History And Methods Of Family Constellation Therapy

By Julia Thomas

Updated January 02, 2019

Reviewer Aaron Horn

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Sometimes, difficult psychological problems can be resolved rather easily through common therapeutic methods. Even if the work takes time, it can often be resolved with the first method your therapist tries. Sometimes, method after method fails, and you are left wondering if your mental health issues will ever be resolved. Family constellation therapy offers a different approach that often helps when no other methods do. The family constellation method of psychotherapy has an interesting history, and its methods are fascinating as well.

What Is A Family Constellation?

Family constellation is a type of therapy that's based on the idea that problems sift down through generations to cause stress in the here and now. Even if you don't know the traumas of your parents and earlier ancestors, you can learn them through the morphogenic field of energy that surrounds your family. By examining our feelings and perceptions in this 'field of knowing,' we can break out of familial patterns that cause us to suffer. We come to a resolution of these background issues through the family constellation, and our current problem can be easily solved.

Concepts In Family Constellations Therapy

Several concepts can add to your understanding of family constellation therapy.

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Multigenerational Impact Of Trauma

Family constellations assume that anything that happened in your family line can affect the way you think, feel, and behave now. One person's grief, fear, or anger influences the entire family. Because family members are connected in the morphogenic field, they all feel effects of what has happened to each of the family members before them.

Morphogenic Field

The morphogenic field is an energy field that contains the memories and specific energies of a group. That group can be a family, a community, a country, or even the entire population of the world. Because this energy field contains all the knowledge from the group, experiencing its influence can help us understand the sources of our issues, even if no one has told us the facts.

Orders Of Love

Bert Hellinger, the founder of family constellation therapy, identified several 'orders of love' from which love follows. The two most important and basic orders of love are that (1) everyone in the group has the same right to belong and always does belong, and (2) everyone who belongs must be given their specific rightful place.

Excluded Family Members

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You might think, our family would never exclude one of our family members! It happens all the time. In family constellations, excluded family members are thought to affect the entire family, even after the family no longer has any contact with them. Some examples of excluded family members are:

  • babies who were miscarried or aborted.
  • Babies or children who were given away for adoption.
  • Family members who died, especially if they died young.
  • Ex-spouses and partners from prior relationships.

These excluded family members continue to affect the whole family. Also, another family member may take their place, taking on their emotional struggles, addictions, or even their physical illnesses.

Drive To Belong

Family constellation therapy identifies the drive to belong as the greatest influencer in the family. If someone feels they don't belong, they'll do anything to get that feeling of belonging.

Hidden Loyalties

Within the family, we have loyalties. Sometimes, according to family constellations theory, we have loyalties to family members who died before us or who we never knew. These hidden loyalties can lead us to follow patterns, develop habits, and make unhealthy choices we can't understand with the factual information we have. Family constellation therapy can help us understand these sources so that we can make different decisions.

Uses For Family Constellations Therapy

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Family constellation therapy can be used for a wide variety of problems, whether they're physical, mental, social, or spiritual issues. This therapy can help us overcome problems like:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Addictions
  • Bad habits
  • Failure at work
  • Negative relationship patterns
  • Family dysfunction
  • Trauma
  • Grief
  • Obsessive thoughts
  • Physical illnesses
  • Financial problems
  • Phobias
  • Excessive guilt

History Of Family Constellation Therapy

So, where did this idea of family constellations come from? Bert Hellinger developed this form of therapy based on earlier work in related therapies as well as from his own life experiences. Alfred Adler was the first to use the term 'family constellation,' to refer to the bonds and sense of belonging of people within a family. Now, many other therapists use family constellation, either as their sole practice or as an alternative therapy, to deal with not only family problems but individual ones as well.

Major Influences

While Bert Hellinger doesn't claim to have created family constellations, his work is the cornerstone of family constellation therapy as it is known today. Hellinger came from a German family that lived through World War II without sacrificing their moral values. Hellinger himself was supposed to go to Hitler Youth meetings, but instead, he often spent time with a Catholic organization that the Nazis considered disloyal to their cause. The Gestapo listed him as an enemy of the people, and he only escaped their harassment when he was drafted.

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Soon after, he became a Catholic priest. Working as a missionary with the Zulu people of South Africa, Hellinger observed how this different culture resolved problems originating with the family. He also noticed that the Zulu spiritual ceremonies were very similar to the rituals of the Catholic Mass. These influences figured into his later development of family constellation.

