History And Methods Of Family Constellation Therapy

Updated January 25, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Content Warning: Please be advised that the following article contains mentions of trauma, family dynamics, and other potentially triggering topics. Read with discretion. 

At times, complex psychological problems may be resolved with standard therapeutic methods. Even if it takes time to find a method that works, counseling can be a process, and learning what works for you may be beneficial. Family constellation therapy offers a different approach to dynamic family therapy for families and individuals struggling with family traumas or concerns. 

Family problems can be hard to resolve.

What Is Family Constellation Therapy? 

Family constellation therapy is a type of counseling based on the idea that problems may sift down through generations to cause stress in the present moment. It posits that when we examine our feelings and perceptions in a "field of knowing," we can break out of familial patterns that cause suffering. Working through your family constellation with family constellation exercises may help you find the cause of long-term conflicts within yourself and your family.  

It can be normal to feel stress in a family dynamic. Feeling stress may not always signify a conflict or traumatic family bond. Loving your family or feeling that they are important to you may cause stress when conflict arises. It is sometimes a form of positive stress caused by specific positive dynamics that may be pressuring, intense, or challenging to understand. 

Family constellation therapy targets these stressors, generational family ideals, and how your family might impact your personality, goals, and thoughts. It might sometimes be mixed with cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). 

The History Of Family Constellation Therapy

Alfred Adler was the first to use the term "family constellation" to refer to the bonds and sense of belonging that may exist within a family tree. However, family constellation theory was developed by a German therapist named Bert Hellinger. He developed the family constellations form of therapy by combining his earlier work in related therapies with his own life experiences and feelings.

Today, many other therapists use the family constellation method as their sole practice or alternative therapy to treat family and individual problems. Bert's work is often known as the cornerstone of family constellation therapy as it is known today. 

Family Constellations And Patriarchal Views

The family constellations books and videos produced by Hellinger were written in his native German language. Hellinger had controversial views, and those who have read the work may feel that his views were patriarchal, valuing antiquated gender roles and stereotypes. Additionally, the original workbooks considered homosexuality a disease and may have contained antisemitic texts. 

Although the origins of this therapy method include outdated and harmful material, modern forms of family constellations therapy do not necessarily include these views. Talk to your therapist about your concerns before starting a therapy you're unsure about.  

Concepts In Family Constellations Therapy

The following concepts may help you understand this approach to therapy.

Multigenerational Impact Of Trauma: The Long-Term Impact

Family constellation therapy may assume that events in your family line or throughout your family history impact how you think, feel, and behave in the present moment. One individual's grief, fear, or anger might influence the entire family because the family system is considered connected in the morphogenic field. 

Morphogenic Field

The morphogenic field, which constellation work relies on, is a conceptual and symbolic energy field that contains a group's memories and specific energies. That group can be a family, a community, a country, or the entire world population. Because this energy field contains all the knowledge from the group, it may help us understand the sources of our issues, even if no one has told us the facts. 

Orders Of Love

Hellinger identified several orders of love from which love follows. The two fundamental orders of love were:

  • Everyone in the group has the same right to belong and always belongs

  • Everyone who belongs must be given their specific rightful place

Excluded Family

At times, families may exclude certain ones by choice or through circumstance. In family constellations, those excluded are thought to affect the entire family, even after the family no longer has contact with them. Some examples of excluded families discussed in the constellation process are:

  • Babies who were lost 

  • Babies or children who were adopted

  • Death in the family

  • Ex-spouses and past partners from prior relationships

  • Family who no longer have contact with the rest of the family for various reasons, including trauma

According to family constellation theory, these exclusions may cause conflicts. If another individual in the household takes their place, Hellinger believed this new individual would take on the other person's emotional struggles, addictions, or even physical illnesses.

Drive To Belong

The family constellation method identifies the drive to belong as one of the most significant influencers in family relationships. If someone feels they don't belong, they may act out, start conflict, or cause dysfunction to gain belonging. 

