Note: I don’t quite have my views on this “ironed out” yet, but thought it was a worthwhile topic to discuss here. I realize others may have different points of view. Please note that I’m not suggesting hiding things that have happened. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. strain

We’ve had a lengthy discussion about “family secrets” on the Facebook page for Genealogy Tip of the Day. Based on that, and the fact that I’m not convinced preserving every detail of a family squabble is necessary, I have decided that when I know that a relationship between two individuals is “strained,” I’ll make a note of that.

“Strain” covers quite a bit of ground.

Preserving every minute detail of a family argument or incident probably isn’t necessary. Preserving what is already publicly available in newspapers or public records is an entirely different matter as that information is already public, even though it may not be common knowledge. Including a blow-by-blow, detailed description of a fight that ensued at a wedding reception or funeral doesn’t necessarily serve any purpose and may not even be entirely accurate.

What I will generally include in my notes is:

  • the fact that the relationship between person A and person B was “strained.”
  • the approximate date/year when the relationship became strained (assuming I know it)
  • the general reason for the strain in the relationship, if known–this could include choice of marriage partner, choice of career path, disagreement over an estate, alcoholism, etc.
  • the person who told me this information-unless it is from personal knowledge

I try and avoid preserving undocumented claims. My claim regarding the strain will include a citation.

So, let’s say…

Cousin Gertrude tells me that there was a fight over her grandfather’s estate on the day of his funeral and Uncle Gerhard and Uncle Tamme came to blows. She then goes into painstaking detail of what was said to whom (including ever vulgar name they called each other, each other’s wife, each other’s children, each other’s livestock, etc.), who was involved in the fight, what was thrown and where it landed, etc. Cousin Gertrude has one overly detailed memory, the desire to be a novelist, or simply too much time on her hands. I may simply say:

Gerhard and his brother Tamme came to blows over their father’s estate at the dinner after the funeral. A physical fight ensued. They never spoke to each other or were in the presence of each other again.

I don’t think I need to record every detail of the fight. Part of this is because cousin Gertrude’s memory may be only partially correct.

I won’t “publish” this “strain” information if either of the individuals are living for a variety of reasons (their privacy and my desire not to aggravate the situation being paramount). My discussion of this strain will not include name calling, fault-finding, assigning blame, imposing my own judgement, etc. If the individuals have children living, I may also choose not to publish the information for similar reasons. If the individuals are my in-laws, I may tread more lightly. Irritating my own relatives is different from irritating my in-laws.

I do think it is important to document the strain in the relationship for others. It may explain certain things that are later discovered in various records and help someone later make better sense of what appears, on the surface, to be confusing.








12 Responses

  1. Well said. It would serve no good purpose to aggravate an already strained relationship. Thanks for excellent advice.

  2. What I appreciate in your POV here is being grounded in the facts. If we share the particulars of one altercation we may still not have the entire story. Perhaps in another earlier or later Interaction more details may be revealed that provide a fuller picture. I would keep the information in a file and offer a comment saying this is a partial view of the truth.

    • It’s very true that perspectives can, and do, differ. The citation should indicate who told the family story or provided the information. The source (usually not us unless we were personally involved) would allow others to potentially determine how “balanced” a view was given. Often in situations like this it’s hard to have a completely balanced view–especially if the parties involved were alive during our own lifetime.

  3. There are some family truths that are not probably inherited through DNA, and have no real benefit to others, that simply doesn’t need to be shared in a biography or a family tree. Thanks for the very interesting post.

  4. It’s nice to know these stories, but did it have any effect on the family tree, i.e. names changed as a result, or a death resulted? If so, then of course, it should be shared. I have a similar story in our family, but it did not affect any person’s life in the tree, other than being on the “outs” with family members, so I guess that story will live only as long as I live.

    • I’m on the fence about making a “hard and fast rule” for situations of this type when there’s not a clear result in some record such as a name change of a death. I can think of two situations where knowledge of various people being “on the outs” explains what is in some of the remaining records. In those cases the resulting events are not as clear as a name change, a murder, or a similar event–but knowing people were on the outs really explains some information in the records that is atypical.

      I’ve got another family where I suspect that the children of the third marriage did not get along with the children of the first marriage (the second marriage resulted in no children). If I was able to get any direct information regarding whatever the disagreement was, I’d certainly document it.

  5. If they are still living it might be wise to include the date of the writing… “As of (date) they had not spoken to each other”… never know what could happen later. I had 2 family members that had a falling out, both wanted to mend the fence but both were stubborn & were waiting for the other to make the first move. With illness & the intervention of other family members they did reunite. But good point, I should include this in my files because it explains the Will of one of the parties involved but he didn’t get around to changing it (the rest of the family agreed to the change we know he would have wanted)

    • That’s a good point. One can always be discreet and not go into too much detail about why they stopped speaking–if it is known. The incident itself can be a huge gray area and one may never know where the truth actually rests–and many times it does not rest completely with either party.

  6. These are the situations which cause “gaps” of information after a generation or two. I recently discovered several cousins after a 50 year divorce where the families were “cut off.” Met one of the cousins on Ancestry and have had fun, but the hurt lingers still for those living in the aftermath. Be careful what you say for future generations.

    • Yes. Sometimes it is sufficient to say that person A and person B didn’t get along and didn’t speak for forty years or whatever it was. Going into great detail about the argument probably isn’t necessary. A general statement about what the disagreement was about (a property line, an inheritance, etc.) is usually enough.

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