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Should You Keep or Expose a Family Secret Discovered Through DNA?

Most people get interested in DNA testing to find out where their family came from.  Basically, they wanted the pie charts and ethnicity percentages.  Furthermore, many people don’t realize that they will get a list of DNA matches, and it might be fair to say that most people aren’t expecting to uncover previously unknown close family members.  This happens more frequently than you might imagine, though, and it leaves 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.   And no matter if 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 as my grandmother and her brother.  I thought I had a good idea of who all of my genetic family members were, and once I 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, or 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.

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I always tell the truth about DNA results, if I am asked directly

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 a 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 someone asks me a more specific question like “Do you think that so and so is my full sibling?” I will answer – thoughtfully and kindly – with more detail.

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?”  I had two family members in mind, and since I knew everyone involved was an adult, and I felt like time was of the essence, I provided her with the full names of the two relatives that could have been her father.

The story had a pretty happy “ending” (or beginning?) in her case, and I am happy to have this new family member and am also happy that everyone else more closely related to her was happy to have her, 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.  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.  I will treat my sisters with the same respect, and let them know about our new family member, too.

This has come up a few times in my family, and I am very impressed with the way that my parents have 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:

  • 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 not wanting to reveal your discovery?
  • Does the DNA secret involve a minor child?

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.

For example, I recently 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 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.  But it’s not my place to tell her anything about what I have learned.

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.

should you keep a family secret exposed by dna pinterest image with two people telling each other a secret


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!

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