For families involved in adoption search and reunion—whether it be a birth parent searching for a birth child or an adoptee searching for birth family—there’s a difficult reality that searchers need to come to grips with. It’s an unexpected answer to a question that is often forgotten to be asked in the first place: Does search always mean reunion?

The answer is a definitive “no.”

It’s best that searchers come to grips with the reality of this answer before they even begin the hard work of searching. Why? Because adoption search and reunion can be heartwarming, heartbreaking, and, sometimes, a little bit of both.

It all comes down to inaccurate assumptions, overly optimistic/unrealistic expectations, and idealistic (and often destructive) visions of what the outcome will look like. The result can be shattering disappointment on the part of the searcher—and new feelings of confusion and rejection. Protect yourself by accepting the fact that the outcome may not be the one you envisioned.

Search ≠ Reunion

There’s a common misconception that search and reunion are one and the same—that one is a guaranteed outcome of the other. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. The truth is that search is one thing, and reunion is another entirely separate thing. The differentiation is real. One does not necessarily equal, or result in, the other. Even a successful search involving years and years of time and effort does not always end in a reunion. The much-anticipated, highly idealized, and often assumed outcome of a search—that is, the reunion and reconnection—may, in fact, never happen. And that reality can shatter the hopes of the searcher when the ultimate vision does not come to be realized.

So, before you embark on the hard work of starting an adoption search-and-reunion process, temper your enthusiasm with the reminder that “search and reunion” may end up being only a search. As in, one that ends with either no success or no movement to the next stage (i.e., reunion). You must prepare yourself for any reality—not just the one you are envisioning. Adjust your expectations. Your search may be successful, but there may never be a reunion. Your initial excitement about meeting your relative may fizzle over time—or, their excitement may fizzle—and the result may be a neglected relationship that is eventually abandoned. And that can be disappointing after all that initial hard work during the search phase. The best way to stay prepared for any of the possible outcomes of an adoption search and reunion is the old adage, “Hope for the best, but expect the worst.” At the risk of sounding overly negative, this approach is a healthy one, for it protects the searcher against unexpected scenarios or disappointing outcomes. For more tips and guidance, see 10 Things to Know About Adoption Search and Reunion.

The American Adoption Congress published a resource titled Search & Reunion Etiquette: The Guide Miss Manners Never Wrote. Author Monica Byrne explains, “There are as many adoption search and reunion scenarios as there are people involved.” The sands, she says, are ever-shifting, and the rules are often unclear: “I liken the ‘reunion process’ to watching a beautiful mosaic spread out before us. Into this picture one throws a new tile—a tiny piece of marble—and every one of the hundreds of other little tiles must shift and move to accommodate that new tile. The picture will change in many subtle ways. But after this fundamental shift, order does not come easily or without cost. Each one on this very personal journey will need to understand the variables. And each will need the help of a guide or a support system.”

Reunion Versus Reconnection: What’s the Difference?

The very search-and-reunion process itself is misunderstood. What many searchers see as a two-phase process is actually made up of three distinct phases. There’s search, and then there’s reunion. But there’s also a third separate phase known as reconnection. This last phase is often forgotten or not known about because it is assumed to be part of phase 2 (reunion).

Not true.

Let’s use the “sprint versus marathon” metaphor: The physical reunion itself can be seen as more of a sprint—the short-term goal achieved. But think of reconnection as the long-distance run, the marathon. Search, reunion, reconnection: They are three very separate and distinct parts.

It typically takes as long as five to eight years for the initial reunion to evolve into a natural rhythm, a longer-term reconnection. This involves the new relationship “normalizing” and reaching a point at which both parties have begun building up shared experiences, a more fluid back-and-forth that eases and solidifies with time. That, Byrne explains, is reconnection. “Each reunion therefore, must be studied and planned with a careful, almost military precision if the goal of the exercise is a long-term relationship with the new-found relatives.”

That Happy Ending May Not Happen

The assumption that a reunion—the storybook “happy ending”—will be the result of a successful search is a dangerous one to make. The statistics, surveys, and studies done on the search and reunion process and its outcomes—and the likelihood that real, long-term reconnection will occur and “stick”—show that this is not always the case.

Consider, for example, the results of a British study, reported in this article that appeared in The Guardian. The Adoption, Search and Reunion Study is based on the results of a survey (the first of its kind) of nearly 500 adoptees. The survey found that “although outright rejection from a birth relative is fairly rare, a surprising number of reunions cease after one or two letters or a single face-to-face meeting.” Of those surveyed, over 70% of searchers and 89% of non-searchers did not experience an immediate bond with their birth parent. One of every six newly established relationships fell apart within just one year after initial contact, and almost 43% of relationships ended within eight years.

What can start out as hopeful optimism for a search well-conducted, with a presumably happy ending, can quickly turn to shattering disappointment on the part of the searcher. Because the truth is, the outcome of a search can run the gamut of possibilities: You may end up with no result (i.e., an unsuccessful search, one that doesn’t yield the answers you’re looking for). You may end up with disappointing results (i.e., one party is not interested in establishing a relationship of any kind). You may experience “lukewarm” results (i.e., an acquaintance is established, but a deep relationship is never formed). You may encounter disappointment after a hopeful start (i.e., a reunion leads to successful reconnection, but one or both parties fail to continue the relationship much past a few months or a few years). Your search can also have the most heartwarming of results—a solid, long-term, new relationship with your birth family.

Reasons for Searching Vary Significantly

The reasons for searching tend to be different for adoptees than they are for birth families. Adoptees most often are looking to complete their sense of identity: They want to link their present with their past, close the gaps, fill in the missing pieces of their life story, perhaps gather familial data and health history, and, in general, find out more about their birth family. They may not even be looking for a long-term relationship. They may be looking for information, not interaction—and certainly not a relationship. Once they get their questions answered, or once the search is over, they may be done. For some adoptees, that’s often where the process ends: at discovery. For birth families, the search tends to be about the desire to establish that long-term relationship, to build a family structure that hadn’t been there before. Birth families’ expectations tend to be higher than those of adoptees, and thus, they are disappointed if search does not lead to reunion, or if the reunion doesn’t look like what they envisioned or doesn’t become the relationship that they had hoped for.

So . . . to Search or Not to Search?

After all of this, is it worth it? To search or not to search?

The prevailing opinion among adoption professionals is yes, it’s worth it. Is reunion and reconnection guaranteed? No. But, will it bring some closure to some or all involved? Probably.

Remember that British study cited earlier, from this article in The Guardian? Even among those individuals whose reunions eventually faded out, more than 80% of those surveyed felt glad that they had made the effort—even if the new relationship didn’t last. Half of all searchers surveyed—and 1/3 of non-searchers—reported that closing the gap, filling in the missing pieces of their life story, had made them feel more complete.

As Byrne says, “Is search and reunion a good thing? You bet! Should it be carefully thought through? Absolutely! Will it be 100% successful?” No.

For more information on how to go about starting a search, see Adoption.com’s Search and Reunion Guide. For additional search-and-reunion resources, see the list of articles below.

Additional Search and Reunion Resources

To Search or Not to Search (published by Wisconsin Coalition for Children, Youth and Families)

Can I Search for My Birth Parents by My Birthdate Only?

How To Be a Search Angel for Adoptees and Birth Mothers

What If I Can Never Be Reunited With My Birth Child?

Your first step in your search and reunion journey is to register in Adoption.com’s Reunion Registry.