You are on page 1of 345

C o p y r i g h t © 1 9 9 8 by

Bert Hellinger, Gunthard Weber, and Hunter Beaumont.

All r i g h t s r e s e r v e d . N o p a r t o f t h i s b o o k
may be reproduced whatsoever without the written
permission of the copyright owner.

Published by
ZEIG, TUCKER & Co., INC.
3614 North 24th Street
Phoenix, Arizona 85016

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Hellinger, Bert
L o v e ' s h i d d e n s y m m e t r y : w h a t m a k e s love work in relationships
/ by H e r t Hellinger with G u n t h a r d Weber and H u n t e r B e a u m o n t ,
p. cm.
T r a n s l a t i o n a n d r e w o r k i n g of: Z w e i e r l e i G l u c k .
ISBN 1-891944-00-2
1. Family psychotherapy. I. Weber, G u n t h a r d . II. B e a u m o n t ,
H u n t e r . III. Zweierlei Gluck. IV. Title.
616.89 156—dc21 98-13152 CIP

Manufactured in the United States of America

10 9 8 7 6
CONTENTS

Acknowledgments iv
Foreword by Gunthard Weber v
Introduction by Hunter Beaumont ix

PART O N E T h e P h e n o m e n o l o g y o f

Intimate Relationship Systems 1

C h a p t e r O n e Guilt, I n n o c e n c e , and the Limits of C o n s c i e n c e 3

C h a p t e r Two M a n a n d W o m a n : T h e F o u n d a t i o n o f Family 31

C h a p t e r T h r e e Parents and C h i l d r e n 92

C h a p t e r F o u r T h e C o n s c i e n c e o f the Family G r o u p 150

C h a p t e r F i v e Love and the G r e a t e r Soul 190

PART T W O Psychotherapeutic Considerations 203

C h a p t e r S i x T h e T h e r a p e u t i c Posture 205

C h a p t e r S e v e n S o m e Helpful Interventions 251

C h a p t e r E i g h t Specific T h e m e s in Systemic Psychotherapy 302

Appendix Influences on t h e D e v e l o p m e n t of
Hellinger's Work 327

iii
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

M a n y people have c o n t r i b u t e d generously to this effort.

To J o h n B. C o b b for teaching me to think a b o u t process—holisti-


cally and systemically.
To K. E. a n d H. A. for p r e p a r i n g the g r o u n d .
To J o h n H o b b s for his generous gift of time a n d skill in correcting
my g r a m m a r a n d style and for s u p p o r t i n g my t e n u o u s relation-
ship t o the c o m m o n c o m m a .
To D e b B u s m a n for courageous a n d caring criticism that helped.
To Colleen, my wife, with w h o m I have learned m o s t of w h a t I
k n o w a b o u t relationships, a n d for the space, confrontation, love,
a n d criticism.
To Erik a n d Jesse, my children, for m a k i n g my life very worthwhile.
To my p a r e n t s for m a k i n g everything possible.
To m a n y u n n a m e d others—friends, relatives, s t u d e n t s , colleagues,
critics—who have c o n t r i b u t e d directly and indirectly.
To Bert Hellinger for the work, and for the a b u n d a n c e of s u p p o r t
a n d care.
M y heartfelt gratitude,
Hunter Beaumont

iv
FOREWORD
by
GUNTHARD WEBER

I n his p o e m , " L e g e n d s o f t h e O r i g i n s o f t h e B o o k T a o t e C h i n g d u r -
ing L a o - t z u ' s E m i g r a t i o n , " Bertolt B r e c h t d e s c r i b e s h o w a c u s t o m s
official got L a o - t z u to declare his k n o w l e d g e before he w i t h d r e w to
the m o u n t a i n s :

On their fourth day among the boulders


A customs man blocked their way:
"Valuables to declare?"—"None."
And the boy who led the oxen, spoke:
"He has been teaching."
And so his knowledge was declared.

The man, in his excitement


Asked: "What! Did he make a profit from it?"
Said the boy: "He gained knowledge that soft water,
Moving over time, defeats the mighty stone.
You understand, that the hard is weak."

I later l e a r n e d t h a t L a o - t z u ' s b o o k is also i m p o r t a n t to B e r t H e l l -


inger.
F o r m a n y years, I have r e g r e t t e d t h a t a l m o s t n o t h i n g h a s b e e n
written a b o u t B e r t Hellinger's work, a n d m a n y o t h e r s have told m e
that they feel t h e s a m e way. Still, I c a n well u n d e r s t a n d his c a u t i o n
i n c o m m i t t i n g t o writing s o m e t h i n g that o t h e r s m i g h t treat either a s
a revelation of t r u t h or as c o n f i r m a t i o n of their p r e j u d i c e s . " T h e
spirit m o v e s like w i n d , " he h a s said. W h a t is w r i t t e n loses its c o n -
nection to real life so easily, loses its vitality, a n d b e c o m e s o v e r s i m -

v
vi Love's Hidden Symmetry

plified, uncritically generalized, a n d r e n d e r e d i n t o f i x e d p a t t e r n s


and empty sentences.
B e r t Hellinger: " T h e best c a n ' t b e said. T h e n e x t b e s t will b e m i s -
u n d e r s t o o d . " M y d o u b t s t h a t writing i s a suitable m e d i u m t o c o m -
m u n i c a t e w h a t B e r t Hellinger h a s d e v e l o p e d w e r e gradually
a s s u a g e d by my r e p e a t e d e x p e r i e n c e of t h e value of his ideas—for
m e personally, a n d also for m y clients i n m y p s y c h o t h e r a p e u t i c
work. H i s i n t e n t i o n t o r e t i r e — h e b e c a m e 7 2 i n 1 9 9 7 — s t r e n g t h e n e d
b o t h m y interest i n w a t c h i n g h i m a t w o r k o n c e m o r e a n d m y resolve
to m a k e his t e a c h i n g s available to o t h e r s . I asked h i m in 1990 if he
w o u l d p e r m i t m e t o b e a " c u s t o m s official," a n d h e agreed.
M y f i r s t p l a n was t o v i d e o t a p e o n e o f his s e m i n a r s , a n d t h e n t o
p u b l i s h t h e t r a n s c r i p t s . After I h a d t a p e d t h e s e c o n d s e m i n a r a n d h e
h a d given m e copies o f his lectures " T h e O r d e r s o f L o v e " a n d " T h e
L i m i t s of C o n s c i e n c e , " as well as o t h e r m a t e r i a l , it b e c a m e clear
t h a t this p l a n was n o t a d e q u a t e . T h e p r e s e n t v o l u m e i s t h e result o f
an a t t e m p t to i n t e g r a t e his ideas a b o u t family relationships a n d sys-
t e m i c p s y c h o t h e r a p y a n d to give an overall i m p r e s s i o n of his work.
In this I have a t t e m p t e d to allow B e r t H e l l i n g e r to speak his o w n
w o r d s , a n d w h e r e v e r possible, I have i n c l u d e d t r a n s c r i p t s of his
s e m i n a r s . I have w i t h h e l d critical c o m m e n t a r y w h e r e my views dif-
fer from his, h o p i n g t h a t e a c h r e a d e r will c o m e to grips with t h e text
in his o r h e r o w n way.
W h y did I c h o o s e to d e s c r i b e t h e systemic p s y c h o t h e r a p y of B e r t
Hellinger? In my career, I have p a r t i c i p a t e d in m a n y different w o r k -
s h o p s a n d t r a i n i n g s e m i n a r s from a great variety of p s y c h o t h e r a p e u -
tic schools a n d o r i e n t a t i o n s a n d with a variety of t e a c h e r s . T h e t h r e e
s e m i n a r s I d i d w i t h B e r t H e l l i n g e r in t h e 1970s r e m a i n indelible in
my m e m o r y . In every s e m i n a r , I e x p e r i e n c e d s o m e t h i n g that c o n t i n -
u e d t o m o v e m e years later, t o w o r k i n m e , b r i n g i n g m e b a c k i n t o
b a l a n c e , g u i d i n g me b a c k to myself w h e n I b e c a m e confused. I was
i m p r e s s e d by t h e precision of his way of s e e i n g — I still t h i n k of h i m
as a "seer." I k n o w no o t h e r t h e r a p i s t w h o is able to recognize p r o b -
lematic p a t t e r n s so quickly, to i n t e r r u p t t h e m so effectively, a n d to
r e o p e n the possibility of c h a n g e in areas of t h e soul t h a t are s e l d o m
a d d r e s s e d i n p s y c h o t h e r a p y w i t h s u c h i m p e c c a b l e t i m i n g a n d loving
humor.
As a p a r t i c i p a n t , I lacked t h e n e c e s s a r y d i s t a n c e to discover h o w
h e d o e s w h a t h e d o e s ; for e x a m p l e , h o w h e a w a k e n s t h e " g o o d t h a t
i s p r e s e n t i n t h e t r a n s i t o r y m o m e n t , " h o w his stories are c o n -
Foreword vii

structed, h o w h e m a n a g e s t o r e d u c e a n d c o n c e n t r a t e t h e family
constellations so t h a t they b e c o m e powerful t h e r a p e u t i c i n t e r v e n -
tions. At first, I f o u n d his ideas a b o u t t h e b a c k g r o u n d of tragic f a m -
iy e n t a n g l e m e n t s alien, a n d I felt resistance to his style of
c o m m u n i c a t i o n w i t h o u t u n d e r s t a n d i n g w h a t h e really m e a n t .
P a r t i c i p a n t s in his w o r k s h o p s are p r e s e n t e d with a m e e t i n g t h a t is
clear, challenging, o r i e n t i n g , a n d e n c o u r a g i n g , a n d , a t t h e s a m e
m e , free o f p e r s o n a l i n v e s t m e n t i n a p a r t i c u l a r o u t c o m e . H e i s
separate a n d i n t i m a t e s i m u l t a n e o u s l y , t h u s avoiding p o w e r conflicts.
X i t h every t h e m e t h a t p e o p l e b r i n g , h e m o v e s t h e e x p l o r a t i o n
inexorably t o w a r d the d e p t h o f h u m a n n a t u r e a n d t o t h e existential
d i m e n s i o n of o u r lives—themes s u c h as b e l o n g i n g , b o n d i n g , love,
t i e success a n d failure o f relationships, s u r r e n d e r i n g t o t h e
u n a v o i d a b l e , mortality, a n d d e a t h . F o r this r e a s o n , p e o p l e are
deeply m o v e d , a n d also b e c a u s e t h e p o e t r y o f his w o r d s allows h i m
t o a d d r e s s t h e soul directly.
A l t h o u g h w h a t h e says often a p p e a r s t o relate t o t h e past,
± r o u g h his feelings a n d i n t u i t i o n he is always s c a n n i n g t h e h o r i z o n
for resolutions t h a t set free possibilities for a t t a i n i n g u n r e a l i z e d
good. T h e family constellations develop their d e e p n a t u r a l force for
dealing b e c a u s e i n f o r m a t i o n is accessed t h a t is n o n v e r b a l , as in a
drninal state of a rite of p a s s a g e . T h e old, w h i c h m u s t be left b e h i n d ,
i n d the new, w h i c h i s t o c o m e , m e e t a n d are o n e .
T h e c o n t e n t o f this b o o k i s s u s c e p t i b l e t o b e i n g m i s u n d e r s t o o d
a d t o skeptical o r infuriated r e j e c t i o n . T h o s e easily swayed will b e
t e m p t e d t o i n t e r p r e t w h a t t h e y r e a d a s u n i v e r s a l t r u t h . H e often
f o r m u l a t e s w h a t he says as if it w e r e an e t e r n a l or a b s o l u t e t r u t h ,
r u t careful o b s e r v a t i o n o f his w o r k reveals t h a t his t h e r a p e u t i c
i n t e r v e n t i o n s are d i r e c t e d to a specific i n d i v i d u a l in a specific
t h e r a p e u t i c c o n t e x t . I f y o u t r y t o m a k e t h e s e specific s t a t e m e n t s
n t o g e n e r a l t r u t h s a n d r u l e s for b e h a v i o r , t h e n y o u k e e p t h e peel
m d t h r o w away t h e fruit. After s e t t i n g u p a family c o n s t e l l a t i o n ,
d e often r e c o m m e n d s n o t d o i n g a n y t h i n g different a t all, b u t t o let
die c o n s t e l l a t i o n c o n t i n u e t o w o r k i n t h e soul u n t i l t h e n e c e s s a r y
m d a p p r o p r i a t e a c t i o n h a s b e c o m e clear.
O n r e a d i n g t h e t r a n s c r i p t s , i t will b e c o m e o b v i o u s h o w quickly
Bert H e l l i n g e r pulls b a c k w h e n s o m e o n e tries t o generalize u n c r i t i -
cally. H e also g u a r d s against his t h o u g h t s a n d o b s e r v a t i o n s b e i n g
p o u r e d i n t o specific theoretical m o l d s . " T o o m u c h t h e o r y interferes
with p r a c t i c e . " I have followed his lead in this. He sees his w o r k as
viii Love's Hidden Symmetry

