When an adoptee resists touch and comfort (and develops a new dysfunction)

In my never-ending quest for self-improvement and enlightenment, I found a report titled "Somatic-Experiential Sex Therapy:  A Body-Centered Gestalt Approach to Sexual Concerns", and as I was reading the pages, I found myself -- parts of my own story  -- being explained to readers.

Not literally, of course.

Instead, the clinician's focus and example was based on the sexual dynamics and dysfunctions that develop when the child of a biologically intact family is raised and nurtured (?) by a depressed or sexually inappropriate care-taker.  But I believe many of the same sexual-related fears and anxieties can be repeated in thematic style for the adoptee put in similar dysfunctional (unhealthy) hands.  Stella Resnick, PhD from Los Angeles wrote:

During the first eighteen months of life, it is primarily the right brain of the infant that develops. The right cerebral hemisphere is associated with development of the ability to feel empathy, understand facial expressions, and read non-verbal communication. It is only during the second year of life that the left hemisphere begins to develop, and language becomes a factor.

Attachment always takes place in the context of the baby being held by a warm and intuitive caretaker, usually the mother. Smell, taste, and touch play a significant role. One of the most important interactions takes place through eye contact and in the spirit of play. At about eight weeks, the baby’s intense gaze evokes the mother’s gaze and vocalizations. If the mother allows the child to avert his or her gaze and is available with a direct gaze and an animated face when he or she returns, this brings delight to the child. If the mother is depressed, distracted, and expressionless when the child looks back, or if she is intrusive and demands eye contact when the child looks away, it causes distress in the child. Studies show that the more the mother can allow the infant to disengage and waits for cues to re-engage, the better the infant learns to self-regulate from a high state of sympathetic arousal (stress) to cycle down to a more relaxed state (Schore, 2001a).

Autonomic balance is reflected by a state of quiet alertness. Individuals raised by either a chronically intrusive or a detached parent will have difficulty auto-regulating from high states of arousal, both negative and positive, to a more relaxed state. Individuals with poor attachment histories have been shown to have a limited capacity to deal effectively with stress and to perceive the emotional states of others. Their inability to read facial expressions often leads to a misinterpretation of the intentions of others.

The author continued with another family scenario that can inhibit future intimate relationships:

Wilhelm Reich (1942) was the first to recognize that one result of being punished as children for being too exuberant or displaying sexual interest is to learn to limit enjoyment of life’s pleasures. As we begin to associate feelings of expansiveness with the pain of rejection, shame, or guilt, we learn to shut down by holding the breath, tensing muscles that would animate the impulse, and going numb. Any temptation that threatens to break through the armor arouses fear of losing control and a host of imagined disastrous consequences. As a result, individuals can actually come to fear pleasure. The more desirable the stimulus, the more the accompanying “pleasure-anxiety.”

Resnick explained how "pleasure-anxiety" manifests itself in relationships:

 In a relationship, people with a high degree of pleasure-anxiety may feel vulnerable in response to a heightened state of positive arousal and act in a way that sabotages a partner’s feelings of trust and closeness (Resnick, 1994).  In a sexual situation, people who resist pleasure can feel overwhelmed by their excitement, tense up, and dissociate from their body. Instead of being present and in contact with their partner, and with the sensationsin their body, they seem to go into a trance, getting stuck in their heads, compulsively replaying negative mental tapes (Resnick, 1997).

If all of this is very difficult and complex for the child NOT riddled with adoption issues, how much more messed-up will the already confused adopted child get if  the adoptee is given to an Amother who later claims she developed Post Adoption Depression -- or worse,  is put in the adoptive home where various forms of discipline and punishment  are used to control an adoptee's unwanted behavior, on a daily basis -- or even much worse, is put in the hands and reach of an unchecked sexual predator?

While I myself, privately, hear many similar stories from a variety of adult adoptees stuck in miserable unsatisfying relationships, I find myself wondering just how many more adoptees are out there struggling with significant relationship issues, (like feeling stressed [or numb] when touched by another or feeling guilty or ashamed because there are some weird hang-ups when it comes to experiencing personal pleasure), but keep these personal details secret because that's what adoptees do:  we keep quiet about our secret issues and we keep them in the dark. 

