What Adoptive Parents Need to Know about the Primal Wound

Dawn Davenport


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?

Other Creating a Family Resources You Will Enjoy

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

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

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

  1. 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.”

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

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


    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.

  7. 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. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to Top ↑

Content created by Creating a Family. And remember, there are no guarantees in adoption or infertility treatment. The information provided or referenced on this website should be used only as part of an overall plan to help educate you about the joys and challenges of adopting a child or dealing with infertility. Although the following seems obvious, our attorney insists that we tell you specifically that the information provided on this site may not be appropriate or applicable to you, and despite our best efforts, it may contain errors or important omissions. You should rely only upon the professionals you employ to assist you directly with your individual circumstances. CREATING A FAMILY DOES NOT WARRANT THE INFORMATION OR MATERIALS contained or referenced on this website. CREATING A FAMILY EXPRESSLY DISCLAIMS LIABILITY FOR ERRORS or omissions in this information and materials and PROVIDES NO WARRANTY OF ANY KIND, implied, express or statutory. IN NO EVENT WILL CREATING A FAMILY BE LIABLE FOR ANY DAMAGES, including without limitation direct or indirect, special, incidental, or consequential damages, losses or expenses arising out of or in connection with the use of the information or materials, EVEN IF CREATING A FAMILY OR ITS AGENTS ARE NEGLIGENT AND/OR ARE ADVISED OF THE POSSIBILITY OF SUCH DAMAGES.