being phenomenological. For him, what needs to be d o n e emerges


from really seeing w h a t is h a p p e n i n g . "I o p e n myself to a situation
i n d a r k n e s s , n o t k n o w i n g w h a t i s going o n . T h e q u e s t i o n is: H o w d o
I get to a t r u t h c o n c e a l e d in darkness? I dive i n t o a flowing field; I
b e c o m e p a r t o f it, a n d i t r e a c h e s o u t b e y o n d m e . T h i n g s m o v e i n t h e
field, s o m e i n t o areas of light, revealing s o m e t h i n g of w h a t e v e r I S . I
o p e n myself t o t h a t a n d wait for s o m e t h i n g t o c o m e t o m e . A n
i m a g e for this p r o c e s s is: I feel my way in d a r k n e s s a l o n g t h e walls
until I find a d o o r . W h e n I find a p l a c e of light, I try to d e s c r i b e
w h a t is i l l u m i n a t i n g me with a w o r d t h a t is full a n d r i p e . W h e n t h e
right w o r d is f o u n d , t h o s e for w h o m it c a m e g r a s p it at a level
b e y o n d rational t h o u g h t . T h e right w o r d t o u c h e s a n d m o v e s t h e m ,
even w h e n t h e y d o n ' t u n d e r s t a n d how."
I will be pleased if this b o o k is a " r i g h t w o r d " t h a t t o u c h e s y o u .
INTRODUCTION
by
HUNTER BEAUMONT

T h e family t h e r a p i s t B e r t Hellinger h a s a k n a c k for g e t t i n g y o u r


a t t e n t i o n , rattling p r e c o n c e p t i o n s , a n d e n c o u r a g i n g clear t h o u g h t .
" T h e w h o l e p u r p o s e o f b e i n g male i s t o serve t h e f e m i n i n e " — t o
a m a n c o n c e r n e d t h a t his wife m i g h t n o t have e n o u g h t i m e for h i m
if she were to go b a c k to s c h o o l .
"You know, m o s t families actually function b e t t e r w h e n t h e
w o m a n follows t h e m a n " — t o a w o m a n c o n c e r n e d with t h e injustice
o f h a v i n g t o c h a n g e jobs b e c a u s e h e r h u s b a n d w a s t r a n s f e r r e d .
T h e y b o t h h i t t h e ceiling. T h e m a n w a s c o n v i n c e d t h a t H e l l i n g e r
is a feminist a n d the w o m a n t h a t he's a chauvinist, a n d it t o o k t h e m
a while to g r a s p w h a t he was getting at.
Hellinger is u n w a v e r i n g in his calm c o m p a s s i o n while w o r k i n g
with families facing t h e m o s t difficult p r o b l e m s — s e r i o u s illness a n d
death, suicide, infidelity, s e p a r a t i o n a n d divorce, incest, a b o r t i o n —
always on t h e l o o k o u t for solutions, for possibilities t h a t will r e s t o r e
love. A n d it's a s t o n i s h i n g h o w often h e helps p e o p l e t o find h o p e
and c o n s t r u c t i v e a c t i o n a m i d their suffering. Yet he c a n be gruff in
his defense of t h e defenseless a n d t h e e x c l u d e d . M a n y of his o b s e r -
vations are startling a n d provocative:
"A lot of male chauvinists are dependent on some woman, and a
lot of militant feminists are hung up on some man."
"Guilt and innocence aren't the same as good and evil. Religious
and political atrocities, for example, are usually committed in all
good conscience."
He says, " W h e n I say w h a t I observe w i t h o u t fear, even if it
shocks p e o p l e , t h e n they have t o wake u p a n d t h i n k a b o u t w h e r e
they s t a n d , a b o u t h o w they see things. T h e a u t h o r i t y t h a t ' s g o o d t o
ix
X Love's Hidden Symmetry

follow is in y o u r o w n soul." Waking up is t h e b e s t p r o t e c t i o n against


m a n i p u l a t i o n . H e l p i n g p e o p l e t o c o n s u l t their o w n e x p e r i e n c e h o n -
estly is far b e t t e r t h a n getting their m i n d l e s s a g r e e m e n t .
L i s t e n i n g to H e l l i n g e r on tape for t h e first t i m e o n e evening after
a p s y c h o t h e r a p y t r a i n i n g g r o u p I was l e a d i n g , I vacillated b e t w e e n
o u t r a g e a n d fascination. I t h o u g h t , " H o w c a n a p s y c h o t h e r a p i s t say
s u c h d o g m a t i c a n d moralistic t h i n g s ? " B u t t h e n t h e d e e p e r m e a n i n g
of his w o r d s c a u g h t my a t t e n t i o n . After t h e initial flashes of o u t r a g e ,
I b e c a m e fascinated a n d realized: " H e ' s n o t m o r a l i z i n g , he's
d e s c r i b i n g . H e ' s d e s c r i b i n g t h e inside of things I've so often seen
m y clients d o i n g — a n d have d o n e myself. H e ' s d e s c r i b i n g h o w i t
really is." T h e n e x t day, instead of r e t u r n i n g t h e b o r r o w e d cassette,
I listened to it again. It was a t a p e of t h e l e c t u r e by B e r t H e l l i n g e r
called " T h e O r d e r s o f L o v e . "
D u r i n g t h e n e x t t w o y e a r s , w h e n e v e r I listened to t h e t a p e w i t h
friends a n d w i t h p a r t i c i p a n t s i n m y p s y c h o t h e r a p y t r a i n i n g g r o u p s ,
m a n y h a d t h e allergic r e a c t i o n that I h a d h a d , at first believing t h a t
h e was s p e a k i n g w i t h false authority: " L e t m e tell you w h a t t h e
t r u t h is." Yet, as we listened a n d discussed his o b s e r v a t i o n s , it
b e c a m e clear that H e l l i n g e r has an e x t r a o r d i n a r y ability to d i s c e r n
a n d d e s c r i b e t h e h i d d e n p a t t e r n s that allow love to flow in families.
W h a t he's really saying is, " T h i s is w h a t I've o b s e r v e d . It's h e l p e d
m a n y p e o p l e to free up love. I offer my e x p e r i e n c e to y o u , b u t d o n ' t
take w h a t I say on faith. C o n f i r m it yourselves." After a while, we
d i d n ' t n e e d to take his w o r d for it—we c o u l d see w h a t he d e s c r i b e s
h a p p e n i n g i n o u r o w n w o r k — b u t w e h a d t o give u p a lot o f o u r p r e -
conceived beliefs.
B e r t Hellinger h a s rediscovered s o m e t h i n g a b o u t love in i n t i m a t e
relationships t h a t grasps p e o p l e a n d c h a n g e s their lives. W h a t he's
f o u n d is this: If you w a n t love to f l o u r i s h , y o u n e e d to do w h a t it
d e m a n d s a n d t o refrain from d o i n g w h a t h a r m s it. L o v e follows the
h i d d e n o r d e r o f t h e G r e a t e r Soul. T h e t h e r a p e u t i c w o r k d o c u -
m e n t e d i n this b o o k shows w h a t h a p p e n s w h e n w e injure love o r
i g n o r e w h a t it r e q u i r e s . It also shows t h e h e a l i n g t h a t h a p p e n s w h e n
o u r i n t i m a t e relationships are restored to o r d e r . It reveals h o w chil-
d r e n ' s i n n o c e n t love blindly p e r p e t u a t e s w h a t ' s h a r m f u l , a n d h o w
injuries to t h e O r d e r of L o v e by earlier m e m b e r s of a family affect
the lives of later m e m b e r s , just as the waves a n d ripples in a river
c a u s e d by a s u b m e r g e d b o u l d e r u p s t r e a m still twist a n d swell far
downstream.
Introduction xi

T h e systemic O r d e r s o f Love influence u s a s m u c h a s its e n v i r o n -


m e n t influences a t r e e . If a tree is able to align itself b e t w e e n t h e
force of gravity a n d t h e pull of t h e s u n , it n a t u r a l l y g r o w s vertically,
w i t h its b r a n c h e s equally b a l a n c e d . In this f o r m , it is m o s t stable. If,
however, t h e tree is u n a b l e to align itself in t h e u s u a l way, p e r h a p s
b e c a u s e it is g r o w i n g on a c a n y o n wall, it will a d a p t , g r o w i n g as
straight as t h e systemic interplay of w i n d , soil, gravity, a n d s u n
allows. S u c h a tree is n o t less g o o d t h a n a m o r e vertical t r e e , b u t it
may be less stable a n d n o t as tall as its c o u s i n in t h e valley. B o t h
trees are subject to t h e s a m e laws of n a t u r e , yet t h e d y n a m i c s of
their h a b i t a t s exert differing p r e s s u r e s on t h e m , a n d e a c h finds a
systemic e q u i l i b r i u m in t h e b e s t way it c a n .
Or we m a y c o m p a r e t h e systemic laws of r e l a t i o n s h i p s to a w h i r l -
w i n d — w e c a n ' t see it u n t i l it g r a s p s t h e d e s e r t s a n d s or fallen leaves
and t h r o w s t h e m swirling i n t o t h e air. We k n o w t h e w h i r l w i n d only
b y its effect o n t h e visible w o r l d . T h e O r d e r s o f L o v e a r e d y n a m i c ,
systemic forces b l o w i n g a n d whirling i n o u r families a n d i n t i m a t e
relationships. W e k n o w t h e d i s o r d e r c a u s e d b y t h e i r t u r b u l e n c e — a s
leaves k n o w t h e w h i r l w i n d — i n o u r suffering a n d illness. C o n v e r s e l y ,
we k n o w t h e i r h a r m o n i o u s flow as a sense of w e l l - b e i n g in t h e
world.
N o t all suffering a n d illness are c a u s e d b y d i s t u r b a n c e s i n o u r
relationships, o f c o u r s e , b u t since w e often c a n d o s o m e t h i n g a b o u t
the suffering t h a t d o e s arise o u t of s u c h systemic t u r b u l e n c e , it is of
special c o n c e r n i n o u r work. W h e n w e u n d e r s t a n d t h e systemic laws
that allow love to u n f o l d , we m a y be able to h e l p suffering families
and individuals to find solutions a n d to c h a n g e t h e i r p s y c h o l o g i c a l
habitats. It's p r o f o u n d l y m o v i n g t o o b s e r v e clients a p p r o a c h t h e
O r d e r s o f Love a n d s p o n t a n e o u s l y m e l t i n t o soft a n d i n t i m a t e love,
even after a lifetime of h a t e a n d a n g e r a n d a b u s e . Yet striving w i t h
willpower a l o n e c a n ' t create t h e systemic e q u i l i b r i u m in a r e l a t i o n -
ship t h a t allows love to thrive. As B e r t H e l l i n g e r says, " T o gain
insight i n t o t h e O r d e r s of Love is w i s d o m . To follow t h e m w i t h love
is humility."
B e c a u s e t h e systemic forces t h a t c o n s t r a i n love in i n t i m a t e rela-
t i o n s h i p s are invisible t o t h e n a k e d eye—like t h e b e a u t y o f S a t u r n ' s
rings or t h e m o v e m e n t of a single cell—we n e e d to amplify o u r
powers o f p e r c e p t i o n i n o r d e r t o s t u d y t h e m . T h e i n s t r u m e n t B e r t
Hellinger u s e s t o m a k e visible t h e n o r m a l l y h i d d e n d y n a m i c s o p e r -
ating in r e l a t i o n s h i p systems is t h e family c o n s t e l l a t i o n .
xii Love's Hidden Symmetry

