Family Constellations, Phenomenology and Therapeutic Streams

Image of ancient tree in Bernried Forest, Germany
Bernried Forest, home of ISCA International Intensive Workshop on Systemic Resolutions

A central core of the Family Constellations modality developed by Bert Hellinger, is the use of a particular way of working with a client and their issue, a particular way of experiencing the world. It is a way of moment to present moment perception, allowing space for and accepting whatever emerges from the engagement process, without judgement or assumption.

This is the phenomenological method of perception, the history of which is  detailed a little more below. So too, will be the history of some of the therapeutic streams of practice and thought which have flowed into Family Constellations, over the years that Hellinger was developing the work into a separate modality.


Phenomenology is simply a method of deep, clear and present perception. Working phenomenologically means consciously allowing the self a direct sensory experience of the world. It is called by constellation practitioners working with ‘what is’, with what comes up directly in one’s consciousness.

This way of working allows the consciousness to be without the limits that judgements or preconceptions will put in the way of direct perception. Often a deeper reality remains hidden under layers of assumption, story and judgement – what truly is, is unable to reveal itself.

Husserl and Heidegger

This method was first developed by Edmund Husserl and later by Heidegger, who is Bert Hellinger’s favoured philosopher. In the 1930s phenomenology travelled to France and intertwined with the existentialism of Sartre, Merleau-Ponty and others.

In the act of perceiving phenomenologically, assumptions and previous experience are ‘bracketed’ therefore expectations of a desired outcome are also suspended. So the perception is conscious and direct, and about the actual experience, unburdened by judgements and previous assumptions.

Real meaning for the phenomenologist is to be derived by examining the individual’s relationship with and reactions to these real-world events. The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology (1985)

Maurice Merleau-Ponty

Merleau-Ponty took the phenomenological stance further. In ‘Phenomenology of Perception’ (2005) he focuses on the body and perception, of how we experience ourselves embodied in the world.

I have the world as an incomplete individual, through the agency of my body as the potentiality of this world, …. because my body is a movement towards the world, and the world my body’s point of support. Merleau-Ponty (2005 p. 408)

He talks of the functional relationships of physics, which he feels does not adequately describe the way we experience the world, which is through the body together with the other traditional senses. He talks rather of a consciousness as being a perceptual consciousness, as that of existing in the world, through actual patterns of action and experience.

 From Individual to Group

 Jacob Moreno and psychodrama

Moreno was born in Romania in 1890 (there is some disagreement as to the exact date). He is credited with laying the foundation for the first theories of group processes. His areas of practice and research were sociodrama, sociometry and psychodrama.

At a time when Freud’s psychoanalysis was at its height in Vienna, Moreno felt that there was another way to work with people; instead of problems he saw the possibility of people being creatively cathartic through using drama. While still living in Vienna Moreno opened a theatre where actors and audiences together acted out stories. Moreno felt that psychodrama with its cathartic quality was an alternative to passive talking therapy. Sociodrama was born.

Moreno had deepened his inquiry into the functioning of groups and of how members of social groups interact and interconnect. He developed a social measurement of these relationships and published a book in 1934, Who Shall Survive, that lays out a model for this social measurement.

…that can reveal the structure and quality of relationships between the individual persons and the group, such as sympathies, antipathies, or indifference (Franke, 2003 p. 50).

He felt that through the measurement of these relationships the needs of the group and each individual member of the group could be met in the best way possible.

According to Franke (2003), Moreno felt that looking at the individual and attempting to find an underlying cause of their problem is not enough; the client needs to be seen in their own life context. This sounds very like a systemic approach that is now used in some current therapy models.

Fritz Perls and gestalt

The founders of Gestalt were Wertheimer, Kohler and Koffka. In large part this movement was a resistance to the then current psychology that broke down elements for study and research into ever smaller parts.

The Gestaltists felt that much of the work of the time was sterile; that it did not enrich the field of psychology. They felt that a phenomenological approach was more useful; that being aware of the ‘whole’ first, before breaking it into discrete parts, actually allows the ‘seeing’ of how the parts fit in and connect.

Fritz Perls (born 1893) was the founder of Gestalt therapy, which is not the same as gestalt psychology, although it is based on, and takes much from it. Perls was influenced by diverse disciplines; from phenomenology and existentialism; Eastern philosophies to biological field theory.

Gestalt therapy was another shift from the Freudian unconscious to a conscious awareness; to feeling, sensing and attending. The meaning of what is perceived comes from the context (ground) and from within which the element (figure) is found. There is an emphasis on the interaction between the individual and the environment.

Intentional awareness is at the centre of this therapy; the way an individual makes contact with the surrounding environment using all senses. This happens through sensing and excitement, the latter defined as physiological excitation and undifferentiated emotions. (Perls, Hefferline & Goodman, 1977).

 The Therapeutic Systemic Perspective

Systems theory became a framework that sociologists began using in the 1950’s and 1960’s in an attempt to gain a deeper understanding of societies, complex human organisations and families. Cybernetics and communication theories fed into the theory’s development, with an emphasis on interaction with the environment, homeostasis, goal orientation and feedback.

