Family Constellations According to Bert Hellinger
I. What are family constellations?
The German therapist Bert Hellinger developed with the family constellations a new type of short, intensive therapy. This systematic approach is a further development of multi-generation family therapy which stands alone in its own right. Hellinger discovered a host of principles and orders which occur in the network of relationships and bonds through many generations. These orders and principles prove themselves through the practical work. One could describe a family constellation as a living genogram (family tree), set up by a particular family member, which includes elements of family sculptures and psychodramas. Family constellations are ingenious in their form and theoretical approach and have surprising procedures and effects.
II. The practical work
The client makes the most effective use of his constellation in a group. The client must have a certain clear request to be addressed in the constellation (e.g., he wants to know the reasons for his depression or feelings of guilt). First he names the essential facts about his family regarding the past two to three generations. Then he chooses group members to be representatives of his parents, siblings, himself, and for other pertinent members of his family. Representatives are chosen for deceased family members as well. The client spontaneously, but with concentration, situates the representatives on an open floor. He gives them a place and a direction to face, and in this way sets them up relative to each other. After that, the client becomes an observer.
The therapist asks the representatives about their feelings and perceptions. After that, he often proposes either statements for the representatives to repeat, or new places for them to take. The representatives have a fine sense of whether or not the statement is accurate, and of whether or not their feelings have changed when they take a new place. Often, representatives of other family members are added to the group (as uncles, grandparents, etc.), and the effect is observed.
A constellation generally lasts between 15 minutes and one hour, though they sometimes last shorter or longer. The therapist ends the constellation either when everyone feels good with the places in which they are, or when an emotionally explosive situation in the family is uncovered.
III. The Effect of the therapy
Through the clear perceptions of the representatives, it becomes clear to the client -quickly and precisely - from whom in the family feelings have been taken over. Surprisingly, they are often taken over from long deceased members of previous generations, who, until now, were hardly known. The client then recognizes where certain confusing feelings come from, or why relations in his family have been disturbed.
Connections which previously had negative effects are brought into the light and often resolved or changed. By the end, the places in the constellation have been changed, and a new tension free view of the family exists. The client incorporates this view into his view of his family, and lets its healing effect unfold.
IV. Special points about the method
IV.A. Facts about the family history
Events in the family over several generations are central. Their effects through generations are observable. Important facts to know are:
1. Who died early (younger than approximately 25)?
2. Are there family members who are guilty of crimes?
3. Have the parents had previous (love-) relationships?
4. Have some family members had noteworthy äfates" (become handicapped , emigrated, had children out of wedlock, been adopted, etc.)? Unlike those things listed above, the client"s relationships, likes, and dislikes play a fairly small role.
IV.B. Orders and principles
Certain orders and principles prevail in all families. A working knowledge of these orders and principles has evolved from Hellinger"s many years of experience with constellations, and they have been confirmed repeatedly by the work of other therapists. Though there are many exceptions, these rules and orders show themselves regularly.
IV.C. The knowing field (A. Mahr)
When the client situates his representative family, the representatives perceive the feelings of the family members whom they represent. The representatives have access to a deeper level of, or a deeper truth about, the family system - a still-inexplicable phenomenon. During the work with constellations, the therapist learns to trust this phenomenon and lets himself be guided by it. This phenomenon, which also appears in other types of therapy (psychodramas, family sculptures), has not yet been given the attention that it deserves.
IV.D. "Ritualized" statements which come up repeatedly
Because of this access to a deeper truth, the language used is very clear and simple. Often the statements have the effect of sounding ritual, e.g., I acknowledge your death and fate, when someone has died an early death. The representative can always sense whether or not such proposed statements are correct in that moment. Even strong emotions which arise in the representatives are not cathartically lived out, but rather expressed in words.
V. Some orders and principles
V.A. Every member of a family belongs to the family equally.
Every family has a solid inner bond, regardless of how torn apart it may outwardly appear. Everyone who belongs to the family deserves attention. If someone is shut out of the family, he will be represented by a later-born family member who takes on a similar fate.
V.B. The early death of a family member has a strong effect on the whole family system.
The death of a young person, especially, has a strong effect on the whole family. Siblings of the deceased display an inclination to die themselves, which is expressed by the sentence "I will follow you". If someone is burdened in this way and he later has children, the children sense this burden and want to relieve the parent of it by taking it on themselves ("Better me than you"). The inclination to die shows itself through disease or sickness in the family member, or through dangerous activities or behavior such as excessive drug-use or engaging in dangerous types of sports.
V.C. Children are loyal to their parents.
Children rarely, if ever, dare to lead happier or more fulfilling lives than those of their father and mother: out of loyalty to their parents, children repeat the parents mistakes and misfortunes.
V.D. Children take on feelings from other members of the family.
This occurs in two ways: either they share strong feelings with a family member (they help carry these feelings, so to speak), or they take over unexpressed feelings. For example, a submissive grandmother is physically abused by her husband. She has a granddaughter who is often angry with her husband for no apparent reason. In the constellation it is revealed that the granddaughter carries the grandmother"s anger.
V.E. There are orders that must be paid attention to.
He who came first (in the family), be it a partner or a sibling, takes the first place. The others follow in chronological order. This placement must be paid attention to without judgement or valuation being put on it. A good basic order with which everyone feels comfortable results from such placement after existing negative connections have been resolved. Usually the parents stand facing the children, with the father in the first position, and the mother standing clockwise (when pictured from above) to him. The children stand facing the parents in a clockwise fashion according to age, oldest to youngest.
VI. The role of the therapist
The therapist uncovers and seeks a good order or placement in which everyone feels good. While doing this he uses his knowledge about the orders and principles which control a family. From the reactions of the representatives, he knows if he is on the right path. Although the work outwardly seems leader-centered, its quality is measured by how well the therapist comprehends and takes into consideration the reactions of the representatives.