Presented to the 10th Family-Therapy World Congress in Düsseldorf, Germany
What are family constellations?
The German therapist Bert Hellinger developed this new type of short therapy, which one could describe as a living family tree with elements of family sculptures and psychodramas. In its form and theoretical approach, however, his work is new and unique and has surprising procedures and effects. This type of therapy was developed where German is spoken , and Bert Hellinger originally limited its area of use to the rules and experiences found there.
Does this type of therapy contain methods that are suitable only in German-speaking areas? Did Bert Hellinger find orders which are typically German, or are they usable in other countries?
My presentation consists of three parts:
• A short introduction to the practical work involved and its background.
• National similarities and national differences, with examples from various countries
• Further considerations: does a collective togetherness exist? What effect do people and homeland have?
The family constellation method in practical use
The client who wants to go through a constellation will have the most fruitful results in a group. It is first necessary for the client to have a specific reason for undertaking the constellation. The request is often a question about the cause of certain confusing feelings (depression, feelings of guilt, etc), or about the cause of disturbed family relationships.
First, the client gives the therapist essential facts about his family in the last two or three generations. Important questions to be answered are: Who died young (younger than approximately 25)? Were there crimes committed by family members? Does any family member carry a heavy sense of guilt for some reason? Have the parents had previous (love-) relationships, and did they have noteworthy consequences (e.g., injury, emigration, birth(s) out of wedlock, adoption, etc.)?
Then the client chooses group members to be representatives of his parents, siblings, himself, and of other important family members. Representatives for deceased family members should also be chosen. Spontaneously, yet with concentration, the client gives each representative a place to stand on an open floor, as well as a direction to face. In this way he situates them relative to each other.
The representatives, in their respective places, sense relationships in this system, and perceive the feelings of the person they represent. This effect is as of yet an inexplicable phenomenon. During the practical work with constellations, the therapist learns to trust this phenomenon more and more, and to let himself be led by it.
The healing effect of the constellation comes through:
• bringing out and setting up the clientÎs inner picture of his own family with all of its tensions and conflicts.
• bringing important but forgotten people into the picture.
• using strong statements which bring tensions into the light and solve them.
• the new positions/order of the persons involved. The representatives positions have been changed by the end of the constellation, which results in a new picture of the family.
While Bert Hellinger developed family constellations (in the area of the world where German is spoken), he discovered underlying basic orders. Of course, there are exceptions to all orders, but certain ones repeat themselves regularly.
Six important orders and principles
1. Every memberof a family belongs to that family equally. Every family has a solid inner bond, regardless of how torn it may outwardly appear. Everyone in the family deserves attention. If anyone is shut out of the family, he will be represented by a later- born family member who imposes a similar fate on himself.
2. The early death of a family member has a strong effect on the whole system. The death of a young person has a strong effect on the whole family. An inclination to die arises in the siblings of the deceased, due to their connection with him. This is expressed through the statement "I will follow you." If someone is burdened in this way, and later has children, the children feel this burden and want to relieve the parent of it. This is expressed by the statement "Better me than you." This inclination to die shows itself through disease or dangerous behavior (such as engaging in extremely dangerous types of sports or excessive drug-use).
3. Children take on feelings from other members of the family. This occurs in two ways: either they share the strong feelings of other family members (they help carry the feelings, so to speak), or they take over inexpressed feelings. For example, a submissive grandmother is physically abused by her husband. She has a granddaughter who is in turn often angry at her husband for no reason. In the Family Constellation it becomes clear that the granddaughter carries the grandmother's anger.
4. Children are loyal to their parents--father and mother. Children seldom, if ever, dare to lead a happier or more fulfilling life than that of their parents. Out of loyalty to their parents they repeat similar fates and misfortunes.
5. There is a rank (of order) that must be paid attention to. The person who comes first, be it a sibling or partner, takes the first place. The others follow in chronological order. These places must be paid attention to without judgement or valuation being put on them.
6. There is a basic spatial order which is preferable. There is a basic order in which all family members feel good, provided that existing negative connections have been resolved. In this order, the parents face the children, with the father standing in the first place, and the mother clockwise to him (when pictured from above). The children stand facing them in a clockwise fashion, according to age--oldest to youngest.
Are their typical national traits in the Constellations and particular problem areas?
This work emerged in the last 20 years in Germany. A question which soon arose was whether or not the work is applicable in other countries. This question has since been answered in the affirmative by therapists who have hosted family constellations in countries such as Brazil, Slovakia, and France. I have done work in Switzerland, Spain, Italy, and Argentina, and have led groups of Japanese and Taiwanese.
It became clear that the orders and principles written above also apply in families from other nations and cultures. What are the similarities and differences? I can only say what these are based on personal experiences, not on statistical evidence. However, the experiences are informative, because they show families and nations from a new perspective.
