Systemic family therapy in the style of Bert Hellinger is among the most noticed, but also among the most controversial forms of Psychotherapy today. After the therapy methods of the Seventees and Eighties, something completely new is being offered here: the method of "posting", where representatives state their feelings. The fact that Hellinger seems to preach a conservative view of the world in his work offends the generation of 1968.
What do happiness and fullfillment in a relationship or with a partner depend upon ? On love, of course. Good, but even when there is love - whatever people mean by that - things go wrong repeatedly. In everyday life friction and power struggles, injuries and disappointments are common in a relationship. Eventually, the relationship will break up. He or she has just not been the right one. Will the next man be the man of her dreams, will the next woman bring happiness ? Love alone thus does not seem to be sufficient. Of course, good "interaction skills" are also required in a relationship. It is important to be open and honest, to communicate frequently, to settle difficulties, etc. Is there anything else beyond that ? What if someone uses the word "order" in the context of love ?
Love and order - opposites?
Order seems to be an opposite to love. Order in love - is this not a striking contradiction ? Isn`t order something that rather inhibits love ? Wouldn't we try to lock our feelings up in drawers by using order ? Building dams of order against the high tide of feelings, is that right ? Thinking in opposites of "right" and "wrong", however, does not lead very far. Life is a dynamic motion between opposites and contrasts. The truth will never be found on one side only. Both sides are true (and others as well). Whoever focuses one side only and excludes the other will become ideological - no matter what kind of cover he will use to cover up his ideology with. If one side has been dominant in your life, it is good to forcus on the other side some time for balance`s sake. If order could be a meaningful opposite to love - what kind of order are we talking about ? Surely not the kind of order that has,in the worst case, forced our ancestors to keep on living side by side without love because society and its order would have it that way. That old order is crumbling now. Just take a look at the relationships in your surroundings. Confusion is spreading everywhere. Stability more and more becomes a rare thing. And we, children of this chaos, are living right in the middle of this uncertainty, are being injured, are hurting others and ourselves and keep on experimenting.
Knowledge that will free us from being entangled
How can love work out ? In his books and letters, Bert Hellinger has stated deep insights about an order of love in families and relationships. Couldn`t such an order just be a fanciful idea or the result of a conservative view of the world ? Are we looking at someone here who is turning his ideology into "the truth" and into a new teaching method, forcing his way by making use of his personality ? That is exactly what Hellinger`s critics accuse him of doing. Hellinger, however, has not developped his knowledge from inside his study room, but from workingwith family postings in therapy. His theses can thus be evaluated. Every actual case must prove how much his thoughts contribute to finding solutions and healing. The possibility of evaluation in practical work should thus be the crucial criterion for deciding on whether something is useful. The therapist must be able to clearly recognize the client`s improvement as a result of his work. There is no rule without any exception, however; there are many individual conditions and deviations. The following statements, however, may serve as a guideline and a suggestion.
The good order
What Hellinger depicts is an ancient order that works inside of us. This order controls us much more than we are aware of. In the postings, representatives spontaneously react with the feelings that come from their specific spot. By experimenting with different spots and by uttering feelings and important messages it is possible to find out whether something corresponds to the dynamics working in the posting. You can only speak of a good order when peace has been made for the whole system, when all of the involved feel accepted and well-placed in the relationship network. An order that is being imposed from the outside will remain superficial; an order that comes from the inside, however, will have a deep impact. Since it is so important, I would like to repeat this point again: This order is no ideological foundation ! It must be evaluated in every single case by looking at the reactions of the people participating in the posting. Thus, it is possible to repeatedly bring hidden things up to the surface with this work. Causes for conflict will become visible. Accepting reality will free people; it will remove people from being entangled in old illusions and it will make reconciliation possible. A widening of one's own perspective and responsibility will take place. These postings do not only explain and solve single cases only, however. By looking at what is similar or equal in many postings, we are getting a picture of the general structures in relationships.
Giving and Taking
Relationships will work out well for a long time whenever there is a balance between giving and taking. If one partner is giving only, imbalance and a tension striving to be resolved will result. If the other partner gives back, the tension can dissolve. If he gives back a little more than he has received, a good tension will remain in the relationship. "Happiness in a relationship depends upon the turnover of giving and taking. Small turnover will bring about little profit only. The greater the tunover, the more happiness will be resulting. However, this does have one great disadvantage - it ties people together even stronger. Whoever wants freedom can only give and take very little and only very little energy can flow." (In the following, citings from Hellinger's work will be printed in italics). Relationships where one gives and the other one takes only are bound to break up. Eventually, one of the two partners will not be able to stand the imbalance anymore - this may very well be the one who has received too much - and he will leave. What is true for balance in friendship is also true for balance in hostility. Whenever one person has done something to another and has hurt the other, the same need for balance arises. The culprit should bring a sacrifice or give satisfaction according tó what he has done. This will be helpful for the relationship. It is justified to demand a balancing. It is even more beneficial when, talking of balance in hostility, the vicitm demands a little less than what has been done to him. Whoever feels too proud to demand a balancing (by forgiving magnanimously, for example) harms the relationship because he doesnt resolve the existing need for balance in a way understandable for human beings. On the contrary, he even increases the imbalance, because being the victim on the one hand, by forgiving he places himself above the culprit on the other hand. That is one of the reasons why Hellinger says: He who seems to be good on the outside often really is the bad guy.