In setting up a family constellation, a p a r t i c i p a n t c h o o s e s o t h e r


g r o u p m e m b e r s t o r e p r e s e n t t h e m e m b e r s o f his o r h e r family a n d
m o v e s t h e m i n t h e r o o m until their p o s i t i o n s relative t o o n e a n o t h e r
"feel" like they felt in t h e family. T h e representatives b e c o m e a liv-
ing m o d e l o f t h e original family relationship system. T h e incredible
thing is t h a t , if you set up y o u r family authentically, t h e r e p r e s e n t a -
tives b e g i n to have feelings a n d t h o u g h t s very close to t h o s e the
family m e m b e r s felt—without prior knowledge.
We d o n ' t k n o w h o w it's possible for the representatives to feel
strangers' s y m p t o m s , a n d Bert Hellinger refuses to speculate a b o u t it,
saying, " I ' m u n a b l e to explain this p h e n o m e n o n , b u t I see that it's so,
a n d I use it." Skeptics have a h a r d t i m e believing that p e o p l e r e p r e -
senting others w h o m they d o n ' t k n o w c a n experience i n their o w n
bodies w h a t t h o s e p e r s o n s felt, w h a t they n e e d e d , a n d w h a t will help.
T h e r e are m a n y examples of this p h e n o m e n o n in the transcripts a n d
case r e p o r t s that follow, b u t if you are a dedicated skeptic, you w o n ' t
be convinced until you have an o p p o r t u n i t y to experience the p h e -
n o m e n o n yourself. Still, you w o n ' t u n d e r s t a n d t h e material that fol-
lows unless you r e m a i n o p e n to t h e possibility t h a t h i d d e n systemic
d y n a m i c s c a n set representatives' feelings in m o t i o n in a family c o n -
stellation as a whirlwind sets the fallen leaves in m o t i o n .
T h e r a p i s t s of m a n y different schools have u s e d family constella-
tions for over t h r e e d e c a d e s t o b r i n g t h e h i d d e n d y n a m i c s o p e r a t i n g
in i n t i m a t e relationship systems to light. B e r t H e l l i n g e r d i d n ' t
invent t h e m e t h o d , b u t h e did discover h o w i t c a n b e e x t e n d e d
b e y o n d m a k i n g d e s t r u c t i v e d y n a m i c s visible. H e f o u n d o u t h o w t h e
s a m e m e t h o d c a n b e u s e d t o h e l p p e o p l e identify w h a t c a n b e d o n e
a n d h o w t o u s e t h e r e p r e s e n t a t i v e s ' r e a c t i o n s t o modify t h e family
d y n a m i c s o t h a t t h e h i d d e n , systemic o r d e r s t h a t love r e q u i r e s c a n
be reestablished, allowing love to flow freely. Again, it's h a r d to
believe, b u t s o m e t i m e s t h e b e h a v i o r s o f family m e m b e r s w h o were
not even present c h a n g e for the b e t t e r after a family constellation h a s
b e e n b r o u g h t to a g o o d r e s o l u t i o n
A l t h o u g h this b o o k is a r e p o r t of empirically o b s e r v e d p h e n o m -
1
e n a , it goes b e y o n d t h e c u s t o m a r y c o n v e n t i o n s of scientific litera-
t u r e . T h e l a n g u a g e o f science d e m a n d s a precision t h a t d o e s n ' t

1
Bert Hellinger, Gunthard Weber, and their associates at the Heidelberg Institute
for Systemic Research are collecting a large archive of video documentation of this
work, and are conducting both process and outcome research.
Introduction xiii

persuade t h e soul. Poetry and stories, on the o t h e r h a n d , filled as


they are with m e t a p h o r , engage the soul in the play of exploring
meaning, b u t are o p e n to m a n y different interpretations. Scientific
investigation succeeds by p i n n i n g things d o w n so that there's only
one thing on which everyone can agree, b u t a good p o e m has m a n y
different m e a n i n g s .
Hellinger's love of language; his interest in philosophy, stories,
and p o e m s ; a n d his ability to cut t h r o u g h to the existential t h e m e s
hidden in people's everyday complaints give the b o o k a n o n s c i e n -
tific immediacy. His language is hot; it wants to t o u c h a n d m o v e ,
not just to inform. In this sense, it's literature or practical philoso-
phy, a b o o k for everyone interested in intimate relationships.
Bert Hellinger also refuses to accept the separation of spirituality
from science a n d literature. In contrast with the psychotherapeutic
m a i n s t r e a m , he freely uses t h e words " s o u l " a n d " h e a r t , " b u t in a
very specific way. F o r h i m , soul is e m b o d i e d in experience; it's felt
as real. Soul is distinct from m i n d a n d from body, yet it is at h o m e
between t h e m . L o n g i n g and yearning, for example, are n o t just
thoughts, b u t are things we feel as an ache, a w r e n c h i n g , or a b u r n -
ing. Yet they're n o t identical with the b o d y pain of a b u r n , a cut, or
a bruise. T h e y ' r e something in between. Soul knows things like
loneliness, h o p e , longing, closeness to others, a n d loyalty. If we lis-
ten to it carefully, it tells us what it n e e d s a n d loves. T h e h e a r t b e a t
of this work is helping people learn to distinguish w h a t the soul
loves a n d n e e d s from t h e blind pressures of social conditioning, reli-
gious prejudice, a n d political ideology.
Bert Hellinger's spirituality is close to the e a r t h , e m b o d i e d , p a s -
sionate, life affirming. It e m b r a c e s the everyday lives of average
people struggling with their suffering a n d with their greatness. It
draws us into life rather t h a n seeking to lift us above it. It celebrates
the simple a n d t h e ordinary, speaking to everyone w h o is wrestling
with whatever limits t h e soul's longing to reach its potential in t h e
world. T h i s b o o k is a b o u t r e m e m b e r i n g h o w to listen to your soul
and to t h e Soul of t h e G r e a t e r W h o l e .

T h e b o o k b e g a n w h e n G u n t h a r d Weber, a p r o m i n e n t G e r m a n
psychiatrist a n d family systems psychotherapist, offered to record
and edit s o m e of Bert Hellinger's workshops. At that t i m e , very little
had b e e n published on Hellinger's work. Weber's original idea was
to m a k e t h e material available to a small circle of professional psy-
xiv Love's Hidden Symmetry

c h o t h e r a p i s t s . T o everyone's s u r p r i s e , t h e G e r m a n edition o f
Zweieerlei Gluck [Capricious Good Fortune] b e c a m e a best-seller a n d
was received w i t h n a t i o n a l a c c l a i m — a n d controversy.
B e r t H e l l i n g e r a n d I s t a r t e d p r e p a r i n g this English version by
translating Weber's G e r m a n book, and then we began a three-year
p r o c e s s of r e c r e a t i n g it for t h e general r e a d e r . As a result of o u r dia-
logue, we completely rethought, rewrote, and reorganized the mate-
rial. W e also a d d e d n e w m a t e r i a l , a n d e x p a n d e d s o m e p o i n t s a n d
clarified o r o m i t t e d o t h e r s . T o r e m i n d t h e r e a d e r t h a t w e ' r e d e s c r i b -
ing real p e o p l e living in real r e l a t i o n s h i p s , we a d d e d s o m e t r a n -
scripts of t h e r a p e u t i c work. As it n o w s t a n d s , it's a collaborative
effort. G u n t h a r d W e b e r a n d I have assisted in organizing, a d a p t i n g ,
clarifying, a n d developing Hellinger's w o r k in a w r i t t e n f o r m a t , b u t
2
the original i n t e g r a t i o n is Hellinger's o w n .

T h e r e are five different kinds of m a t e r i a l in this b o o k .


T h e t e x t . T h e text i s b a s e d p r i m a r i l y o n B e r t Hellinger's lec-
tures. H i s l a n g u a g e in these lectures is d e n s e , p o e t i c , h y p n o t i c ,
a l m o s t p r o p h e t i c — h i s i n t e n t i o n b e i n g t o a d d r e s s t h e soul m o r e t h a n
t h e m i n d . M a t e r i a l has b e e n o m i t t e d , b u t n o t h i n g h a s b e e n
i n v e n t e d . T h e y are d r a w n from b o t h Hellinger's a n d m y p s y c h o -
t h e r a p e u t i c practices.
T h e s t o r i e s a n d p o e m s . All o f t h e stories a n d p o e m s , unless
o t h e r w i s e i n d i c a t e d are B e r t Hellinger's original w o r k , a l t h o u g h the
r e a d e r will recognize s o m e w e l l - k n o w n stories, b u t with s u r p r i s i n g
n e w twists.
Q u e s t i o n s a n d a n s w e r s . T h e questions and Bert Hellinger's
answers have b e e n d r a w n from m a n y s o u r c e s — f r o m q u e s t i o n s
asked i n his w o r k s h o p s , s e m i n a r s , p u b l i c lectures, a n d interviews
a n d from private c o n v e r s a t i o n s , a n d have b e e n e d i t e d with a n eye t o
t h e w r i t t e n w o r d . In s o m e cases, I've even asked q u e s t i o n s t h a t I felt
n e e d e d to be a n s w e r e d for the sake of clarity. A l t h o u g h his answers
are no l o n g e r exactly w h a t he said in t h e w o r k s h o p s , they clearly

2
Many different influences have been integrated into Hellinger's work during his
long career, and the reader will recognize many familiar psychotherapeutic con-
cepts and techniques, some in surprising forms. Rather than trying to note them in
the text as we go along, we refer you to the Appendix for a brief history of Bert
Hellinger's professional life, including the major influences on the development of
his work.
Introduction xv

reflect his style a n d t h o u g h t . T h e y also c a p t u r e t h e flavor of t h e


lively g i v e - a n d - t a k e characteristic of his s e m i n a r s .
T r a n s c r i p t s o f v i d e o t a p e s . T h e s e are a c c u r a t e r e c o r d s o f a c t u a l
clinical work. T h e y ' v e b e e n e d i t e d for clarity a n d e x t r a n e o u s m a t e -
m i h a s b e e n o m i t t e d , b u t a s far a s possible, t h e y p r e s e n t " w h a t
really h a p p e n e d . " A s w i t h any t r a n s c r i p t i o n , B e r t H e l l i n g e r ' s i m p e c -
cable t i m i n g a n d his w a r m t h , h u m o r , a n d p r e s e n c e c o u l d b e c o n -
veyed only partially. M a n y p e o p l e have told u s t h a t w a t c h i n g t h e
videos greatly a i d e d their u n d e r s t a n d i n g o f t h e m a t e r i a l . S o m e w e r e
3
surprised a t h o w gentle H e l l i n g e r i s . We've a d d e d relevant q u e s -
tions a n d answers from o t h e r sources a t t h e e n d o f s o m e t r a n s c r i p t s ,
and these are clearly i n d i c a t e d . We've u s e d simple d i a g r a m s to give
a n i m p r e s s i o n o f the m o v e m e n t a n d spatial relations o f t h e r e p r e -
sentatives d u r i n g t h e constellations. S o m e o f t h e r e a d e r s have t o l d
u s that t h e y take s o m e g e t t i n g u s e d t o , b u t therapists find t h e m u s e -
ful in l e a r n i n g a b o u t the work. T h e y ' r e the b e s t s o l u t i o n w e ' v e
f o u n d . S o m e r e a d e r s just skip t h e m . I n r e a d i n g t h e t r a n s c r i p t s , k e e p
i n m i n d t h a t m o s t o f t h e p a r t i c i p a n t s are n o t professional p s y c h o -
therapists, b u t are average p e o p l e dealing with t h e issues t h a t arise
in their lives.
A d d i t i o n a l c o n s i d e r a t i o n s . S o m e o f Hellinger's r e m a r k s have
b e e n controversial a n d m i s u n d e r s t o o d . I've a d d e d m y o w n c o n c e r n s
a t several p o i n t s . A l t h o u g h h e d o e s n ' t always s h a r e m y c o n c e r n s , w e
b o t h h o p e t h a t these a d d i t i o n a l c o n s i d e r a t i o n s will b e o f u s e t o t h e
reader.