The Consequences of War
A large similarity exists among the countries that were in a war within the last two generations. The result of war is the death of many young soldiers. Parents lose their children, sisters lose their brothers, and children are born, who will never know their fathers because they died before the birth.
In German constellations, it has been shown how painful the loss of a brother was for a sister. Often an inclination to die arises in them. Their children sense it, take it on, and themselves develop this inclination to die. However, the same pain occurs in other nations, which was shown to me in a constellation of a Spanish psychotherapist. In spite of years of analysis of her father, who died before her birth in civil war, she could only imagine him as a phantom.
Death can have various effects, however. There are types of death that are experienced collectively and especially traumatically. Consequently, these deaths are repressed from consciousness as much as possible, and weigh heavily deep within the family. Usually, the people who partake in a constellation give a light shudder when these deaths are mentioned. In Germany, these are the deaths that occurred in concentration camps. In Japan, they are the deaths that occurred due to the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
A loss is especially bad when the family is unsure of the death. That is, for example, the case of the fate of the men in Argentina who disappeared and were kidnapped under the dictatorship--the so-called desaparecados. Even today, after many years, the families of the deceased gather regularly in Buenos Aires to demonstrate.
A Constellation in Germany showed me how difficult it is to deal with those who are missing. In the 1950s a man, whose brother had been missing for over 10 years had his brother declared dead, so that the inheritance could be settled. Because of this, the surviving brother felt an enormous amount of guilt--almost as if he were a murderer.
When we look around the world today at countries such as Yugoslavia or those on the African continent, we can only speculate about the extent of tragedies and their consequences on future generations.
Countries not involved in a war in recent generations
What do Constellations in countries that have been spared war show? I will now report my impressions that I had recently from a six-day seminar with a group of Swiss people.
The first two days went rather leisurely. This is different from the German constellations, where the deaths from World War II come up during this time--the fathers, brothers, and children who died in the war. It appeared that lucky circumstances protected the Swiss families from such tragedies. The intensity of the seminar was fairly low.
On the third day, those things which these civil, middle-class families had suppressed came forcefully to the surface. There was a Constellation in which a pastor committed adultery with the woman who was to become his son's mother-in-law. The woman bore a child (from the pastor), but then claimed it was the child of her husband. In various families, abuse came to the surface. It appears that many families need at least one black sheep to take on and carry the negative burden of the family.
Those who took part controlled their emotions to a high degree, and used a lot of energy to do so. When they could no longer maintain this control, suppressed feelings came out dramatically and uncontrollably.
I would now like to go into detail about my experiences with about 20 constellations with Japanese and Taiwanese people.
The constellations were for the most part very similar to each other--more so than German constellations. The representative-father and -mother each stood far apart from each other, and turned their backs towards one another. When they turned around and looked at each other, they felt foreign to one another. None of them really seemed to want to be with each other out of love. Many marriages had been arranged. The result: common dissapointment and frustration, from which--in the best case--came a sense of comradeship in the midst of a difficult situation. A statement with which one person found relief was: "You frustrate me and I frustrate you--we're in the same boat." The women especially were originally not willing to take on responsibility for marrying their partners. They saw themselves as victims. The strength to be responsible came only with the representative-mother at the representative daughter's side. This was different than in German constellations.
At the same time, there were surrogate lovers in the family--almost always, erotic tendancies between the mother and a favorite son and between the father and a favorite daughter were visible. In German constellations, strong erotic feelings between a parent and child show themselves by a child representing an earlier lover or fiancée. In one of the constellations with Japanese people, the erotic relationship between the father and daughter was so strong, I was certain that the father had a first love. The daughter (the client whose family was set up) knew nothing about any such woman. I finally risked the experiment, and set up a woman to represent this first love. The man began to wonder, came to a conclusion, and then said, "it is my mother."
If I were to generalize my perceptions, then I would say that the strong erotic connection these children have to their parents hinders them from having fulfilling relationships later in life. Instead, they, too, turn to a child for this fulfilling relationship. This patttern is relived from one generation to the next. Even the other children--out of loyalty to the parents' mistakes and misfortunes--rarely have a fulfilling love-relationship.
As in German constellations, there was a good basic order at the end--the parents were side-by-side and the children stood facing them, oldest to youngest. However, not only the parents, but the also the children still needed a lot of space between themselves.
I found a constellation with a Taiwanese woman--which was about her sister, who died an early death--fascinating. The deceased sister still belonged to the family. Even a place at the table was always set for her. At first, the deceased sister was seen as being dangerous and threatening. The surviving sister was afraid of her--much more than in similar situations in German constellations.
Due to this experience, I suspected that early death has the "I-will-follow-you" effect in other cultures (which deal with death differently than we do) as well. One sister or brother dies, and the others live on. But the survivors' feelings of guilt are not relieved by ritual acts.
