Being married to Harlow’s Monkey

Being married to a transracial adoptee is no picnic in the park. Just ask Mr. Harlow’s Monkey.

We’ve been together for almost 20 years and in March, we’ll have been legal for 18 years. And to say that I tested Mr. HM those first few years decades is quite an understatement. I have many friends who are adopted and one thing many of us have in common, whether placed in same-race, domestic, international or transracial adoptive homes, are issues with trust and attachment.

For some adopted persons, that can translate as being stand-offish, cold and commitment-phobic, with a tendency to leave people before they leave us.

For others, this might translate into clinginess, jealousy and neediness with a tendency towards suffocating the very people we love the most. This is what’s referred to as insecure attachment.

Either way, it can be very difficult for the partner or loved one of an adopted person, especially if it seems that they’ve suddenly become obsessive about their adoption. And if you are partnered to a transracially, transculturally adopted person, this could be triple the whammy.

Because the subject of adoption is so child-centric, I often wonder whether adoptive parents think about what their child is going to deal with as an adult. So I was interested in this “Parners of Adoptees” information sheet from the Benevolent Society‘s Post Adoption Services that I found through another web site.

One of the paragraphs in this information sheet states:

You have probably grown up with your biological family. This is a very different experience from being part of an adoptive family. Adoptees are cut off from things that non-adopted people take for granted – birth parents, the extended family, genetic inheritance and sometimes ethnic or racial origins. Adoptees often search in order to re-connect with the past and contrary to many people’s belief, those who search are not necessarily unhappy with their life. Adoptees who have had a happy adoption can also experience feelings of emptiness, of yearning and of something missing in their lives.

The grief associated with this sense of loss can sometimes surface at the time of specific events, such as the death of an adoptive parent, the illness of a loved one, or on “happy” occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries or the birth of a child. These situations can all be reminders of the lost birth family.

When Mr. HM and I met, I was 18 and very much in my “adjusted adoptee” stage. In fact, I sometimes spoke to adoptive parents at my church, telling them exactly what they wanted to hear. I had no idea that other adopted persons might not share my opinions or feelings because I never spoke to any other adopted people. That’s right, for the first two decades of my life, I did not ever talk to another adopted person about how I felt about being adopted.

Imagine Mr. HM’s surprise when in my mid-twenties, I began to delve into my adoption “issues.” It made sense that as I became an adult and started to develop an identity separate from my parents that I would look at the role that adoption played in my life. For the first time, I was with someone who I felt completely safe with and I processed my feelings about being adopted along side of him. But there were many times when he just couldn’t understand the depth of my feelings.

Mr. HM had long dealt with my issues of trust and abandonment, which manifested in both little and big ways. For instance, I once threw a temper tantrum for days because he’d picked me up from work at the wrong entrance (I worked at the giganto Mall of America at the time). I raged on and on, terrified that he’d forgotten about me and I’d be stuck there all alone. I was a grown adult at the time, and yet the anger expressed outwardly really masked a fear – a fear that I knew deep in my soul –  that I was not wanted or worthwhile and was abandoned yet again. I really had to work hard to get to the point where I didn’t personalize everything as a sign of his committment to me. Pretty ironic, since it was actually me who was always on the verge of leaving.

Dealing with my dislike of holidays – especially birthdays – was a big question mark for Mr. HM. As was my stressful hot and cold relationship with my adoptive parents. Although he knew I had some issues with my adoptive parents – after all, we eloped partly because of them – he did not know just how much the guilt&gratitude/anger&abandonment pendulum would continually swing throughout the years.

I don’t know what it’s like for other transracially adopted persons, but my adoption issues came after my racial identity issues. And often, the two overlap to the point that it’s impossible to separate which behavior or feeling is adoption related, racial identity related, or if in fact it is both at the same time.

Some Korean adoptees I know felt pangs of regret that they married white spouses either because of lack of diversity where they lived or because of their inner negative feelings about Asians. Imagine being that spouse when your partner suddenly regrets being married to you because you’re white. Many adopted Koreans get divorced or separated after they begin to address their adoptions.