Oftentimes, a fascinating picture can be seen in the postings when former partners - the first true love especially - are being posted. This may well have been ten, twenty or thirty years ago. The representatives smile at each other and show how much they feel attracted to each other. An astounding bond can be seen that the person posting has not really been that deeply aware of. It doesn't even make a difference whether the relationship has been officially legalized. It is thus appropriate to use the term "your man" or "your woman" in the postings when referring to a serious bond. How does such a bond develop ? Sex together with love will bind. When two people are having sex and there is love, a bond will develop - whether they want this to happen or not, whether it makes sense, whether it is appropriate or socially acceptable or not. Such a bond tends to lead towards a lasting relationship: marriage. If one of the partners wants marriage and the other one rejects him, this will be experienced as a wound that can cause the relationship to break up. When talking about a long-term relationship in the postings, Hellingers question is: "Why have you not gotten married ?" (In my ear, however, Oshos sentence sounds as a counterpart: Marriage is the death of love" But, looking back, maybe it is not so important if love has died because of marriage or because of not getting married ??) This bond is not undissolvable, however. A woman whose husband has become paralyzed due to an accident comes into family therapy. Hellinger tells her that everyone has to carry such a destiny by himself and cannot expect his partner to stay attached for a lifetime. The bond is the strongest in the first relationship. With every parting and every new relationship it diminishes a little. Whoever breaks up relationships frequently will one by one lose the strong bond to a partner that has originally been there. Bonding, however, must be distinguished from love. "It (the second relationship) does not have the same depth as the first one. It cannot have that, and it doesnt need it. This does not mean, however, that there will be less happiness and less love. Love may even be greater and deeper in the second relationship. But a bond in the original sense like the one in the first relationship is not possible." Hellinger emphasizes that there is not the one true partner. On the contrary: Whoever declares his partner to be the only one ("If you leave me I will not survive") puts a strain on the relationship. This dependancy is appropriate for the relationship between children and parents, but not for a relationship between grown-up people. Instead, it is true that "The right man and the right woman can very rarely be found. A good man and a good woman are usually enough."
The bond between man and woman again seeks for a third part. Children are the natural way of fullfillment. Through a child, an even stronger bond will be established no matter what circumstances may look like. A couple lives in a close relationship over years without having any children. Then the man has a sexual affair; his girl-friend becomes pregnant. It would be appropriate for the man for the sake of the new relationship to leave the first woman and to stand behind the child and the new woman. Having sex - even without love - already bears the risk of a bond because of the possibility of a child. This can be shown in the postings. An example: a 45-year-old bachelor has become a father to a daughter. At the time when his girl-friend that he had been together with for half a year before became pregnant, the relationship was already about to break up. She offers to have an abortion. He decides in favor of the child. In the posting, the relationship between father and daughter is touchingly close. There is no love between man and woman; a bond exists, however, because of shared parenthood. Even though ongoing growth in a partnership implies having a child, this doesn`t mean that there cannot be any good relationship without children. Unwanted childlessness is a tough destiny for couples that will tie them together when it is being carried jointly. When both partners decide not to have any children, however, this will weaken their relationship. Hellinger says: "The partner who doesnt want to or cannot have children has no right to force the other who wants to have children to stay. He must let him go." Another one of Hellingers statements I find very rermarkable: He states that parenthood was something that gives the parent a "specific higher inner balance". Isn't it true that parents, when compared to singles of the same age, seem to be somewhat more serious and "down to earth" ? A while ago, I called a friend of mine who works as a psychotherapist. Ever since his divorce, he takes care of his two children. When I told him enthusiastically about my new favourite form of therapy, he interrupted: "That is far too sophisticated for me right now. I have been to an amusement park with ky kids for the whole day today, and now I have to cook for them. Right now, that is much more important to me." Who of us has been more in touch with reality ? Who has been more down to earth ?