A Japanese therapist, who has already taken the first steps towards family constellations with her countrymen, told me that the work has served as a type of feeling-school for Japanese men. They fully repress their own feelings. However, as a representative, they find it easy to perceive and express feelings.
Now I would like to pass along some experiences that my colleagues, who work with other nationalites, have told me.
Jakob Schneider has worked many times in Brazil - mostly with therapists who are the decendants of European immigrants. Various themes in his work stood out. One such theme is that the consequenses of immigration and integration in a new homeland play a large roll. He cites an example of a constellation with a priest, whose father was dying, but for some reason couldn't quite yet die. In the constellation, it was shown that the father had accepted his impending death, but he still had a problem with his son. Only as the son stood his representative in line with his (representative-)father and grandfather, and assured them that he would honor and hold on to his Italian heritage, was the father relieved. Soon after the son's constellation, the father died in peace, with the son at his side.
In many constellations, a son stood beside the mother, and a daughter stood beside the father. The children seemed very involved in the marriage, and were inclined to become surrogate partners. Many Brazilians somehow live near death, without the exact dynamic being visible. In none of the Constellations were there deceased young children in the current generation or in the last--a fact that Schneider found odd. In almost every family, however, there had been death(s) due to traffic accidents. Their family members didn't have much knowledge of events in the family's history, which differs from Germans.
The situation with Brazilians from lower social classes and of Native American or African ancestry is much different. In these social groups, there is an enormous amount of incest and desolate family structures, many unknown siblings, and little social security through the parents. In these cases, there seems to be little chance for a complete order in the family. According to Jakob Schneider, one must see where a relatively safe place for a child exists which helps the child into a different fate than that of his parents, and somehow makes peace with the parents at the same time.
What relationships do people have with their own country and people?
The work with constellations reveals that there are many well-defined areas of human "togetherness," underneath which certain orders and principles lie. An example of important orders regarding love-relationships is that previous partners should be acknowledged attention to, and that everyone has their place in chronological order. Then there is the family, the orders of which I have already mentioned. There are also principles in organisations, such as those which dictate that people who have been in the organisation longer have seniority.
One area of human "connectedness" which is starting to open up has to do with nationality and the country from which one comes. Is there such a thing as a collective "inter-connectedness?" What principles are at work here?
A constellation led by a colleague and myself a few years ago greatly broadened my horizons. Unitil this time, I was bothered by the media's constant preoccupation with the Third Reich. I was of the opinion that one shouldn't be preoccupied by it and should instead look to the future. I am not personally burdened by a family history of Nazism, because my parents had developed an aversion to the ideology due to their Catholic beliefs. My father was a doctor in the war, and had barely survived.
In this constellation, a 40-year-old man, whose grandfather was an enthusiastic Nazi, set up his family. The man, and in turn his representative, was excited about and attracted to the strong and powerful Nazi-ideology. In order to bring the criminal reality of what happened into the foreground, we added some representatives of Nazi offenders and victims to the group. However, the man still found it hard to accept the reality and to not be blinded by the seductive ideas. Only after a year had passed was he able to accept this in another, similar constellation.
After this constellation, I suddenly got the feeling that I, too, am sitting in the same boat as he, and have to face this past. Since then, my impressions of the Germans and their relationship to the Third Reich have changed. It seems to me, that an entire people became guilty of the merciless destruction of the Jews and other groups. Each person - almost everyone - more or less carried a piece of this guilt and in this way collaborated in it. As Bayohr proved in a newly-publicized doctoral theses, the total property of at least 30,000 households of murdered or expelled Jews was auctioned in Hamburg alone. He calculated a total of 100,000 buyers and estimated that there must be millions of similar buyers nationwide. That means that millions of Germans have profited directly from the killing of the Jews.
The children and grandchildren of the war-generation live, it seems to me, in one of two ways. Either they don't accept their guilt-laden parents, and thus remain without strength or roots. In this case, Germans are embarrassed in foreign countries of being German. Or they pull on combat boots, shave their heads, and beat up foreigners and other groups of people. In this way, they accept their fathers. They then have the same guilt, but also the same strength.
When I observe other European nations, their connectedness and family-ties seem stronger than in Germany. The roots seem to be more intact. The only country whose population seems to have even fewer roots is the United States. This is shown by the constant changes in career, private life, and living location. The land was won by destroying or driving away the native people, the Native Americans. I suspect that a mechanism similar to that in Germany is at work. The ancestors' guilt burdens the relationship that their children (or further descendants) have with them.
Dissolve the connections to a crime
Constellations make the meaningful, healing step to a new level possible. If the father or mother has committed a serious crime, especially murder, there are two things to be done (consecutively) in the constellation. In the first step, the father or mother should be acknowledged in their role as life-giver. The child thanks the parents for the life that he has been given. The next step is to leave their own personal responsibility and guilt with them. If someone becomes a murderer, he must consequently leave the family in the constellation. Then everyone feels relieved--not only the rest of the family, but the offender as well. If the offender doesn't leave, then children born later will take over the guilt and become offenders or victims in future generations.
