What Adoptive Parents Need to Know about the Primal Wound

Dawn Davenport


Primal Wound

Dr. Axness will talk more about the primal wound theory on this week’s Creating a Family show.

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, and with the feeling that this theory is more limiting than empowering and furthers negative stereotypes.

And then I read this article (In Appreciation of “The Primal Wound by Dr. Marcy Axness) and had a ah-hah moment.  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.  I immediately contacted Dr. Axness and booked her for a Creating a Family Radio Show/Podcast.  (A major perk to my job is that I often get to explore the mysteries of life with the top experts in the field.) I’ve excerpted part of her article here.

The primal wound should not be about blame and guilt: it should be about understanding.  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.[1]

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….

Dr. Axness then goes on to analyze whether the primal  wound theory presents a fundamental human truth for adopted people or is it “an invitation to wallow.”  She concludes that ultimately adopted persons need to integrate the wound of separation 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

Please listen to my interview with Dr. Axness on the show. It’s too good to miss.


Image credit: will biscuits

12/03/2012 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog | 5 Comments

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

  1. Avatar Lesley Earl says:

    and…what is a reasonable amount of time to wallow???

  2. Avatar Jodi says:

    Lesley, you’ll know when you are ready. When you finaly find yourself and create your life the way you want to. It’s a choice to see good. I am an adult adoptee.

  3. Avatar 7rin says:

    It’s interesting that in any circumstances other than adoption, for a child to lose their family is deemed a sad loss. Throw the adoption word into the mix and all of a sudden it’s a wonderful gift.

    No wonder we get screwed up.

  4. Unfortunately, PWT has greatly harmed the adoptee rights movement, which was never Nancy’s intention. It’s strange. Apparently, if you mother died shortly after your birth or you don’t know you’re adopted you don’t have it.

    I agree with Marcy that iPW can be an invitation to wallow and blame, which unfortunately a lot of people do, blaming their adoption on all their problems. If that remained personal, I’d say OK, but their they tend to drag their adoption drama into the legislative arena where nobody wants to here it. It’s not the state’s job to heal your wounds, and leggies will send you packing fast.

    That said, adoption does definitely cause harm and screws up lives and minds. Just don’t confuse that with a political movement. And take responsibility for your lives. .

  5. Avatar WP says:

    “…adopted persons need to integrate the wound of separation 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. ” Yes, I think this is true, and it is that “invitation to wallow” that is so often missing in the life of the adopted person, as society glorifies that which has wounded us. I was recently reading some research on the trauma that separation from the mother causes for the child. It was freeing to finally realize that I am not crazy or bitter, but that I am dealing with actual trauma. Empathy and acknowledgement are incredibly important.

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