Family Constellations: An Innovative Systemic Phenomenological Group process from Germany


“Family Constellations”:

An Innovative Systemic Phenomenological

Group Process From Germany

Dan Booth Cohen

Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center


DOI: 10.1177/1066480706287279

© 2006 Sage Publications

Author’s Note: Visit the following Web sites for more information

on this topic: Zeig, Tucker, & Theisen, and

Carl Auer International,

2005a, 2005b; Weber, 1993), psychologists (Franke, 2003;

Madelung, 2001; Ulsamer, 2005), biologists (Maturana &

Poerksen, 2004; Sheldrake, Hellinger, & Schuetzenberger,

1999), organizational consultants (Brick & Horn, 2005; Simon,

2004), and educators (Nowhere Foundation, 2004).

The 2005 International Congress on Systemic Constella-

tions in Cologne, Germany, included presentations by well-

known specialists such as Peter Levine (2005) on healing

trauma, Holocaust survivor and Israeli psychiatrist Haim

Dasberg (2000) on family systems and the German-Jewish

past, chiropractor Dale Schusterman (2003) on Kabbalist

principles and constellations, and Dutch shaman Daan

van Kampenhout (2003) on shamanic healing principles in


Despite the constellation method’s roots in family

systems theory and the burgeoning expansion of the con-

stellation approach abroad, the method is virtually unknown

among family therapists in the United States. There are

several contributing factors. One is the method’s phenomeno-

logical stance that renders it ill suited to rigorous, objective

testing and documentation. As with other systemic approaches,

it is unwieldy to control variables and collect methodologi-

cally sound, longitudinal outcome data. Another is the lack

of standards of best practices to protect licensed practition-

ers from ethical and liability exposure.

The following sections serve as a broad introduction to

the constellation process. They encompass a biographical

sketch of Bert Hellinger, a discussion of the influence of

family systems theory, existential-phenomenology, and Zulu

ancestor worship, a description of the process, and an out-

line of important prereflective fundamental structures of exis-

tence that Colaizzi (1973) suggested would be an outcome

of empirical phenomenological research.


Hellinger was born into a Catholic family in Germany in

1925. His parents’ “particular form of [Catholic] faith pro-

vided the entire family with immunity against believing the

distortions of National Socialism” (Hellinger et al., 1998,

p. 327). The local Hitler Youth Organization tried without

success to recruit him. As a result of his reluctance, the

Gestapo classified him as suspected of being an enemy of the

people (Hellinger, personal communication, May 15, 2004).

In 1942, Hellinger was conscripted into the regular

German army. He saw close combat on the Western front

(Hellinger, personal communication, May 15, 2004). In 1945,

he was captured and imprisoned in an Allied POW camp

in Belgium.

The brutality and destructiveness of the Nazi era is cen-

tral to Hellinger’s lifework. Sixty years after the cessation of

warfare, with all the victims and perpetrators either dead or

aged, Hellinger continues to focus on acknowledging and

reconciling the echoes and reverberations of this massive

collective trauma.

Following his escape from the POW camp and return to

Germany, Hellinger entered a Catholic religious order. In the

early 1950s, he was dispatched to South Africa, where he

was assigned as a missionary to the Zulus. He lived in South

Africa for 16 years, became fluent in the Zulu language, par-

ticipated in their rituals, and gained an appreciation for their

distinct worldview.

He left the priesthood during the 1960s and married

after returning to Germany. He trained in psychoanalysis

at the Wiener Arbeitskreis für Tiefenpsychologie (Viennese

Association for Depth Psychology). After completing his

formal studies, he took additional training in primal therapy

and transactional analysis. His training in the Family

Sculpture method, pioneered by Virginia Satir, came from

Ruth McClendon, Leslie Kadis, and the German child psy-

chiatrist Thea Schoenfelder.

