Discussion of the Phenomena of Unknown Family Members

Posted on July 15th, 2012 by Dr. Blumenfield

In my last blog I reviewed the recent movie People Like Us. This film is about the situation where upon the death of his father, a man discovers that he has a half sister and a nephew that never knew about. This is not an unusual situation and in fact there are many variations on this story that play out in life all the time. In this blog I will briefly discuss this phenomena and give three disguised examples that I know about from real life.

I invite readers to present additional examples and for clinicians who have some insight into this phenomena to feel free to comment on this blog.

This movie really highlights a situation that probably occurs more often than most people realize. In situations where the man is in a relatively stable marriage but is promiscuous and fathers a child in relationship outside the marriage, he is faced with a decision. He could acknowledge the reality and choose to stay with his current relationship or leave his original family (presumably with a divorce) and establish a family with his new child. His original wife of course can make this decision for him by deciding that she would not want to live with him anymore. (The second woman might not want him either). It is possible that the father may not even know that he has created a child as the mother of the child may wish not to tell him.

There also situations where a couple has a child but don’t establish a relationship and the man moves on. He then has a family at a later date and does not tell them that somewhere he has fathered a child. Still other variations are possible such as where a single women becomes pregnant and gives the child up for adoption and then goes on to live her life and perhaps ultimately have a marriage and children but never mention her past history.

I am sure there are other variations including twins separated at birth, siblings separated at early age and not having full awareness of the other etc.Even before the discovery of the unknown family member is made, the parent who knows the secret has the burden of keeping the secret and not being able to be truthful with people to whom they are very close, usually a spouse and children. This can lead to guilt or phantasies of what happened to the secret child. The child who only knows that their biological parent has abandoned them, can never know the reason why and may incorporate phantasies involving their self worth or even grandiose thoughts about a parent who will someday rescue them. A well meaning story that the missing parent died will of course backfire when and if the parent someday does appear and all must deal with this major piece of deception no matter how well meaning. Our ideas of self are founded on the our life history including of course early childhood experiences, memories, and fantasies that are influenced by all variations and the nuances of the major players who influenced our earlier life.

There are an unlimited number of circumstances, which could lead to the discovery of the unknown family members. One scenario could be the reveal by a guilt-ridden parent later in life or perhaps in his or her Will. In the movie we reviewed, it was the fact that the father wanted to leave money to his daughter from the earlier relationship and in his Will he asked his unsuspecting but somewhat alienated son to deliver this money to the unknown sister so the two sibling could meet and perhaps be reconciled. In this case neither of the siblings knew of the existence of the other although the brother’s mother knew and kept it a secret and the sister’s mother ( now deceased ) probably knew also. In adopted children, there are many cases where a grown child finds out the name of the adoption agency and then sends a message to the unknown parent through the agency, asking if the long lost parent will meet with them. This was played out in the movie The Kids Are All Right.  In the age of artificial insemination, sperm and ova donations, new developments in genetic testing, the Internet, search engines, social media, there are many new possibilities for discovering a previously unknown family member

Once a previously unknown family is identified, the child very often has a strong desire to know about the biological parent and also to meet and relate to the siblings who usually would be half siblings, sharing one parent in common. What is it about knowing about the presence of biological family member who has not influenced your life for many years. makes connecting with that person so important? Is it because you share some genetic makeup in common or come from some common heritage that drives the need for establishing this relationship? Is there a need to fill a void of being alone that can be corrected by meeting someone who shares some part of you?

In the case of the newly connected siblings, is the desire to rectify the mistake of the parent(s) who were not able to construct a complete family for all their children?
Three Case Examples

I would like to present three real cases (disguised) but true to illustrate some of these issues. I was not the therapist for any of these people so I can’t claim any knowledge of the underlying dynamics.

