What happens when a common law couple decide to adopt?

Ave Maria a trasbordo (Ave Maria on the Lake), 1886.

Ave Maria a trasbordo (Ave Maria on the Lake), 1886, by Giovanni Segantini

What if an adoption falls through as a result?  A case study:

No couple can be prepared mentally or emotionally for a failed adoption, although it is a fairly common occurrence.   Invariably a couple will blame themselves, although they may have little or nothing to do with it: a birth mother decides to keep the baby, for example; or, perhaps another couple maneuvers ahead on the waiting parents list; or socio-political factors at work in the country of the child’s origin that prevent it.

By the time an adoption fails, which is typically at the eleventh hour, the couple has invested much emotionally, physically, monetarily and sometimes spiritually.  In some instances a year or more worth of visits and preparation, depending on if the adoption is domestic or international, have taken place.  The issues it brings up for any couple – who may have undergone scrutinizing interviews, application processes, and match making preferences — may include blame, resentment, inability to cope with the perceived failure without externalizing, or relationship instability develops as one person ascribes fault to the other, and possibly second guessing the worthiness of either partner happens, which is toxic.

Does the therapist help or hurt?

A sensitive counselor would observe, “But before beginning, it is important that counselors be aware of their own biases and worldviews.  Sue, Ivey, & Pederson (1996) consider this self-awareness prior to engaging in any therapy a “self-audit.”  Awareness of one’s own lenses, experiences (educational, occupational, familial, and cultural), will allow the clinician to understand how the client’s behaviors and attitudes sometimes conflict” (Sue, et al., 1996, in Liu, & Clay, 2002).   On the surface, a counselor would be empathic with the couple’s desire to adopt a child, to relieve the isolation of another infant without parental support and bonding, and to help the couple build a family.

“In the counseling and psychological literature, empathy has been broadly conceptualized into two categories: cognitive empathy and affective empathy (Davis, 1983).  Cognitive empathy refers to one’s ability to intellectually assume the perspective of another individual, whereas affective empathy refers to responding to another person’s emotions with the same emotion” (Day & Chambers, 1991, in Constantine, 2001).   The counselor may well empathize cognitively, yet not empathize affectively, because the couple is experiencing perhaps understandable ambivalence about moving forward, yet this perceived wavering would be unwelcome in an adoptive setting.  A strong, sure dedication to the adoption and to one another would likely be the admonishment, that is, to never give up.  Instability would jeopardize the chance for a child to be adopted, and to create an environment that would be peaceful, and not trigger potential an adoptee’s issues.

Adoptees are a culture too

A couple’s cultural heritages is a context for their choices.  It would be up to a therapist to determine how seminal the context is in the couple’s framework.  As Johnson-Powell (1997) suggests “the counselor needs additional information to guide decision making about if, how, and how much to include cultural issues in treatment.  For example, the counselor must determine to what extent: Do the client’s beliefs and values reflect his or her given culture?” (Liu & Clay, 2002).  Does a couple’s commitment to their relationship, yet choice to not formalize it with marriage reflect a cultural preference on the part of one or both?  Is it, for example, the relative luxury of a dominant culture couple to choose whether they officially marry or not?  Or, does this preference reflect a reticence to commit long-term, which as a phenomenon is being tested by the marathon ordeal that adoption can be?  Are the adoption process and their ability to persevere a mirror of their perseverance with one another?   Is this perhaps a factor of their developmental life stage?  Does it perhaps reflect a family history pattern of dissolved or precarious bonds, which might be discovered by way of a genogram?


Remley and Herlihy (2005) have noted, “honoring diversity is fundamental to counselors’ efforts to promote the welfare and to respect the dignity of their clients” (p. 67, as cited in Hermann & Herlihy, 2006).  Were the counselor to view a common law couple as “commitment phobic” due to her own issues, that may do a disservice to the clients by not respecting their choices and or supporting them at a time when they may be experiencing systemic discrimination for their non-traditional marital choice.  Instead, the counselor might locate ways to advocate for non-married couples to adopt, and possible recourses for the couple, were this a reason for their adoptions failing.

Questions to be explored remain.  If the couple consists of accomplished professionals with a wide support network, and a seeming track record of success, a question would be whether they have experience dealing with a ‘failure’ which is another way of saying, an enormous disappointment?  How would they interpret and contextualize this individually or as a couple?  Could the couple potentially be battling compassion fatigue as they try to summon the emotional courage to get motivated for another adoption attempt?  The couple might benefit from other potential adoptive parents’ perspectives in group therapy, where they could talk through, compare, and alleviate frustrations.

Same sex couples

Typically same sex couples plan for, develop strategies around, and dedicate themselves to their adoption endeavor more than heterosexual couples.   In addition, same sex couples may have experienced uphill battles at times with their own acceptance, and may be more adept at the battle as a result.  Similarly, the relative outsider status of the same sex couple correlates to the inherently outsider self-perceptions around being adopted: a same sex couple and their adoptive child may be theoretically more sympathetic to one another, although not always, and encourage one another in the development of personal freedom –- which a same sex couple as parents would potentially foster.

Often adoption represents the only recourse to having a child to a same sex couple.  Couples take it seriously, rather than regard it as option #2, and have resulted in beneficial parenting practices that have been documented in the literature.  What might prove more difficult is that same sex partnerships may not be seen as highly desirable as heterosexual couples by adoption agencies, and in some states may be illegal altogether.  The experience of a failed adoption may occur repeatedly, and counseling may take a turn toward efforts to correct systemic factors.  IMG_0088“Counselors must take care to avoid replicating in the counseling relationship the discrimination that these clients have encountered and continue to encounter in their daily lives” (Herlihy & Watson, 2003).   Enough is enough!


Constantine, M. G. (2001). Multicultural training, theoretical orientation, empathy, and multicultural case conceptualization ability in counselors. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 23(4), 357-372. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.library.capella.edu/docview/198700039?accountid=27965

Hermann, M. A., & Barbara, R. H. (2006). Legal and ethical implications of refusing to counsel homosexual clients. Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD, 84(4), 414-418. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.library.capella.edu/docview/219047401?accountid=27965

Liu, W. M., & Clay, D. L. (2002). Multicultural counseling competencies: Guidelines in working with children and adolescents. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 24(2), 177-187. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.library.capella.edu/docview/198727235?accountid=27965



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