Appreciating what has been rejected
Speaking of childlessness, Hellinger is also concerned with appreciating the person who has been rejected. "Whenenver someone decides for something, he usually has to let go of something else. Whatever he decides in favor of is what will be realized... Despising that which has not been realized will take a piece off that which has been chosen. This will diminish. If that which has not been decided in favor of is nevertheless being appreciated, then something will be added to that which has been chosen. Women who are aware of the loss and consciously relinquish (having children) and who consciously accept this will save the female element for the future. The future will then gain another quality. Thus, by consciously relinquishing something will be won. That which I have not chosen will have an effect if I appreciate it, even if I do not realize this myself."
Whoever decides in favor of any alternative in life (parenthood, for example) has two options. By devaluing the alternative in order to feel like having taken the "right" decision one will limit himself. By admitting the pain about the loss of the other alternative, however, one will become enriched.
Guilt and atonement
An idea that has become more and more unclear and questionable to myself over the last years is the idea of guilt. To me, guilt sounded like some outdated religious rule, like confessing and like sin. For this reason, in my work with people I have always maintained the presupposition that everybody does the best he can. Thus, the idea of "guilt" had been unnecessary for me.
When working with postings, one comes to regard ideas like "injustice" and "guilt" differently. When the "soul" of a person, as Hellinger likes to put it, regards something to be an injustice, it will ensure that it will be paid for. This form of guilt will always have negative results. It has to be paid for either through oneself or through another member of the system. In case that some readers might feel uneasy when reading these sentences, here are a couple of examples:
A child always is the responsibility of both mother and father. When a man gets a woman pregnant and then leaves her to raise the child by herself, he doesn't accept his responsibility and becomes guilty. His soul will demand a price off him for that. When I heard this for the first time, I suddenly solved a puzzle in my own past. I had gotten my first girl-friend pregnant just when I was about to break up with her. In the beginning, the child had grown up with her and her parents. During that time, I have met my great love of that time. I soon felt an inner resistance against the relationship, however, which made me systematically spoil the relationship in the following four years. I now realize one thing: I hadn't been able to stand having a happy and fullfilled relationship when letting the mother of my child down at the same time - in spite of all necessary rationalizations and justifications.
Injustice in a partnership can also arise when one of the partners takes the other one for a husband or wife as an easy solution only. It is good when injustice and guilt are being brought up to the surface. In the postings, hidden tensions can be resolved when feelings that have been left unspoken ever since are being uttered, when the wife tells the husband, for example: "I am mad at you because I have only been second choice for you all along." He can accept this and find the words to say: "I'm sorry."
The subject of abortion is one that is rather controversial on the battlefield of ideologies. Looking at the effects that an abortion has in the postings can clarify a lot here.
"In our culture, abortion has a very deep effect on the soul (there may be great differences depending on the family, however), and this inner authority cannot by impressed by reasoning. It works independently of that and also unconsiously."
Abortion, usually perceived as an injustuce by the soul, will generally be repressed as much as possible. When only one of the partners has wanted to have the abortion and has pushed towards it, the blame will unconsciously be put on him and he will not be forgiven. This can only be paid for by the break-up of the relationship or by stopping sexual interaction.
An abortion sometimes is the reason why a posted couple (represented through representatives) feels uneasy and peace cannot be made. Only when the abortion is being brought up to the surface and the couple accepts it healing can take place. In one seminar, the participants were talking about the broken relationship of one of the participants. "Our continuous fighting about the new dog that we bought was the main reason for the break-up." Jokingly, I stated that it might be important here to post a dog. Its place would be obvious: by the feet of the couple. In the posting taking place a little later, an abortion that the couple had had a year before the break-up became an important subject. The aborted child was being posted by the feet of the couple - just like the dog that had been bought shortly after the abortion and, representing the child, became the trigger that should bring the conflict between the two up to the surface. In order to finally find peace after an abortion, the aborted child must find his/her place in the system of the mother and the father. Certain sentences uttered by the father or the mother are important for this. For example, when one of the two tells the child: "You have given me the greatest thing that can be given to anyone: your life. I will now make a space for you in my heart." Another sentence is: "I am sorry. I now take you as my child." These sentences will dissolve tension in many postings. Here is something that Hellinger has said to the parents afterwards: "It will still take time for the pain to arrive. Then you will give room to the pain in the face of the child. You may also give the child a place in your life for a while. You may show his/her brothers and sisters to the child inside, for example, and you may show him all the nice things in the world for a year. But then, this must end. Guilt must be dealt with eventually. And then you won't talk about it anymore. The child will find peace and you will look forward."
Separation and parting
Love goes wrong time and time again, relationships break up. Partners part, new partners come together. How can we deal with that purposefully ?
