Discussion of the Phenomenon of Unknown Family Members


The discovery of an unknown family member can bring about joy or grief, and raise many clinical questions about the psychodynamics that are at play within families.

In a previous blog, I reviewed the recent movie, People Like Us.1 This film is about a situation, whereupon the death of his father, a man discovers that he has a half sister and a nephew that he 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 phenomenon and give 3 disguised examples that I know about from real life.

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

This movie really highlights a situation that probably occurs more often than most people realize. When the man, who is in a relatively stable marriage, is promiscuous and fathers a child in a relationship outside the marriage, he is faced with a decision. He could acknowledge the reality and choose to stay with his current marriage, 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.) In a real-life setting, 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 are also situations in which a couple has a child but don’t want to establish a relationship, and the man moves on. He then has a family at a later date and does not tell them that he has fathered a child earlier in life. Still other variations are possible, such as when a single woman 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 mentions 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 fantasies 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 fantasies 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 our life history, including 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 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, the father wanted to leave money to his daughter from the earlier relationship in his will, and he asked his unsuspecting, but somewhat alienated, son to deliver this money to the unknown sister so the two siblings 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 also knew. 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, and 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, usually half siblings, who share one parent in common. What is it about knowing about the presence of a biological family member, who has not influenced your life for many years, which 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 of their children?

I would like to present 3 real cases (disguised) to illustrate some of these issues. I was not the therapist for any of these patients, so I cannot claim any knowledge of the underlying dynamics.

Case 1. A successful attorney married for the first time at age 35 to a 28-year-old woman. They had 3 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-old 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, and he 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 him 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 him. The grandson of the older sister of the deceased man was able to help the son of the new family member to get a job in the entertainment business. The grandson and all of the deceased attorney’s siblings and his widow now consider him part of their extended family. When asked why he decided to seek out his other family, he said that 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 childbirth, 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 2 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, he is in a movie theater with his wife, watching a documentary about his biological father.

At one point in the movie, the sports icon 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 his biological father, who now lives in another country. The filmmaker agrees to arrange an all-expenses-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 and visit from time to time.

Case 3. A teen mother gives her out-of-wedlock daughter up for adoption. She is brought up by 2 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 cases are obviously the bare facts and raise many 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 also appears 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 survey research, case reports with clinical discussion of the theoretical implications, and psychodynamic and psychoanalytic theories on this subject.

[Editor’s note: This article, originally posted on Dr Blumenfield’s blog, is published here with permission from the author. The original post can be found at http://www.psychiatrytalk.com/2012/07/discussion-of-the-phenomena-of-unknown-family-members/.]


Reference:1. Blumenfield M. People like us: a film about a previously unknown family member. June 30, 2012. http://www.psychiatrytalk.com/2012/06/people-like-us-a-film-about-a-previously-unknown-family-member/. Accessed March 4, 2013.

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