I’ve known some marriages and relationships fall apart because the partner just could not deal with the adoption, search for birth family, or anger/issues with adoptive family. Some are accused by their non-adopted partners of being overly dramatic or acting like a victim.

“Why now?” is a common question, especially towards those of us who were “adjusted” earlier in our lives and then found themselves – well, not maladjusted –  but questioning.

What would it be like to be the partner of someone who at the beginning of the relationship refuses or does not recognize their adoption history. And then BAM! Suddenly something triggers it – perhaps its the birth of your child, or maybe its the death of an adoptive parent, or even contact somehow with their first parent(s). Imagine being there with that person when their whole life changes. And what do you do if your partner becomes a different person as a result? Imagine being the person whose partner feels they were cheated out of marrying someone of their racial or ethnic community.

At times, my friends and I have joked that there should be a special support group for spouses and partners of adoptees, kind of like Al-Anon (and while we’re at it, I’m sure my daughter is going to blame some aspects of my mothering on adoption too).

For Mr. Harlow’s Monkey, one of the most trying times was when I decided I needed to go to Korea to do a birth family search and I did not want him to come with me. It was something I felt I needed to do with other adopted Koreans, those who shared the same experience of being adopted from Korea. And when I returned, empty handed and spent months depressed and angry? Not the most fun way to spend a winter.

Adoption has life-long impact on us, the children who were the subjects and objects of adoption; how we deal (both in positive and negative ways) with our adoption experience affects not just our immediate adoptive families. Adoptive parents must recognize that their children will be adults.

Adults who will likely partner. Adults who may have children some day. And those partners and children will be the recipients of whatever unresolved issues the adopted individual might struggle with.

I’m very fortunate to be partnered with Mr. HM. He calls me an outdoor cat, because he knows that I’m ornery and need a lot of space. It hasn’t always been easy for us, and those ten years or so when I was really struggling to figure out who I am as a Korean American adult adoptee were difficult. I imagine we’ll have other hard times too, after all most relationships go through rough spots. And since I can’t ever be unadopted, these issues will likely resurface many more times in our life time together.

As the partner of a Korean American adoptee, that’s part of the package.

(Thanks, Casper, for bringing this to my attention!)

15 thoughts

  1. The Mister has ridden a roller coaster with me and contines to do so to this day, though it’s more like Gadget’s Go Coaster in Toon Town than Space Mountain at Disneyland. ^_^ I held in a lot of frustration and anger from being abandoned and considered it the beginning of the turn of events that lead me to the people who would raise me and all the things I’ve went through for ending up with crummy people. I had a hard time getting over self pity and “Why me?!!!!!” from about 27-33 years of age. I’ve always withdrawn and pushed away but the older I got, I added in acting up when I sensed “danger.” But somehow the Mister just won’t go away, so I guess I am stuck with him. ^_^

  2. This is an excellent entry – thank you so much for posting it!
    I can relate to nearly everything you said, with the exception of feeling jealous of my spouse’s relationship with his birth family. The only jealousy I’ve felt is toward some of his KAD friends when he would talk about emotional stuff with them instead of me, and made me feel like I was being intrusive and meddlesome if I asked him any sort of deep or detailed question. I had spent years trying to interest him in meeting other KADs and/or doing a birth search and he always blew it off. So when he changed his mind, dove in with both feet, and then kicked me out of the pool (so to speak) I was incredibly hurt and felt totally rejected.
    As far as dealing with a spouse who undergoes a radical identity change, the only analogy I can think of is having a spouse who begins to think they might be gay or bisexual, but had no idea before they got married. You married that person thinking they were one thing, they later think they’re something else, and you have no idea if you can even begin to meet their needs or desires anymore. It’s a scary place to be in, and there is very little information out there to help guide you.
    Maybe we *do* need a support group. I’d be totally willing to start a yahoo group or something. Interested parties can email me at delanybird at

  3. What an excellent post. I come at it from a white adoptee married to white guy perspective and know the issues we’ve faced in our marriage. I can’t imagine the difficulties once race is brought into it. While I finally, after 16 years together (14 legally as you put it – hehe) I finally feel safe with him. And I’m ashamed to look back at all the things I did to “test” him.
    Thanks for posting on this very important issue – and yes, I do think our spouses could use a support group.

