Systemic Family Solutions - Bert Hellinger Family Constellation Work

Historical Foundations of Family System Constellations

By Jamy Faust, Contributing editor: J. Edward Lynch, Ph.D.

The fundamental idea that the family is an interactive unit affected by past generations and operating by a set of unifying principles, which include the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, is at the foundation of Family Therapy. Its evolution can be traced by following the development of key theories and approaches that include Bowen, Satir, Minuchin, The MRI group in Palo Alto and the Milan Group in Italy. Beginning in the early 60s, notable family therapist Virginia Satir recognized that a symptom manifest in one member of the family had a function in balancing the system and the system 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 practice to theory as Salvador Minuchin began his model of Structural Family Therapy, focusing 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, problems 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 involved with patterns of communication was Strategic Family Therapy, and later Brief Therapy. Jay Haley emerged as a leader in the US 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 ideas such as the individual symptom should be seen as a function of the whole system. The reframe, was the therapist's attempt to weave the family's content and process together in a way that expanded the focus to include all members of the family. Family Constellation work makes these concepts a dynamic interaction that takes into consideration all these concepts and 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 has clients assign family members to act out other roles within the family in order to help the client realize unconscious dynamics in the family. Family Sculpting, created by Virginia Satir and was later 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 goal of re-shaping the family can occur. While Hellinger's constellation also uses visual representation, it is unlike Psychodrama and Family Sculpting in that representatives stand quietly and allow themselves to be impacted internally by the power of the family dynamics, manifest through the Constellation that has been set up by the client.

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 multi-generational work of Satir, the Milan group, and the brevity and intensity of several of the Strategic therapies. But upon greater investigation it is realized that there is a heightened sense of spirituality in his work that differentiates it from others. It could be his 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) that offers the idea that man must look at opposites in order to find the truth. All these ideas combine in a way that makes Hellinger's work a unique approach. 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.

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