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Family Constellations by Mary Lansing

Family Constellations by Mary Lansing

Family Constellations

By Mary Lansing

In a circle of fourteen people, a young man is explaining his difficult life issue, which he says has become a pattern. He has had several episodes of not being able to decide between two women in his life. Beside him, the facilitator questions him about his family history, then tells him to choose four people from among those present to stand in the middle of the circle: someone to represent himself, his grandfather and his grandfather’s two wives. He moves around the inside of the circle, following her instructions.

He chooses me to stand in for the second wife. This is the first family constellation where I have been a representative, and I am having uncomfortable feelings. My arms are shivering; I reach my hands up to rub them. I feel a heaviness in my chest, like exhaustion. Jane Peterson, the facilitator, moves beside me and asks, “What is happening for you?” I tell her, at the same time wondering if someone let in some frigid air from a window behind me. I’m not sure what is supposed to happen here. Jane puts her hands on my shoulders, wordlessly guiding me a few steps back to where I am no longer between the couple representing my husband and his first wife. Now facing away from the others, I’m suddenly warm; the heaviness lifted. I look out a window onto a forest scene and feel calm.

Jane’s questions to him had revealed that at a very young age, his grandfather married the love of his life from a nearby Midwest farm. Shortly after their marriage, his wife died, leaving him susceptible to her family’s encouragement that he marry her spinster sister. What followed was a loveless union. After the young man chose the representatives for himself, his grandfather and first wife, the role of the spinster sister-wife became mine.

During the next few minutes, Jane moves around the positioned family members, asking the others what they are experiencing. Then she places the grandfather opposite me. “I was never there for you,” he is instructed to say to me after I am turned to face him. “I loved your sister.” In a strange way I feel relief at hearing this, as if the truth is finally spoken aloud. Jane explains to everyone in attendance that there is loyalty between the sisters, even more so that they were wives of the same man. “You are the first; I am the second,” Jane tells me to say to her. “I release him to you.”

Jane then moves the first wife to face her husband and asks her to say, “I wasn’t able to be with you. Thank you for loving me.” Strangers a few minutes before, these two look at one another, begin to cry, and embrace. A minute and a half pass. Finally the facilitator brings the grandson representative to where he can face his grandfather. She admonishes the grandfather to say to him, “This is my fate, not yours.” Jane asks the client, who has been sitting in the circle of people surrounding this constellation, to take the place of his representative and say, simply, “Thank you,” then bow from the waist. When he looks up from the bow, he takes a deep breath. There are tears in his eyes.

My sensations of cold coincided with the fact that I had at first been positioned between the grandfather and his true love even though she was gone. It was apparent that I did not belong within their tie to each other. When the grandfather found his place in the arms of his first wife, the young man saw his problem with new eyes. His tears indicated how deeply that movement affected him.

Constellations and the Orders of Love Generational patterns of misfortune and tragedy can be interrupted by family and systemic constellation work. However, most therapists who use constellations in their practices say the process defies definition and must be experienced to be understood. Its model is deceptively simple. The client selects representatives for the members of his/her family and places them in a space in relationship to each other. As soon as these people are “set,” they begin to experience the feelings, thoughts and even sensations of the persons they are standing in for. A real picture of what is going on in the client’s family emerges and with the guidance of an experienced facilitator, a resolution appears. Once representatives are in place, it’s as though a visible inner map is formed of an entangled system. Disruptive love, conflict and trauma in earlier generations that have caused suffering in later generations are dissolved as strangers stand as representatives to play out the constellation. A shift occurs that alleviates the pain. By each family member taking an appropriate and actual place and speaking minimal phrases about the truth of the matter, the grandson’s current destiny is interrupted.

