What Adoptive Parents Need to Know about the Primal Wound

Dawn Davenport

14

Understanding the Primal Wound Theory

It seems like we’ve been talking about the primal wound quite a bit lately in this blog and comments.  The primal wound theory holds that “severing the connection between the infant and biological mother [through adoption] causes a primal wound which often manifests in a sense of loss (depression), basic mistrust (anxiety), emotional and/or behavioral problems and difficulties in relationships with significant others… affect[ing] the adoptee’s sense of self, self-esteem and self-worth throughout life.”

While I’ve never doubted that some adopted persons feel this wound deeply and for life, I have struggled with the idea that all adoptees must feel this wound. I worry that this theory is more limiting than empowering and furthers negative stereotypes.

I finally had my ah-ha moment, when I read this article: In Appreciation of “The Primal Wound by Dr. Marcy Axness. Dr. Axness, an adoption therapist and an adoptee herself, was able to explain the importance of the primal wound theory in a way that helped me get it or at least parts of it. Dr. Axness was able to help me understand that the primal wound should not be about blame and guilt– it should be about understanding. If you enjoy her writing you will love this interview we did with her on this same topic.

In Appreciation of the Primal Wound by Dr. Marcy Axness

A few years ago my husband was suffering from a mysterious, ever-worsening pain in his heels. The pain, and its intrusion on his lifestyle, was depressing for him, and even more depressing was the sense that this seemed to be one of those things that might never get explained but would rather, hopefully, go away on its own. It didn’t, and he continued chasing down relief. One day he came home from the podiatrist happy and hopeful. He had seen his problem on the X-rays, he had seen in black and white exactly what was causing his pain. Real, tangible. There was a name for what was hurting him.

There are no X-rays for hearts, for souls. There are only courageous people willing to step forward and speak of certain difficult truths. I’ll never forget the evening when I first read Nancy Verrier’s preliminary paper on her theory of the primal wound, in which she illustrates how abandonment and loss is indelibly imprinted upon the unconscious minds of those who have been separated from their biological mothers at birth. Verrier invokes established research to propose that bonding doesn’t begin after birth, but is a continuum of physiological, psychological and spiritual events beginning in utero and continuing throughout the post-natal bonding period. It is the interruption of this natural evolution, due to post-partum separation of mother and child, that creates a primal wound, according to Verrier, who went on to publish her findings in The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child.

The descriptions I was reading in Verrier’s article sounded chillingly familiar, and I felt relief down to my bones, a tearful epiphany of Oh God, someone finally knows me, sees me, understands this impossible ache/not-ache, this me/not-me that I’ve been living all these years, in solitary, the loneliness of not being understood, and moreover, the exasperation of the narrow halls. One walks narrow halls of life when one is not conversant with one’s full spectrum of being. Confined, and puzzled as to why…

And yes, for that night, and weeks of nights thereafter, I felt that I’d found The Key to me: “Ah ha, so this is my core issue, and all those years of therapy, of dancing around the ancillary issues, was simply a prelude!” For awhile I suppose I did become “over-identified” with the primal wound, which is a concern that some critics have over this kind of ideological theory. They believe that to ascribe to any one theory the genesis of a person’s essential make-up is a grave mistake. In the long run, I agree….

Is the Primal Wound Theory an Invitation to Wallow?

Dr. Axness then goes on to analyze whether the primal wound theory presents a fundamental human truth for adopted people or is “an invitation to wallow”. She concludes that ultimately adopted persons need to integrate the wound of separation into the other aspects of their lives to become fully evolved people, but not “before one has had the opportunity to wallow, to swim deeply and languorously in this place of long-craved empathy. We’re parched cisterns needing to be filled to over-flowing and then some, and then some, and then some, and then…slowly…we can begin to integrate, to be sensitive and receptive to other ideas, other influences, other forces which have relevance in our lives.”

To expect a set of newly-introduced (and, as in the case of the primal wound, profoundly powerful and empathic) ideas to go to a place of ready integration is like me expecting my child to be fully independent before she’s had her fill of being dependent. It ironically stunts growth rather than hurrying it along. And to worry that a struggling adoptee will remain in the grip of this archetype-based idea of the primal wound, so that everything for that person will forevermore be explained by that theory, is to reveal a cynicism about the emotional and spiritual resources of the adopted person to continue the process of integration, the process of pursuing wholeness along whatever paths lead the way.