In r e a d i n g t h e m a t e r i a l , it's useful to r e m i n d yourself periodically


that w h e n H e l l i n g e r describes Love's Hidden Symmetry, he d e s c r i b e s
w h a t p e o p l e e x p e r i e n c e i n t h e family constellations. H e ' s d e s c r i b i n g
w h a t b r i n g s t h e p r o f o u n d " s o u l feeling" t h a t says, " T h i s is w h a t ' s
right for m e ! " H e ' s n o t d e s c r i b i n g ethical principles t h a t w e s h o u l d
force ourselves to follow, n o r is he a d d r e s s i n g t h e s u p e r e g o w i t h
m e s s a g e s of " y o u m u s t " a n d " y o u m u s t n o t . " H i s voice seeks a dif-
ferent o r g a n of p e r c e p t i o n in t h e soul, an " e a r " t h a t listens for t h e
r e s o n a n c e of t h e n a t u r a l o r d e r of things.
S o m e r e a d e r s w h o live i n n o n t r a d i t i o n a l relationships have w o n -
d e r e d a b o u t t h e relevance of t h e m a t e r i a l for t h e m . We are family

3
Video documentation in English of Bert Hellinger at work is available through
Zeig, Tucker & Co., 1935 East Aurelius, Phoenix, Arizona 85020.
xvi Love's Hidden Symmetry

t h e r a p i s t s , a n d o u r w o r k i s p r i m a r i l y c o n c e r n e d w i t h traditional
families a n d m a l e - f e m a l e relationships. N e v e r t h e l e s s , m a n y single
persons and many couples without children—both heterosexual and
h o m o s e x u a l — h a v e b e e n p r o f o u n d l y t o u c h e d b y t h e perspective w e
offer. T h e simple fact t h a t t h e r e are m a n y single p e o p l e a n d couples
w i t h o u t c h i l d r e n l e a d i n g h a p p y , loving, m e a n i n g f u l lives is p r o o f
t h a t t h e r e are O r d e r s of Love s u p p o r t i n g these f o r m s of relation-
ship. T h e y share m a n y c o m m o n relationship issues with t h o s e i n
traditional families, b u t they also have s o m e different issues to
resolve in o r d e r for their love to thrive. T h e p o i n t is n o t t h a t you
m u s t have a t r a d i t i o n a l family in o r d e r to be h a p p y , b u t if y o u w a n t
y o u r love to flourish, you m u s t identify t h e O r d e r s of Love t h a t c o n -
strain a n d s u p p o r t love in y o u r p a r t i c u l a r life s i t u a t i o n , a n d you
m u s t follow t h e m with love.
Hellinger's o b s e r v a t i o n s have b e e n m a d e p r i m a r i l y w i t h families
socialized in E u r o p e a n cultures. We have g a t h e r e d s o m e p r e l i m i n a r y
e x p e r i e n c e w i t h m e m b e r s o f Asian, I s l a m i c , a n d African c u l t u r e s . I t
seems possible t h a t love follows t h e s a m e systemic laws in t h e s e cul-
t u r e s as well, even w h e n t h e specific roles a n d c u s t o m s vary widely.
T h i s is an i n t r i g u i n g possibility t h a t m u s t await m o r e careful obser-
vation for verification.

Rivers c a n be u s e d as m e t a p h o r s for c o m p l e x s y s t e m s , a n d in this


b o o k you'll find m a n y rivers flowing t h r o u g h t h e stories a n d cases.
W h e n we sit on t h e b a n k of a river a n d allow its c u r r e n t to grasp
o u r m i n d s , we are r e m i n d e d of a p e r m a n e n c e in c h a n g e a n d of t h e
great cycle of r e t u r n — c l o u d s , rain, river, o c e a n , a n d c l o u d s are all
p h a s e s o f o n e vast system. T h e following story w a s i n s p i r e d b y B e r t
Hellinger, a n d I d e d i c a t e it to h i m in g r a t i t u d e for all t h a t he has
given. It's also an invitation to y o u , t h e r e a d e r , to dive in a n d swim.

The Source
A young man man sat by a river watching it ripple and whirl, feeling
the current's gentle pull on his mind, and wondered, "Where does
the river come from?" And he set out to find the river's source.
He followed the river until he found one branch that was longer
than the rest. Before he could celebrate his discovery, it started to
rain, and there were little rivers everywhere. He scurried here and
there until he found the little river that was longer than the others. As
he began to celebrate he saw a bird sitting in a tree, water dripping
Introduction xvii

from its b e a k a n d tail. H e s t o p p e d , stood b a c k , a n d looked very care-


fully—the b i r d ' s b e a k w a s just a little h i g h e r t h a n its tail. T h e n he
h u r r i e d b a c k to tell of his final discovery.
O n c e he was h o m e , p e o p l e asked h i m again a n d again to tell of his
j o u r n e y a n d of his discovery, a n d each t i m e he told t h e m , t h e y were
astonished a n d a d m i r e d his a c h i e v e m e n t . I n t i m e , h e b e c a m e s o fas-
cinated with telling his story t h a t he no longer w e n t to t h e river.
A n old m a n w h o loved h i m recognized t h e d a n g e r h e w a s i n a n d
h u r r i e d to his aid. In a voice t h a t was clear a n d g e n t l e , he said, "I
w o n d e r w h e r e the rain c o m e s from."
T h e y o u n g m a n d e s p a i r e d , " W h e r e c a n I get a l a d d e r to c l i m b into
the sky a n d m e a s u r e so m a n y d r o p s of rain, a n d h o w shall I follow
c l o u d s ? " H e t u r n e d away, a n d t o h i d e his s h a m e , h e j u m p e d into t h e
river a n d let it carry h i m away.
T h e old m a n t h o u g h t , " T h a t ' s a g o o d answer, my son. Dive in, feel
the c u r r e n t , let the river carry you. It's longing to go h o m e , flowing to
its s o u r c e . "
PART ONE

The Phenomenology of
Intimate Relationship
Systems
C H A P T E R O N E

Guilt, Innocence, and the


Limits of Conscience

We are led to believe a lie when we see not thro the Eye Which was Born in a Night
to perish in a Night when the Soul Slept in Beams of Light.
—William Blake

If we carefully observe w h a t p e o p l e do in o r d e r to have a clear or a


guilty c o n s c i e n c e , we see t h a t c o n s c i e n c e is n o t w h a t we are led to
believe. We see t h a t :

• A clear or a guilty c o n s c i e n c e h a s little to do w i t h g o o d a n d


evil; t h e w o r s t atrocities a n d injustices are c o m m i t t e d w i t h a
clear c o n s c i e n c e , a n d we feel quite guilty d o i n g g o o d w h e n it
deviates from w h a t o t h e r s e x p e c t of u s . We call t h e c o n s c i e n c e
t h a t we feel as guilt or i n n o c e n c e a p e r s o n a l c o n s c i e n c e .

• O u r p e r s o n a l c o n s c i e n c e has m a n y different s t a n d a r d s , o n e
for e a c h of o u r different relationships: o n e s t a n d a r d for o u r
relationship t o o u r father, a n o t h e r for t h a t w i t h o u r m o t h e r ,
o n e for t h e c h u r c h , a n o t h e r for t h e w o r k p l a c e , t h a t is, o n e for
each group to which we belong.

• In a d d i t i o n to p e r s o n a l c o n s c i e n c e , we are also subject to a


systemic c o n s c i e n c e . We n e i t h e r feel n o r h e a r this c o n s c i e n c e ,
3
4 Love's Hidden Symmetry

b u t w e e x p e r i e n c e its effects w h e n h a r m i s p a s s e d f r o m o n e
g e n e r a t i o n t o t h e n e x t . T h i s invisible s y s t e m i c c o n s c i e n c e , i t s
dynamics and the orders of Love's Hidden Symmetry, is the
p r i m a r y subject of this book.

• F u r t h e r , i n a d d i t i o n t o p e r s o n a l c o n s c i e n c e , w h i c h w e feel
a n d to systemic conscience, which works through us although
w e d o n o t feel it, t h e r e i s a t h i r d c o n s c i e n c e t h a t g u i d e s u s
t o w a r d t h e greater whole. Following this third conscience
r e q u i r e s g r e a t effort, p e r h a p s e v e n a s p i r i t u a l effort, b e c a u s e i t
t e a r s u s a w a y f r o m o b e d i e n c e t o t h e d i c t a t e s o f o u r family,
religion, c u l t u r e , p e r s o n a l identity. It d e m a n d s of u s , if we love
it, t h a t w e l e a v e b e h i n d w h a t w e h a v e k n o w n a n d follow t h e
C o n s c i e n c e o f t h e G r e a t e r W h o l e . T h i s c o n s c i e n c e i s ineffable
a n d m y s t e r i o u s a n d i t d o e s n o t follow t h e l a w s o f p e r s o n a l
a n d systemic conscience, which we k n o w m o r e intimately.

The Question

We k n o w o u r conscience as a horse knows the riders w h o ride it and


as a h e l m s m a n knows the stars by which he sets his c o u r s e . B u t m a n y
riders ride the h o r s e — a n d m a n y h e l m s m e n steer t h e ship, each
guided by a different star. T h e question b e c o m e s : W h o shall c o m -
m a n d the riders a n d which course shall the captain choose?

The Answer
A disciple asked of his teacher, "Tell me what freedom is."
" W h i c h freedom?" asked the teacher.
" T h e first freedom is foolishness. T h a t ' s like a horse that throws its
rider with a t r i u m p h a n t whinny, only to feel the saddle girth pulled
tighter.
" T h e second freedom is r e m o r s e . R e m o r s e is like the h e l m s m a n
w h o goes d o w n with the ship, after he has sailed it o n t o a reef, rather
t h a n seek safety in the lifeboat with the others.
" T h e third freedom is u n d e r s t a n d i n g . U n d e r s t a n d i n g c o m e s , alas,
only after foolishness a n d r e m o r s e . It's like a shaft of wheat that
b e n d s in the w i n d , a n d because it b e n d s where it's weak, endures."
T h e disciple asked, "Is that all?"
T h e teacher said, " M a n y think they're seeking t h e t r u t h of their
o w n soul, b u t it's t h e G r e a t e r Soul that is thinking a n d seeking in
t h e m . Like n a t u r e , it allows great variety, b u t replaces with ease those
w h o try to cheat. B u t to those w h o allow it to think in t h e m , it allows,
in t u r n , a little freedom, helping t h e m like a river helps a swimmer
Guilt, Innocence, and the Limits of Conscience 5
cross to the other shore if she surrenders to the current and allows
herself to be swept along."