After returning to Europe from South Africa, Hellinger left the priesthood to become a psychotherapist. He studied with notable psychotherapists from several different schools of therapy. During this time, his influences included various family systems thought leaders in specific therapies such as:

  • Psychoanalytic methods
  • Transactional analysis
  • Primal therapy
  • Psychodrama
  • Family sculpting
  • Transgenerational psychology
  • Neurolinguistics programming
  • Provocative therapy
  • Holding therapy
  • Life scripts
  • Brief therapy

Bert Hellinger's Development Of Family Constellation Therapy

In the 1990s, after 50 years of working with families around the world, Bert Hellinger put all these diverse ideas together in this new type of therapy and healing. Since then, Hellinger has produced an impressive body of work. With 83 books to his credit and after conducting many family constellation seminars, Hellinger has melded these many different influences to come up with a new mix of ideas and a new therapy style called family constellation therapy.

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Family Constellation Therapy In Non-German-Speaking Countries

The information - books and videos mostly - that came directly from Hellinger was produced in his native German language. What may not be obvious to people who don't speak German is that Hellinger had many controversial views. He tends to take a very patriarchal view. He seems to consider homosexuality a disease to be cured. He also directs people in his sessions to go through a ritual of thanking a person who harmed them for the experience. His views are typically anti-Semitic as well.

However, as it is practiced by most therapists, family constellation therapy doesn't need to contain any of these harmful elements. The core truths of family constellations are considered valid by many therapists who think in more modern, inclusive ways.

Family Constellation Therapy Methods

In a typical family constellation therapy session, there is a seeker, a facilitator, and possibly other participants. The seeker is the person who comes to resolve an issue. The facilitator is the therapist, who directs the constellation. The other participants are non related people who might also be seekers in their sessions.

The Seeker's Issue

The seeker has an issue they need to resolve or overcome. The issue can be anything from nail-biting or smoking to relationship issues or depression. They very briefly tell the facilitator what their issue is. They don't explain it in detail or suggests any reasons for why the issue exists and is troubling for them. Then, they sit down and observe.

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Embodying The Family Constellation In A Group

If other people are involved in the session, the facilitator chooses different people to represent specific family members. The facilitator may also choose people to represent a group the seeker belongs to or an ideal they follow.

The facilitator then arranges the participants in a way that might be meaningful for the seeker. Everyone stays still for a time, giving the seeker time to connect with the morphogenic field and determine if the arrangement rings true for them.

Making Adjustments

The facilitator adjusts the arrangement until the seeker feels that it's 'right.' It takes some time to feel the truth or untruth of the arrangement each time. When the seeker accepts the arrangement, he or she will connect with it on the level of feelings and then, think.

At that point, the facilitator suggests a sentence for each of the participants to say. The seeker takes their place in the family constellation, and each person says their sentence. Again, if the suggestion doesn't ring true for them, the facilitator can try again.

Resolving Emotional Distresses

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After the family constellation exercise is over, the seeker, having learned the source of their current issue, goes back to their life to learn more about that person or part of their past. If that person is still alive, the can connect with them directly on an emotional level to bring healing to the relationship. If the person is deceased or otherwise unavailable, the seeker looks for other ways to learn about what happened in the past so that they can find their resolutions to those lingering ancestral issues.

Family Constellation Therapy Settings

Family constellation therapy typically takes place either in a workshop or individual counseling sessions. Both ways have proven effective, although different methods are needed for each.


In family constellation workshops, people take turns being the seeker and the participants. The procedure is much like the one explained above.

Individual Counseling

In individual counseling, family constellation therapy often takes the form of imaginative solo exercises. The therapist may suggest you imagine a situation in which you connect with an excluded family member or you, if you're the excluded family member, connect with a member of members of the family. In this way, you resolve the source of your problem. The idea is that once this source is healed, your current problem will disappear.

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Whether you're interested in trying individual family constellation therapy or want to handle your issues in another way, you can contact a therapist at BetterHelp.com for online therapy. You don't have to live with dysfunction, distress or distortions. A huge variety of therapies are available, and hundreds of therapists are available to help you where you are when you like. You can put difficult issues behind you and live the life that makes you happy and fulfilled!

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