I know for my own self, it took me years to accept and admit I resist another person's touch and have an even more difficult time accepting help or comfort when it's offered by another.  Such offerings make me feel stressed, rigid and tense... numb to be to exact... incapable of feeling, physically and emotionally.  Despite my openness about these simple self facts, in all the many years I spent in therapy, not once did any one of my therapists ever discuss the merits of sex therapy and how specific approaches, (like somatic couple's therapy), could be very beneficial for me.  

I find this infurating, but not surprising since so few therapists seem to grasp complex adoption issues (and how so many of them go back to sex) anyway.

In retrospect, I feel as though I was lucky enough to be born with a defiant and determined will and spirit.  My angry determination and hatred towards my own life and circumstance forced me to find the sort of safe nurturing people I need to help repair Me.  I refused to be limited by the dysfunction that  seemed to always surround and follow me, and I found a way to re-teach/re-learn new life-lessons so I'm not as rigid and resistant... reactive... as I used to be.  But how many adoptees put in dysfunctional adoptive homes are that lucky?

This brings me to series of questions I have for the adult adoptee and adopter who felt so overwhelmed, they sought outside help in the form of therapy.  How many are truly satisfied with the help, insight and guidance they  received from their chosen therapist, and how many of those therapists took the time to address the many ways touch and holding can be interpreted by an adoptee?  [Are sexual issues often addressed by those counseling adoptive families?]


What a great article. I can

What a great article. I can also recognize myself in some of what is described. Also, within the adoptee community I have seen many adoptees who have huge problems with adequate relationships. Many who seem to be caught in a circle of only abusive relationships. I have seen many behaviours that seem to point to early problems with a-parents or even earlier problems with b-family.

I do believe that there is a huge lack of counselors who are experienced with adoptees. I always said that adoptees are the ones who have perfected the art of wearing various masks throughout their lives in order to hide whatever dark secret there is.

That's why I also believe that most of the studies done earlier with adopted children and adolescents are skewed in a certain way. It takes much to gain the trust of an adoptee so that the masks disappear. In many cases this is almost impossible and it takes years just to take off one layer.

I agree that therapy is definitely a key to healing for adoptees.


I myself found therapy to be a double-edge sword:  although I appreciated the fact that through therapy, I was FINALLY able to receive the simple basic need of being "heard" (and validated), I also disliked the idea that I had to PAY for such "services".   In addition, I really resented the fact that the more I shared  with this "non-judging individual", the more my paid-for non-judgmental sounding-board decided I needed prescription medication, to remain "stable".   

Not once did my therapists tell me WHY those meds were being prescribed for me.  Not once did they TEACH me how to deal with the stress and anger I was feeling, WITHOUT self-medicating.

(Yea, I was angry!  I had every RIGHT to be angry!!  So why medicate and numb me?  ... was unresolved numbness better than not being angry anymore?)

In short:  "Traditional" therapy, for me, had its value, but it most definitely had its limits.  (The meds I was put-on made me suicidal... so after recovering from a self-induced head-injury, I weaned myself from all meds, and quit "traditional" therapy.)

Over time, I learned no therapist was going to TEACH me how to relate to others, especially in a meaningful personal intimate (sexual) relationship. 

That stuff, I had to teach myself.... with the RIGHT partner.

That last detail (the "right" partner") is more than key. 

It took countless of abusive/unhealthy relationships to learn what "right" really meant.

I was, forgive the adoption-friendly word, "lucky" to find the Right Partners.

[Truth be told, after decades of miserably empty abusive relationships, I truly believe the people I found (and found me) were God-Sent.]

I have found true healing is found NOT by "loving myself"; for me, in order to love myself, I had to learn I can be loved and appreciated, and respected (by another), no matter what I do, say, or think.... without cost or loss. 


I agree with you,  having the right relationship has done more for me than any therapy. Over the years I have tried therapy three times. Twice it wasn't successful at all. The third time wasn't bad, but only helped me part of the way. It wasn't until I found the right partner, that actual healing became possible.

Pound Pup Legacy