What are your thoughts on the Primal Wound Theory?

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Originally published 2012; updated 2017.
Image credit: Sofia Carvalho

12/04/2017 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog | 14 Comments



14 Responses to What Adoptive Parents Need to Know about the Primal Wound

  1. Larry J Jenkins says:

    Hi Dawn, I was adopted at 3 months and have always known that. There may have been two wounds. Even though I was loved by my parents , grand and great grand parents on both sides and aunts/uncles and cousins I still felt like I didn’t quite fit where I was. I was always curious about who I was and where I came from.
    I made it into my mid 40’s before I went for some serious counseling. Without going into a lot of detail here I had an experience in a session (not rebirth) that I came out saying “for the first time in my life I feel legitimate on the face of the earth.”. Counseling was helping but healing really began after that event.
    Primal Wound was recommended and I read it. I devoured and related to much of it. I was comforted by it but did not see it as a place to wallow. It helped me see why I was looking at, reacting to and dealing with life the way I was. Now with some understanding a new outlook and approach was possible. I know some adoptees do not seem to need all this but I’m glad it was there for me.
    Risking a painful rejection I looked for and found my birth Mom. I just wanted to see her. If it was a bad situation just seeing her would be enough. I did not tell her who I was the first time we met. The second time we met I ask her some questions and she reached out , got my arm and ask “are you that baby?”. Those were some of the sweetest words I’ve ever heard. We developed a great relationship and later she introduced me to the rest of her family and they all accepted me as one of them completely. I NEVER take any of that for granted. God truly blessed me by that.
    Always the hopeless romantic I thought I might be the result of young love, summer romance or an office affair but that was not the case. My birth Mom did not live her life as a victim. She went on with her life married and raised a large family while celebrating one extra birthday each year.
    I appreciate the fact that my adoptive family did not “spring” the news to me that I was adopted to me when I was 13 or 16 or when I got married. It was just something I knew. When my Mom would introduce me, even after I was grown, she would add the tag “he is adopted”. This bugged me but I never said anything. After she passed away I found an entry in a baby book where she wrote “the whole community came to see you because they had never seen an adopted baby before”. (This was in 1946) She added the tag line out of pride/honor but I took it as “he is not one of us.”
    I’ve rambled on but I just wanted to say if you read Primal Wound and it touches you in some way let it heal, soothe, answer some questions and give some understanding. Take some time there but don’t wallow, heal, gain a new outlook and strength and move on with your life.
    I hope the book can help adoptive parents understand as different kids react different ways and some more curious about birth family as Christie said. Parents are the ones who do the day to day routine life stuff. I was in my early 20’s when I got my birth Mom’s name but 57 when I met her. The book would have helped in the mean time had it been available. I’m not sure about what age is good to meet a birth family. You have to be respectable to/for the family you are going into. You do not want to blow up another family. It takes maturity on everyones part. I’ve told adoptees and people who gave up children to get your act together incase that day comes. Also never forget that as an adoptee you may find a mess or rejection.

    Larry Jenkins
    PS A friend made a professional video of me telling about finding my birth Mom and family. At first I thought it was “my story” but after it was done we realized it was “her story” also. It honors the tough/strong decisions she made after a tragic event in her life and decisions she made later when I showed up. It will be finished in about a month. If you are interested let me know and I will send you the link.

    • Tracy Whitney Tracy Whitney says:

      Larry,

      Thank you for sharing so much of your story with us. It sounds as if you’ve done a lot of hard, honest work to process your story and how that intersects with your adoptive parents’ and birth parents’ stories as well. Your advice, woven throughout here, is valuable to both adoptees and to adoptive parents. Thank you for that as well.

      When your video is done and ready, please feel free to send it to info@creatingafamily.org – we’d be interested to learn more of your story.

      Happy Holidays to you and yours.

  2. Anne Carmichael says:

    I never realized that something that happened to me when I was 3 months old (placed for adoption, after having been with bio mom 3 months) would affect me the rest of my life. I thought I had the ideal adoptive family and that I was ‘normal’, until I wrote my memoir and started researching and discovered WHY I couldn’t spend the night away from home; WHY I cried for a week when my father went on a business trip; WHY when my husband of 25 yrs left, I could NOT let go. All abandonment issues. My story ‘Finding Joy: My Life as an Adoptee’ tells my life story, accompanied by research papers that explain WHY. My quote on the front cover of the book: “Adoption is not an excuse; it is the answer.”