Family systems theory

A new way of understanding an individual, their problems and their behaviours was expanded by seeing this individual as part of a system. As a member of a group of people who interacted together, who acted and reacted upon each other. The first group that an individual usually experiences is the family.

Family Systems Theory is yet another important underlying, foundational theory that fed into the development of family constellations. The people below were pioneers themselves of what eventually evolved into family systems therapy.

Gregory Bateson and communication

Bateson was trained as an anthropologist, but had an extraordinarily wide- ranging mind. His interests covered cybernetics (self regulating systems), communication and the wider social sciences. In the late 1940s he worked for two years at the University of California medical School. Here he became interested in psychiatry with his focus of interest on communication.

His interest in systems theory and in communication led him later, 1952 at Stanford University, to the work that he entered into with colleagues, Jay Haley, Don Jackson, John Weakland and others, eventually exploring the psychotic condition of schizophrenia.

They looked at how disturbed communication in families resulted in enormous pressure being felt by one or more members of that family system. The contradictory messages result in the ‘victim’ feeling powerless and trapped in a ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t’ double bind. In 1956, Bateson, Jackson, Haley & Weakland published a paper, Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia, in Behavioral Science, vol.1.

The theory generated much debate, and allowed other ways of seeing and understanding a patient and their problem. The usefulness of becoming aware of the reciprocal interactions between family members, planted the seeds for the formation of family therapy.

RD Laing and family context

The work that Laing did in the 50s particularly with schizophrenic patients led him to look more closely at their life context, the families that they came from. He made use of Bateson’s double bind theory in exploring the interactions of members of a family, and how these interactions affected the ‘sanity’ of the one or other members.

Both Laing and Bateson saw the individual and their symptom in the wider context of the family; they looked at the manifesting symptom as a possible indicator of dysfunction with the family. (Sanity, Madness and the Family – to read)

Milton Erickson and hypnotherapy

Erickson’s contribution to the field of psychology has been huge. His way of working and the insights and techniques that he developed over his years of practice, continue to inform current therapeutic models.

His own general therapeutic approach developed out of his personal style of hypnosis. It was an integral part of all the many different therapeutic approaches that he did use among which were: brief therapy, strategic family therapy, system-oriented therapy, solution-focused therapy. He had a truly eclectic approach to therapies and used whatever he thought was needed by his patient.

Haley (1993) writes that he was most effective when not using formal or directive hypnosis; instead using his own non-directive style of hypnosis. Erickson added a richness to the method by developing many hypnotic techniques. His later therapy was infused by these techniques and the hypnosis became more like a style of communication; an exchange between two people. This exchange could bring in new images, new ways of feeling and experiencing.

Erickson’s use of space and time will be familiar to those of you who have already experienced constellation work (Hellinger did training himself in Ericksonian hypnotherapy).

Here is a link to a fascinating interview with Dr Stephen Gilligan where he talks about Milton Erickson, Hypnosis, Deep Trance Identification and the development of Ericksonian approaches. Dr. Gilligan is interviewed by Chris & Jules Collingwood.

The interview captures the excitement of a society and psychology as a discipline, on the edge of change in so many ways; the readiness to embrace new ways of living in the world, new ways of becoming more conscious of self and how we act.

Virginia Satir and family therapy

Virginia Satir (1916 – 1988), was a founder of family therapy. Already in 1942 Satir began working with the client and actual family members. She explored emotions, moods, the patterns of functioning and the ways families have of communicating and interacting with each other. She felt that each individual piece of behaviour made sense if seen within the reality of the family context. Satir said,

Then I’ve got a system interpretation rather than only an individual one. (Haley & Hoffman 1967 p 124).

In the 1960s she began working with clients and their families together in workshops that ran over several days. This way of working Satir called Family Reconstruction. The participants were asked to find out as much as they could about the preceding generations in their family. At the workshop she would draw up a family tree (much like a genogram), going back three generations. Exploring the roots of family like this facilitated a process of being able to see the family history and stories with new eyes.

Family sculpting

In 1962 a new form of working emerged with her clients, that of family sculpting, also in a workshop setting. And instead of the actual family members, participants from the workshop would represent them, forming literally a human sculpture of the family. By doing this she was able to reveal the communication patterns within the family. They would then work out more useful ways of interacting. She was a humanist and looked at the individual in terms of their potential to develop, grow and change.

She worked and researched in Palo Alto for some years, with Gregory Bateson and Don Jackson, and when the Esalen Institute opened she became its first director.

Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy & family contextual therapy

Hungarian born Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy (1920 – 2007), immigrated to the United States in 1950. He was a trained psychoanalyst and was at one time a student of Virginia Satir. He also emphasised looking at the client within their life context, and looking for destructive patterns in a family that repeated across generations.

Boszormenyi-Nagy began developing this contextual approach many years ago; he felt that the existing theories did not explain enough about the family dynamic. He emphasised the hidden loyalties of the system, and the balance through giving and taking and the justice that a system will search for. This justice that the system demands can stretch across generations. In 1973 he wrote a book with Geraldine M. Spark called Invisible Loyalties, exploring these dynamics. Ursula Franke (2003), talks of the importance of Boszormenyi-Nagy’s theoretical model of systemic entanglements; that it can be used as an explanatory model for understanding constellation work.