Dear Dr Ren,
Twenty-odd years ago I gave up a baby to adoption. I’ve always kept my information current so he could find me later if he wanted. About six months ago that happened. I was thrilled, at first.
What went wrong?
The feelings I have for my long lost son are very disturbing to me. I am sexually attracted to him! I can barely admit it . . . I’m so relieved this letter is anonymous. He wants to spend time getting to know each other, but my emotions when I’m around him are shameful and overpowering. He’s gay, so he doesn’t reciprocate my feelings, although he welcomes physical closeness.
I can’t discuss with anyone. I don’t want to lose my son — again — but don’t know what to do. What’s wrong with me? How do I carry on?
Dear Sick Mom,
What you are describing is called “genetic sexual attraction” (GSA), a term coined in the 1980s by Barbara Gonyo, the founder of Truth Seekers in Adoption, when she experienced the phenomenon herself.
Since then, following research by psychotherapist Joe Sall, and later by psychiatrist Maurice Greenberg, we know that about half of all adult reconnections are marked by this “. . . largely normal response to an extremely unusual situation: blood relatives meeting as strangers.”
GSA is rare between people raised together, due to what’s called the Westermarck effect, which promotes familial rather than romantic feelings. Simply put, growing up together prevents sexual attraction.
But those who are related yet unknown to us generate quite different feelings. Researcher Joe Soll noted that romantic emotions developed in mothers, feelings mirroring the strong sensuous bonding between moms and new babies. The pull can be even stronger between siblings, who often encounter the greatest desperation and refusal to maintain self-control.
Some of these relationships do become sexual but, regardless, the effects of the shame associated with the taboo remain inescapably powerful, as you are finding.
GSA differs from incest or child abuse in that it involves no coercion, betrayal of trust, or even a victim. It affects consenting adults, but not without great anguish.
What to do?
Because of our cultural taboo against any sort of familial attraction, you will likely find it difficult to locate sources of factual data. There are forums in which those affected can tell their stories, but links promising information generally lead to nothing concrete.
You would certainly be helped by finding appropriate therapy but this, too, can be problematic. Few therapists are even aware of the concept, and those who are familiar are rarely trained in sensitivity regarding GSA. Your best bet is to locate a certified sex therapist and insist on a telephone interview to determine the practitioner’s knowledge and attitude toward uncommon attractions.
As well, you need to embrace your feelings. Do not act upon them, even if your relative is complicit in the attraction. You are responding to that immediate and powerful recognition of shared genetic information that seduces you into believing you have found your “soulmate.” Lacking the protection of the Westermarck effect, you are blinded by a sense of instant familiarity and attraction. Like all new attractions, this one too will abate as your knowledge of your son trumps the lust he engenders.
Since your son is gay, he likely frames what may be his own potent feelings as affection or a desire to be comforted. He may crave touch. Until you can control your attraction, you’d be wise not to indulge too much physical intimacy.
Knowing that your responses are actually quite understandable and common may help you to generate the self-control you need to form a healthy bond with your son. Act in the manner you know you should behave.