Another major influence in his work during this period

was the hypnotherapy of Milton Erickson. He trained with

Jeffrey K. Zeig, Stephen Lankton, Barbara Steen, and Beverly

Stoy. Later, he studied Gestalt therapy and Neuro-Linguistic


By 1985, Hellinger, then 60 years old, had completed

a 15-year cycle of education and training. He had a small

private practice in southern Germany. He would likely have

remained a sole practitioner of eclectic existential therapy

had it not been for his encounter with a prominent German

psychiatrist, Gunthard Weber. Weber was Director of an in-

patient eating disorder clinic at the University of Heidelberg

Hospital. In 1988, Weber observed a training demonstration

of Hellinger at work. “It was amazing for me,” he recalls.

“I knew it was something new” (G. Weber, personal com-

munication, February 12, 2004).

Weber arranged for a series of sessions for patients from

his clinic diagnosed with anorexia and bulimia. He found the

results remarkable, though Hellinger refused to allow formal

research to confirm longitudinal outcomes. As an experienced

physician in psychiatric hospitals, Weber was particularly

impressed with the responses of patients with the most

daunting symptoms, such as schizophrenia, eating disorders,

and persistent suicidal urges (G. Weber, personal communi-

cation, February 12, 2004).

In 1993, Hellinger and Weber (1993) published Zweierlei

Glück (Capricious Good Fortune; aka Second Chance). They

expected to sell 2,000 copies within the German psychotherapy

community. To everyone’s surprise, the book was received

with acclaim and became a national best-seller, selling

200,000 copies.

At the age of 70, Bert Hellinger emerged as an inter-

nationally best-selling author. During the past 10 years,

he has authored or coauthored 30 books. Those translated

into English include, Love’s Hidden Symmetry: What

Makes Love Work in Relationships (Hellinger et al., 1998);

Acknowledging What Is: Conversations with Bert Hellinger

(Hellinger & ten Hövel, 1999); Love’s Own Truths: Bonding

and Balancing in Close Relationships (2001); Insights (2002a);


On Life & Other Paradoxes (2002b);  Farewell: Family

Constellations with Descendants of Victims and Perpetrators

(2003a); Peace Begins in the Soul: Family Constellations in

the Service of Reconciliation (2003b); Rachel Weeping for

Her Children: Family Constellations in Israel (2003c).

Hellinger continues to travel widely, delivering lectures,

workshops, and training courses throughout Europe, the United

States, South America, China, and Japan. He has made

numerous trips to Israel, where his work often deals with

issues relating to the Nazi Holocaust.

Because Hellinger has not sought to control proprietary

rights to his methods and techniques, a new generation of

practitioners has begun to expand and evolve the constella-

tion process. Although they honor Hellinger as the origina-

tor of many important insights, they are not bound to adhere

to his procedures. Most facilitators who come to the work

are professionally credentialed. They freely adapt, integrate,

and modify Hellinger’s foundational contributions to fit their

existing toolkits.



Phenomenological psychology began with Brentano

(1838-1917), whose views on psychology’s mission and

methods stood in sharp contrast to Wundt:

Brentano viewed consciousness in terms of a unity expressed

by acts. Thus structuralism’s inherent goal of finding the

elements of consciousness was meaningless for Brentano

because such study destroys the essential unity of conscious-

ness, and such elements, if they exist, do not have psycho-

logical meaning. (Brennan, 1998, p. 176)

Husserl (1859-1938) was a student of Wundt, Brentano,

and Stumpf. In the spirit of Brentano, Husserl rejected the

premises of experimental psychology and sought to articu-

late a scientific methodology that would reveal a whole truth

rather than discrete bits of truth. His contribution was the

design of a scientifically rigorous qualitative methodology

that did not require the totality of experience to be reduced

to constituent parts to be studied and understood. Husserl

(1964) is credited with establishing the distinctions among

real, irreal, and mixed objects of consciousness.

Husserl’s phenomenology and Kierkegaard’s existen-

tialism were fused in the work of Martin Heidegger, whom

Hellinger refers to as his lifelong “philosophical companion”

(Hellinger et al., 1998, p. 330). With regard to Hellinger’s

views, Heidegger’s contribution to phenomenological phi-

losophy was twofold. First, he diverged from Husserl on the

question of how to draw meaning from the observation of

the totality of existential reality. Husserl’s emphasis was on

the description of consciousness, whereas Heidegger placed

greater emphasis on interpretation of being (Giorgi, 1970;

Husserl, 1964). Second, Heidegger emphasized facing one’s

own eventual death as a necessity for living an authentic life.

