If you discover a secret through DNA testing, should you keep the secret, or should you expose it? What you decide to do is up to you, but you will get some ideas and guidance in this post.
Most people get interested in DNA testing to find out where their family came from. Basically, they want the pie charts and ethnicity percentages.
However, many people don’t realize that they will get a list of DNA matches. It might be fair to say that most people aren’t expecting to uncover previously unknown close family members.
The discover of new close family members happens more frequently than you might imagine. It can leave people wondering whether or not it is their responsibility to keep a secret that they have discovered as a result of their DNA test.
Have you ever heard anyone say that whatever can happen will happen? Whether you want to blame it on the Infinite Monkey Theorem, or Murphy’s Law, odds are good that you might discover something previously unknown about your family history.
Whether it happened 20 years ago or 200 years ago, DNA can expose it.
When I first did my test a few years ago, I didn’t know that I would get DNA matches, and I never imagined how much I would be able to learn from them. Since I did my test, many of my parents siblings and cousins have tested, as well a few relatives from my grandparents’ generation.
I thought I had a good idea of who all of my genetic family members were. After I really understood what a DNA match meant, I never really expected to find anyone surprising.
So, what do you do when you just spit in a tube trying to find out if you were Irish or Native American or Nigerian or Spanish and you end up learning a secret that turned your life upside down? What is the secret has the potential to really upset someone, or a bunch of someones?
The answer: it’s complicated.
In this post, I’ll talk about a few different situations that have occurred in my own family. Through this exercise, I hope that you can find enough of a parallel to your own situation and that it helps you make a decision about the steps that you should take moving forward.
The ideas and opinions expressed below are my own and are intended to help you make a decision about what to do about the family secret that you have discovered in your own family. The final choice about what to do is yours, of course.
We should tell the truth about DNA results if we are directly asked
It is best practice to be truthful about DNA results if we are directly asked by adult family members, whether it is the DNA match or other relatives. This is always the case, unless we feel that the truth might place someone in physical or emotional danger.
We should never expose secrets about minor children or when there is risk for physical or emotional danger for the individuals involved.
When it first became known in my family that I was interested in family history and I would be taking a DNA test, I had a few phone calls and in-person conversations that started off like this:
- “You might not know this already, but…”
- “You’ll probably find this out anyway, so….”
- “You should probably know that…”
Basically, people realize that when one family member takes an autosomal DNA test, it could lead to the discovery of information that was previously private and unknown to most people.
While I didn’t receive any life-shattering revelations, I did learn a few things about some of my family members that left me wondering about my ethical obligation to disclose or hide both the information that was told to me by my family members, and the information I might learn through my DNA testing and research.
After a lot of thought, I decided that as long as all of the involved parties are adults, if I am directly asked about a particular situation, I will do my best to be compassionate and sensitive, but to tell the truth. The key is that I will not go out of my way to upset any particular situation, but if I am directly asked about something, I feel like I owe people the truth.
This means that if someone asks me “Have you learned anything interesting from your test results?” my answer might be an equally vague, “Yeah, it’s been pretty interesting.” If my relative asks me a more specific question like: “I took a DNA test and I’m not sure if it says that so and so is my full sibling?”, I will answer – thoughtfully and kindly – with more detail.
The same goes for contact received from a DNA match. If they ask if I know how they might be related, I feel like I owe my new family member the same respect as my other relatives, and I will tell them.
I have only had to put my self-imposed “rule” to the test a few times, and it felt hard each time. For example, a DNA match responded to a message and asked me “Which one of your relatives could possibly be my father based on the amount of DNA we share and where I was born?”
Since everyone involved was an adult, and I was directly asked, I provided my relative with the full names of the two relatives that could have been this relative’s father.
The story had a pretty happy “ending” (or beginning?) in this particular case, and I am happy to have this new family member and am also happy that everyone else more closely related was happy to have a new relative, too.
What if I feel like I should tell my family members something that I discover in my DNA results?
Sometimes, you might discover someone that no one else knows, or something that would only be revealed if someone else were to do a DNA test. My own rule of thumb for dealing with situations is based on how close of a relationship I have with the individuals involved and how long ago the “secret” event happened.
Should I keep DNA secrets from immediate family members?
If I discover a new relatively close family member for either of my parents, I disclose it to them, as we have agreed. My parents are adults and as such, can make their own decisions about whether or not they would like to contact their new relative, help this relative make contact with the rest of the family, or disclose this new relative to their other family members.