PERSONAL CONSCIENCE A N D OUR FEELINGS


OF GUILT A N D INNOCENCE

IN all o u r various relationships, f u n d a m e n t a l n e e d s interact in a


c o m p l e x way:

1
1. T h e n e e d t o b e l o n g , t h a t is, for b o n d i n g .

2
2. T h e n e e d t o m a i n t a i n a b a l a n c e o f giving a n d t a k i n g , t h a t is,
for e q u i l i b r i u m .

3. T h e n e e d for t h e safety o f social c o n v e n t i o n a n d p r e d i c t a b i l -


ity, t h a t is, for order.

We feel t h e s e t h r e e different n e e d s w i t h t h e u r g e n c y of drives a n d


instinctual r e a c t i o n s , a n d they subject us to forces that challenge us
and d e m a n d c o m p l i a n c e , t h a t c o e r c e a n d c o n t r o l u s . T h e y limit o u r
choices a n d c o m m i t u s , w h e t h e r we like it or n o t , to objectives t h a t
conflict w i t h o u r p e r s o n a l wishes a n d p l e a s u r e s .
T h e s e n e e d s c o n s t r a i n o u r r e l a t i o n s h i p s , a n d also m a k e t h e m
possible, b e c a u s e t h e y b o t h reflect a n d e n a b l e o u r f u n d a m e n t a l
h u m a n n e e d t o relate intimately t o o t h e r s . O u r relationships s u c -
ceed w h e n w e are able t o f i l l these n e e d s a n d t o b a l a n c e t h e m w i t h
o n e a n o t h e r , a n d t h e y b e c o m e dysfunctional a n d d e s t r u c t i v e w h e n
we c a n ' t . W i t h every a c t i o n we take t h a t affects o t h e r s , we feel guilty
or i n n o c e n t . J u s t as t h e eye d i s c r i m i n a t e s continually b e t w e e n light
and dark, so too an inner organ continually discriminates between
w h a t serves a n d w h a t h i n d e r s o u r relationships.

1
Konrad Lorenz described the phenomenon of imprinting among animals. John
Bowlby and his students have described the bonding that occurs between a mother
and her children. Bert Hellinger has recognized the importance of the bonding
between sexual partners, which ties them together quite independently of the love
they may feel for each other. However the bonding referred to here is primarily a
social bond that ties an individual to his or her group of reference.
2
The importance of balanced giving and taking in family dynamics, as well as the
importance of the hidden bonds and loyalties operating in family systems, has been
described by Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy.
6 Love's Hidden Symmetry

W h e n o u r a c t i o n s e n d a n g e r o r d a m a g e o u r r e l a t i o n s h i p s , w e feel
guilt, a n d we feel f r e e d o m from guilt, or innocence, w h e n o u r actions
serve t h e m . We call o u r e x p e r i e n c e of guilt a n d i n n o c e n c e — t h a t is,
o u r sense o f w h a t serves o r e n d a n g e r s o u r relationships—personal
conscience. T h u s , o u r feelings of guilt a n d i n n o c e n c e are primarily
social p h e n o m e n a that d o n o t necessarily o r i e n t u s t o w a r d higher
m o r a l values. O n t h e contrary, b y b i n d i n g u s s o firmly t o t h e g r o u p s
t h a t are n e c e s s a r y for o u r survival, our feelings of guilt and innocence
often blind us to what is good and evil.

DIFFERENT N E E D S
REQUIRE DIFFERENT BEHAVIORS

O u r n e e d s for b e l o n g i n g , t h e e q u i l i b r i u m o f giving a n d taking, a n d


social c o n v e n t i o n w o r k t o g e t h e r t o m a i n t a i n t h e social g r o u p s t o
w h i c h we b e l o n g , b u t e a c h n e e d strives t o w a r d its o w n goals with its
o w n p a r t i c u l a r feelings of guilt a n d i n n o c e n c e , a n d so we experience
guilt a n d i n n o c e n c e differently a c c o r d i n g t o t h e n e e d a n d t h e goal
b e i n g served.

• G u i l t feels like exclusion a n d alienation w h e n o u r b e l o n g i n g is


e n d a n g e r e d . W h e n it is well served, we feel i n n o c e n c e as inti-
m a t e inclusion a n d closeness.

• G u i l t feels like i n d e b t e d n e s s a n d obligation w h e n o u r giving


a n d taking are n o t b a l a n c e d . W h e n t h e y are well served, w e
feel i n n o c e n c e as e n t i t l e m e n t a n d f r e e d o m .

• G u i l t feels like transgression a n d as fear of c o n s e q u e n c e s or


p u n i s h m e n t when we deviate from a social o r d e r . We feel
i n n o c e n c e w i t h r e s p e c t t o social o r d e r a s c o n s c i e n t i o u s n e s s

C o n s c i e n c e d e m a n d s i n t h e service o f o n e n e e d w h a t i t forbids i n
t h e service of a n o t h e r , a n d it m a y allow us in t h e service of o n e
w h a t it forbids in the service of t h e o t h e r s . F o r e x a m p l e :

Love and Order


A mother told her son to play alone for an hour because he had bro-
ken a family rule. If she had allowed him to remain in his room for
the whole hour, the need for social order would have been served,
Guilt, Innocence, and the Limits of Conscience 7

but he would have felt justifiably lonely because love and belonging
would have been neglected. For this reason, the mother, like many
parents, released her child from a portion of the punishment.
Although she neglected the full requirements of social order and was
guilty in that respect, she served love with innocence.

C o n s c i e n c e serves all t h e s e n e e d s e v e n w h e n t h e y conflict w i t h


o n e a n o t h e r , a n d w e e x p e r i e n c e t h e conflicts b e t w e e n t h e m a s
conflicts o f c o n s c i e n c e . W h o e v e r r e a c h e s t o w a r d i n n o c e n c e w i t h
respect t o o n e n e e d s i m u l t a n e o u s l y r e a c h e s t o w a r d guilt w i t h
respect t o a n o t h e r ; w h o e v e r r e n t s o u t a r o o m i n t h e h o u s e o f i n n o -
cence s o o n discovers t h a t h e o r s h e h a s s u b l e t t o guilt a s well. N o
m a t t e r h o w w e s t r u g g l e t o follow o u r c o n s c i e n c e , w e always feel
both guilt a n d i n n o c e n c e — i n n o c e n c e - w i t h r e s p e c t . t o o n e n e e d a n d
guilt w i t h r e s p e c t - t o a n o t h e r . T h e d r e a m o f i n n o c e n c e w i t h o u t
guilt is an illusion.

How Conscience Guards Bonding

Acting i n t h e service o f o u r n e e d t o b e l o n g , c o n s c i e n c e b o n d s u s t o
the p e r s o n s a n d g r o u p s necessary for o u r survival regardless of t h e
conditions t h e y set for o u r b e l o n g i n g . A l t h o u g h a n o a k t r e e d o e s n ' t
choose t h e g r o u n d in w h i c h it g r o w s , its e n v i r o n m e n t affects it a n d
it develops differently in an o p e n field, in a d e e p forest, in a p r o -
tected valley, or high on a w i n d y hill. In t h e s a m e way, c h i l d r e n
a c c o m m o d a t e w i t h o u t q u e s t i o n t o t h e g r o u p s i n t o w h i c h t h e y are
b o r n , a n d t h e y b o n d to t h o s e g r o u p s w i t h a tenacity r e m i n i s c e n t of
i m p r i n t i n g . Y o u n g children e x p e r i e n c e their b o n d i n g t o their family
love a n d g o o d f o r t u n e , n o m a t t e r h o w t h e family n o u r i s h e s o r
n e g l e c t s t h e m , a n d they e x p e r i e n c e their family's values a n d h a b i t s
as g o o d , no m a t t e r w h a t the family believes or d o e s .
In t h e service of b e l o n g i n g , c o n s c i e n c e reacts to e v e r y t h i n g t h a t
e n h a n c e s o r e n d a n g e r s o u r b o n d i n g . O u r c o n s c i e n c e i s clear w h e n
w e act s o t h a t o u r c o n t i n u e d b e l o n g i n g t o o u r g r o u p i s a s s u r e d , a n d
we have a guilty c o n s c i e n c e w h e n we deviate from t h e n o r m s of o u r
g r o u p a n d m u s t fear t h a t o u r right t o b e l o n g i s j e o p a r d i z e d o r d a m -
aged. Like an a p p l e on a stick h e l d before t h e p o n y ' s n o s e a n d a
whip i n t h e driver's h a n d , guilt a n d i n n o c e n c e have t h e s a m e goal.
T h e y entice u s a n d drive u s i n t h e s a m e d i r e c t i o n , jealously g u a r d -
ing o u r c o n n e c t i o n t o o u r family a n d i n t i m a t e c o m m u n i t y .
8 Love's Hidden Symmetry

T h e conscience that guards o u r b o n d i n g does not stand above


t h e false beliefs a n d s u p e r s t i t i o n s o f t h e g r o u p s t o w h i c h w e b e l o n g ,
g u i d i n g u s t o a g r e a t e r t r u t h . I n s t e a d , i t serves a n d m a i n t a i n s t h o s e
beliefs, m a k i n g i t difficult for u s t o see a n d k n o w a n d r e m e m b e r
w h a t e v e r i t forbids. T h e b o n d i n g a n d b e l o n g i n g s o n e c e s s a r y for o u r
survival a n d w e l l - b e i n g also d i c t a t e w h a t w e m a y p e r c e i v e , believe,
and know.

Conscientiously Denying the Obvious


A doctor told a group how his sister had called one morning and
asked him to visit her as she wasn't feeling well and wanted his medi-
cal opinion. He visited as she asked, and they talked for an hour
without coming to any clear conclusion. He recommended that she
visit a gynecologist. She did and was delivered of a healthy son that
same evening.
T h e doctor had not perceived that his sister was pregnant, nor had
she been aware of her pregnancy, although she, too, was a physician.
In their family, children weren't allowed to know about pregnancy,
and all their medical studies h a d n ' t enabled either of them to remove
the perceptual block.

