by Samvedam Randles, LMHC, Dipl. Psych.
Children of divorce often feel torn between their parents. Unconsciously, they look for ways to be loyal to both. But sometimes, these unconscious expressions of loyalty come at a high price.
Susan, 28 years old, was in the final stages of her second advanced degree program when she came looking for help. In her first program, she could not finish her dissertation and abandoned her studies, feeling like a failure.
Now, she found found herself nearing the end of her second graduate degree, once again seemingly unable to complete it.
In frustration, she talks about self-sabotage. She wants to understand why this happens and how she can change it. She has explored the issue in traditional psychotherapy, but has not been able to change her behavior. Now she has heard of family constellation work and has decided to give it a try.
As we discovered in her family constellation, Susan’s question was a perfect example of a child’s loyalty to both parents, enacted completely unconsciously, and at the high cost of hindering the success of the now-grown child.
Susan’s father worked as a bricklayer all his life. Susan describes him lovingly as warm and funny, and it is obvious that she loves her father. Her mother is well educated, with two degrees, and was Susan’s main caregiver after the couple divorced when Susan was four years old. Neither parent ever remarried.
While Susan had much more contact with her mother, whom she loves, she never forgot her father either.
“Just Like You!”
We proceed to set up a constellation with three representatives standing in for Susan, her mother and her father; then we wait to see how they position themselves. As we often see in divorces, the child representative stands between the parents, attempting to find a way to belong to this now-broken system.
Susan’s representative then proudly turns to the mother and says with great feeling, “Dear Mom, I am just like you! I, too, worked through two degree programs!”
Then she turns to her father and happily says, “Dear Dad! I am just like you too! I don’t have any degrees!”
While the daughter feels good being loyal to both parents, there is both love and un-ease in the representatives for her parents.
It is difficult to describe the feeling-tone within a family constellation, wherein complete strangers (the representatives) are expressing emotions that don’t belong to them, but to the family members they are representing. Working with these representatives in the constellation, healing and balance can be restored so that it reverberates into the living family system. This is where family constellation work impacts differently than traditional talk therapy.
At this point in the constellation, I invite the representatives to speak the words that the child, Susan, needs to hear from her parents.
Healing Words and a Felt-Sense of Acceptance
Using healing sentences, each parent gives Susan permission and blessings to love the other parent. Additionally, Susan’s father gives her his heartfelt permission to be as smart as her mother . . . and collect her degree.
The father’s love and blessings move both Susan and her representative to tears. A healing movement begins as Susan takes in her father’s love. It is this kinesthetic experience of receiving what she has missed, this “corrective experience” felt in her body, that becomes the seed for possible change.
Susan left with these blessings in her heart; and proceeded to finish her degree.