Another phenomenological philosopher who anticipated

Hellinger’s method is Colaizzi (1973), who distinguished

fundamental descriptions from fundamental structures.

Fundamental descriptions are the raw data provided by par-

ticipants in the course of phenomenological research. They

are explicit products of the reflective dimension of aware-

ness. Fundamental structures, in contrast, cannot be accessed

or recognized by the participant in the course of reporting

and reflection. They operate in the prereflective dimension,

which is the sensed, but unlanguaged, realm of human expe-

rience. It is up to the investigator to elucidate these basic

organizing principles of behavior, feelings, and beliefs through

an act of interpretive reading.

Hellinger (2001) explains his phenomenological stances

as follows:

There are two inner movements that lead to insight. One

reaches out, wanting to understand and to control the unknown.

This is scientific inquiry....The second movement hap-

pens when we pause in our efforts to grasp the unknown,

allowing our attention to rest, not on the particulars, which

we can define, but on the greater whole....We pause in the

movement of reaching out, pull back a bit, until we arrive

at the inner stillness that is competent to deal with the vast-

ness and complexity of the greater whole. This inquiry,

which first orients itself in inwardness and restraint, I call

phenomenological. (p. 2)

Zulu Ancestor Reverence

Hellinger’s assignment as a missionary to the Zulus can

be viewed as the hunter being captured by the game. Rather

than converting Zulus to Christianity’s promise of salvation,

Hellinger became a convert to their views of the interdepen-

dence between the living and the dead.

In their traditional culture, the Zulus live and act in a reli-

gious world in which the ancestors are the central focal point:

The ancestral spirits are of fundamental significance for the

Zulu. They are the departed souls of the deceased. Although

they are regarded as having gone to abide in the earth, they

continue to have a relationship with those still living.

(Lawson, 1985, pp. 24-25)

The ancestors are regarded as positive, constructive, and

creative presences. Failure to show them proper respect

invites misfortune; proper veneration ensures benefit. When

a family member suffers the consequences of the ancestors’

wrath, the punishment is not regarded as destructive. Rather,

it is viewed as a legitimate expression of the failure of

the individual to uphold his or her duty to the family

(Lawson, 1985).

The dark shadows of material destruction and existential

angst that enveloped Germany had not extended to Zulu


villages in South Africa in the 1950s. Heidegger postulated

that to be human is to find oneself thrown into a world with

no clear logical, ontological, or moral structure. In Zulu

culture, Hellinger found beings (Dasein) who were at peace

with existence.

The Zulus to whom Hellinger ministered possessed

a certitude and equanimity that were the hallmarks of

Heidegger’s elusive authentic self. These were not lost indi-

viduals thrown into being but temporary custodians of life

knit into a tightly woven fabric of generations past and yet

to be. As Lawson (1985) notes, when the ancestors are the

source of power, group activity is mediated in every case

by precisely defined roles.

Of particular importance is the Zulu attitude toward par-

ents. The Hitler Youth Organization was notorious for encour-

aging children to betray their parents. In Zulu culture,

Hellinger (2001) says, “I never heard anyone speak disre-

spectfully about their parents. That would have been incon-

ceivable” (p. 443). The constellation facilitator attunes with

this stance, in contrast to traditional psychodrama in which

parents “were routinely depicted as villains” (Williams,

1998, p. 139).

Family Systems Therapy

Family Constellations are grounded in the epistemology of

existential-phenomenology and the Zulu-influenced ontology

of trans-generational connectedness. The clinical methodology

originated with the family systems therapy of Virginia Satir

and Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy.

Boszormenyi-Nagy posited that unconscious regulators

of balance, merit, and entitlement bind individuals into nar-

row roles within the family structure. Because these regula-

tors are not apparent in conscious awareness, he labeled

them trans-generational invisible loyalties and said that,

“Injustices that have not been resolved are doled out by a

‘transgenerational tribunal’ to future generations using a sort

of debt and merit account” (Franke, 2003, pp. 66-67).