"Usually, the end will come without anyone being to blame. It's over because everyone is entangled in his own way, or because someone takes a different road or is being led a different way. As soon as I start perceiving guilt, however, I will have the belief and the illusion that I myself or the other person could do something or that the other one or myself would only have to behave in a different way in order for everything to be safe. Then the greatness and depth of the situation will be misunderstood and guilt and accusations against each other will be sought out instead. The solution is that both give in to their sorrow, to this deep pain, the sorrow because of the fact that it's over... When a separation takes place, anger oftentimes serves as a substitution for pain or sorrow."
Former partners are still part of the system. In the postings of the present system, these partners are also being posted. Sometimes there are still tensions that have not been resolved. In that case, it is important that things left unspoken are being uttered, for example: "I am sorry." When former partners receive "a good place", they can become supportive and a source of power. "A good place" - this means that they are being honored and respected as former partners and predecessors. The best proof for that are friendly relations that continue to exist after the separation or that start to develop anew. Suppression will have a negative impact on the own family's presence and future. If the former partner is not regarded as being part of the system, if his existence is being denied, for example, this will have a particularly bad effect when children arrive. A child will then represent the former partner. The family will then be in disorder. Suppose the father has had a partner before, for example (regardless of whether they have been dating, engaged or married). Their daughter will take on her role, she is "entangled" with this partner. This will result in her being particularly close to the father and a rivalry between her and her mother coming into existence. In that case, the daughter can never fully relax in her role as a child since she still has to represent the former partner. Only when the former partner receives the place that she deserves, the child can free herself from this stressful role. It is important that the former partners are being respected by both instead of, in the above case, the successor still being jealous of her predecessor. It would be salutary for her if she would step in front of her predecessor in the posting and say: "I thank you for making room for me." And maybe she could even add: "Please look at me and my family in a friendly way."
Children continue to tie people together. The child is the fruit of a love that was back then. In the child, this love is being manifested. For this reason, it is important to honor the former partner in the child. A feeling of anger towards the partner that the child is supposed to share will be harmful. It is important for the child to still keep both parents inside without feeling pressured towards having to decide. The child tries to solve this in the following way: "I'm taking both of you for my parents. Whatever is or has been between you is none of my business. I am only the child." Realizing the existing ranking in this order is of equal importance. In a partnership, the partner comes first before the child. This changes after a separation, however, when a new partner comes. The child is then ranked higher than this partner. In the beginning, it may be difficult for the successor when the new partner has a child already. But everybody can relax only when this order is being respected.
A participant in one of my seminars told me that, as a result of this knowledge, the four-year-old son of his girl-friend was not jealous of him at all anymore (although he sometimes wasn't allowed to sleep close to his mother now because of the boy-friend). The reason for this: The new boy-friend knew right from the start that the child would come first and that he didn't want to claim his place.
Effects of the family of origin
Repeatedly, the effects of the family of origin (the family that one stems from) are one of the most massive disturbing factors in a relationship. Not everything is systemic. An "interrupted affiliation" experienced during childhood will have great negative effects on one's life as a grown-up. Every child has a natural affiliation to his mother and father because that's where he can find love, protection and safety. Whenever this affiliation is being stopped suddenly and forcefully, the interruption will remain permanently. As a result of an early separation, like having to stay in a hospital, for example, the child experiences some kind of shock. The child cannot cope with a massive rejection or injury. He will then not dare to follow his natural impulse towards the mother or the father anymore. However, a strong yearning towards the parents does still exist. This feeling will then turn into a feeling of sorrow, pain, anger and frustration. These feelings can go on forever. In therapy sessions, people can endlessly beat cushions in anger without any real change concerning the anger taking place. Whoever has experienced this as a child will, as a grown-up, not find the courage to love a partner with all his heart himself. He will still be stuck in the gap between the yearning and the negative feelings connected to it that he has experienced. Frequently, he will unconsciously provoke rejection (that he secretly expects) as a result of his own behaviour.
Healing will bring the fullfillment of childlike needs. In such a constellation, Hellinger will seat himself facing the client and will make him go back in age to the core situation. He then tells him to stretch out his hands and say "please". As a representative of the mother or the father, Hellinger will then embrace the client and hold him. Thus, the affiliation that has been interrupted for so long will find its true aim. The old negative emotions can dissolve.
In order for a relationship to work out, it is important for male and female energy in man and woman to meet. The man will receive the strength for a good relationship from the father and other men; the woman will take it from the mother and other women. When these relationships are disturbed - regardless of for what reason - then this will have an inhibiting effect on the present relationships.
Entanglement and adopted feelings are systemic causes that frequently initiate behaviour in a partnership. The power of these influences is great. Fortunately, such partners whose influences fit together will frequently find each other. In a good case, both can stabilize and protect themselves this way.
To describe the multiple factors at this point would be too much. As a general rule, it will usually make more sense to start out by working on the family of origin before posting the present situation. I have described the results of working with the family of origin elsewhere (connection 7-8/96: "Du sollst Vater und Mutt