There is a mystical quality apparent in constellations that has been labeled phenomenological by Dr. Bert Hellinger, the originator of this system of inquiry. He is one of Europe’s most innovative and provocative systemic therapists. His eclectic background includes 16 years as a priest working with the Zulu tribes in South Africa, along with many years in Germany as a psychoanalyst and family therapist. Dr. Hellinger, now in his late 70’s, has expanded the family constellation concept to include health and organizational constellations as well as cultural ones. He has worked successfully with the descendants of Nazis and survivors of the holocaust.

His discovery of the “Orders of Love” include simple “laws” which, when thwarted or violated in some way, keep families entangled. Those orders are: 1) there is a need to belong to a system; 2) there needs to be a balance between giving and taking within the system; 3) safety and predictability are needed to elicit order. In his book “Love’s Hidden Symmetry” Hellinger states, “These needs constrain our relationships, and also make them possible, because they both reflect and enable our fundamental human need to relate intimately to others.” Disrespecting a family’s birth order hierarchy or failing to honor a member’s equal right to belong to a system, for instance, are both outside of the Orders of Love. Ignoring or disobeying these Orders creates entanglements that reach across generations, according to Dr. Hellinger.

The orders can be broken unwittingly in different ways: A child or young adult may have died and not been mourned; an extra-marital affair may have been kept secret; previous partners may not have been acknowledged or honored between couples; a child may have been given away for adoption and no longer talked about; babies aborted may not have been acknowledged and mourned. In short, when family secrets are kept, the laws are broken. The pain resulting from such entanglements continues in future generations when those secrets are not brought to light. A constellation will show that a family member incorporates the destiny from a relative into his/her own family, despite the fact that person may have lived two or more generations before.

It takes great courage to experience something without understanding it, according to Dietrich Klinghardt, M.D., PhD., whose Institute of Neurobiology in Bellevue, Washington regularly offers family constellation opportunities. “The constellation and its phenomenology need to be experienced, as what occurs is outside the mental understanding,” he points out. Participants leave constellations with a life-changing, deep understanding of themselves and the forces that govern their relationships.

Renowned German psychoanalyst Dr. Albrecht Mahr has done a long-term follow-up study on people who have experienced their own constellations. The study showed that beneficiaries of the experiences included not only the clients but also the representatives. Dr. Mahr attributes this to “the field,” (a term taken from Rupert Sheldrake’s morphic field. See his book “A New Science of Life”) which is created as the constellation is set up. Dr. Mahr is Director of the Wurtzburg Institute for Systemic Constellation Work and Integral Solutions (ISAIL), and chairman of the International Bert Hellinger Association for Systemic Resolutions, and his work in Germany provides the bridge between family constellations and psychoanalysis.

Not surprisingly, Dr. Hellinger has been attacked as unscientific and not grounded in research. Using the term phenomenological to describe constellations may explain the mystical and magical quality of the results of the work, but it does not often satisfy those in the field who seek measurement.

Although this work is relatively new to the United States, the past five years have seen training groups and constellation weekends spring up in a handful of states across the country. Dr. Klinghardt, for example, has conducted summer retreats on Cortes Island in British Columbia, where participants gather to experience a full week of this work. Jane Peterson, director of Human Systems Institute in Portland, Oregon, conducts year-long facilitator trainings in Portland and around the world.

My own constellations have involved, at various times, my maternal grandparents, my father and his twin, my brother, and my immediate family. After thirty years of working as a family therapist, along the way gleaning from the rich world of psychotherapy each new tool made available, I consider my search to be over for that “one more modality” that will complete my repertoire. My confidence in my craft has soared and I am infinitely more accepting. Most of all, by revealing the ways blockage occurs, constellations have shown me where the love is that holds a family together.

Mary Lansing, LMFT, has been a Marriage & Family Therapist for 31 years and now facilitates her own constellations. You can email her at [email protected].

Jane Peterson of Human Systems Institute will offer free presentations of constellation work September 9, 15, 21 and 29. It is in Portland and under her direction that The First U.S. Conference on the Systemic Constellation Work of Bert Hellinger will take place at the World Trade Center in Portland October 6 – 10, 2005. www.humansystemsinstitute.com

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