In mapping the functionality of these systemic regulators,

Boszormenyi-Nagy recognized “the structuring of relation-

ships, especially within families, is an extremely complex

and essentially unknown ‘mechanism.’ Empirically, such

structuring can be inferred from the lawful regularity and

predictability of certain repetitious events in families”

(Boszormenyi-Nagy & Spark, 1973, p. 1). Empirical sup-

port for this observation comes from Schützenberger (1998),

who documented hundreds of cases where extreme fates

(e.g., death of a child by drowning) repeated in clear

patterns in the genograms of French families.

Boszormenyi-Nagy’s invisible loyalties are consistent with

Zulu attitudes toward ancestors. In technologically advanced

societies, families are divided by geographic distance, divorce,

and estrangements. As expected by Boszormenyi-Nagy and

the Zulu models, the disintegration of family structure, partic-

ularly trans-generational exclusion or disrespect, contributes

to emotional and somatic dysfunction.

Boszormenyi-Nagy’s teacher, Virginia Satir (Nichols &

Schwartz, 2001, p. 174), developed and popularized her

family sculpture and family reconstruction methods in the

1960s by merging elements of Moreno’s psychodrama with

innovative systemic family therapy techniques developed at

the Ackerman Institute in New York City.

The therapeutic objective of family sculptures was to reveal

underlying systemic conflicts. In response to one or more

clients being absent from the group appointment, Satir began

to have assistants stand in their place. She observed, “If I put

people in physical stances, they were likely to experience the

feelings that went with that stance” (Satir, 1987, p. 68).

These techniques were aligned with the third force of

existential-humanistic psychology. They were not designed

for behavior modification but instead sought to expand the

resources available to clients to deal more constructively

with their circumstances. Satir, like Boszormenyi-Nagy, rec-

ognized that any given symptom was part of a larger tableau

that connected not only to members of the immediate nuclear

family but also to members of past and future generations

(Franke, 2003).


The Family Constellation process removes the “drama”

from Moreno’s psychodrama and the “sculpting” from Satir’s

family sculpting to create an experience that is silent and

still instead of vocal and kinetic. As the participants adjust

to this emptiness, the prereflective dimension of fundamen-

tal structures (Colaizzi, 1973; Husserl, 1964) comes into

view. In phenomenological terms, Constellations create a

three-dimensional matrix of the ancestral lineage that is not

generally presented to consciousness in material form.

“Constellations function by transforming irreal field dimen-

sions of human experience into real spatial symbolic repre-

sentations, thereby allowing them to be worked with directly”

(Donnan, 2005).

This symbolic representation of the ancestral field liter-

ally manifests new points of view. These are not dictated or

scripted by the facilitator, nor are they expressions of the

client’s inner dialogue or emotions. Instead, they appear to

emerge spontaneously from the constellation itself, as in

sandtray therapy (Bradway, 1979; Kalff, 1980). It is as if the

ancestral field, Boszormenyi-Nagy’s mechanism, has a mind

and message of its own and, now, a forum for expression.

The ancestors’ representatives become characters in a living

novella, altering the meanings of past events and reconfig-

uring the family system.

The procedure described below represents a typical format.

A group of participants (10 to 30) sit in a circle. One par-

ticipant is selected as the client to work on a personal issue.

The others either serve as representatives or actively contribute

by observing with concentration.

The facilitator asks, “What is your issue?” Ideally, the

client answers in three sentences or fewer. The issue may be



extreme: “Two years ago my husband and child were killed

in an accident. I’m trying to learn how to live with that”

(Hellinger, 2003d, p. 72). Or it may appear to be more

commonplace, such as a college student who reports: “I’m

21 years old and have been diagnosed with clinical depres-

sion” (Cohen, 2005, p. 115).

The facilitator asks for information about the family of

origin, looking for traumatic events from the past that may

have systemic resonance. Such events include premature

deaths, including aborted children, murders, suicide, and

casualties of war, or when members of the family system

were denied their right to belong, such as a disabled child

who was institutionalized, a baby given up for adoption,

a disappeared father, or a homosexual or apostate who was

banished from the family. The client does not present narra-

tive or commentary.

