The Open Adoption Family Dynamic

Not everyone gets along perfectly with their in-laws. Relationships in open adoptions can be just as challenging — and rewarding.

Adoption expert Lois Melina on talking with adopted children about unknown birth family information

With no firm rules of etiquette or real-life examples to follow, families in open adoptions wonder how to share troubling information, set boundaries, and deal with birth relatives who may have very different life experiences and values. If this sounds like your situation, it may help to reframe the relationship.

Instead of thinking of your open adoption as a new, untested kind of adoption, think of it as just another family dynamic. In our book, The Open Adoption Experience, Sharon Kaplan Roszia and I suggest that families use their relations with in-laws as a model.

If you’re chuckling, you’re on the right track. Everybody Loves Raymond was such a popular TV show because most of us could relate to a family trying to get along with each other despite their flaws, different values, and occasional offenses.

While some people have close, warm relationships with their in-laws, for many others, in-laws are the people we have to get along with because we are connected through the one person we all love. Likewise, relationships in open adoptions flourish because everyone involved — birth family and adoptive family — all love the same child.

Vision and boundaries

Chances are, birth and adoptive families will have differing ideas of how they see the relationship developing. In an ideal situation, the two families meet early in the relationship to reconcile the two visions. Generally, the more restrictive vision (e.g., monthly letters and photos) becomes the starting point for the relationship, which may evolve into the more expansive one (e.g., Sunday dinners together).

But it’s never too late to have that conversation. You can say, “Now that we’ve been at this a while, we have a clearer idea about how we see our relationship developing. We thought it would be a good idea to talk, so that we can be on the same page.”

This is also a good time to share (or reinforce) your values and to state any non-negotiable rules. Differing values shouldn’t keep you from respecting each other’s rules. For example, Pam and Todd, an adoptive couple, value nonviolence. For them, this includes an objection to hunting or any recreational gun use.

Their son’s birth parents, Ben and Michelle, also value nonviolence in settling disputes, but they don’t think of hunting as conflicting with that value. Pam and Todd recognize that the families share the same underlying value, even though they interpret it differently. Ben and Michelle respect the adoptive family’s rules: They don’t give their birth son toy guns, and they lock up the guns in their homes when he visits.

If you believe your rules are not being respected, let generosity come into play. Rather than cut off the relationship, try to find a way to stay connected. This may mean allowing visits only in public places or scaling communication back to letters and phone calls for a while.

In making a decision like this, you must weigh the relationship against your responsibility to your child. The best solution may involve pushing your own comfort zone while maintaining boundaries around your family’s values.


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