Bernays was the second daughter of Emmeline and Berman Bernays. Her paternal grandfather Isaac Bernays was a Chief Rabbi of Hamburg. Sigmund Freud and Bernays met in April 1882 and after a four year engagement (1882–1886) they got married on 14 September 1886 in Hamburg.
Freud and Bernays’s love letters sent during the engagement years, according to Freud's official biographer Ernest Jones, who read all the letters, "would be a not unworthy contribution to the great love literature of the world." Freud and Bernays had six children: Mathilde (b. 1887), Jean-Martin (b. 1889), Oliver (b. 1891), Ernst (b. 1892), Sophie (b. 1893), and Anna (b. 1895). Bernays’s younger sister, Minna Bernays, is known to be one of Sigmund’s friends – it has also been speculated that she was Freud's mistress. This claim was controversial at first but the publication of a hotel log has prompted some Freud scholars, including his defender Peter Gay, to regard the conjecture of Freud and Minna having an affair as probably accurate.