  4. In little ways, I do understand the abandonment and trust issues (in small part from being sent away to a boarding school and my father later abandoning us, mostly from being left by myself a lot while my mother focused on my sister) and I think it was the hardest when I recognized that emotional void but could not stop myself from behaving in a reactive way, i.e. every small rejection was blown up as a permanent rejection. I felt defective.
    I agree that you are fortunate for Mr. HM – and Mr. HM is also extremely fortunate to have had the tenacity and understanding to stick around because he’s fortunate for the ever-growing, ever-changing, always exciting Ms. HM. Of course, L and T are an added bonus. 🙂 I loved this post, made me think a lot in terms of my own insecurities that have reared in my 20’s and now 30’s.

  5. Thank you for pin-pointing the patterns which become visible in a relationship – your words are soo “on target” – and it was good to read and be re-reminded. Got some more Seoul-searching to do 😉

  6. JR, I somehow missed this first time around but I am printing it out and giving it to MY “Mr. HM.” He has been through such an incredible roller coaster with me, which only intensified as we had kids, lost a pregnancy, dealt with so many things in my “reunion.” I was definitely one of those clingy, needy “insecure attachment” types. I am amazed and grateful that we’ve been together 20 years and it speaks to an enormous well of patience and love on his part. Whew.

  7. Thank you for posting this – it was very helpful and I am now able to better verbalize my thoughts regarding my relationship with my korean adoptee friends and my husband, who sometimes does not understand my behavior (not that I necessarily do either). Defining the issue can do so much for my ability to explore it. Thank you.

  8. Very good post. Thank you.
    Mr. Addie Pray has been down a pretty rough road with the adoption issues too.

  9. I’ve read this post before, but felt compelled to read it again. My husband just recently read it, and wow, could he relate to what you wrote. Even some of the specific examples and metaphors you gave paralleled our experiences (outdoor cat, afraid he had forgotten you, etc.).

  10. I saw your blog mentioned on Love Isn’t Enough and, as an AP Psych teacher, was intrigued by your blog title. Then I began to read about your title choice and was further intrigued as an adoptive mother.
    While my son was not adopted transracially (not by choice but by chance), he did live with a foster family for seven weeks after his birthmother relinquished him. He is five now, and has close and loving relationships with both his foster family and his birthmom. However, I do wonder how he will ultimately see us, his birthmother’s choice to place him in a two-parent family instead of raising him alone, his disrupted first two months.
    Thank you for sharing your experiences with people like me. While we are all doing the best that we can with the information we are given, who is to say that open adoption will not be considered cruel and unusual in twenty years? My son will have an entire lifetime to deal with the repercussions of his birthmom’s decisions and our desire to include him in our family. And while we are trying our best to provide him with all that he needs to be a loving, well-adjusted partner to whomever he chooses, I am grateful that he will be able to hear the voices of other adoptees who were brave enough to talk about how it really feels.

  11. Thank you very much for this article. I hope that there are more articles like this that discuss life events throughout the adult adoptee experience. Two weeks ago my boyfriend of nearly two years and I had an argument about these very issues. It’s good to know that these issues aren’t in my head. We are not married, but have had serious discussions about it. I am black and my boyfriend is Hispanic, raised with a deep understanding and celebration of his cultural roots. I’m on the opposite end of the spectrum. I do feel very envious of his background and planning to see a therapist, so that it does not manifest as resentment.

  12. Wow! What a rich post. Thank you!
    I especially appreciate the book list to the side.
    I am the wife of an adoptee. I am the auntie of an international adoptee. I am the godmother of an adoptee. I need advice and hope to read more.
    Please recommend places I can read to be supportive.

  13. Thank you MaryofEgypt! You can go to the Ethics, advocacy and Support links on the side to learn more about other organizations that are working on adoption reform. Thanks for reading.

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