Adoption Reunions: A New Side to Intergenerational Family Relationships*
James Gladstone** and Anne Westhues
Personal interviews were conducted with 67 adult adoptees who had reunions with birth relatives. A qualitative analysis showed that seven types of post-reunion relationships developed, including those that were "close, " "close but not too close," "distant," "tense, " "ambivalent, " "searching, " and "no contact. " Factors associated with the development of particular relationships are identified. These include structural factors, interactive factors, motivating factors, and values and outlook of birth relatives. Implications for clinical practice are discussed.
Very little is known about the outcome of adoption reunions. Increased understanding, however, is especially important at this time when disclosure of adoption information that was once confidential is now being permitted in most Western jurisdictions.
Recent literature on adoption disclosure has focused on implications associated with unsealing adoption records. The psychological benefits of releasing information to adoptees are generally weighed against the responsibility that adoption agencies have towards birth parents and towards adoptive parents in terms of maintaining privacy (Anderson, 1977; Garber, 1985; Klibanoff, 1977; Sachdev, 1984).
Attention has also been directed to factors associated with adoptees' searches. Numerous reasons, for example, have been cited as to why adoptees initiate a search for a birth relative. These include curiosity, looking for a sense of belonging, seeking medical information, developing a sense of personal identity, wanting more information about whom one looks like, and having an interest in what happened to a birth relative (Day, 1979; Kowal & Schilling, 1985; Picton, 1982; Sachdev, 1984; 1992; Simpson, Timm, & McCubbin, 1981; Sobol & Cardiff, 1983; Sorosky, Baran, & Pannor, 1974; Triseliotis, 1973; Westhues & Gladstone, 1990). Researchers have also found that adoptees searching for their birth parents are usually female and relatively young (Day, 1979; Kowal & Schilling, 1985; Sachdev, 1984; Sorosky, Baran, & Pannor, 1978; Triseliotis, 1973; Westhues & Gladstone, 1989).
Adoptees involved in a search are likely to report that they learned about their adoption relatively recently, that learning about their adoption was a traumatic experience, that they had little information about their biological background (Day, 1979; Kowal & Schilling, 1985; Picton, 1982) or that information about their adoption was not personally satisfying (Sobol & Cardiff, 1983). Several studies have found a relationship between searches for birth relatives and negative assessments of adoptive family relationships (Aumend & Barett, 1983; Day, 1979; Sobol & Cardiff, 1983; Sorosky, Baran, & Pannor, 1974; Triseliotis, 1973), though this might not hold in all cases, as Simpson, Timm, & McCubbin (1981) reported the opposite. Studies also show that searches for birth parents are often precipitated by developmental milestones, such as marriage, pregnancy, or the death of an adoptive parent (Day, 1979; Gonyo & Watson, 1988; Kowal & Schilling, 1985; Picton, 1982; Sobol & Cardiff, 1983; Triseliotis, 1973).
Some studies have investigated the outcomes of reunions. In Triseliotis' (1973) study, most of the adoptees who had reunions with birth relatives were disappointed in terms of their mutual expectations but were pleased that the reunions had taken place. Sorosky, Baran, and Pannor (1974), Stoneman, Thompson, and Webber (1980), Depp (1982), Picton (1982), and Slaytor (1986) concluded that outcomes were positive for most adoptees, birth family members, and adoptive parents in their studies. Lifton (1988) states that every reunion is a successful experience for adoptees if only because it provides adoptees with a greater sense of personal control over their lives. …