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Adoptees and Conflict

Updated: Oct 13, 2022

As an adoptee, I often have significant challenges when it comes to overcoming conflict - particularly when the conflict is in a close relationship with a friend, partner, or family member.

For an adoptee in conflict, dozens of factors are at stake, including the fear of abandonment and a deep difficulty identifying and expressing needs - usually from having been raised with a non-biological family.

As an adoptee, there are several aspects of conflicts to consider: needs, the response to that unmet need, the conflict itself (the response to the response), choosing to escalate, de-escalate or engage, then emotional co-regulation and negotiating a resolution.


Needs

Every relationship will have situations that create a disparity of needs between both parties. When these differences are not addressed, one or both parties will develop unmet needs. Unmet needs are at the base of every conflict, and a normal part of relationships, although it doesn't feel that way as an adoptee. The fact that conflict over unmet needs is inevitable can be particularly challenging for adoptees. We may have a hard time identifying our own needs, and we are often so busy trying to sort ourselves out that we miss the other party's needs in the process. In addition, the basic notion of conflict-over-needs may remind us of the experience of our own needs being challenging to convey and get met in our adoptive homes. Nonetheless, it is essential that we express our needs and also invite other parties to express theirs.


Response to unmet need

The response is often mistakenly assumed to be the problem - in the face of an unmet need, one party gets angry or moody, aggressive or withdrawn, and we think this is the source of the conflict. It is actually a response to a more profound need that needs to be heard, and this initial response can serve as a wayfinder to help us see what we are missing. I find that adoption trauma created a tremendous hypervigilance response to these initial stages of a conflict, and when I observe these reactions in someone else, it triggers an overblown panic reaction in myself. Instead of approaching this behavior with curiosity, I tend to react defensively, tempting an escalated conflict and distracting from the needs of the other party.


Response to the response

This is where the conflict becomes apparent. When one party quips something unkind or another withdraws in a huff, conflict, as we usually think of it, erupts—a stalemate over email at work, an argument with your spouse in the kitchen, etc.

These unpleasant moments can blindside or overwhelm us. We may lash out or shut down defensively. Learning to manage our response to this first stage of conflict is key.


Escalate, De-escalate, or engage

At the beginning of every conflict, there is a moment where you can choose to escalate the situation or try to de-escalate the situation. Unfortunately, one option is not always better than the other since both choices can be weaponized. For example, I often 'sweep things under the rug' with my partner because I was taught to do that in my adoptive home. However, my partner is very attuned and knows when I'm doing this, so this behavior usually draws the conflict out more. Likewise, I sometimes over-assert myself in conflict with coworkers, sending a tart email or letting out an annoyed sigh before leaving the room, leaving a bad taste in everyone's mouth.

Although the choice to escalate or de-escalate may make the conflict 'go away', both choices have the potential to either soothe or feed the adoptee's fear of abandonment/being unseen. Escalating or de-escalating doesn't actually resolve the conflict. The best option, in my opinion, is to engage. Engage with curiosity, if possible.

Instead of getting overwhelmed or sidetracked by escalating/de-escalating, try to engage the other party and their expression of need intentionally. This can be terrifying for adoptees, especially if they never felt emotionally engaged by their adoptive family. Moving into an attitude of engagement may trigger trauma caused by being disengaged from your family, community, or even society at large. This is especially true when addressing the profound and conflicting adoption experiences or aspects of identity that are very important.


It's also worth noting that sometimes the choice to engage will push the other party to disengage or deflect, or they may explode with a litany of rules around engagement. That's okay too.

My goal when the conflict reaches this point is to seek to understand the unmet need and find the compromise that works best for everyone involved. The other party may still bow out or conflate the situation to distract from their deeper need, and that's okay. Not everyone is equipped to deal with conflict. Ideally, however, the choice to engage would lead to some form of emotional co-regulation.


Emotional Co-Regulation

Emotional co-regulation has to occur before a solution can be achieved. If someone isn't naturally emotionally expressive, this step is often particularly challenging. However, emotional co-regulation can occur by listening and offering comfort and acknowledgment.

Adoptees may find the normal parts of emotional co-regulation, like compassionate curiosity, comfort, clarification, or soothing interpersonal emotional needs, can be very intimidating at first, depending on the nature of their adoption trauma.

For example, when my partner asks clarifying questions or inquires about my emotional state to clear up conflict, I feel attacked and threatened - even though nothing is actually threatening me. After some self-evaluation, I remembered questions were used in my adoptive home to further divorce me from my emotions: "Why do you feel like that? It's not a big deal." "Are you really upset about this? It's your own fault." etc.


Remember, if the person we are in conflict with is a healthy human, these measures would be attempts at emotional co-regulation - invitations to engage deeper with unmet needs. The goal is to welcome this co-regulation and identify the solution once we are finished addressing the deeper needs.

Negotiating

Negotiating looks different to everyone. Adoptees are often raised with a non-confrontational or excessively confrontational style of negotiation as a child in our adoptive environment. We may have had to negotiate a lot for some very essential core needs, like being heard and understood. In this regard, negotiation can be a little tricky. I have a very all-or-nothing trauma mentality that makes negotiation feels like a complete disregard for my needs.

With practice, I have learned that it is normal to give up a few needs to meet a partner's needs. It still triggers that abandoned infant part of myself, desperate to get the URGENT needs met. However, I remind myself that adult needs are more negotiable and usually less severe than they initially feel. I don't need to react like an abandoned infant crying for a mother over something as manageable as coordinating schedules with a friend or establishing household tasks with my partner.


Resolution

Once the problem has been clearly identified and all needs acknowledged as valid, both parties can articulate a resolution together and work on achieving it in partnership instead of as enemies.

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