and Differences in Family Structure and Family Problems
First Results of the Family Constellation Method.
By Bertold Ulsamer (www.ulsamer.com)
Presented to the 10th Family-Therapy World Congress in Düsseldorf,
What are family constellations?
The German therapist Bert Hellinger developed this new type
of short therapy, which one could describe as a living family
tree with elements of family sculptures and psychodramas.
In its form and theoretical approach, however, his work is
new and unique and has surprising procedures and effects.
This type of therapy was developed where German is spoken
, and Bert Hellinger originally limited its area of use to
the rules and experiences found there.
Does this type of therapy contain methods that are suitable
only in German-speaking areas? Did Bert Hellinger find orders
which are typically German, or are they usable in other countries?
My presentation consists of three parts:
- A short introduction to the practical work involved and
- National similarities and national differences, with
examples from various countries
- Further considerations: does a collective "togetherness"
exist? What effect do people and homeland have?
The family constellation method in practical use
The client who wants to go through a constellation will
have the most fruitful results in a group. It is first necessary
for the client to have a specific reason for undertaking the
constellation. The request is often a question about the cause
of certain confusing feelings (depression, feelings of guilt,
etc), or about the cause of disturbed family relationships.
First, the client gives the therapist essential facts about
his family in the last two or three generations. Important
questions to be answered are: Who died young (younger than
approximately 25)? Were there crimes committed by family members?
Does any family member carry a heavy sense of guilt for some
reason? Have the parents had previous (love-) relationships,
and did they have noteworthy consequences (e.g., injury, emigration,
birth(s) out of wedlock, adoption, etc.)?
Then the client chooses group members to be representatives
of his parents, siblings, himself, and of other important
family members. Representatives for deceased family members
should also be chosen. Spontaneously, yet with concentration,
the client gives each representative a place to stand on an
open floor, as well as a direction to face. In this way he
situates them relative to each other.
The representatives, in their respective places, sense relationships
in this system, and perceive the feelings of the person they
represent. This effect is as of yet an inexplicable phenomenon.
During the practical work with constellations, the therapist
learns to trust this phenomenon more and more, and to let
himself be led by it.
The healing effect of the constellation comes through:
- bringing out and setting up the client's inner picture
of his own family with all of its tensions and conflicts.
- bringing important but forgotten people into the picture.
- using strong statements which bring tensions into the
light and solve them.
- the new positions/order of the persons involved. The
representatives positions have been changed by the end of
the constellation, which results in a new picture of the
While Bert Hellinger developed family constellations (in
the area of the world where German is spoken), he discovered
underlying basic orders. Of course, there are exceptions to
all orders, but certain ones repeat themselves regularly.
Six important orders and principles
1. Every member of a family belongs to that family equally.
Every family has a solid inner bond, regardless of how torn
it may outwardly appear. Everyone in the family deserves attention.
If anyone is shut out of the family, he will be represented
by a later- born family member who imposes a similar fate
2. The early death of a family member has a strong effect
on the whole system. The death of a young person has a strong
effect on the whole family. An inclination to die arises in
the siblings of the deceased, due to their connection with
him. This is expressed through the statement "I will
follow you." If someone is burdened in this way, and
later has children, the children feel this burden and want
to relieve the parent of it. This is expressed by the statement
"Better me than you." This inclination to die shows
itself through disease or dangerous behavior (such as engaging
in extremely dangerous types of sports or excessive drug-use).
3. Children take on feelings from other members of the family.
This occurs in two ways: either they share the strong feelings
of other family members (they help carry the feelings, so
to speak), or they take over inexpressed feelings. For example,
a submissive grandmother is physically abused by her husband.
She has a granddaughter who is in turn often angry at her
husband for no reason. In the Family Constellation it becomes
clear that the granddaughter carries the grandmother's anger.
4. Children are loyal to their parents--father and mother.
Children seldom, if ever, dare to lead a happier or more fulfilling
life than that of their parents. Out of loyalty to their parents
they repeat similar fates and misfortunes.