Next, the facilitator asks the client to select group mem-

bers to represent members of the family system. Typically,

these will be the client’s immediate family or the issue itself.

In the first case cited above, the facilitator began with the

client and her deceased husband and child; in the second

case, the client and a representative for depression.

The client stands behind each representative, placing his

or her hands on the representative’s shoulders, and moves

him or her into place. In Hellinger’s (2001) words, “Put your

mother at the correct distance from your father, for example,

and turn her to face the way you feel is right. Do it without

talking, from your center and in contact with your feelings

at the moment” (p. 18).

Once the representatives are in position, the client sits and

observes. The representatives stand with their arms at their

sides without moving or talking. They are not role playing.

For several minutes, the scene is one of stillness and silence.

The facilitator observes and waits.

The representatives tune into the resonance of the family

field, accessing kinesthetic and emotional data (Laszlo,

2004; Sheldrake, 1995). The facilitator may inquire of each

representative, “How are you feeling?” Sometimes the rep-

resentatives are placid and without emotion. Other times

they report strong emotions or physical effects. The reports

are subjective and contain some aspect of personal projec-

tion. However, the intermixing of subjective personal projec-

tions with field resonance does not contaminate the process

as a whole.

The emerging movements reflect a highly interpene-

trative network of fields that are generally inaccessible to

cognition (Donnan, 2005). Often, what underlies people’s

serious issues is that a living family member is repeating or

compensating for past hardships in the larger family system.

If this connection is to an excluded person or one who had a

difficult fate, the living family member can be drawn to

repeat this fate or compensate for what occurred in the past.

The facilitator slowly works with this three-dimensional

portrait of the family. First, the hidden systemic dynamic

comes into clear view. In the case of the young woman with

depression, the hidden dynamic was the client’s invisible

loyalty to the grief of her deceased grandmother.

Next, the facilitator seeks a healing resolution. In the case

above, the representatives for the client and grandmother

faced a third representative who symbolized the object of

the grandmother’s undying grief. When the client perceived

the effect her loyalty to grief had on her beloved grand-

mother, she felt a profound release. The representatives feel

relieved when the excluded person is acknowledged, restored

to his or her rightful place in the system and respected for

the fate he or she endured.

Once a resolution comes to light, the client stands in

his or her place in the constellation. The final step is for

the facilitator to suggest one or two healing sentences to be

spoken aloud or inwardly. In this case, the healing sentence

was for the representative of the grandmother to say to the

client, “Go live!” (Cohen, 2005, pp. 115-116).

Afterward, there is no processing by the facilitator. Clients

who are in an ongoing course of psychotherapy can integrate

these insights with their therapists.

There is a wealth of anecdotal and case study reports that

over time the new image of the family system—with belong-

ing, balance, and order restored—gradually melts the archaic

image that supported the entanglement. For example, Wolynn

(2005) documented cases of client self-abuse (cutting, tricho-

tillomania) where perceiving, acknowledging, and honoring

trans-generational systemic entanglements resulted in a sus-

tained cessation of injurious behaviors. Rigorous research is

needed to objectively test the longitudinal outcomes of clients’

experiences with this method.



The constellation process is both a therapeutic interven-

tion and a means for casting light on Boszormenyi-Nagy’s

(Boszormenyi-Nagy & Spark, 1973) “hidden and unknown

mechanism” or Colaizzi’s (1973) fundamental structures.

Hellinger identified three such principles, which he named

the orders of love (Hellinger et al., 1998). In their simplest

articulation, these are (a) parents give and children receive,

(b) every member of the family system has an equal and

unequivocal right to belong, and (c) each family system has

an unconscious group conscience that regulates guilt and

innocence as a means to protect the survival of the group.

These principles are in harmony with many indigenous

cultures’ attitudes toward bonding, balancing, and order

(Boring, 2004; Lawson, 1985; van Kampenhout, 2003).

