Historical Foundations of Family System Constellations

What is Family Constellation Work?
Introductory Constellation Workshops
Constellation Learning Group

“The therapeutic approach to relieving psychological pain known as Family Constellations was developed by Bert Hellinger. Hellinger, who lives in Germany, is an immensely popular figure in Europe. His best-selling books and videos, as well as his workshops, have generated a spirited dialogue among members of the international therapy community and have propelled him to the forefront of contemporary family therapy.”

~ From Love’s Hidden Symmetry, Bert Hellinger

Family Therapy Principles

To understand the philosophical underpinnings of the Family Constellations approach, it is useful to understand earlier psychological approaches to working with family influences. The fundamental idea at the foundation of Family Therapy is that the family is an interactive unit affected by past generations and operating by a set of unifying principles, including the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The evolution of Family Therapy can be traced to the development of key theories and approaches by psychologists Bowen, Satir, Minuchin, the MRI group in Palo Alto, and the Milan Group in Italy.

Beginning in the early 60s, Virginia Satir recognized that a symptom manifest in one member of the family had a function in balancing the family system; and the family system itself had a part in maintaining the symptom.

Over time, Satir and others expanded on this concept and established a three-generational model called Family Reconstruction.

Family Therapy grew from as Salvador Minuchin began his model of Structural Family Therapy. This model focused on family hierarchy and boundaries, and the belief that interventions could aid families in interacting helpfully and productively. Around the same time, the Milan Group in Italy began to work with families and came to the conclusion that the problems of individuals involved the family as a whole, not just an individual, and that there is a repetition of patterns from one generation to another.

One of the first therapists to concentrate on the family of origin was Murray Bowen. At the core of his theory was the concept of differentiation, the degree of emotional reactivity to the family. His focus was helping individuals avoid becoming “swallowed-up” by predicable family dynamics. An outgrowth of the work of Bateson, Watzlawick, and Fisch and the Palo Alto group – all involved with patterns of communication – was Strategic Family Therapy, and later Brief Therapy. Jay Haley emerged as a U.S. leader using the teachings and techniques of Milton Erickson, M.D., an outstanding hypnotherapist whose work concentrated around interactive patterns.

Each of these major theorists had a part in creating a body of knowledge and a way of intervening with individuals, couples, and families that went beyond the confines of psychodynamic work. They included the idea that an individual symptom should be seen as a function of the whole system. This reframing was the therapist’s attempt to weave a family’s content and process together in a way that expanded the focus to include all members of the family.

Family Constellations in Context

Family Constellation work takes into consideration all of these concepts as well as the intergenerational patterns that have been handed down to the individual from the past. Family Constellations might be considered a powerful “Brief Therapy” that gets to the core of the disturbance within. Jake and Zerka Moreno’s Psychodrama approach asks the client to assign family members to act out other roles within the family in order to help the client realize the unconscious dynamics that are present. Family Sculpting, created by Virginia Satir, was further developed by Fred and Bunny Duhl and David Kantor. This was considered an effective method of blending the cognitive and the experiential by physically arranging the family members as the client sees them so that a reshaping of the family could occur. Hellinger’s Family Constellation work also uses visual representation. But unlike Psychodrama and Family Sculpting, the representatives stand quietly and allow themselves to be impacted internally by the power of the family dynamics manifested through the Constellation the client has set up.

Hellinger said in an interview with Norbert Linz, “I am not convinced the constellations always reveal an objective historical truth about the family, but they are reliable in pointing toward constructive resolutions.” Further, Hellinger’s method allows a greater “kind of seeing that looks beyond the surface of the actual phenomenon. It sees what’s happening at the moment in its full context and its full meaning.” Bert Hellinger has added a dimension to Family Constellations that offers the opportunity for significant insights to systemic psychotherapy, called “orders of love.

He shows that “love is at work behind all human behavior,” that there is a great need for “balance in giving and taking and in gain and loss in the system,” and that “every member, living or dead, has an equal right to belong.”

Hellinger’s Constellation Method ultimately [tries] to find out what separates and what reunites.”

At a glance, it appears that Bert Hellinger’s concepts of Family Constellation are merely natural continuations of the multigenerational work of Satir, the Milan group, and the brevity and intensity of several of the Strategic therapies. But upon greater investigation, we recognize a heightened sense of spirituality in his work that differentiates it from others. It could be Hellinger’s early influence as a Catholic priest, his many years as a Zulu missionary, or his great love for the philosophical teachings of the Chinese philosopher Kung Tse (Confucius), including the idea that man must look at opposites in order to find the truth. All of these influences combine in a way that makes Hellinger’s work unique. The work is new and fascinating in its effect on the participants in a constellation and how it helps the entire system move into wholeness.

~ by Jamy Faust, MA