Skip to main content

Figuring out Family Relationships: Aunts and Uncles, Greats and Grands, and Cousins, Oh, My!

  • Author:
  • Updated date:

So Many Relationships!

Once you start digging, you begin to realize how interconnected we all are. You’ve probably heard the concept of “six degrees of separation,” which postulates that anyone has six or fewer social connections between them and anyone else. There has been some research done to find out whether this is actually true. It's also often called the "small world theory." What are the chances that you will meet a random person who is also known to an existing friend or acquaintance of yours? What are the odds that you will find a relative in such a roundabout way? It happens! And, the size of the circle of connections is shrinking, thanks to social media.

Even in your daily travels, you never know when you might meet a relative you either didn’t know before or discover that someone you do know turns out to be a relative. It happened to me! A lady I knew from the parents’ group at my kids’ school and I were at a party thrown by a mutual friend. My mother was also there. I introduced my friend to my mother, by first and last name, and she stopped, asked, “Do you spell your name this way?” and proceeded to rattle it off letter-perfect. Mother and I were both flabbergasted! “How did you get that right? No one does!” (It’s a three-syllable French name!) Turns out, it was my friend’s own maiden name! We did some further research, and we turned out to be distant cousins!

Who else is hiding in your family tree?

Who else is hiding in your family tree?

What Kind of Aunts and Uncles Do I Have?

Well, there are really only two. “What’s that,” you say? “Only two? I’ve heard family talk of many more; some of the families were quite large.”

Yes, well, we are not speaking of quantity, but of classification. To begin with, we all presumably know that the brothers and sisters (siblings) of our parents are our aunts and uncles. Just plain aunts and uncles.

And, we all know that the parents of our parents are our grandparents.

Now, when we go back a step in time, to those grandparents (four of them, remember?), their siblings are your grand aunts and grand uncles, but ‘just plain’ aunts and uncles to your parents. Got it?

Back up one more rung on the family ladder. Your grandparents parents, then, are your great-grandparents. Similarly, their siblings are your great-grand aunts and uncles.

Remember it this way: you have to be grand before you can be great! And then you are both great and grand!

The Six Degrees of Separation

Those Whom You Know

It is your aunts and uncles with whom you will need to speak to delve into the family history. These are the relatives you are likely to know in person; that is unless your entire family is very widely scattered.

Many people are also lucky enough to know at least one of their cousins, if not several. Some folks even lived near enough to each other that they grew up and played with their cousins. They become good friends; almost like extra brothers and sisters. In this way, much family history is shared; that is, you grow up just knowing it, because of the close interactions. Consider yourself lucky if such was the case for you.

For me, most of my cousins lived three thousand miles away, across the country. The ones who did live nearby did not live near enough to be playmates, nor were they my age. Due to the fact that my parents had what is commonly called a "May-December" relationship, (meaning one of the pair is significantly older than the other), my local cousins were my mother's age; my aunts and uncles my father's age.

I knew them all well enough, as to who they were and how connected to me, but I was too young at the time to even think of the topic, let alone ask interview questions. There was one cousin we would visit now and then, and it wasn’t until I was an adult working on this hobby, and she long gone, that I finally figured out the exact relationship.

Speaking of Cousins—There’s That Dreaded “Cousins Tangle!”

As most folks know, our cousins are the children of our aunts and uncles. And that’s as far as many people care to entertain the matter. After all, it’s just too confusing! All those numbers! And removals! What’s that about? Do you get to remove a cousin you don’t like?

Well, no. I’ll make it as easy as possible. It can, indeed, get quite confusing, so we’ll go just one step at a time, starting with the basic and most obvious cousins—your first cousins.

Those are the children of your ‘just plain’ aunts and uncles.

Just as you are niece or nephew to those aunts and uncles, so are your parents aunt and uncle to your cousins, who in turn are nieces and nephews to them.

Clear as mud? Good. Mud can be fun.

