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The Cost of a Couch: Social Connection and Limitations Adoptees Face

Six months after I left Guam to deal with a family emergency, I returned to find two happy wagging tails at the door and the exploded remnants of my couch cushions in the living room.

My dogs, Riley and Riker, have never been apart from me this long. My husband had been managing everything solo while I tied up some family and medical matters back in the states. In the last two months of my absence he flew out to meet me, leaving the dogs with a seasoned pet sitter. While my dogs adore their phenomenal pet sitter, we soon found they had channeled their big feelings about loosing both of us into some...creative redecorating projects. Blinds had been chomped in half, the couch corner had been shredded down to the particle board, a coffee table had been de-cornered, and over a dozen pairs of shoes had been given stylish new teeth-mark textures.

Because I love these two dogs immensely, and because as an adoptee I am especially sensitive to the challenges of a separation from your caregiver, I was quick to shrug it all off. I spent the first few days re-establishing our relationship and getting them back into routine. I gathered the stuffing into some pillowcases and did my best to clean the dirt-soaked and dog-scented sofa. I bid a somber but curt farewell to my favorite pair of heels and worked the cost of replacement blinds into the next month's budget. Unfortunately, a new couch proved to be a bit too cost prohibitive. (Imagine shipping a sectional across the ocean. It isn't cheap. Plus, it would take time to find another couch that fit the space and the vibe between the limited stock of the only two furniture stores on the island)

Although the dogs and I soon settled back into a bonded, trusting relationship; the physical damage was not so easily patched over.

Many of our family routines centered around this living room couch. Suddenly, couch time had become a sensory nightmare. The ripped seams, spilling stuffing, and exposed particle board definitely ruined the aesthetic of my once-calm living room. The scraggly threads on the edges of the ripped cushions caught and frayed every time I brushed against them. Despite numerous passes with the upholstery cleaner, and multiple spray downs with distilled vinegar, the pungent perfume of muddy dog paws persisted. The once steady grey coloring seemed permanently discolored to a puke colored brownish-white-grey. With a few main cushions destroyed beyond repair, my husband and I were forced to sit on opposite ends of the couch or grimace through a movie sitting flush against the hard exposed backing.

Gradually I found myself avoiding the couch altogether. My husband and I started skipping our post-work debriefs where we would usually land on the couch snuggled up together to share the little details of our day. As the eyesore and dumpster-scented piece of furniture proved impossible to improve with blankets or throw pillows, we started skipping our traditional post-dinner TV time and wandering aimlessly into other rooms looking for something to do. Without a shared activity, we fought for each other's attention more. Conversations felt forced. We tried to find creative ways to connect over yardwork or yelling at each other from two different rooms in the house, but it wasn't the same. I spent more time on my phone, lounging on the bed and scrolling for hours until the bed no longer signified a place of rest. My sleep suffered. The extra bed traffic and germs on the sheets made me break out with a rash of ugly acne across my back, immediately limiting my wardrobe choices. Reluctantly, I switched tactics and gravitated towards spending my time in my office or at the dining table. The excess time spent in these solitary chairs proved to be a physical and emotional barrier between me and the rest of my family. The dogs were constantly whining for pets and snuggle time that usually took place on the comfortable confines of the couch. My husband would periodically interrupt my focus looking for extra hugs. I hit the breaking point when one of my dearest friends on the island confided that she was at the beginning of a divorce. I wanted so badly to invite her over, sit her down, and make her a cup of tea...but I couldn't do that without a couch for her to rest on.


Much like the couch inhibited my family's routines, lacking an inner sense of self inhibits social routines.

Imagine the couch is the innermost sense of identity and self-hood that enables a person to connect with other people. Non-adopted, or 'kept' people will have to try very hard to imagine this, but adoptees will know exactly what I'm talking about. When you interact with someone, there is an innate sense of who that person is and where they come from. It is manifest in the ease of their mannerisms, the subtleties of the topics they choose to discuss, the natural give-and-take of conversation - things that most people perceive subconsciously. For adoptees, this sense of identity and self-hood is damaged in maternal separation. We are often very conscious of it but can't quite see the effect of it. As my family dynamic shifted and struggled, it took my quite a long time to understand it was related to this damaged couch. Likewise, many adoptees may feel this social isolation and not immediately realize it is due to the impact of adoption. As we struggle to find our place, we may not realize the scars can show up in the invisible imprint of our mannerisms and social presentation.

If you are a kept person have you ever met someone and thought "that felt a little off...they must have some weird family dynamic"? Conversely, if you are an adoptee have you ever felt like someone put a sign on your back making it difficult for your to connect with other people? Maybe you struggle to make or maintain new connections, or find yourself constantly attracting people who try to take advantage of you. This is why. Your couch, that innermost sense of self, is damaged.

While our household continues to function, there is no denying the separation is what destroyed our couch. The ease of connection the couch brought is lost. Only after trying to maintain family routines and friendships did I discover the couch was the lynchpin of the social bond between not just my family, but my larger community. In the same way, adoption damages the inner 'couch' or sense of self. Maternal separation can create a permanent shift in selfhood that impacts the adoptee's social connections.

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