We Have a Different Standard for Each Group

T h e only criteria followed by c o n s c i e n c e a c t i n g in t h e service of


b o n d i n g a r e t h e values o f t h e g r o u p t o w h i c h w e b e l o n g . F o r this
r e a s o n , p e r s o n s w h o c o m e from different g r o u p s h a v e different val-
u e s , a n d p e r s o n s w h o b e l o n g t o several g r o u p s act differently i n
e a c h g r o u p . W h e n o u r social c o n t e x t c h a n g e s , c o n s c i e n c e c h a n g e s
its c o l o r s like a c h a m e l e o n i n o r d e r t o p r o t e c t u s i n o u r n e w s i t u a -
tion. We have o n e conscience with o u r m o t h e r and a n o t h e r with o u r
f a t h e r ; o n e for t h e family a n d a n o t h e r for t h e w o r k p l a c e ; o n e for
c h u r c h , a n o t h e r for a n e v e n i n g o u t . I n e a c h o f t h e s e different s i t u a -
t i o n s , c o n s c i e n c e strives t o g u a r d o u r b e l o n g i n g a n d t o p r o t e c t u s
f r o m a b a n d o n m e n t a n d loss. I t h o l d s u s t o o u r g r o u p like a s h e e p -
dog holds the sheep together in a herd, barking and nipping at our
heels until we move together with the others.
B u t w h a t leaves u s i n n o c e n t i n o n e r e l a t i o n s h i p m a y m a k e u s very
guilty i n a n o t h e r . I n a g r o u p o f t h i e v e s , m e m b e r s m u s t steal, a n d
t h e y d o s o w i t h a clear c o n s c i e n c e . I n a n o t h e r g r o u p , s t e a l i n g i s for-
b i d d e n . In b o t h cases, m e m b e r s experience the s a m e sensations of
Guilt, Innocence, and the Limits of Conscience 9

guilt o r i n n o c e n c e a s t h e p e n a l t y for violating t h e i r g r o u p ' s c o n d i -


tions o f m e m b e r s h i p .
W h a t serves o n e r e l a t i o n s h i p m a y d a m a g e a n o t h e r . F o r e x a m p l e ,
sexuality is t h e fulfillment of o n e r e l a t i o n s h i p a n d a v i o l a t i o n of
another. But what happens when our belonging in one relationship
collides w i t h o u r b e l o n g i n g i n a n o t h e r ? W h e n w h a t m a k e s u s guilty
in one relationship is d e m a n d e d of us in the other? T h e n we stand
b e f o r e different j u d g e s for t h e s a m e a c t , a n d o n e m a y find u s guilty
while t h e o t h e r m a y d e c l a r e u s i n n o c e n t .

D e p e n d e n c y Strengthens Bonding

C o n s c i e n c e ties u s m o s t firmly t o o u r g r o u p w h e n w e a r e m o s t p o w -
erless a n d v u l n e r a b l e . A s w e g a i n p o w e r i n a g r o u p a n d i n d e p e n -
d e n c e , b o t h b o n d i n g a n d c o n s c i e n c e relax, b u t i f w e r e m a i n w e a k
a n d d e p e n d e n t , w e also r e m a i n o b e d i e n t a n d loyal. I n families, chil-
d r e n o c c u p y this p o s i t i o n ; i n a c o m p a n y , t h e l o w e r e m p l o y e e s ; i n a n
a r m y , t h e e n l i s t e d s o l d i e r s ; in a c h u r c h , t h e faithful c o n g r e g a t i o n .
F o r t h e g o o d o f t h e s t r o n g e r i n t h e g r o u p , t h e y all c o n s c i e n t i o u s l y
risk h e a l t h , h a p p i n e s s , a n d life a n d m a k e t h e m s e l v e s g u i l t y — e v e n
w h e n t h e i r l e a d e r s , for w h a t i s called " h i g h e r p u r p o s e s , " u n s c r u p u -
lously m i s u s e t h e m . T h e s e are t h e m e e k w h o stick o u t t h e i r n e c k s
for t h e s t r o n g e r , t h e h a n g m e n d o i n g o t h e r s ' d i r t y w o r k , u n s u n g
h e r o e s h o l d i n g t h e i r p o s i t i o n s t o t h e last, s h e e p faithfully following
their s h e p h e r d t o t h e s l a u g h t e r , v i c t i m s p a y i n g r e s t i t u t i o n . T h e s e a r e
t h e c h i l d r e n w h o l e a p i n t o t h e fray for t h e i r p a r e n t s a n d relatives,
w h o c a r r y o u t t h a t w h i c h t h e y d i d n ' t p l a n , a t o n e for w h a t t h e y
didn't d o , a n d bear b u r d e n s they didn't create.

No Room
An old man approaching the end of his life sought out a friend to help
him find peace. As a young father, he had once mildly reprimanded his
son and the boy had hanged himself that night. T h e son's reaction was
out of all proportion to the father's admonishment, and the old m a n
had never recovered from the great weight of his loss and guilt.
In talking with his friend, he suddenly remembered a conversation
with his son a few days before the suicide. His wife had mentioned
during dinner that she was going to have another child. T h e son,
quite beside himself, had cried out, " O h my God! We haven't got
enough room."
10 Love's Hidden Symmetry

As he r e m e m b e r e d this conversation, the old m a n u n d e r s t o o d this


tragedy in a larger context: His son h a d hanged himself to take on
some of t h e b u r d e n of his p a r e n t s ' poverty, a n d to m a k e r o o m for
a n o t h e r — n o t just as a reaction to the mild p u n i s h m e n t . T h e old m a n ,
u n d e r s t a n d i n g t h a t his son h a d loved too, found m e a n i n g . He said,
" I ' m at p e a c e at last, as if I were sitting by a quiet m o u n t a i n lake."

B e l o n g i n g D e m a n d s the Exclusion o f T h o s e W h o A r e
Different

W h e r e v e r conscience acting in the service of b e l o n g i n g b i n d s us to


o n e a n o t h e r i n a g r o u p , i t also drives u s t o e x c l u d e t h o s e w h o a r e dif-
ferent a n d to deny t h e m the right to the m e m b e r s h i p that we claim
for o u r s e l v e s . T h e n w e b e c o m e f r i g h t e n i n g for t h e m . T h e c o n s c i e n c e
g u a r d i n g o u r b e l o n g i n g g u i d e s u s t o d o t o t h o s e w h o a r e different
w h a t w e m o s t fear a s t h e w o r s t c o n s e q u e n c e o f g u i l t — w e e x c l u d e
them. But as we treat t h e m badly in good conscience, so do they in
t u r n treat us in the n a m e of the conscience of their group. T h e con-
s c i e n c e t h a t g u a r d s b e l o n g i n g i n h i b i t s evil w i t h i n t h e g r o u p , b u t lifts
this i n h i b i t i o n i n r e g a r d t o t h o s e o u t s i d e t h e g r o u p . W e t h e n d o t o
o t h e r s in good conscience w h a t o u r c o n s c i e n c e f o r b i d s us to do to
m e m b e r s o f o u r o w n g r o u p . I n the context o f religious, racial, a n d
n a t i o n a l conflicts, s u s p e n d i n g t h e i n h i b i t i o n s t h a t c o n s c i e n c e i m p o s e s
o n evil w i t h i n a g r o u p allows m e m b e r s o f t h a t g r o u p t o c o m m i t , i n
g o o d conscience, atrocities a n d m u r d e r against others w h o b e l o n g to
different g r o u p s .
T h u s , guilt and innocence are not the same as good and evil. We do
d e s t r u c t i v e a n d evil t h i n g s w i t h a c l e a r c o n s c i e n c e w h e n t h e y s e r v e
t h e g r o u p s t h a t a r e n e c e s s a r y for o u r s u r v i v a l , a n d w e t a k e c o n s t r u c -
tive a c t i o n w i t h a g u i l t y c o n s c i e n c e w h e n t h e s e a c t s j e o p a r d i z e o u r
membership in these same groups.

Additional Considerations

T h e testimony of former m e m b e r s of the S o u t h African secret police


before t h e T r u t h a n d Reconciliation C o m m i s s i o n gained interna-
tional attention a n d it is an excellent illustration of the p h e n o m e n o n
we are describing here. T h e decision of Nelson M a n d e l a ' s govern-
m e n t to g r a n t a m n e s t y to m e m b e r s of the former secret police w h o
were willing to testify publicly about their former activities created an
a t m o s p h e r e in which the effect of m e m b e r s h i p in social groups on
Guilt, Innocence, and the Limits of Conscience 11

the perception of good and evil is clear. In the context of their mem-
bership in the secret police during the apartheid government, they
tortured and murdered, believing they were doing good, acting in
defense of their endangered nation. Now, in a different political con-
text, having been granted amnesty, many view their former activities
differently, reporting genuine and deep remorse. [H.B.]

The Appearances of Guilt and Innocence Can Be


Deceiving

G u i l t a n d i n n o c e n c e often e x c h a n g e their g a r b s o t h a t guilt a p p e a r s


as i n n o c e n c e a n d i n n o c e n c e as guilt. A p p e a r a n c e s deceive, a n d it's
only b y t h e final o u t c o m e t h a t w e k n o w t h e t r u t h .

The Players

They declare themselves


Opponents.
Face to face
They play
On one common board
With many figures,
And complex rules,
Move for move,
The ancient Game of Kings.

Each sacrifices
Many pieces
In their game,
And seeks advantage
Until there are no moves to make
And then their match is done.

Then, changing sides


And colors,
They begin another round
Of that same Game of Kings.

But whoever plays enough


And often wins
12 Love's Hidden Symmetry

And often loses


Becomes a master

—Of both sides.

J u s t a s a p p e a r a n c e s o f guilt a n d i n n o c e n c e m a y d e c e i v e , t h e c o n -
s c i e n c e o f t h e g r o u p also g r a d u a l l y s h a p e s t h e child's e x p e r i e n c e o f
the world. It colors the child's perception of w h a t is with the fam-
ily's beliefs.

Learning to Be Good
A child goes into the yard and feels amazement at the growing things.
M o t h e r says, "Look, how beautiful." N o w the child must attend to
words; looking and hearing are interrupted, her direct engagement
with what exists is replaced by value judgments. T h e child can no
longer trust her own experience of being enthralled by what is, but
m u s t defer to an external authority, who defines what is beautiful and good

C o n s c i e n c e t h e n b e c o m e s t h e g r e a t p r e t e n d e r , s e t t i n g feelings o f
guilt a n d i n n o c e n c e i n t h e p l a c e o f k n o w l e d g e o f g o o d a n d evil. T h e
g o o d t h a t b r i n g s r e c o n c i l i a t i o n m u s t o v e r c o m e t h e false a p p e a r -
ances created by virtue of our belonging to various groups. C o n -
s c i e n c e t a l k s ; t h e w o r l d is.

C O N S C I E N C E A N D BALANCE
IN GIVING A N D TAKING

O u r r e l a t i o n s h i p s — a n d o u r e x p e r i e n c e s o f guilt a n d i n n o c e n c e —
b e g i n w i t h g i v i n g a n d t a k i n g . W e feel e n t i t l e d w h e n w e give a n d w e
feel o b l i g a t e d w h e n w e t a k e . T h e oscillation b e t w e e n e n t i t l e m e n t
a n d o b l i g a t i o n i s t h e s e c o n d f u n d a m e n t a l d y n a m i c o f guilt a n d
i n n o c e n c e i n e v e r y r e l a t i o n s h i p . I t serves all o u r r e l a t i o n s h i p s , s i n c e
b o t h giver a n d t a k e r k n o w p e a c e o n l y w h e n b o t h h a v e given a n d
t a k e n equally.

A Gift of Love
A missionary in Africa was transferred to a new area. On the m o r n -
ing of his departure, he was visited by a man who had walked several
hours to give him a small a m o u n t of money as a going-away gift. T h e
Guilt, Innocence, and the Limits of Conscience 13

value of the money was about 30 cents. It was clear to the missionary
that the man was thanking him, because when the m a n was ill, the
missionary had been concerned and had visited him several times.
He understood that 30 cents was a huge sum of money for this man.
He was tempted to give the money back, perhaps even to add a bit to
it, but upon reflection, he accepted the money and thanked the man.
Having given in love, he was obliged to take in love as well.

W h e n w e receive s o m e t h i n g from s o m e o n e , w e lose o u r i n n o -


c e n c e a n d o u r i n d e p e n d e n c e . W h e n w e t a k e , w e feel i n d e b t e d a n d
b e h o l d e n to t h e giver. We feel this obligation as d i s c o m f o r t a n d
p r e s s u r e , a n d w e t r y t o o v e r c o m e i t b y giving s o m e t h i n g b a c k . W e
c a n ' t truly take a n y t h i n g w i t h o u t feeling t h e n e e d to give. T a k i n g is a
f o r m of guilt.
I n n o c e n c e in the service of this e x c h a n g e b e c o m e s m a n i f e s t as
t h e c o m f o r t a b l e feeling o f e n t i t l e m e n t t h a t c o m e s w h e n w e take
fully a n d w h e n we give a little m o r e in r e t u r n t h a n we have t a k e n .
We feel i n n o c e n t l y carefree a n d l i g h t h e a r t e d w h e n w e ' v e t a k e n fully
a n d o u r n e e d s have b e e n satisfied, a n d w h e n we've also given fully
in return.
T h e r e are t h r e e typical p a t t e r n s p e o p l e a d o p t for a c h i e v i n g a n d
m a i n t a i n i n g i n n o c e n c e w i t h respect t o e x c h a n g e i n r e l a t i o n s h i p s :
fasting, h e l p i n g , a n d full e x c h a n g e .