5. There is a rank (of order) that must be paid attention
to. The person who comes first, be it a sibling or partner,
takes the first place. The others follow in chronological
order. These places must be paid attention to without judgement
or valuation being put on them.
6. There is a basic spatial order which is preferable. There
is a basic order in which all family members feel good, provided
that existing negative connections have been resolved. In
this order, the parents face the children, with the father
standing in the first place, and the mother clockwise to him
(when pictured from above). The children stand facing them
in a clockwise fashion, according to age--oldest to youngest.
Are their typical national traits in the Constellations
and particular problem areas?
This work emerged in the last 20 years in Germany. A question
which soon arose was whether or not the work is applicable
in other countries. This question has since been answered
in the affirmative by therapists who have hosted family constellations
in countries such as Brazil, Slovakia, and France. I have
done work in Switzerland, Spain, Italy, and Argentina, and
have led groups of Japanese and Taiwanese.
It became clear that the orders and principles written above
also apply in families from other nations and cultures. What
are the similarities and differences? I can only say what
these are based on personal experiences, not on statistical
evidence. However, the experiences are informative, because
they show families and nations from a new perspective.
The Consequences of War
A large similarity exists among the countries that were
in a war within the last two generations. The result of war
is the death of many young soldiers. Parents lose their children,
sisters lose their brothers, and children are born, who will
never know their fathers because they died before the birth.
In German constellations, it has been shown how painful
the loss of a brother was for a sister. Often an inclination
to die arises in them. Their children sense it, take it on,
and themselves develop this inclination to die. However, the
same pain occurs in other nations, which was shown to me in
a constellation of a Spanish psychotherapist. In spite of
years of analysis of her father, who died before her birth
in civil war, she could only imagine him as a phantom.
Death can have various effects, however. There are types
of death that are experienced collectively and especially
traumatically. Consequently, these deaths are repressed from
consciousness as much as possible, and weigh heavily deep
within the family. Usually, the people who partake in a constellation
give a light shudder when these deaths are mentioned. In Germany,
these are the deaths that occurred in concentration camps.
In Japan, they are the deaths that occurred due to the atomic
bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
A loss is especially bad when the family is unsure of the
death. That is, for example, the case of the fate of the men
in Argentina who disappeared and were kidnapped under the
dictatorship--the so-called desaparecados. Even today, after
many years, the families of the deceased gather regularly
in Buenos Aires to demonstrate.
A Constellation in Germany showed me how difficult it is
to deal with those who are missing. In the 1950s a man, whose
brother had been missing for over 10 years had his brother
declared dead, so that the inheritance could be settled. Because
of this, the surviving brother felt an enormous amount of
guilt--almost as if he were a murderer.
When we look around the world today at countries such as
Yugoslavia or those on the African continent, we can only
speculate about the extent of tragedies and their consequences
on future generations.
Countries not involved in a war in recent generations
What do Constellations in countries that have been spared
war show? I will now report my impressions that I had recently
from a six-day seminar with a group of Swiss people.
The first two days went rather leisurely. This is different
from the German constellations, where the deaths from World
War II come up during this time--the fathers, brothers, and
children who died in the war. It appeared that lucky circumstances
protected the Swiss families from such tragedies. The intensity
of the seminar was fairly low.
On the third day, those things which these civil, middle-class
families had suppressed came forcefully to the surface. There
was a Constellation in which a pastor committed adultery with
the woman who was to become his son's mother-in-law. The woman
bore a child (from the pastor), but then claimed it was the
child of her husband. In various families, abuse came to the
surface. It appears that many families need at least one black
sheep to take on and carry the negative burden of the family.
Those who took part controlled their emotions to a high
degree, and used a lot of energy to do so. When they could
no longer maintain this control, suppressed feelings came
out dramatically and uncontrollably.
I would now like to go into detail about my experiences
with about 20 constellations with Japanese and Taiwanese people.
The constellations were for the most part very similar to
each other--more so than German constellations. The representative-father
and -mother each stood far apart from each other, and turned
their backs towards one another. When they turned around and
looked at each other, they felt foreign to one another. None
of them really seemed to want to be with each other out of
love. Many marriages had been arranged. The result: common
dissapointment and frustration, from which--in the best case--came
a sense of comradeship in the midst of a difficult situation.