Basic Cousins Chart

Cousins are numbered, down through the generations

Cousins are numbered, down through the generations

There are many charts out there to help determine the level and type of cousinship, but the one I like best was shown to me some twenty years back by a distant cousin. It’s shaped like an upside-down cone, or if you prefer, a ‘Christmas tree’ shape. (See above.)

For clarity, I’ve left it empty of names, and used only the designations at each level. This chart uses a descending format, with the “common ancestor” at the top, and going down the generations from there, each step being a more distant cousin.

Each 'child' line represents the offspring of the line above. Of course, to work on your own, you'd enter the names.

Now, About Those Removals

As we’ve seen, you can’t ‘remove’ family members (at least not legally); you’re stuck with them all; the good, bad, and very bad.

In its simplest terms, think of a removal of cousins simply as a next generational step down the tree.

So, your first cousin’s children would be your first cousins, once removed. Their children, in turn, would be your first cousins twice removed, and so on.

It works at all levels. People who are third cousins are third cousins once removed from their offspring, and third cousins twice removed from the next generation.

I’ve used a couple of different tree charts for better clarity of this. The first one shows ‘just plain’ cousins; the second one addresses the removals. It gets much too jumbled up to try and show it on a single chart.

Chart of Removals

Each 'removal' represents a step down to the next generation.from your own place in the chart

Each 'removal' represents a step down to the next generation.from your own place in the chart

The “Other” Cousins

You’ve heard of them: kissing cousins, quasi cousins, back-door cousins, etc. The thing is, the removals issue is complicated enough for most folks to deal with. So here’s the truth of the matter: these ‘other cousins’ are not cousins at all.

Well, except maybe the ‘kissing cousins.’ Depending on regional usage, these might be very close cousins with whom you grew up and would hug and kiss upon meeting.

The other definition is that they are second, third, or fourth cousins, or cousins of a distant enough removal that it would be legal to marry them. (Though, that might be weird, like marrying someone your grandparent’s age, or grandchild’s age, depending which way it went). First cousins are not allowed to marry.

For the rest, quasi (pronounced as ‘kwah-zee’) cousins are no relation to you at all. They may be a close family friend, or related to another family member but only by marriage. I can offer an example from my own childhood. Within our family, to be silly, we pronounced it as 'kway-zee,' and ultimately, it became 'crazy.'

As I mentioned, we lived across the country from my cousins who were my own age, or nearly so. We visited them only about eight times when I was growing up, and I got to meet and know all of my mother’s side of the family. (Luckily, my father worked for an airline, so we got discounted tickets; otherwise, I might not have even had that contact.)

Another Kind of "Kissing Cousin?"

Another Kind of "Kissing Cousin?"

At my grand aunt’s home, I would sometimes get to play with a young girl who came to visit. She was not related to me, but to my aunt’s husband. However, it was much easier to call her cousin than to say that she was the ‘step-grandchild of my aunt.’ The girl was actually the granddaughter of my grand uncle, who was actually only an uncle by marriage. There was no blood tie between this young lady and my aunt.

However, my ten-year-old mind insisted otherwise: “Casey is related to auntie, and so am I, so Casey must be related to me as well,” I wailed. I was so upset that my dear grand aunt invented a very convoluted relationship, such as that I was her second step-cousin four times removed or some other such nonsense. There is no such relationship, but I was happy with that, so, “Cousin Casey” it was.

There was another such person connected to the family, and we simply called her “Cousin Evelyn,” even though she was no blood relation to us. Dear family friends like this who share in family events are often given the courtesy title of cousin, aunt, or uncle. You have to be careful when researching, to be sure.

And Now Those Steps

Most of us know what step-relations are. It happens when a couple marries, has children, and then for whatever reason, whether by the death of one or the other spouse, or by divorce, that marriage ends, and one or both persons marry someone else. The new spouse is the stepparent of the existing children.

Any new children they have together are the half-brothers or sisters of the existing children. Step is not the same as half.