Fasting

S o m e p e o p l e cling to the illusion of i n n o c e n c e by m i n i m i z i n g their


p a r t i c i p a t i o n in life. R a t h e r t h a n taking fully w h a t they n e e d a n d
feeling b e h o l d e n , they close themselves off a n d w i t h d r a w from life
a n d n e e d . T h e y feel free from n e e d a n d obligation, a n d b e c a u s e they
d o n ' t feel n e e d , t h e y n e e d n o t take. A l t h o u g h they feel b e h o l d e n t o
n o o n e a n d i n n o c e n t , theirs i s t h e i n n o c e n c e o f t h e u n i n v o l v e d
observer. T h e y d o n ' t get their h a n d s dirty, s o t h e y often c o n s i d e r
t h e m s e l v e s to be s u p e r i o r or special. N e v e r t h e l e s s , their e n j o y m e n t
of life is limited by t h e shallowness of their i n v o l v e m e n t , a n d t h e y
feel c o r r e s p o n d i n g l y e m p t y a n d dissatisfied.
T h i s p o s t u r e c a n b e o b s e r v e d i n m a n y p e o p l e w h o struggle w i t h
d e p r e s s i o n . T h e i r refusal to w e l c o m e w h a t life offers develops first
in t h e relationship with o n e or b o t h of their p a r e n t s , a n d later is car-
ried over to o t h e r relationships a n d to the g o o d t h i n g s of t h e w o r l d .
14 Love's Hidden Symmetry

S o m e people justify their refusal to take with t h e complaint that


what they were given w a s n ' t e n o u g h or was n o t t h e right thing. O t h -
ers justify n o t taking by p o i n t i n g to the errors a n d limitations of t h e
giver, b u t the result is the same—they r e m a i n passive a n d empty.
F o r example, people w h o reject or judge their parents—regardless
of what their parents m a y have done—typically feel incomplete a n d
lost.
We observe the opposite in people w h o have s u c c e e d e d in taking
their parents as they are, a n d in taking from t h e m everything that
was given. T h e y experience this taking as a c o n t i n u o u s flow of
strength a n d n o u r i s h m e n t that enables t h e m to enter o t h e r relation-
ships in which they, too, can take and give richly—even if their p a r -
ents treated t h e m badly.

Helping

O t h e r people try to maintain innocence by denying their n e e d until


after they've given e n o u g h to feel entitled. Giving before taking
allows a fleeting sense of entitlement that dissolves as soon as we've
taken what we need. Persons w h o prefer to m a i n t a i n their feeling of
entitlement rather t h a n to allow others to give to t h e m freely say, in
effect, "It's better for you to feel obligated to me t h a n for me to feel
obligated to you." M a n y idealists hold this p o s t u r e , a n d it's widely
k n o w n as the "helper s y n d r o m e . "
S u c h self-centered striving for freedom from n e e d is f u n d a m e n -
tally hostile to relationships. Whoever wants only to give w i t h o u t
taking clings to an illusion of superiority, rejects the b o u n t y of life,
a n d denies equality to his or h e r partner. O t h e r s soon w a n t n o t h i n g
from those w h o refuse to take, and b e c o m e resentful a n d withdraw
from t h e m . F o r this reason, chronic helpers often are lonely a n d
eventually b e c o m e bitter.

Full Exchange

T h e third and m o s t beautiful p a t h to i n n o c e n c e in giving and taking


is t h e c o n t e n t m e n t that follows a plentiful exchange of giving a n d
taking, w h e n we have b o t h given and taken fully. T h i s exchange is
the h e a r t of relationship: T h e giver takes, the taker gives. B o t h are
giver a n d taker equally.
Guilt, Innocence, and the Limits of Conscience 15

N o t only is t h e b a l a n c e of giving a n d taking i m p o r t a n t to this


i n n o c e n c e , b u t so also is t h e v o l u m e . A tiny v o l u m e of giving a n d
taking b r i n g s no profit; a high v o l u m e m a k e s us wealthy. H i g h -
v o l u m e giving a n d taking b r i n g with t h e m a feeling of a b u n d a n c e
and happiness.

Increasing Volume
A man loves his wife and wants to give her something. Because she
loves him, she accepts his gift gratefully, and, as a result, feels a need
to give. Obedient to her need, she gives to her husband in return, and
just to be on the safe side, she gives a little more than she has taken.
Because she has given in love, he desires to take what she offers and
also reciprocates with a little more. In this way, conscience maintains
a dynamic imbalance and the couple's loving relationship continues
with an increasing volume of giving and taking.

S u c h joy d o e s n ' t just fall into o u r laps, b u t is t h e c o n s e q u e n c e of


o u r willingness to increase love by n e e d i n g a n d taking in i n t i m a t e
relationship. W i t h s u c h h i g h - v o l u m e e x c h a n g e s , we feel light a n d
free, just a n d c o n t e n t . Of all the ways of k n o w i n g i n n o c e n c e in giv-
ing a n d taking, this is by far the m o s t deeply satisfying.

Balancing Giving and Taking When Reciprocity Is


Impossible

I n s o m e r e l a t i o n s h i p s , t h e discrepancy b e t w e e n giver a n d t a k e r i s
i n s u r m o u n t a b l e ; for e x a m p l e , t h a t b e t w e e n p a r e n t s a n d c h i l d r e n o r
b e t w e e n t e a c h e r s a n d s t u d e n t s . P a r e n t s a n d t e a c h e r s are p r i m a r i l y
givers; c h i l d r e n a n d s t u d e n t s are takers. O f c o u r s e , p a r e n t s t a k e
from their c h i l d r e n a n d teachers from their s t u d e n t s . H o w e v e r , this
only r e d u c e s t h e discrepancy, it d o e s n ' t nullify it. In all situations in
w h i c h b a l a n c e c a n n o t b e attained b y reciprocal giving, e q u i l i b r i u m
a n d c o n t e n t m e n t m u s t b e a c q u i r e d b y different m e a n s .
P a r e n t s w e r e o n c e themselves children a n d t e a c h e r s w e r e s t u -
d e n t s . T h e y achieve a b a l a n c e of giving a n d taking w h e n they give to
the n e x t g e n e r a t i o n w h a t they t o o k from t h e earlier g e n e r a t i o n .
Children and students may do the same.
Borries v o n M i i n c h h a u s e n describes this beautifully in t h e fol-
lowing p o e m
16 Love's Hidden Symmetry

The Golden Ball

For the love my father gave to me


I did not give him due.
As child, I didn't know the value of the gift.
As man, became too hard, too like a man.
My son grows to manhood now, loved with passion,
as no other, present in his father's heart.
I give of that which I once took, to one from
whom it did not come, nor is it given back.

When he becomes a man, thinking as a man,


he will, as I, follow his own path.
I'll watch, with longing free from envy as
he gives on to his own son the love I gave to him.
My gaze follows the game of life
deep through the halls of time—
each smilingly throws the golden ball,
and no one throws it back
to him from whom it came.

What's appropriate between parents and children and between


t e a c h e r s a n d s t u d e n t s c a n also b e applied w h e r e v e r a n e q u i l i b r i u m
o f giving a n d taking c a n n o t b e achieved t h r o u g h giving i n r e t u r n
a n d full e x c h a n g e . In all s u c h situations—for e x a m p l e , p e o p l e w i t h -
o u t c h i l d r e n — w e still m a y relieve ourselves of obligation by giving
t o o t h e r s w h a t w e have t a k e n .

Expressing Gratitude

E x p r e s s i n g g e n u i n e g r a t i t u d e is a n o t h e r way to b a l a n c e giving a n d
taking for t h o s e w h o m u s t take m o r e t h a n t h e y c a n r e c i p r o c a t e . W e
m u s t n ' t m i s u s e t h e expression of g r a t i t u d e to avoid giving o t h e r
things w h e n it's possible a n d a p p r o p r i a t e , b u t s o m e t i m e s it's t h e
only a d e q u a t e r e s p o n s e ; for e x a m p l e , for h a n d i c a p p e d p e r s o n s , for
t h e seriously ill, for t h e d y i n g , a n d s o m e t i m e s for lovers.
In s u c h s i t u a t i o n s , in a d d i t i o n to t h e n e e d for e q u i l i b r i u m , an
e l e m e n t a r y love c o m e s into play t h a t attracts t h e m e m b e r s of a
social system t o o n e a n o t h e r a n d h o l d s t h e m t o g e t h e r a s gravity
Guilt, Innocence, and the Limits of Conscience 17

h o l d s t h e p l a n e t s a n d s t a r s . T h i s love a c c o m p a n i e s g i v i n g a n d t a k i n g
and it b e c o m e s manifest as gratitude.
W h o e v e r feels g e n u i n e g r a t i t u d e affirms, " Y o u g i v e w i t h o u t
r e g a r d a s t o w h e t h e r o r n o t I c a n r e p a y , a n d I t a k e y o u r gift w i t h
love." W h o e v e r a c c e p t s s u c h g r a t i t u d e affirms, " Y o u r love a n d r e c -
o g n i t i o n o f m y gift a r e m o r e v a l u a b l e t o m e t h a n a n y t h i n g else y o u
m i g h t give t o m e . "
W i t h o u r g r a t i t u d e , w e affirm n o t o n l y w h a t w e g i v e t o o n e
a n o t h e r , b u t a l s o w h a t w e a r e for o n e a n o t h e r .

Gratitude Worthy of God

A m a n o n c e felt he owed G o d a great debt b e c a u s e he h a d b e e n


saved from life-threatening danger. He asked a friend what he should
do to express his gratitude in a way worthy of G o d . His friend told
h i m a story:
A m a n loved a w o m a n with all his h e a r t a n d asked her to m a r r y
h i m . She told h i m she wouldn't m a r r y h i m b e c a u s e she h a d other
plans. O n e day, as they were crossing the street together, the w o m a n
stepped in front of a car and would have b e e n r u n over if the m a n
h a d n ' t pulled her back. T h e n she t u r n e d to h i m a n d said, " N o w I'll
m a r r y you!"
" H o w d o you think that m a n felt?" asked the friend. T h e m a n gri-
m a c e d , b u t d i d n ' t answer. "You see," said t h e friend, " p e r h a p s G o d
feels t h e s a m e way a b o u t you."

We tend to experience unearned good fortune as threatening,


s o m e t h i n g t h a t creates anxiety, secretly believing t h a t o u r h a p p i n e s s
will a r o u s e t h e e n v y o f o t h e r s o r o f fate. W e all t e n d t o feel t h a t h a p -
p i n e s s b r e a k s a t a b o o a n d m a k e s u s guilty, a s i f b y b e i n g h a p p y w e
p u t ourselves in danger. G e n u i n e gratitude r e d u c e s this anxiety.
N e v e r t h e l e s s , a f f i r m i n g g o o d f o r t u n e i n t h e face o f a n o t h e r ' s m i s f o r -
t u n e r e q u i r e s h u m i l i t y a s well a s c o u r a g e .

