Handling Unexpected DNA Connections


Unexpected DNA connections increasingly pop up in DNA match lists in genetic genealogy databases. Here are 3 tips for respecting family privacy while also respecting those searching for biological roots.

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As our DNA databases swell with more individual test results, possibilities for family discoveries are also increasing exponentially. It seems almost every day the internet is buzzing with the news of someone’s revelation about a parent or child, further fueling the desire of many to reconnect with lost biological relatives. 

This “era of revelation” means that many of us—just regular people trying to fill in the blanks in our family tree—are unexpectedly drawn into the midst of family drama that we had no idea even existed. It can be difficult to navigate those uncharted waters and balance your need to protect our family with the desire to help any newly-discovered lost family member connect.

After years of working with clients and assisting them in navigating these murky waters, I’d like to share my 3 top tips for handling unforeseen DNA revelations in a way that gives you the best chance of building these new relationships. 

Some of the terms I use are borrowed from Blaine Bettinger, who helped me see how to label each person in these situations. 

Tip #1: Know your role in DNA connections

First, let’s lay out our scenario: You have had a DNA test completed, and you were contacted by a genetic second cousin, requesting information about your family. Your new cousin admits that he or she was adopted and is looking for information. 

As the first member of your family (that you know of) to find this new person, you are the Discoverer. As the Discoverer, it is not your job to reveal this information to any member of your family. It is not your job to give the new cousin all the information you have about your family. Your best next step, assuming you want to help this new cousin, is to find the Keeper. The Keeper is the person in your family who knows the most about this situation. Ultimately, if the Keeper can be found and approached, it is the Keeper who gets to make the decisions about how the information is disseminated to the new cousin. 

But how? How can you find the Keeper? It will take some good genetic genealogy work. Because this new cousin is your second cousin, you should share a set of great grandparents. Using the clues you have in your DNA match list, specifically other relatives you know who have tested, you can begin to piece together which side of the family this relationship is from. Once you have a theory, you can discretely inquire information from older members of your family regarding the situation. 

If you find that the Keeper is not available, you have to do whatever you feel is best for your family. There are no set rules, it is just a judgment call based on your family and their relationships.  

Tip #2: Show respect and kindness 

In talking with one client of mine, she and her husband had found a child that her father-in-law had before he married. She discreetly approached him about it and while he acknowledged the child, he did not want his wife or other children to know, and he did not want a relationship with his child. This was difficult news for my client to bear, since she felt so strongly that the child deserved to have a connection with her biological family. But ultimately, she chose to respect her father-in-law’s wishes, and did not speak of the situation to any other member of their family. 

Which brings up the next tip. 

Tip #3: Choose relationship with DNA match 

Regardless of the Keeper’s personal actions toward the new cousin, each of us, even as Discoverers, can make our own decisions about the relationships we have with our matches. In my client’s case, she and her husband decided they did want to have a relationship with her husband’s new half-sister. (Of course, that decision had to be made with on both sides of this genetic match.) And they have been trying to navigate that water carefully, so as not to disrespect her father-in-law’s wishes, but still pursue their own personal desire to connect.

Even though we are fully launched into this age of discovery with DNA, there are no set laws and rules about what to do. In these kinds of situations, likely the best you can do is to follow the Golden Rule, and “Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.”

DNA can reveal more than relatives. Read how important family health history information may now be part of your consumer DNA test results.

Originally published on October 2018 on genealogygems.com; updated version published here.