The step which leads to a new level is made possible through the constellation. A child acknowledges the father and mother as those whom he thanks for his life. At the same time, he lets them keep (i.e., he does not take on) their guilt and responsibility for their actions. Then, the child remains intact with his roots, without taking part in the guilt which is not his.
It appears to me that this step must be done, individually, by each person.
What is "homeland"?
A small episode in Buenos Aires shines a light on the connection people have to a homeland. A 60-year-old Argentinean woman, whose German parents emigrated to Argentina before she was born, told me the following story. She was watching Germany play Argentina in the soccer World Cup. When Germany scored the first goal, she spontaneously broke into cheers--only to be greeted by the alienated expressions of her friends.
During constellations, the theme “homeland” comes into the foreground when the homeland has been lost. For clients whose families were expelled from a country or emigrated, it is possible to set up a representative for the homeland--even when both parents are of different nationalities. The representative perceives clear feelings in this roll of the homeland--usually feelings of peace and strength. The person whose homeland is represented senses a strong relationship to the homeland as well. Usually, setting up a homeland clearly brings a sense of strength and relief, as it does, for example, during constellations with Germans who had to flee Schlesien or East Prussia after the Second World War. One can sense this strong connectedness to the ancestral land, which is not dissolved when the homeland is left. The effect of this loss (of the homeland) is similar to the effect of losing a person in the family. If this loss is suppressed, it is like an inner wound, which makes one weak. The wound can heal only when the pain is allowed a place. The homeland is given a place in the Constellation where it is acknowledged and appreciated. An exceptionally difficult situation arises for the children and grandchildren of immigrants. Some reject the parents’ homeland--they want to “turn away” from the old homeland, and “turn toward” the new. Through this, though, they lose an important part of their roots and strength. Statements which are appropriate and have a good effect are: I acknowledge you as the homeland of my parents and give you a place in my heart.“ Then, the child gains strength through the recognition of his own roots.
The theme “homeland” becomes very meaningful when working with guest-workers or refugees, whose children want to integrate into German society. A prison warden in a youth penitentiary told me about a group of imprisoned Kurdish youths who repeatedly erupted into instances of abrupt and uncontrollable violence. The parents, in comparison, lived peacefully and well-adapted in Germany.
I conducted a constellation in this prison with a youth who had been charged with rape. His parents were from Yugoslavia, and I decided to set up representatives for Yugoslavia and Germany. The youth gave no attention to the homeland of his parents. The representative for Yugoslavia said that he felt that the key for the solution lies with him--the home land.
A wide field of research is opening in this context. A family constellation which Bert Hellinger conducted with a German Jew in Frankfurt, in February 1998, sheds light on the topic. At the beginning of the reign of the Third Reich, his parents moved to Israel (still Palestine at that time). The son was born there, and lived there until he was eleven. Since then, he has lived in Germany, and considers himself a German. In the constellation, representatives were chosen for Germany and Israel, and set up. Israel felt unseen and unacknowledged. An important step towards a solution for the parents and son came when Israel came into the foreground and was given attention. However, the Jewish son felt uncomfortable on the parents’ side. Something still seemed to be missing. He still felt as if he had no homeland. Spontaneously, Bert Hellinger set up a family (which was present on the stage) as representatives of the Palestinians who have been expelled from Israel. He set them up across from Israel, and then let the client change his representatives place, and he was placed by the side of the expelled Palestinians. Here, beside those expelled, he felt a sense of belonging and could relax.
Expulsion is always an injustice against those expelled. The newcomers who take the land in their possession profit from this injustice. The desire to compensate and to atone arises in the children and grandchildren of the aggressors. In this constellation, the need to compensate was shown by the fact that the Jewish son could not accept Israel as his home, but rather took on the victims’ feelings of homelessness.
What else connects us?
Simply being human connects us all. From this fact stem various orders and principles. Usually such orders become clear in a constellation when a person has become a murderer. In this case, everything else, regarding the family or nation, plays no role. The guilt stays just as strong. Being human is enough of a connection. Even for couples, nationality plays no role in the connection between the man and woman. Just being human provides enough of a connection.
What connects us? Is there a connection between all living things? What orders are at work? Can they be recognized through constellations? When plants and animals are willfully and inconsiderately destroyed or exterminated for profit, then the needed attention is missing and guilt results. Are there children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who take on this guilt? And in what way? (Can we find causes here for allergies which occur more and more frequently?)
At this time, the orders just mentioned are still hidden and remain in the dark. But perhaps new doors will open here, too, and we will be able to go deeper into the deep which is shown to us through the constellations.
Family Constellations According to Bert Hellinger