Seven years ago, when my husband and I first started having serious discussions about adoption, one of the first conversations was what kind of adoption we wanted to pursue. When we finally settled on domestic adoption, we signed up with a local agency, but quickly started feeling like something was missing. On our initial paperwork, we checked the boxes for closed or semi-open adoption as our preference.

Then, when nothing felt quite right, we began digging. We found online support groups and forums where families were welcoming birth families into their lives with genuine love, healthy boundaries, and common goals. This changed us, and it also changed what we wanted in an adoption to reflect where we felt called, not what we felt most comfortable with.

As we started serious discussions about open adoption, I felt my degree in Communication being put to better use than ever. We both realized that our life experiences up until that point had primed us to live out open adoption promises. That’s when we jumped in with our whole selves, changing our agency and our path, and ultimately adopting just a few short months later, embracing openness with our arms outstretched.

But willing hearts and eagerness do not make an open adoption successful by themselves, and I believe strongly in focusing on communication in relationships that are as fragile, as emotionally-charged, and as essential as relationships with birth families.

There are a few guidelines I stick to as I’m working through strengthening communication in our open adoptions. They may help you in the coming year, too, if your goal is to work through communication issues and strengthen your relationship.

Tip 1: Work on your own issues first.

Open adoption is becoming more common, which means more adoptive families are making promises of openness before they truly feel comfortable with everything those promises entail. Couples who have experienced infertility can carry a lot of baggage when it comes to working through issues like entitlement, bonding, and sharing mother/fatherhood with birth family.

Early on in our first open adoption, I remember feeling a chip on my shoulder over certain topics and wanting to put my foot down. But then I would take a few steps back to examine the root of my issues and quickly realize it was me I needed to have a discussion with, not my child’s birth mother.

Taking time to be introspective can be tough sometimes, and you may meet demons you wanted to keep buried, but I promise it is for the greater good that you work through issues that make your ego feel bruised before asking someone else to change to suit your needs.

Tip 2: Control your expectations.

I can remember a distinct moment in time when I identified the core issue with many relationships in my life: I wanted people to meet my expectations. My life and many of my relationships changed the day that I decided to stop looking for people to rise to my expectations.

I set expectations in my life based on my own personal life experiences. They’re based on what I’ve learned I can expect because of the privileges I’ve been granted in my life, but not everyone has those same privileges. Not everyone has been put to the same tests, and they haven’t experienced all the things I have. We all walk unique paths, and we all have expectations that exist based on our own individual footprint in life. I will be disappointed, each and every time, if I expect someone to do what I think they should do.

Tip 3: Set healthy boundaries.

We all have different boundaries (and you can search for articles that talk about ways to go about setting them), but each of us learns how to communicate based on our own life experiences. If you grew up in a family that yells and gets heated before things are resolved, you may be more likely to exercise that same practice in dealing with colleagues or friends.

I realized this was an issue in one of our open adoption relationships and had to set the boundary that we would not be yelled at for any reason. If the yelling began, the discussion would end until both parties had a chance to cool off, and then we could talk. Yelling crossed a boundary I wasn’t comfortable with. These discussions can be hard to initiate sometimes, but I’ve learned to feel thankful for hard times because they offer the greatest opportunity to set healthy boundaries and discuss how we can improve our communication.

Tip 4: Show humility. 

When you start a conversation with someone, it’s best to go in humble. Don’t go in with fingers wagging and your hands on your hips, or you can expect guards to be raised and walls to go up. If you need to have a discussion about something difficult, exercise humility and open the conversation by admitting you are about to fumble your way through the discussion, but you feel talking about the issue would improve the situation, then explain why.

Focus on talking about your feelings versus what the other person has done wrong, and you’ll set the tone for a much more neutral conversation. Offer to allow the other person to process everything before responding, and express your love and respect for the triad, which is what has driven you to work at helping it succeed.

Tip 5: Exercise empathy.

Adoption is borne of loss, and though that loss is most sacred for the adoptee, all triad members experience it. It is unique in description for all of us, but the empathy we all gain can be put to great use for one another. No one needs to trump someone else in the loss department, and if we all recognize the loss each person has experienced and exercise empathy, we can make tremendous strides in the way we communicate with each other.

When we’re in pain, it’s hard to prioritize someone else’s wounds over our own, but it’s in the best interest of the relationship to simply acknowledge that losses exist and we are the people best suited to support one another. If we can all recognize that the most important person in our relationship is the adoptee, birth parents and adoptive parents can relish the opportunity to exercise empathy with one another so they can hone the skills necessary to best love and support the adoptee in their lives.