A statement with which one person found relief was: "You
frustrate me and I frustrate you--we're in the same boat."
The women especially were originally not willing to take on
responsibility for marrying their partners. They saw themselves
as victims. The strength to be responsible came only with
the representative-mother at the representative daughter's
side. This was different than in German constellations.
At the same time, there were surrogate lovers in the family--almost
always, erotic tendancies between the mother and a favorite
son and between the father and a favorite daughter were visible.
In German constellations, strong erotic feelings between a
parent and child show themselves by a child representing an
earlier lover or fiancée. In one of the constellations
with Japanese people, the erotic relationship between the
father and daughter was so strong, I was certain that the
father had a first love. The daughter (the client whose family
was set up) knew nothing about any such woman. I finally risked
the experiment, and set up a woman to represent this first
love. The man began to wonder, came to a conclusion, and then
said, "it is my mother."
If I were to generalize my perceptions, then I would say
that the strong erotic connection these children have to their
parents hinders them from having fulfilling relationships
later in life. Instead, they, too, turn to a child for this
fulfilling relationship. This patttern is relived from one
generation to the next. Even the other children--out of loyalty
to the parents' mistakes and misfortunes--rarely have a fulfilling
As in German constellations, there was a good basic order
at the end--the parents were side-by-side and the children
stood facing them, oldest to youngest. However, not only the
parents, but the also the children still needed a lot of space
I found a constellation with a Taiwanese woman--which was
about her sister, who died an early death--fascinating. The
deceased sister still belonged to the family. Even a place
at the table was always set for her. At first, the deceased
sister was seen as being dangerous and threatening. The surviving
sister was afraid of her--much more than in similar situations
in German constellations.
Due to this experience, I suspected that early death has
the "I-will-follow-you" effect in other cultures
(which deal with death differently than we do) as well. One
sister or brother dies, and the others live on. But the survivors'
feelings of guilt are not relieved by ritual acts.
A Japanese therapist, who has already taken the first steps
towards family constellations with her countrymen, told me
that the work has served as a type of feeling-school for Japanese
men. They fully repress their own feelings. However, as a
representative, they find it easy to perceive and express
Now I would like to pass along some experiences that my
colleagues, who work with other nationalites, have told me.
Jakob Schneider has worked many times in Brazil - mostly
with therapists who are the decendants of European immigrants.
Various themes in his work stood out. One such theme is that
the consequenses of immigration and integration in a new homeland
play a large roll. He cites an example of a constellation
with a priest, whose father was dying, but for some reason
couldn't quite yet die. In the constellation, it was shown
that the father had accepted his impending death, but he still
had a problem with his son. Only as the son stood his representative
in line with his (representative-)father and grandfather,
and assured them that he would honor and hold on to his Italian
heritage, was the father relieved. Soon after the son's constellation,
the father died in peace, with the son at his side.
In many constellations, a son stood beside the mother, and
a daughter stood beside the father. The children seemed very
involved in the marriage, and were inclined to become surrogate
partners. Many Brazilians somehow live near death, without
the exact dynamic being visible. In none of the Constellations
were there deceased young children in the current generation
or in the last--a fact that Schneider found odd. In almost
every family, however, there had been death(s) due to traffic
accidents. Their family members didn't have much knowledge
of events in the family's history, which differs from Germans.
The situation with Brazilians from lower social classes
and of Native American or African ancestry is much different.
In these social groups, there is an enormous amount of incest
and desolate family structures, many unknown siblings, and
little social security through the parents. In these cases,
there seems to be little chance for a complete order in the
family. According to Jakob Schneider, one must see where a
relatively safe place for a child exists which helps the child
into a different fate than that of his parents, and somehow
makes peace with the parents at the same time.
What relationships do people have with their own
country and people?
