Introduction to Systems Theory Underpinning Constellations
It helps to understand this work, if we think of our family is an organic unit, much like a plant or an animal. Just as there are certain basic requirements for a tree to be healthy there are also basic requirements for a family to be healthy. A tree needs to send its roots down into nourishing soil and its trunk needs to be strong enough to support its branches. Similarly, in a family the parents need to be able to be strong enough to support their children and the children need to be able to receive their parents’ love.
When the natural order of the family is not followed, for example when the children behave like parents and the parents behave like children, then love does not flow effectively in that family. So ignoring these orders of love can lead to consequences for family members that may last for many generations, blighting peoples’ lives and limiting their potential in the world.
So human families operate within an innate structure through which the love naturally flows. The core system is that of a husband and a wife where each respects the other as man and as woman. They need to honour previous influences, such as each other’s families of origin or any previous marriage in the life of the partner. When they do this their mutual regard is free from distortion. Second relationships cannot replicate the first; they have their own characteristics, which need acknowledgement.
The next most fundamental thing is that parents are parents and children are children. When the children behave like parents and the parents behave like children, then love does not flow effectively in that family. Family therapists call this parentification of the children. It often happens when parents suffer from chronic illnesses or when they die too young.
Sometimes these orders are even less obvious. For example someone can be forgotten for various reasons such as dying young. This upsets the family system, which tries to restore order by having someone else in the system represent the forgotten one. If for example a brother represents an uncle who died while still a child, then he has two irreconcilable roles; the role of the uncle and the role of the brother. While everyone in the family is largely unconscious of this, it causes confusion and difficulties within the family system. This is called a systemic entanglement.
The image is of a river of love flowing through the family members down through the generations the course of which has commonly become distorted in various ways and with varying degrees of severity.
Families can only function harmoniously when each family member has an equally valued place and is respected. So when a family member is forgotten or cut off this usually has negative consequences for everyone in that family. Real harmony is then possible as each family member can know, honour and appreciate the fact that they are part of a bigger unit and when each family member is acknowledged and given their appropriate place.
When individuals try to make things better without regard for the whole family system, it is usually doomed to fail. A great effort may cause things to improve for a little while. e.g. Better communication with a sibling. However when the systemic entanglements are not dealt with they continue to make things difficult. So the communication problems may return with the brother, or the improved communication there may cause difficulties between other members of the family. Constellations offer us the hope that a solution that benefits everyone in the family is possible.
A constellation allows participants to see the underlying dynamics of problems and to start exploring them creatively. Thus people’s perceptions change. They develop a new understanding of where their problems come from, and of what will help to resolve them.