Hidden Loyalties

Within the family, people may experience hidden loyalties, according to the family constellations theory. The theory states that all individuals have loyalties to family ancestors who died before or family we've never met from previous generations. These hidden loyalties and relationships may lead us to follow patterns, develop habits, and make unhealthy choices we can't understand based on our limited information. Constellation-focused family therapy may help some individuals understand how these loyalties drive them to make better decisions and avoid harmful experiences. 

Uses For Family Constellation Therapy

Family constellation therapy can address various physical, mental, social, and spiritual concerns. This therapeutic method may help people overcome the following concerns: 

  • Depression

  • Anxiety

  • Substance use disorder 

  • Unhealthy habits 

  • Failures at work

  • Negative relationship patterns

  • Household dysfunction, including between a parent and child

  • Past trauma

  • Grief

  • Obsessive thoughts

  • Physical illnesses

  • Financial problems

  • Phobias

  • Excessive guilt

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources.

Family Constellation Therapy Methods

In a typical family constellation session, the therapist may help a client identify a seeker, a facilitator, and possibly other participants in a family. The seeker is known as the individual who comes to resolve an issue. The facilitator is the therapist, who directs the constellation. The other participants may be actual family, other metaphorical people, or another role. 

The Seeker's Issue

The seeker is a therapy client that comes to a therapist with an issue they want to resolve or overcome. The issue can be anything from nail-biting or smoking to relationship issues or depression. They briefly tell the facilitator what their issue is, but they don't explain it in detail or suggest any causes for the issue. Then, they observe. 

Embodying The Family Constellation In A Group

If other people are involved in the session, the facilitator may choose different people to represent specific family, possibly from multiple generations, in a roleplay. 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 as part of their family constellations approach. Everyone may stay still during the role play, giving the seeker time to connect with the morphogenic field and determine if the arrangement feels true for them.

Making Adjustments

The facilitator may adjust the arrangement until the seeker feels it's "right." It may take some time to feel the truth or untruth of each arrangement. When the seeker accepts an arrangement, they might connect with it by feeling and thinking about the causes of their emotions to identify the source of their concerns. 

The facilitator may then suggest a sentence for each of the participants in the group to say. The seeker takes their place in the family constellation, and each person says their sentence. If the suggestion doesn't ring true for them, the facilitator can try again.

Resolving Emotional Distresses

After the family constellation exercise, the seeker, having learned the potential source of their issue, may be prompted by their counselor to learn more about the person (or part of their past) related to the issue in question. If an individual is still alive, they might choose to connect with that person directly on an emotional level to bring healing to the relationship. 

Suppose the individual is deceased or otherwise unavailable. In that case, the seeker may find other methods to learn about what occurred in the past or what that person may represent to resolve those lingering concerns. 

Family Constellation Therapy Settings

Family constellation therapy may occur in a group workshop or individual counseling session. Both have been proven effective, although each may require different methods. 

Workshops

In family constellation workshops, group take turns being the seeker and the participants. The procedure involves roleplay, giving each person a turn to discuss their issues and have them played out in front of them. 

Family problems can be hard to resolve.

Individual Counseling

In individual counseling, family constellation sessions often require imagination because there are no other participants to play the roles of various groups. The therapist might take on the role of one family.

Counseling Options 

There are many counseling options for dealing with past traumas, family dynamics, and other stressors. If you don't feel that family constellations would work best for you, you might benefit from CBT, dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), exposure therapy, or another method altogether. 

Additionally, online therapy has become a popular method for those who face barriers to in-person treatment.  Research shows that internet-based therapy platforms have been successful in helping people manage an array of symptoms related to problems with family. In a study on the efficacy of internet-delivered cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) on childhood anxiety, researchers found that symptoms were significantly decreased or eliminated in 75% of participants. Internet-based CBT may help people reframe unhelpful thoughts or beliefs so that they are better able to understand and shift their behavior.

Through a platform like BetterHelp, you can message your counselor outside of sessions, any time of day, and they may get back to you as soon as possible. You can also choose between phone, video, and live chat sessions with your licensed therapist. 

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Takeaway

If you've struggled to find the root of a persistent mental health issue, family constellation therapy may be beneficial. You might identify the source of your problems and work through them with someone who leads the discussion. If you're interested in discussing this form of therapy, consider reaching out to a counselor for further insight.

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