Individuals who participate in multiple group sessions and

serve as representatives in the constellations of others can

begin to recognize common themes behind common human

experiences. It is a challenge to articulate these observations

because of the lack of suitable English-language vocabu-

lary. The subtopics below discuss some of these thematic



The term soul used in constellations refers to the source

of drives and impulses that are deeply embedded, their

origins lost to memory and their intentions not accessible to

the conscious mind. This soul is neither the Christian soul

that may achieve salvation, nor the Hindu Atman that carries

karma through multiple reincarnations, nor the scientific

soul-mind that is the accumulation of identity and awareness

content produced by cellular activity in the body.

The main point of departure between the soul that can be

observed influencing the representatives in a constellation

and the vernacular soul turns on whether it is something per-

sonal. The Western concept of the soul emerged from early

Greek philosophy, and although it has become furcated by

Judeo-Christian-Islamic theology and 400 years of scientific

understanding of the physical universe, it has retained its

essential function. The concept of soul exists to mediate the

collision between our irresistible will to live forever and the

immutable inevitability of death (Rank, 1998). The common

mythology, to both the theist who believes the immortal soul

survives the body and the atheist who insists that death is the

extinguishment of all personal identify, is that the human

being exists as an I.

The view of soul in constellations is consistent with certain

non-Western traditions (Boring, 2004; Lawson, 1985; van

Kampenhout, 2003) and is shared in similar form in Taoism

and Buddhism (Walsh, 2005a). Hellinger (2003a) writes,

When we look objectively it becomes clear that it is not we

who possess a soul but rather a soul which possesses us; and

that the soul is not there to serve us but rather that we are in

the service of the soul. (Hellinger, 2003a, p.8)

In this view, individuals are not independent entities but

more like

links in a long chain connecting all those who have lived and

will live, and those living now, as if we were all part of one

life and one soul. Therefore soul reaches beyond us into

another space: into our families, into larger groups and into

the world as a whole. (Hellinger, 2002a, p. 121)


Conscience is another term that changes its nature when

viewed through the lens of a constellation process. In phi-

losophy, conscience is considered an internal regulator of

ethical values and behavior (Langston, 1998). For Christians,

a good conscience encourages righteousness, leading ulti-

mately to the soul’s salvation. Conversely, a bad or guilty

conscience is the product of thoughts and deeds that are

against God’s beneficence. If not atoned for, confessed, or

absolved, the corrosive effects of a bad conscience lead to

eternal damnation.

In scientific psychology, conscience serves to regulate in

favor of ethical behaviors that support mutual survival and

to enforce taboos against behaviors that society and culture

have determined to be destructive or evil. With or without a

soul, conscience is seen as an internal driver that praises the

good and deplores evil.

Seen within the field of constellations, feelings of con-

science tell us nothing about what is good or evil, only what

serves to connect or separate us from a particular person or

group. Conscience tells us what we have to do to belong to

our parents, lovers, religion, nationality, or any group. Its

basic function is to bond us to our family and to the group

that is essential for our survival. Therefore, when we follow

our conscience, it is not a personal conscience; it is the con-

science of our group.

As conscience bonds us with our group, it separates us from

other groups. So the divisions among peoples and families and

bigger groups come from good conscience. The stronger the

adhesion is within the group, the greater the aggression against

outside groups. The more dangerous the threat from outside,

the more persistent the perceived voice of conscience is in

defending the good and attacking the bad.

Belonging, Balance, and Hierarchy

In the initial setup of a Family Constellation, it is common-

place to see the system disordered: Children appear in a

superior position to their parents; a father is at a great dis-

tance from his wife and children; the mother’s back is to her

daughter as she gazes to the horizon. These images reflect

the Hopi term koyaanisqatsi—life out of balance. In seeking

a healing image, the facilitator physically moves the repre-

sentatives guided by a phenomenological orientation toward

belonging, balance, and hierarchy.

Belonging controls membership in the system. Balance

maintains equilibrium between giving and taking in rela-

tionships. Hierarchical order positions the members of a

system in relation to each other. Together, these three regu-

lators influence the tendencies toward centralization that

support survival.

