Mother’s Day sits in our rearview mirror with all of the complicated emotional baggage that adheres to it for us, our children, and their birth mothers. Hand in hand with great joy, we all grapple with elements of grief and loss. Unsurprisingly, this affects the already complicated dynamics of being family because we must deal with the additional complications of being an adoptive family. We experience moments of resonant emotional attunement, feel mutually attached, and secure. But in spite of our good intentions and our best efforts, we also share incidents of painful and frustrating disconnect, anger, and rejection that leave us feeling discouraged, frustrated, exhausted, and unsupported.
As Intentional Parents, we understand that perfection is both unachievable and unrealistic. We know that intellectually, but our hearts operate on an entirely different plane. We yearn for that intimacy, joy, and reciprocity of mutual attachment between ourselves and our loved ones. A conflict-heavy relationship feels like the antithesis of that dream.
It’s essential to remember that all relationships experience conflict. Healthy relationships are characterized not by the absence of conflict but by the effort expended in addressing conflict, repairing emotional injuries, rebuilding broken trust, and cultivating an ongoing commitment to one another.
Pasting a happy face over unresolved conflict allows emotional wounds to fester and ultimately destroys both connection and trust. Equally damaging, are expectations that rely on the other person’s ability to read our minds, to intuitively know what we need and want. It takes courage to speak up and say, “You hurt me,” especially if we make this admission, not in the passion of anger but rather, with a clear head and a willingness to expose our vulnerability. Sharing this message requires courage and reveals an emotional investment in the relationship. Sharing the truth and hearing the truth requires both persons to be emotionally vulnerable. This is intimacy and connection in action.
How does this distinction look in action? Let’s assume we all have a very clear picture of how hurt feelings generate angry, aggressive, and hurtful responses. (Often we say things which we regret and wish we could take them back. But words, once spoken, can never be unheard. Profound damage to the relationship occurs. Hence the need for repair.)
A less familiar response is an intentional confrontation whose sole purpose is the repair and healing of the relationship. This outreach is made after emotions have cooled. It arises from the person’s higher commitment to the relationship than to being right in the specific event. When a person declares that a breakdown occurred in a relationship, when they share that they felt hurt, a simple “I’m sorry” is not enough and a cavalier “If I hurt you…” not only is insufficient, it often deepens the damage to the relationship. Once someone told us they felt hurt, whether or not we intentionally inflicted that hurt does not erase their hurt. This pain cannot be soothed with the assertion that I didn’t mean to hurt you. Hopefully, none of us intentionally hurt those with whom we share an intimate connection.
Imagining the event as having resulted in a physical injury, helps us better appreciate how our loved one feels. For example, if we opened the kitchen cabinet door and it slammed into their face, we would feel compelled to apologize and would certainly not say, “If your broken nose hurts, I am sorry.” because the injury is so physically obvious. It would feel ridiculous—as well as counterproductive to the relationship—to suggest that the injury did not occur. Yet too often, when a loved one asks us to apologize, we invalidate that apology by questioning the existence of the injury for which we are being asked to make amends: “If I hurt your feelings, I’m sorry. I never meant to do it.”
The lack of intentionality about the offense does not make the injury less painful. A more genuine apology might sound like this, “I am so sorry that I hurt you. I value our relationship. How can I make things right between us?” This statement does not dispute that the injury took place. It accepts the fact accountably. No effort is made to evade responsibility for the miscommunication under the escape hatch of I-did-not-mean-to-hurt-you.
An often-overlooked perspective of the dynamics of unintended injury--within the context of a significant relationship-- is specifically the lack of intention. It suggests disinterest, dismissal, and lack of valuation of the relationship on the offender's part. The injured party can feel as if their significant other no longer holds the relationship as an important priority or has begun to take it for granted, not worth the time and attention which it requires so it can continue to flourish and remain mutually vital. Indifference, not hate is the opposite of love. When one no longer feels they are being held as an important priority by their partner (close friend, family member, etc.) they feel discarded, insignificant, hurt, unheard, and invisible. Consider the words of David Augsberger: "Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are indistinguishable." No relationship can survive in the vacuum of inattention and indifference.
How are you nurturing your relationships? In which ones are you currently investing the most time and energy? How well does the current reality reflect your intended priorities versus your actual priorities? Who needs to know that you do hear and see them? What actions will you take to ensure that happens? What apologies and relationship repair work will you choose to handle? Carefully think through what you want to say. Remember to avoid verbal potholes—any effort to wriggle out of responsibility or soften accountability—that might invalidate apologies. Conclude with a question: Are we okay? Is there anything else you need from me? How can we move forward together?
GIFT coachees stand ready to help you handle similar difficult conversations. Imagine how it will benefit you and your family.
Listen to our podcasts on Adoption-attuned Parenting.
Read Adoption Attuned book reviews by GIFT coach, Gayle H. Swift. They are written with an Adoption-attuned perspective