left things alone, why do I need to have my son in my life, why can’t I just be happy to know that he is alive? Why can’t anyone understand that he is a part of me, just as my other two children are? My brother and sisters don’t understand why it is important to me. But surprisingly, my own mother apologized for not being able to support me and be there emotionally when I needed her 34 years ago.”

“My husband seemed to understand my need to find my daughter,” Gwen said. “He agreed when I wanted to pay a professional searcher and was supportive during the two years it took for her to meet me. Once we met, he must have thought that was all I needed, to know that she was alive and well. He was surprised when I wanted to include her in family events. He balked at my wanting to change our will to include her and when I insisted on spending the same amount on gifts for her as we did for our two daughters.”

“We have been together for 27 years and these last have been among the best,” said John, husband of Carol who reunited with her daughter, Donna, three years ago. “Just seeing the love between them is a blessing. In all honesty, I believe that their reunion gave Carol her life back. I can’t say it saved our marriage, but it sure helped change the direction.”

It was Carol’s raised daughter, Lara, who found Donna. “I was driven to say the least. I was on the Internet until all hours of the night and not that easy to deal with. My husband Bill was incredible. He understood and gave me the space to do what I needed to do. He blocked for me and took care of the kids.”

Spouses of reunited adoptees often face similar challenges. Initially very encouraging and supportive when she began searching for her birth family, Donna’s husband Neil has been struggling since. “Now I think he’s wondering what happened to his wife, life as he’s known it, and how he fits into his new reality. He now has a wife who is on the phone almost daily other birthmom or sister, who cries nearly every time she leaves her new family, who sometimes ‘checks out’ for days at a time to process new thoughts or feelings. I think this journey has really shaken him. He adores everyone, but doesn’t know what or where his place is and how to connect.”

“It takes a good, strong marriage to survive reunion between two adult siblings who are very much alike,” Kathleen, an adoptee, said. “In my case, my marriage which was winding down ended soon after I met my brother. My brother’s marriage, which had been hell for most of its three deceases, ended even more quickly. Meeting each other and members of our birth family was the catalyst needed to end destructive and unhappy marriages. This is not altogether a bad thing, but even a healthy marriage would have been strained to the limit.

“No one has not experienced this can understand the power of the first relationship,” she added, “which was ripped apart right after birth and is now being healed. My brother represents our birthmother for me, as I do for him. The need we have for each other is overpowering.”

Back in the Closet

Reunion usually brings long-buried secrets out into the open. For some, family reactions send them running back into the closet.

I remember seriously considering not telling my parents when I found my son because I knew they would disapprove of my dredging up my shameful past. I felt the fear and did it anyway, which was empowering, even though the result was much as I expected: it would be almost four years before they met him. I also found myself keeping hurtful things that Josh said or did from my husband, my stepson and his wife, and my friends, afraid that they might turn against him and wish him gone from our lives.

“I have an ill husband with a difficult personality,” Angelle shared. She is six months in reunion with her son who was born in 1967. “I also take care of my elderly mother and mother-in-law. My husband was shocked and negative when I told him that my son contacted me. I thought it best not to share the extent of our subsequent communication or that I met him face to face. I hate this, but I cannot afford to rock the boat at home. My son has been wonderful and understanding. For that I am lucky.”

“Several years into reunion with my son, he called to tell me to get out of his life, not to all or email him, that he didn’t want a relationship with me,” birthmother Dana said. “I was devastated, even though I sensed that it was his wife’s doing. She’d always been somewhat cold and standoffish. He’s recently told her that he had confided in me that she had had an affair, which flipped out. A couple of months later, Larry called me at work and confirmed my suspicion. He expected everything to be the same. I told him, no way, that his words hurt and I didn’t care if his wife was standing over him making him say them. He had a choice. It took a while for me to cool off, but now we talk and IM each other regularly. When he is here on business, he calls and we get together. This is all behind his wife’s back.”

“At the beginning of my reunion, I shared with my raised daughter a letter my found son sent to me. She wept and said, ‘If you had kept him, I would not have been born.’ That realization was hard to handle.”

Dana’s raised children were shocked when they learned of their mother’s secret. Her son was upset that he wasn’t the eldest or the only son. Her daughter was angry that her mom hadn’t shared this important piece of her life. They eventually came around, just in time for their brother to cut them off.

“My kids are angry with Larry for hurting me,” she said. “My daughter is angry that she opened up and was ready and willing to have a relationship with him, only to get shut out (when his wife made him end the relationship). She doesn’t like me talking to him or seeing him. She’s worried that I’ll get hurt again.”

“At the beginning of my reunion, I shared with my raised daughter a letter my found son sent to me,” said Fran. “She wept and when I asked her why, she responded, ‘If you had kept him, I would not have been born.’ That realization was hard to handle.”

“My mother told me that when the adoption agency called to tell her that I was looking for her and wanted to meet her, she finally told her two other children (teens at the time) about me,” Tammy shared. “My half-sister was very upset with our mother and wants nothing to do with me, even eighteen years later. My half-brother immediately asked when he could meet me. My mother’s husband did not support the idea of meeting me and would not talk about it, even though she had told him about me before they got married. They have since divorced.”

For Jamie, the youngest of birthmother Carol’s raised children, the initial excitement of meeting her half-sister gave way to something she was not prepared to feel: extreme jealousy. “You might think this was directed toward Donna and my mom, but it wasn’t. It was about Donna’s new relationship with my sister, Lara (who searched for and found Donna). They connected immediately on a very deep level. I felt completely replaced and angry with both of them. Three years later, we seemed to have settled into one another. Lara and I aren’t hearty as close as we used to be, but I believe that our relationship changed for a reason.”

Where is the Support?

“My boyfriend has been searching for his birthmother for some time. About a month ago a woman emailed him saying that her adopted sister might be his twin. This freaked me out! We have a strong bond, but I am still scared he will leave me for these new people. I always thought I would be so happy for him, but the stress made me fight with him. One part of me wants to protect him because my mother was adopted and rejected by her birthmother, and another part wants to help when it’s just not my place. I told him, if there is a manual on how to deal with a love one’s adoption, I want to read it!”

As little reunion guidance as there is for birthparents and adoptees, there is virtually none for their family members. Aside from mentions in books like Strauss’ Birthright and Judith Gediman’s Birthbond, there are no books that address this need.

Spouses of alcoholics have Al-Anon; adult children have ACOA. There are groups for those whose loved ones are battling depression, terminal illnesses, and Alzheimers. Where do relatives go for support in dealing with a family member’s adoption trauma, particularly when the trauma is rarely acknowledged?

They shouldn’t have to figure it out on their own.

Denise Roessle may be reached at droessle@mac.com.