Who belongs to the family system? At a minimum, the

individual and his or her parents, siblings, grandparents, and

biological first aunts and uncles belong. The living and the

dead have equal right to belong. If that right is violated, the

consequence is that a child born into the system may

become a placeholder for the missing or excluded person.

In special circumstances, others become members of the

system. If someone makes room, sacrifices, or is victimized

for the benefit of the family or commits a crime or atrocity

against the family, that person may become part of the system.

For example, Madelung (2001) writes,

It’s been more than 50 years since the Nazi regime ended,

yet the task of coming to terms with those fateful years is far

from over. The after-effects can be observed in systemic

constellation work over and over again, often with dismay-

ing clarity. The fates of those people who experienced the

Nazi regime continue to affect their family systems today.


The victims of Nazi crimes become members of the

perpetrators’ family system, and the perpetrators become

members of the victims’ system.

Balance is the oscillation between entitlement and oblig-

ation that results from giving and taking in relationships.

A primary expression of this dynamic is that parents give and

children receive. The process of accepting what has been

given can be impeded for people who have been physically,

emotionally, or sexually abused by their parents. People who

reject their parents may be fully justified in their assessment

of fault and blame but unaware of the heavy consequences

that often results from this attitude.

Hierarchal order means that each person has a specific

place within the system. For example, parents come before

children and older children come before younger ones. This

may seem like a banal observation until one considers the

consequences of disruptions to this order. The hierarchy

is often violated by young children out of love for their

parents. For example, a mother who received an inadequate

upbringing may seek to receive from her daughter the love

she missed as a child. The young daughter will comply out

of love, but in doing so, she violates that order of hierarchy.

The ill effects from violations and disruptions to belong-

ing, balance, and order contribute to illnesses, accidents,

estrangements and all varieties of dysfunctional and deviant

behavior. Such effects can also be seen in ethnic and reli-

gious conflicts (Cohen, 2005). When excluded members are

acknowledged and restored to their rightful place, giving

and taking are balanced, representatives stand in comfort-

able relation to each other, and the constellation presents the

client with a new image of the family system.


Existence is the animating force that energizes a living

being from conception until death. It comes to each of us

from our parents, who received it from their own. Existence

passes through countless generations who were born, lived

for some time, passed life on, and then died. The will of

existence acts as an expansive force that counters the con-

servatism of the family system.

In Family Constellations, existence and the system are often

observed to collide with severe consequences for individ-

uals. Existence cares nothing for the system; it only wants to

extend itself. The system cares nothing for existence; it only

wants to sustain order. Unwanted pregnancies, forbidden

romances, abandoned loves are frequent outcomes from the

struggle of existence, in the guise of love, to rise above the


Children and adults can get whatever they need to survive

from multiple sources; they can only receive existence from

their mother and father. This basic biological fact is a corner-

stone of Constellation work. Hellinger (2002b) said,

All therapy, as I understand it, has to go to the source. For

each one of us, the source is, first of all, our parents. If we

are connected to our parents, we are connected to our source.

A person who is separated from his or her parents is sepa-

rated from his or her source. Whoever the parents are, how-

ever they behaved, they are the source of life for us. So the

main thing is that we connect to them in such a way that

what comes from them can flow freely to us and through us

to those who follow. (p. 14)


The Family Constellation process can serve as an adjunct

to a conventional course of psychotherapy. The insights

that come to light through the process can inform and illu-

minate the background and be integrated with conventional


Although the efficacy of the process has not been prop-

erly researched, family therapists can test the suitability of

the method against their own understanding and experience.

Within the European family therapy community, constella-

tions have been widely accepted and integrated, though not

without controversy regarding methods, applicability, and

qualifications of facilitators (Ulsamer, 2005, pp. 224-243).

Family therapists who share an affinity with the early

pioneers of family systems theory may be interested to see

how the legacies of Moreno, Satir, and Boszormenyi-Nagy

evolved in European circles in recent years.


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Dan Booth Cohen is a Family Constellations facilitator in private

practice in Boston. He trained at the Hellinger Institute, USA,

under the direction of Bert Hellinger