Karma up Close

Or: the strange path of love. About the work with famiy constellations

About the Work with Family Constellations

A few weeks ago a young woman came to me for a consultation. She impressed me as being very depressed as she sat slouched on her chair. When I asked her what brought her to me she reported that she didn't know any longer what she should do. Her friend, whom she loved very much accused her of being unfaithful and his unfounded jealousy placed a great burden on their relationship. Since the couple had already talked with me about the problem a few weeks before and the man also appeared to be really concerned ('I don't know myself anymore!') I suggested that they set up a family constellation. They both agreed.


In a family constellation the internal perception of either the family of origin or the present family (e.g. father, mother, siblings or the partner and children ...) are represented by members of the group attending the session. The underlying question is always: Are there unconscious systemic entanglements which might have generated unhappy relationships, difficult fateful occurrences, accidents, illness or unhappy behavior patterns? If entanglements become evident the family constellation is respectfully re-ordered and changed providing a visible solution at the conclusion of the session. By re-internalizing the visible solution the client who set up the constellation often receives lasting positive and healing benefits.


Family entanglements may reach back into past generations and are active on an archaic level of the psyche which does not reveal itself through analysis or rational thinking. It is the place in each of us where non-verbal information is unknowingly transmitted from generation to generation. In the process of the constellation the person experiences something about himself/herself which is otherwise almost impossible to access. Standing in the 'knowing field' of a constellation each representative becomes a medium for the collective unconscious.


I am fully aware of the difficulty that this phenomenon occurring during constellations is barely understandable in a theoretical way, not to speak of putting it into words. It would be like naming the unnamable. The representatives of a constellation must directly feel the inner movements of the psyche imbedded in the soul of the family. They start to provide information about the family relationships without having any previous knowledge of the family system. As soon as they are placed in position they perceive the situation of the person they are representing, also the feelings and sometimes as well physical effects.



Family entanglements often reach back into past generations and are active on an archaic level of the psyche which does not reveal itself through analysis or rational thinking

The family constellation of the young couple which we set up with help of group members representing the relatives (i.e. the woman's partner and a representative for herself) resulted in the following situation: The young man was angry and accused his girlfriend of infidelity, all of which corresponded to the current situation so far. I then brought her mother and her father into the constellation. The woman's mother said she felt ashamed. At that point the person representing the young woman began to cry spontaneously. So I asked my client what had happened. She replied, as tearfully as her representative, that her mother had had an affair with another man and had told no one except her.


In the first place the situation put a heavy strain on the daughter. If she told her mother's secret she would betray her. If she kept it to herself she would have to be dishonest to her father. The mother was relieved as she had transferred to her daughter the burden of keeping the secret. The father had also taken the easy way out: Although he was the right one to confront his wife he refrained from doing so. It came out in the constellation that he knew about the affair and it wasn't even a secret anymore.



Dear Mom, I love you and Dad the same. I am only your daughter and your marital secrets are none of my business

But the daughter who loved both parents the same unconsciously consented to bear the burden and let her partner make the accusations of infidelity to her - in place of her father. The solution became clear. I brought the young woman herself into the constellation asking her to say to her mother's representative: 'Dear Mom, I love you and Dad the same. I am only your daughter and your marital secrets are none of my business. Now I return the secret to you.' The woman was sobbing quietly. She told her father that she loved both of them very much. Then she stood next to her boyfriend. He hugged her and they both smiled at each other. The picture needed no further explanation.


Using a term of systemic therapy the situation was characterized by a so called double shift. The daughter stands in for her mother and carries the burden in her place - out of love that is. The daughter's boyfriend feels that his girlfriend is holding something back (i.e. the secret) and he feels compelled to make the accusations that her father withheld.
By setting up the constellation the solution to the conflict is expected from those persons who are in charge of it, the parents. They now have the opportunity to act responsibly.


Applying Bert Hellinger's methods of systemic family therapy has enormously enriched my professional as well as my personal life. Working with family constellations - as originally practiced by him - taught me that the often quoted impediment that keeps a person from having an enjoyable life or good health is quite meaningful. It even deserves the highest respect. If you look closer - that means if you look with your heart - the impediment reveals itself to be an expression of profound love, usually for a close relative or a loved one, and thus unintentionally generates a negative pattern.



Deep down in the soul, suffering is experienced as innocence. Staying alive and well is felt as guilt.

Let me give an example. If among siblings one sister or brother dies prematurely it may affect one of the remaining siblings in a way that he/she wants to follow that sibling into death. He/she may attract accidents or generally start to give her-/himself a hard time, e.g. by developing bad health, an addiction, professional failure or unhappy relationships. By doing so he/she attempts to get close to the lost loved one - close in suffering.

Deep down in the soul suffering is experienced as innocence. Staying alive and well is felt as guilt. This dynamic often occurs in families and is concealed by a seemingly unending streak of bad luck or misfortune. Sometimes a sibling who died prematurely is denied a respected place within the system's memory. Maybe the loss was too painful for the parents and they do not wish to be reminded of it. In this case another member of the family, usually one of the younger generation, may subconsciously want to follow the lost loved one into death. He/she gives up his proper place within the family for the one who has lost his/hers. He/she might also step in to compensate for the lack of grieving. This may manifest itself in unexplainable sadness or a depression immune to any therapy.