The work with constellations reveals that there are many
well-defined areas of human "togetherness," underneath
which certain orders and principles lie. An example of important
orders regarding love-relationships is that previous partners
should be acknowledged attention to, and that everyone has
their place in chronological order. Then there is the family,
the orders of which I have already mentioned. There are also
principles in organisations, such as those which dictate that
people who have been in the organisation longer have seniority.
One area of human "connectedness" which is starting
to open up has to do with nationality and the country from
which one comes. Is there such a thing as a collective "inter-connectedness?"
What principles are at work here?
A constellation led by a colleague and myself a few years
ago greatly broadened my horizons. Unitil this time, I was
bothered by the media's constant preoccupation with the Third
Reich. I was of the opinion that one shouldn't be preoccupied
by it and should instead look to the future. I am not personally
burdened by a family history of Nazism, because my parents
had developed an aversion to the ideology due to their Catholic
beliefs. My father was a doctor in the war, and had barely
In this constellation, a 40-year-old man, whose grandfather
was an enthusiastic Nazi, set up his family. The man, and
in turn his representative, was excited about and attracted
to the strong and powerful Nazi-ideology. In order to bring
the criminal reality of what happened into the foreground,
we added some representatives of Nazi offenders and victims
to the group. However, the man still found it hard to accept
the reality and to not be blinded by the seductive ideas.
Only after a year had passed was he able to accept this in
another, similar constellation.
After this constellation, I suddenly got the feeling that
I, too, am sitting in the same boat as he, and have to face
this past. Since then, my impressions of the Germans and their
relationship to the Third Reich have changed. It seems to
me, that an entire people became guilty of the merciless destruction
of the Jews and other groups. Each person - almost everyone
- more or less carried a piece of this guilt and in this way
collaborated in it. As Bayohr proved in a newly-publicized
doctoral theses, the total property of at least 30,000 households
of murdered or expelled Jews was auctioned in Hamburg alone.
He calculated a total of 100,000 buyers and estimated that
there must be millions of similar buyers nationwide. That
means that millions of Germans have profited directly from
the killing of the Jews.
The children and grandchildren of the war-generation live,
it seems to me, in one of two ways. Either they don't accept
their guilt-laden parents, and thus remain without strength
or roots. In this case, Germans are embarrassed in foreign
countries of being German. Or they pull on combat boots, shave
their heads, and beat up foreigners and other groups of people.
In this way, they accept their fathers. They then have the
same guilt, but also the same strength.
When I observe other European nations, their connectedness
and family-ties seem stronger than in Germany. The roots seem
to be more intact. The only country whose population seems
to have even fewer roots is the United States. This is shown
by the constant changes in career, private life, and living
location. The land was won by destroying or driving away the
native people, the Native Americans. I suspect that a mechanism
similar to that in Germany is at work. The ancestors' guilt
burdens the relationship that their children (or further descendants)
have with them.
Dissolve the connections to a crime
Constellations make the meaningful, healing step to a new
level possible. If the father or mother has committed a serious
crime, especially murder, there are two things to be done
(consecutively) in the constellation. In the first step, the
father or mother should be acknowledged in their role as life-giver.
The child thanks the parents for the life that he has been
given. The next step is to leave their own personal responsibility
and guilt with them. If someone becomes a murderer, he must
consequently leave the family in the constellation. Then everyone
feels relieved--not only the rest of the family, but the offender
as well. If the offender doesn't leave, then children born
later will take over the guilt and become offenders or victims
in future generations.
The step which leads to a new level is made possible through
the constellation. A child acknowledges the father and mother
as those whom he thanks for his life. At the same time, he
lets them keep (i.e., he does not take on) their guilt and
responsibility for their actions. Then, the child remains
intact with his roots, without taking part in the guilt which
is not his.
It appears to me that this step must be done, individually,
by each person.
What is "homeland"?
A small episode in Buenos Aires shines a light on the connection
people have to a homeland. A 60-year-old Argentinean woman,
whose German parents emigrated to Argentina before she was
born, told me the following story. She was watching Germany
play Argentina in the soccer World Cup. When Germany scored
the first goal, she spontaneously broke into cheers--only
to be greeted by the alienated expressions of her friends.