#1. A successful attorney married for the first time at age 35 to a 28 year woman. They had three children and a fairly close knit family and he never had any extramarital relationships. He died at age 65 and 10 years later a 45 year man contacted the now 67 year old widow and told the following story . He lived in another city with his mother and had been told that his biological father was a successful attorney with whom she had a close relationship who had subsequently died. ( In reality he left her after she became pregnant and moved to another city) . She told her son his last name which was an unusual one. He searched for it on the Internet and easily located it since he was fairly well known in his field. He never told his mother that he had information about his biological father . After his mother died and he was married with an 18 year old son, he located the widow of his biological father and told her who he was. He asked permission to visit her and wanted to meet her now grown and married children and any other close family members. She agreed (she had known about her husband’s previous relationship prior to their marriage but not about this child) and asked her children if they wanted to meet him. The oldest son was not interested but the other two agreed. An older sister of the deceased husband was not interested but her grown son was agreeable. The younger married middle aged children of the deceased attorney established a good relationship with the “new family member“ and they would visit each other when they happened to be traveling cross country to each other’s cities for other events. Eventually the oldest son of the deceased father found that he had certain hobbies in common with his half brother ie sports car racing and golf and he would join in these get togethers and began to relate to his half brother. The grandson of the older sister of the deceased man was able to help the son of the new family member get a job in the entertainment business. He and all of deceased attorney’s sibs and the widow now consider him part of their extended family. When asked why did he seek out his other family, he said he felt he owed it to his son to try to give him the extended family that he didn’t have.

Case #2 The new young wife of a well known sports figure dies in child birth but the infant boy survives. The father is devastated and gives the son up for adoption to a distant cousin whom he doesn’t have any subsequent contact. The boy is raised by two loving parents and when he is a teenager he is told the name of his famous biological father who supposedly has no interest in seeing him. When this child is a grown man of 50 years old he is in the movie theater with his wife watching a documentary about his biological father who is a legendary sports icon. At one point in the movie the former sports figure recounts that he feels badly that many years ago he had a son that he never met after his wife died in childbirth and he wonders what happened to him. The grown son is stunned by the interest shown in him and he contacts the filmmaker and asks if he could contact the sports icon who now lives in another country. The filmmaker agrees to arrange an all expense paid reunion if he could film it. The father is now a grandfather as is the son and after an initial meeting both families meet each other and subsequently keep in touch with each other and visit from time to time.

#3 A teenager mother gives her out of wedlock daughter up for adoption. She is brought up by two loving parents. When she marries and has children of her own she decides to track down her biological mother. She hires a private detective who is ultimately able to find her mother who lives alone in another city and has no other children. The daughter keeps in touch with her, introduces her to her family, visits her periodically and brings her to various family events.

These three cases are obviously the bare facts and raise may clinical questions about the psychodynamics that are at play. What is clear is the strong need on the part of at least one person to connect with a long lost person or family. There appears also to be an acceptance and probably a strong need on the part of the other family member or members to reciprocate. I welcome discussion from people who have had such experiences to give further insight into this situation. I also particularly welcome the insight into the psychodynamics of such situations by clinicians who have had the opportunity of treating such people. Please respond to the comments section of this blog.

I also suggest that this area is ripe for both survey research, case reports with clinical discussion of the theoretical implications and psychodynamic and psychoanalytic theory on this subject.

16 Responses to “Discussion of the Phenomena of Unknown Family Members”

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  2. Lynn says:

    Married 17 years, 2 children w father & abruptly father becomes lost In alcohol. Also fathered an older child, girl mid 30’s, before marriage.

    Currently, this time my 2 children (over 18) now dealing w the fact that their father (absent/neglect 6 years). The father has 25 yoa girlfriend & pregnant, this news was brought out at grandchild birthday dinner! the Girlfriends, friend abruptly brought out ?!

    One of children has no care, other is quite disturbed by this.