It reaches to grandchildren as well. As seen in the story about my quasi cousin, Casey, she was the step grandchild of my grand aunt. Her husband had been married once before, and Casey was his daughter’s child.

In Laws and Outlaws

I hope you have no outlaws in your family. But we all have in-laws. At least, if we are married, we do. Our mother and father in-law are, of course, the parents of our spouse. And, in turn, we are their daughter or son in-law. Likewise, their other children are our brothers and sisters in-law.

Ah, we can enter the in-law club if a sibling of ours marries. We can then become brothers or sisters in-law to the siblings of their spouse, even if we ourselves are not married.

Simple enough. But, beware of a mighty trap in your research!

There was a time, not so awfully long ago, (depending upon your own age perspective), that they used the term ‘in-law’ to mean the same thing as we now mean by ‘half-sibling.’ This can crop up as recently as the last forty or fifty years, and that can get very confusing!! So be careful to check the parental lines before you accept the designation!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: My aunt was married to my husband's uncle. We share the same first cousins, but we have no relationship outside marriage, correct?

Answer: Okay, that's a possible tangle, but let's look at the possibilities.

1) Your aunt is not a blood relation at all, but is what we would call an "aunt by marriage." This is the most usual scenario, and yes, their children would be your first cousins, but the aunt is really a courtesy title, and bears no actual relationship to you.

2) The second scenario is more problematic because it would seem to indicate a marriage between siblings; your husband's uncle and aunt marrying, which would, of course, mean that the uncle married his own sister. That would not be legal, just as first cousins are not allowed to marry.

3) The other possibility is that your aunt could have been the aunt of your mother, making her your grand aunt. If the two families were acquainted back then, then yes, you would have this sort of situation arise, and that aunt would also be a blood relation to you.

I know that I ran into a weird situation in my own family history, in which the same set of parents showed up on both the mother's and father's side of the family. This resulted in a mother being a second cousin once removed from her own child!

That apparently happened a fair amount back in the 1700s, because people were not nearly as mobile as we are today; they were generally born and lived out their lives within about a 50-mile radius. After a time, they ran out of people to marry besides their cousins! (2nd cousins and further distant are allowed to marry each other.)

I hope this helps you figure out your puzzle. The best thing to do, if these family members are still living, is to interview them and ask directly what the story is.

© 2017 Liz Elias


Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on February 10, 2019:

LOL! I know how that goes! I follow the collateral lines on purpose, and it does get very convoluted. But, it is also interesting to see how many cousins we have floating around the planet!

Thanks for your great comment!

Virginia Allain from Central Florida on February 10, 2019:

I do like on Ancestry and Geni that it tells you how the person is related to you. Sometimes, I get to following branches, then twigs, then end up with a great aunt's husband's third-cousin. Wonder how I got there.

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on June 08, 2018:

You can "claim" them as part of your family, but they are still counted only as "by marriage," and should be specified as such.

A true family relationship is a blood relation. "By marriage" is not a true relation.

Marriage only counts when it is between the two parties who are married to each other; this is what gives their children claim to the paternal/maternal relationship.

For example, my ex-husband's sisters were my "sisters-in-law," but they are not related to me in any way. Now they are "ex-sisters-in-law, " and still no relation.

The same applies to any other "by marriage" relations no matter which side of the family, or how many generations back.

Your uncle Jeff is already a "by marriage" situation; his sister-in-law's father is way too far afield to count. It sort of depends on how detailed you want your family history. If you want to follow all the side branches of siblings, their children, cousins, etc., then this situation would show up, but it also makes for a very cumbersome and hard-to-manage family tree.

Rhonda Jennings on June 08, 2018:

I want to know if I can claim people who are related through marriage alone. For example my uncle Jeff is my paternal aunt’s husband. But what I want to know is if we can claim his sister in law’s father as a part of our family via marriage?

Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on January 06, 2017:

Great article!