During constellations, the theme “homeland”
comes into the foreground when the homeland has been lost.
For clients whose families were expelled from a country or
emigrated, it is possible to set up a representative for the
homeland--even when both parents are of different nationalities.
The representative perceives clear feelings in this roll of
the homeland--usually feelings of peace and strength.
The person whose homeland is represented senses a strong
relationship to the homeland as well. Usually, setting up
a homeland clearly brings a sense of strength and relief,
as it does, for example, during constellations with Germans
who had to flee Schlesien or East Prussia after the Second
World War. One can sense this strong connectedness to the
ancestral land, which is not dissolved when the homeland is
The effect of this loss (of the homeland) is similar to
the effect of losing a person in the family. If this loss
is suppressed, it is like an inner wound, which makes one
weak. The wound can heal only when the pain is allowed a place.
The homeland is given a place in the Constellation where it
is acknowledged and appreciated.
An exceptionally difficult situation arises for the children
and grandchildren of immigrants. Some reject the parents’
homeland--they want to “turn away” from the old
homeland, and “turn toward” the new. Through this,
though, they lose an important part of their roots and strength.
Statements which are appropriate and have a good effect are:
I acknowledge you as the homeland of my parents and give you
a place in my heart.“ Then, the child gains strength
through the recognition of his own roots.
The theme “homeland” becomes very meaningful
when working with guest-workers or refugees, whose children
want to integrate into German society. A prison warden in
a youth penitentiary told me about a group of imprisoned Kurdish
youths who repeatedly erupted into instances of abrupt and
uncontrollable violence. The parents, in comparison, lived
peacefully and well-adapted in Germany.
I conducted a constellation in this prison with a youth
who had been charged with rape. His parents were from Yugoslavia,
and I decided to set up representatives for Yugoslavia and
Germany. The youth gave no attention to the homeland of his
parents. The representative for Yugoslavia said that he felt
that the key for the solution lies with him--the home land.
A wide field of research is opening in this context. A family
constellation which Bert Hellinger conducted with a German
Jew in Frankfurt, in February 1998, sheds light on the topic.
At the beginning of the reign of the Third Reich, his parents
moved to Israel (still Palestine at that time). The son was
born there, and lived there until he was eleven. Since then,
he has lived in Germany, and considers himself a German. In
the constellation, representatives were chosen for Germany
and Israel, and set up. Israel felt unseen and unacknowledged.
An important step towards a solution for the parents and son
came when Israel came into the foreground and was given attention.
However, the Jewish son felt uncomfortable on the parents’
side. Something still seemed to be missing. He still felt
as if he had no homeland. Spontaneously, Bert Hellinger set
up a family (which was present on the stage) as representatives
of the Palestinians who have been expelled from Israel. He
set them up across from Israel, and then let the client change
his representatives place, and he was placed by the side of
the expelled Palestinians. Here, beside those expelled, he
felt a sense of belonging and could relax.
Expulsion is always an injustice against those expelled.
The newcomers who take the land in their possession profit
from this injustice. The desire to compensate and to atone
arises in the children and grandchildren of the aggressors.
In this constellation, the need to compensate was shown by
the fact that the Jewish son could not accept Israel as his
home, but rather took on the victims’ feelings of homelessness.
What else connects us?
Simply being human connects us all. From this fact stem
various orders and principles. Usually such orders become
clear in a constellation when a person has become a murderer.
In this case, everything else, regarding the family or nation,
plays no role. The guilt stays just as strong. Being human
is enough of a connection.
Even for couples, nationality plays no role in the connection
between the man and woman. Just being human provides enough
of a connection.
What connects us? Is there a connection between all living
things? What orders are at work? Can they be recognized through
constellations? When plants and animals are willfully and
inconsiderately destroyed or exterminated for profit, then
the needed attention is missing and guilt results. Are there
children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who take
on this guilt? And in what way? (Can we find causes here for
allergies which occur more and more frequently?)
At this time, the orders just mentioned are still hidden
and remain in the dark. But perhaps new doors will open here,
too, and we will be able to go deeper into the deep which
is shown to us through the constellations.