    I’ve accepted fact the children will either decide on own to accept fathers choice.

    dealing with this issues of abandonment & neglect

  3. Danielle says:

    I am a 29 year old woman. I have a twin brother. We were raised by our mother who took on the single mother role willingly. Growing up we were told that our father, a man our mother once dated, was kind, loving, and wanted children. However, our mother never told him of our existence and would not tell us very much about him. I always wanted to know my father and spent many frustrated years dealing with our mothers choice. Three weeks ago, due to (insert extremly long story) I found my father and contacted him. Several emails, phone calls, and a DNA test later I find myself with a Dad. He seems to be wonderfully warm and understanding. He seems even more excited than we have been as he, to his knowledge, was never able to have children despite a strong desire. He is stable, healthy, in a long term marriage, and very intelligent. In addition, he experienced a similar situation with his siblings that resulted in a found father around my current age. I have been trying to find similar experiences or related information but am coming up short. Could you direct me?

  4. El Ma says:

    At this writing, my eldest son is seeking out anyone who might be a distant relative. He has separation issues, anger issues, was diagnosed Borderline Personality Disorder Cluster B, and has been married 3 times and produced a child with his third wife whom he met through an online dating site while he was involved in divorce proceedings with his second wife.

    This son recently discovered that his deceased father has a half-sister that his father didn’t know about. He knew about his half-brother that was on his mother’s side, but this half-sister is apparently offspring from his father. This is a very complicated, long, and ugly story of abuse, manipulations, and more abuse, and there is no need to recollect any of it except that it factors into my eldest son’s decision to contact this half-aunt that nobody knew existed.

    Sometimes, this desire to dig deep into genetic dirt can have unexpected and disastrous results. Most often, if there are offspring or relatives that have remained unacknowledged for a lifetime, it should not be viewed as some sort of celebratory event if they are located. These people do not “know” one another and have entirely different histories, families, and experiences – they have nothing in common other than DNA. To “expect” or anticipate that there will be some sort of melodramatic emotional reunion is, quite frankly, unlikely. Any relationships that develop with a seemingly positive aspect will forever be tainted by that background of secrecy and perception of abandonment.

    Some things are far, far better left alone. Filling whatever “void” that exists with the here-and-now is far more fulfilling than attempting to force a fantasy reunion between complete strangers.

  5. Cynthia merrill says:

    My eldest brother was recently contacted by a half-sister that we never knew existed. My mother had a child out of wedlock at the age of 19 in 1949. Two years before she married my father.There are 5 out of 6 remaining siblings and my mother had already passed away. My father is still alive but at 92 has alzheimers and can’t give us any information. We all (the remaining siblings) have accepted and handled it well, and are looking forward to getting to know our half-sister. PS none of us had a clue that Mom had a baby before she was married.

  6. Laura Kinser says:

    My life was turned upside down in October 2016, when my sister in Law found a daughter of my husband’s that he had never know about, she was given up for adoption and had a good life. My husband died in 2015. My husband’s family gave her pictures and my husband’s life story before I was even told. We were married for 47 YRS and have 1 adopted daughter. This woman is the only one in the family who looks like a sister who died too young and she is treated like a Re-incarnation. Seven family members went to see her. I have been gracious and given her answers to her questions, but, I feel totally betrayed, my husband would have wanted no contact with her and I am struggling with the adoration for her by the family I thought was mine. I have heard that she is “blood” ad nauseam, my husband did not care about blood and they all know it. Beside our daughter, I have no relatives in the US.

  7. Valerie Bain says:

    My father passed away when I was 10 and my eldest sister told me that there was a half brother somewhere in England. For years, he often popped into my mind and I wondered where he was, what he did, what he was like? I am now 63 and when I lost my husband unexpectedly at 50 I decided to try and trace this half brother whom my sister said would probably be dead! I went onto a website called Genes Reunited and only entered my Dad and Mums details and my own, only because I could not remember my other 2 sisters date of birth and my 3 brothers, and did not go back and fill these in. A few years down the line and I received a message on Facebook, enquiring about my Mum and Dad and that the person sending the message believed that his father was my half brother, we exchanged addresses and he sent me a lovely 2 page letter also photographs, from these, not only did I have one half brother but a whole lot more! Turns out my father’s first wife who had one child died when he was very small of TB, within a year of her death he had met and married again and went on to have another 4, something changed when he must have left his second wife and took up with my Mum who was in her teens, left his wife and children and set up home with my Mum, he went on to have 6 other children, my 3 brothers, two sisters and myself! I have recently met up with the youngest of my half sisters, the others are now deceased, my half brother whom I thought about for so long is now also deceased but it was one of his son’s who contacted me and we are now in contact. It has all been a bit of a shock finding all this out about my father, whom I looked up to so much and am trying to fill in all the gaps as I go, not sure what I will uncover but I am happy I have met my half siblings.