  3. Lisa says:

    I am curious why this doesn’t affect all adoptees.
    Is it possible that mothers giving up children have a depressed state during their pregnancy? And that this is passed onto the child? Depression and anxiety?
    I am wondering if this has been studied?

    • Tracy Whitney Tracy Whitney says:

      There’s certainly been research done on maternal depression and its effect on the child as he/she develops. But I’m not sure that the very unique issues of an adopted child were addressed in those studies. It’s certainly an interesting topic to consider.

  4. Tim says:

    Hi Dawn,

    I just found your blog by chance. I’m a 46 year old adoptee who has experience lifelong identity issues, difficulty forming and maintaining close relationships, chronic depression and the feeling that I’m incomplete or broken. I grew up feeling completely separate, different and alone, like an alien. I couldn’t understand where I came from so I couldn’t see a future and was convinced that I wouldn’t see the year 2000. As it happened, in 1992 I attempted suicide by ingesting cyanide and survived only by pure chance (I know what it’s like to die).

    I spent my childhood idealising self-reliance, trying to control my emotions, minimising connections to people, building layer upon layer of defences so that nothing and nobody could get through. When something did I would build yet more defences. My whole life I’ve tried to adapt and fit in but now in mid-life I feel like there is a well of black emotions in me, as dark and thick as crude oil. These emotions are close to the surface and when triggered they’re uncontrollable – a kind of rage.

    In the past I’ve sought counselling and tried medication but nothing has made any real difference. Now I’m seeing a counsellor who is helping me to relive my experiences as a way of dealing with the well of emotions. He thinks the emotions are ‘internalised shame’ but I’ve never felt ashamed at being adopted because I didn’t choose it. However, I’ve always felt worthless because I wasn’t good enough for my mother to want to keep me.

    I’m now in regular contact with my genetic family (my genetic parents married and had two other children after me) and doing my best to integrate the different fragments of my identity (like a broken mirror). Both families only feel like half families and will probably always remain so. Sometimes I feel like I have no family.

    I’m writing this because after stripping away all the layers of defences I’ve realised that I don’t know what it is at the heart of me that I was so desperate to protect, and where the seemingly endless well of black emotions comes from. I’m afraid to venture any further into that realm for fear of what I might find, what I might disturb, and what it could do to me. However, I know that it is the source of my troubles. Do you have any suggestions for what it might be, or any books that I might read?

    I’ve heard of the ‘primal wound’ theory but initially I doubted that a baby could remember the trauma of separation. Having learned about the common experiences of other adoptees I’m now thinking that Nancy Verrier might have hit the nail on the head. The issues I’ve mentioned have been with me since my earliest memories – from when I was 3 years old.

    Sorry to ramble on. I’d be grateful for any insights you might be able to provide.

    Kind regards, Tim

    • Dawn Davenport Dawn Davenport says:

      Tim, I am so impressed with your ability and willingness to keep digging and try to understand your emotions and what is haunting you. I’m so glad you are being guided by a therapist in this search for mental health and clarity. You should definitely read The Primal Wound. Some adoptees see it as the missing link they have been searching for. Some don’t. I’d love to hear back from you after you have read it to see if it answers some questions for you.

  5. Heather Moody says:

    I would like to hear more practical parenting tips based on the primal wound theory. I am parenting five children. Three youngest are from Ethiopia. Mother died three years ago. Kids are now 12(male),10(female),7(female). We have had them home for five months. Connecting has been more challenging lately.

  6. Olivia says:

    I loved this blog especially since I’ve been thinking about the primal wound ever since you posted your first blog on it a while ago. It’s good info for me to be aware of. I’ve bookmark your blog now.

  7. “The primal wound should not be about blame and guilt: it should be about understanding.”

    Yes!

    I am eager to hear your interview. It sounds like it will help me to more deeply understand the primal wound and how it should influence my parenting.

  8. I thoroughly enjoyed Nancy Verrier’s book and felt like I totally got it. With 4 girls around here, each reacting to adoption in different ways, and having varying levels of trauma, EACH of them at one point has longed for their other mama. It is normal and natural. I would love to read this other book by Dr. Axness. 🙂

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