This has come up a few times in my family, and I am very impressed with the way that my close family has handled the situations and the maturity with which my more extended family has welcomed our new family members.
Not everyone has the “ideal” situation for revealing DNA secrets, so if you are trying to figure out what to do, you really have to use your best judgement. These are some helpful questions to help you think about the best thing to do in your case:
- Are you directly related to the individuals involved?
- Will revealing your discovery put someone in danger of being physically or emotionally abused?
- Is there a clear benefit to revealing a discovery?
- What are your main motivations for wanting/not wanting to reveal your discovery?
- Does the DNA secret involve a minor child?
It is also important to mention that sometimes we can be wrong about what the DNA seems to tell us. Not everyone is experienced enough with DNA results to be certain about their conclusions, and this is something to consider when deciding whether to reveal what you have discovered, even if directly asked.
If you are not sure, definitely convey to your relative that you aren’t 100% sure, and consider getting an expert involved.
Should I tell my extended family about shocking DNA results?
I generally don’t feel like it is my place to divulge information to my aunts, uncles, and cousins. Unless, of course, they ask me directly.
There are countless family scenarios that might lead you to discover information about extended family members that you might not need to share with anyone else.
For example, I once discovered that a family member’s uncle was a half-uncle. Until a few months ago, everyone in the family had assumed that he had died without having children.
When a grandchild of this family member’s uncle took a DNA test, I immediately realized that he had had a child, a daughter, and that he was a half-uncle to my close family member.
This information was easily determined based on the amount of shared DNA between the family member and the DNA test taker. This cousin has the wrong great-grandfather in her family tree, however.
Is it my job to send her a message to let her know? Absolutely not!
If she gets really involved with her DNA test results, she may come to the same conclusion that I have and work to figure out who her great-grandfather really is. She might have DNA matches descended from her biological great-grandfather’s ancestors who don’t seem to match up with what she knows about her family tree.
However, it is not my place to tell her anything about what I have learned. It’s also important to note that even though we didn’t know about the secret, the people involved may have been aware.
For example, when it comes to the cousin that I mentioned above, she may already know that her grandfather’s father was not my great-grandfather. Yet, she may have chosen to include him in her family tree for reasons that I don’t know about – and that are, essentially, none of my business.
It’s easy to get really excited after cracking a mystery that has been bugging you for a while, but sometimes it’s just best to let sleeping dogs lie, as they say.
If a DNA secret happened a long time ago, is it really that big of a deal?
I’m fairly certain that the person who I had believed was my mom’s great-great grandfather (let’s call him Mark) was not really her great-great grandfather. Mark’s son, Nick, took the name of his mother’s deceased husband, probably because she had his name when her son was born.
Since Nick grew up with Mark’s surname, we all assumed that he was actually biologically related to that family. Upon closer examination of genealogical records and DNA results, I realized that that Nick probably had a different father – one who his mom was not married to.
There could be all sorts of explanations as to when and why my mom’s great-great grandmother had a child with someone to whom she was not married, and why she gave him the surname of the person who had most recently been her husband.
At the end of the day, we have to remember that she died almost 100 years ago. I am sure that I am not exaggerating when I say that, literally, it’s not a big deal.
Needless to say, I won’t be contacting all of my cousins on that line of my family to let them know that they have an entire branch of their tree incorrectly labeled. If I eventually find out who my great-great grandfather’s father was, I’ll just add him to my tree with no additional fanfare.
If my cousins notice, which they might, they are free to ask me about it, or do their own research to see if they agree with my conclusion.
We should keep secrets about unrelated people
If we somehow discover information through DNA testing about people who we are not directly related to, we should keep that information to ourselves. Essentially, it is none of our business.
For example, if we are working on a relative’s DNA results and we notice that their aunt, unrelated to us, is a half-aunt, we do not need to disclose that information to anyone. Our relative has access to the same DNA results that we do, and they can come to the same conclusions that we have, should they become interested and decide to research their DNA matches – just as we have.
If you have discovered a family secret as a result of your DNA test, I hope that this post has helped you get some ideas as to whether you should be the one to disclose your discovery, or if you should let people figure things out on their own without your input. If you have any questions about something that you have read here, or would like to share your own experience, I would love to hear from you in the comments.
Thanks for stopping by!