  8. Teresa says:

    Funny I happened onto this just now as it was just a week and a few days ago siblings appeared. All of my siblings are older and the sister I was raised with apparently has a strong emotional need to fit. I understand where she is coming from as she suffered greatly during our childhood through abuse. The abuse was there for all three of us at varying levels. We had heard stories of our siblings but never had contact even though my sister has created memories of playing with them. Long story short I was not inclined to reach out until I thought of my sister and the bashing she may start on our father justly deserved or not and the emotional break my sister may be setting herself up for reaching out for this connection. I have emailed back and forth with this newfound sister and she agrees as she has also emailed my sister I was raised with that there seems to be a search from a very shattered person and therefore is not allowing the younger new found sister to correspond until a relationship is solid so my sister will not have any other emotional upheaval. Counseling is out of the question for my sister as bad youth experience and misdiagnosis due to our narcissistic mother not recognizing the difference between teen behavior and truly psychological issues. So yes studies definitely need to be done. And yes its great to have that DNA connection and discover a possible new friend in new found siblings. I’m not on social media I went away from that after a time and this hunger to connect may just be humans needing that personal connection that they think they have but are truly missing now with such things as Facebook and Twitter etc. People need that real human connection. Just my opinion and as this is a journey I am just now beginning who knows what may come of connection between these newfound relatives.

  9. Carol says:

    I was rejected by my mother growing up. A situation so obvious it was whispered about at family gatherings. Oddly enough my younger sister (2 1/2 years my Jr) is the light of my mothers life. They are so close this younger sister and her family either have lived next door or with my mother her entire life. Needless to say as an adult I have no relationship with my biological family, per her wishes.

    Recently the younger sister contacted my husband and informed him “we” have an older sister 16 months my Sr. Story goes “My mother got pregnant out of wedlock, lived with my aunt’s family till she gave the older sister up for a closed adoption. My aunt and uncle tried to adopt this older sister but was unable to. My mother got pregnant with me only 6 months later and also hid the fact until 3 months before my birth when she married my father.
    This older sister contacted my mother 19 years ago and they developed a (secret) relationship which can be documented on social media posts. Six months ago she met the younger sister and they have also developed a close friendship, contacting each other 3-4 times a week. They even went on mixed family vacation together to “bond”. (Ironically my husband I were in the same city celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary with no knowledge) The younger sister continues to inform my husband that they didn’t want me to find out through a accidental post on social media that I might be alerted to. In addition our mother has forbidden anyone involved from contacting me or informing me of this new older sister.” Another little tidbit is the aunt who helped my mother, this older sister and I all share the same name.

    I’m still processing everything and admit I’m extremely confused. Other than my amazing husband being caught in this unfortunate messenger position no one has contacted me. I wish that I was never told, it would save the heartache of being rejected all over again by a mother who is encouraging the other two sisters to develop a relationship, while doing everything possible to keep me distanced from my biological family. My father has been passed for a long time.
    This entire situation seems surreal.

  10. allen says:

    I put DNA into a popular online type system. It was fun for me and my dad and my grown children and even their father did it.

    A few months go by and I get this hit of a very close relative. After some conversation it seems that she is the unknown daughter of my 1st cousin. Wow! I wouldn’t interfere again, but it is too late now. He is shocked to find out that he has a daughter that is 27.

    He wants to have some sort of relationship with her, but he is very worried that the state will come after him for back child support. The daughter’s mother never knew who her father was and really couldn’t name him until he came forward. He remembered the daughter’s mother even though she couldn’t remember him. They were both in high school at the time.

    What does a man do when he has a grown daughter with her own children and wants to get to know her, but is worried about his livelihood?

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