'Missing persons' in the system's memory could be former partners who gave way for the present partner, a stillborn child, a never mentioned stepsister or -brother, someone who died in a war, a relative that committed a crime or the so called black sheep who is never invited to family gatherings.
In the collective memory no one and nothing gets lost. It is the place within we all know without knowing. Sometimes we get a brief look into it and that is a moment of great blessing. Family dynamics strongly suggest that each member of a system has the same right to belong. In case this inner balance of belonging is disturbed another member of the family, most likely from the youngest generation, is tempted to bring back the balance to the system - for better or worse.


A balance for good could be like this: A woman attends the seminar to set up her family. While investigating the family history she learned that one of her aunts was handicapped and was put into a nursing home. The woman and her husband adopted a handicapped child because she 'always had the feeling that someone was missing.' Without actually knowing that she served the system's need for balance, she transferred the love and care her aunt didn't receive to another handicapped person who needed it. By setting up the family her aunt finally received her rightful place in the family and as a consequence the adopted daughter felt no longer obliged to replace the missing family member and gained more personal freedom.



In the collective memory no one and nothing gets lost. It is the place within we all know without knowing. Sometimes we get a brief look into it and that is a moment of great blessing

The next example demonstrates a balance for the worst. It reflects a common drama unfortunately occurring quite often in the daily lives of many people. A mother came to me and asked for help with her eighteen year old daughter who had an eating disorder. She had lost so much weight that a stay in the hospital seemed to be unavoidable. The mother set up the present family with the help of participants in the group, representing her husband, herself and her daughter. The daughter could hardly stand up and said that she was sad and very angry at her mother. The husband said right away: 'She isn't my daughter.' I asked my client if she would like to comment on that. She answered that she had become pregnant before she had married her present husband and that she had been very much in love with the first man, but only for a short time. Since that time she had no contact with him. I asked a man from the group to represent the daughter's biological father and put him into the constellation. He said he was sad and angry.

It was obvious that the daughter had taken on her biological father's emotions. He had been denied his right to belong and also he had not been acknowledged as her proper father. By adopting her father's feelings the daughter saw herself in a secret solidarity with him. In the constellation she felt the need to stand next to him and spontaneously started to beam as she looked at him. I asked the mother's representative to sit down and replaced her with the mother herself. I asked her to look at her former partner and to say to him: 'Up until now I have not really respected you. You are the father of our daughter and you will always be'. And then to her daughter: 'When I became pregnant with you I loved your father very much.' The intensity showing on their faces when speaking these long suppressed words was indescribable.
The solution was found when the biological father received recognition and his right to belong to the system. From this point on he was allowed to see his daughter. This might free the daughter from her 'obligation' to do without nourishment. She had only done so because her father had not been allowed to have what he needed.
There´s no cure for love, even when it´s life-threatening, like a bulimia. But love made visible might free the forces to start the healing process.


Family dynamics are supposed to bring about a balance to the system as a whole. But in effect they merely aggravate the situation, as the individual who tries to reverse former imbalance usually suffers catastrophic personal consequences. The medium of the balance is love, the basis of which are the powerful bonds of birth, partnership or unreconciled guilt.

The lack of balance might span from one generation to the next. The term 'law of karma' as found in classical Hindu philosophy springs to mind. But in the therapeutic context it is better to stay down to earth and to resist the intellectual urge to analyze these trans-generational systemic effects.

The 'phenomenological approach', as defined by Bert Hellinger, the founder of contemporary systemic psychotherapy, is in the first place non-theoretical: The attitude is to stay attentive, not to rely on neither memory nor opinion and to expose oneself to the direct experience in the 'knowing field' (i.e. the dynamic field of memory unfolding during a constellation) without any intention - not even the one to heal.

Only a non-intentional attitude can ensure to serve the needs of the greater whole into which the individual - beyond choice or personal will - is inducted. It's a humble attitude. Serving the 'soul' of the system might reveal the profound innate love that all descendants are endowed with, the love that either encourages them to live their lives to the fullest or to throw them away.



The medium of balance is love, the basis of which are the powerful bonds of birth, partnership or unreconciled guilt

Whenever systemic entanglements have an effect on us, we seem to function in an archaic state of being best described by the emotional circumstances in a child's world. In a child's world love is a thing of magic and it goes beyond life and death. It's a painful experience however when the childlike magical love perseveres in an adult, as it is blind to personal happiness as well as to the dangers of life-threatening circumstances. The adult may complain about his helplessness and vulnerability to the forces of chance, but deep down in the soul he/she consents to his/her fate - because this secret childlike love still wants to save the world.

The setting up of the constellation raises up the childlike love. So it may become the knowing love that consents to both, life and death. The constellation also provides the blind love with a clear goal: The loved person. That person, usually a close relative, is returned to his/her rightful place - and receives a voice through the representative.

In a recent constellation a woman represented the client's twin sister who had died in birth. She told her thirty year old and depressive twin brother (the client): 'Dear Brother, it makes me so sad to see you suffer so! Please see my love for you and live your life...and I will always be your guarding angel.' All the participants involved in the constellation nodded in agreement breathing deep sighs of relief and it was clear that something long overdue had happened and maybe... yes, maybe the miracle of healing had just begun.




Bert Hellinger, G. Weber, H. Beaumont: Love´s Hidden Symmetry - What Makes Love Work in Relationships
Bert Hellinger: Touching Love - Bert Hellinger at Work with Family Systems
Bert Hellinger/Hunter Beaumont: Touching Love, Volume 2 - A Teaching Seminar
Bert Hellinger/Gabriele t. Hövel: Acknowledging What Is - Conversations with Bert Hellinger 


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