Home from the War

C h i l d h o o d friends were sent off to war where they experienced i n d e -


scribable dangers, and, although many were killed or w o u n d e d , two
came home unharmed.
O n e of t h e two h a d b e c o m e very calm a n d was at peace within
himself. He k n e w he h a d been saved by the w h i m of destiny a n d he
accepted his life as a gift, as an act of grace.
18 Love's Hidden Symmetry

T h e other got into the habit of drinking with other veterans and
reliving the past. He loved to brag about the dangers he had escaped
and about his heroic acts. It was as if, for him, the whole experience
had been in vain.

Giving and Taking Constrain and Are Constrained by


Love

G i v i n g a n d taking in i n t i m a t e relationships are r e g u l a t e d by a


m u t u a l n e e d for e q u i l i b r i u m , b u t n o meaningful e x c h a n g e develops
b e t w e e n p a r t n e r s w i t h o u t t h e willingness o f b o t h t o e x p e r i e n c e p e r i -
odic i m b a l a n c e . It's similar to walking—we s t a n d still w h e n we
m a i n t a i n static e q u i l i b r i u m , a n d w e fall a n d r e m a i n lying d o w n
w h e n w e lose mobility completely. B u t b y r h y t h m i c a l l y losing o u r
b a l a n c e a n d regaining it, we m o v e forward. As s o o n as e q u i l i b r i u m
is achieved, t h e relationship either c a n be c o n c l u d e d or it c a n be
r e n e w e d a n d c o n t i n u e d b y n e w giving a n d taking.
P a r t n e r s in i n t i m a t e relationships are e q u a l — a l t h o u g h differ-
e n t — i n their e x c h a n g e , a n d their love s u c c e e d s a n d c o n t i n u e s w h e n
their giving a n d taking are b a l a n c e d in t h e negative, as well as in t h e
positive. T h e i r e x c h a n g e e n d s w h e n t h e y achieve a static equilib-
r i u m . W h e n o n e takes w i t h o u t giving, t h e o t h e r s o o n loses t h e desire
t o give m o r e . W h e n o n e gives w i t h o u t taking, t h e o t h e r s o o n d o e s n ' t
w a n t t o take any m o r e . P a r t n e r s h i p s also e n d w h e n o n e gives m o r e
t h a n t h e o t h e r is able or willing to r e c i p r o c a t e . L o v e limits giving
a c c o r d i n g to t h e taker's capacity to take, just as it limits taking
a c c o r d i n g t o t h e giver's ability t o give. T h a t m e a n s t h a t t h e n e e d for
a b a l a n c e of giving a n d taking b e t w e e n p a r t n e r s s i m u l t a n e o u s l y lim-
its their love a n d their p a r t n e r s h i p . In t h a t way, o u r n e e d for e q u i -
l i b r i u m c o n s t r a i n s a n d limits love.
B u t love also c o n s t r a i n s e q u i l i b r i u m . W h e n o n e p a r t n e r d o e s
s o m e t h i n g t h a t causes p a i n o r injury t o t h e o t h e r , t h e n t h e injured
p e r s o n m u s t r e t u r n s o m e t h i n g t h a t causes a similar p a i n a n d diffi-
culty in o r d e r to m a i n t a i n a b a l a n c e of giving a n d t a k i n g — b u t in
s u c h a w a y t h a t love is n o t destroyed. W h e n t h e injured p e r s o n feels
t o o s u p e r i o r t o s t o o p t o t h e a p p r o p r i a t e r e t r i b u t i o n love r e q u i r e s ,
t h e n e q u i l i b r i u m is i m p o s s i b l e a n d t h e relationship is e n d a n g e r e d .
F o r e x a m p l e , o n e of t h e difficult situations c o u p l e s m a y face arises
w h e n o n e of t h e m h a s an affair. Reconciliation is i m p o s s i b l e after an
Guilt, Innocence, and the Limits of Conscience 19

affair if o n e p a r t n e r s t u b b o r n l y clings to i n n o c e n c e , polarizing guilt


and innocence.
O n t h e o t h e r h a n d , i f the injured p a r t n e r i s willing t o m a k e h i m -
self or herself also guilty by r e t u r n i n g a p o r t i o n of t h e h u r t , t h e n it
m a y be possible for t h e m to r e s u m e their relationship. B u t if the
injured p e r s o n loves his o r h e r p a r t n e r a n d w a n t s t h e p a r t n e r s h i p t o
c o n t i n u e , t h e h u r t r e t u r n e d m u s t n o t b e exactly a s m u c h a s received
b e c a u s e t h e n n o i n e q u i t y r e m a i n s t o tie t h e m together. N o r m a y i t
b e m o r e , b e c a u s e t h e w r o n g d o e r t h e n b e c o m e s injured a n d feels
justified in seeking retaliation, a n d the cycle of h a r m escalates. T h e
h u r t r e t u r n e d m u s t b e a little less t h a n was originally given. T h e n
b o t h love a n d fairness receive their d u e , a n d t h e e x c h a n g e c a n b e
r e s u m e d a n d c o n t i n u e d . In this way, love c o n s t r a i n s e q u i l i b r i u m .
S o m e p e o p l e find it u n c o m f o r t a b l e to realize t h a t , in s u c h situa-
t i o n s , t h e reconciliation t h a t allows love to flow a b u n d a n t l y isn't
possible u n l e s s t h e i n n o c e n t b e c o m e guilty b y d e m a n d i n g just c o m -
p e n s a t i o n . N e v e r t h e l e s s , a s w e k n o w t h e tree b y its fruit, w e n e e d
only t o c o m p a r e c o u p l e s w h o t r y t h e o n e a p p r o a c h w i t h t h o s e w h o
live t h e o t h e r to recognize w h a t is truly g o o d a n d w h a t is h a r m f u l
for i n t i m a c y a n d love.

The Way Out


A man told his friend that his wife had been resentful for 20 years.
He said that a few days after their marriage, his parents had asked
him to go on a six-week vacation with them because they needed him
to drive their new car. He had gone with them and had left her
behind. All of his attempts to explain his actions and to apologize had
not achieved resolution.
His friend suggested, "Tell her that she can choose something or
do something for herself that costs you as much as what you did cost
her."
T h e man beamed. He recognized the key to unlocking the solu-
tion to their problem.

It sometimes happens that b o t h partners cause increasing h u r t to


each o t h e r a n d act as if w h a t injures their love were g o o d . T h e n
their e x c h a n g e in t h e negative increases a n d this e x c h a n g e b i n d s
t h e m tightly to e a c h o t h e r in their u n h a p p i n e s s . T h e y m a i n t a i n a
b a l a n c e of giving a n d t a k i n g , b u t n o t in love. We c a n r e c o g n i z e t h e
quality of a relationship by t h e v o l u m e of giving a n d t a k i n g , a n d by
w h e t h e r e q u i l i b r i u m i s usually achieved i n g o o d o r i n h a r m . T h a t
20 Love's Hidden Symmetry

also points to how we can restore a weakened partnership and make


it satisfying; partners move from exchange in harm to exchange in
good, and increase it with love.

False H e l p l e s s n e s s

When someone is wronged, he or she suffers helplessly. The greater


the helplessness of the victim, the harsher we judge the wrongdoer.
But injured partners seldom remain completely helpless once the
harm is past. They usually have possibilities in action, either to end
their partnership if the injuries have been too great, or to demand
just atonement from their partners, and by doing so, to put an end
to guilt and to enable a new beginning.
When victims don't take advantage of a possibility to act, then
others act for them—with the difference that the damage and injus-
tice done by those acting on their behalf are often much worse than
if the victims had acted themselves. In human relationship systems,
repressed resentments emerge later in those who are least able to
defend themselves; most often, it's the children and grandchildren
who experience an earlier anger as if it were their own.

False Martyr

A m a t u r e married couple attended a seminar together, a n d on t h e


first evening, t h e w o m a n took their car and left, reappearing again
t h e next day just in time for the workshop. She placed herself
squarely in front of her h u s b a n d a n d a n n o u n c e d in front of the whole
g r o u p in a very provocative way that she had just c o m e from h e r
lover.
W h e n this w o m a n was with others in the g r o u p , she was as nice as
h e r h u s b a n d was: attentive, empathic, sensitive. But w h e n she was
with h i m , she was as m e a n to h i m as she was kind to t h e others. T h e
others c o u l d n ' t u n d e r s t a n d what could possibly be going on, e s p e -
cially i n a s m u c h as h e r h u s b a n d d i d n ' t defend himself.
It t u r n e d out that as a child this w o m a n , with her m o t h e r a n d h e r
siblings, was sent to the country d u r i n g the s u m m e r while h e r father
stayed in the city with his mistress. He a n d his mistress w o u l d
visit from time to time, and his wife was always friendly a n d waited
on t h e m b o t h as if nothing were wrong. But inwardly, she was furi-
ous. She repressed her anger a n d h e r pain, but the children noticed it
anyway.
Guilt, Innocence, and the Limits of Conscience 21

W e m i g h t b e t e m p t e d t o call the m o t h e r ' s b e h a v i o r c o m m e n d -


able, b u t it w a s false i n n o c e n c e a n d its effect w a s d e s t r u c t i v e . T h e
d a u g h t e r avenged t h e injustice d o n e t o h e r m o t h e r b y p u n i s h i n g h e r
h u s b a n d for h e r father's d e e d , b u t she also d e m o n s t r a t e d h e r love
for h e r father by acting exactly as he h a d a c t e d — s h e t r e a t e d h e r
h u s b a n d a s h e r father h a d t r e a t e d h e r m o t h e r . T h e b e t t e r r e s o l u t i o n
w o u l d have b e e n for t h e m o t h e r o f this w o m a n t o have c o n f r o n t e d
h e r h u s b a n d with h e r anger. T h e n h e w o u l d have h a d t o m a k e a
decision, a n d they c o u l d have either c o m e to a m u t u a l a g r e e m e n t or
m a d e a clean s e p a r a t i o n .
W h e n e v e r t h e i n n o c e n t c o n t i n u e suffering a l t h o u g h a p p r o p r i a t e
action is possible, m o r e i n n o c e n t victims a n d guilty victimizers s o o n
follow. It's an illusion to believe t h a t we avoid p a r t i c i p a t i n g in evil
b y clinging t o i n n o c e n c e i n s t e a d o f d o i n g w h a t w e c a n t o c o n f r o n t
w r o n g d o i n g — e v e n w h e n w e ourselves t h e n d o w r o n g a s well. I f o n e
p a r t n e r insists o n a m o n o p o l y o n i n n o c e n c e , t h e r e ' s n o e n d t o t h e
o t h e r ' s guilt, a n d their love withers. N o t only d o t h o s e w h o i g n o r e
or passively s u b m i t to evil fail to preserve i n n o c e n c e , b u t t h e y sow
injustice. L o v e requires t h e c o u r a g e t o b e c o m e guilty appropriately.

Premature Forgiveness

Similarly, p r e m a t u r e forgiveness p r o h i b i t s c o n s t r u c t i v e dialog w h e n


it covers up or p o s t p o n e s a conflict a n d leaves t h e c o n s e q u e n c e s to
be dealt w i t h by o t h e r s in t h e family. T h i s is especially d e s t r u c t i v e
w h e n t h e o n e w h o was w r o n g e d tries t o release t h e w r o n g d o e r from
his or h e r guilt, as if victims h a d t h a t authority. If reconciliation is
desired, t h e n t h e o n e w r o n g e d n o t only h a s t h e right t o d e m a n d r e s -
titution a n d a t o n e m e n t , b u t also t h e obligation t o d o so. A n d t h e
w r o n g d o e r n o t only h a s t h e obligation t o c a r r y t h e c o n s e q u e n c e s o f
his or h e r a c t i o n s , b u t also t h e right to do so.

The Second Time Around


A man and a woman who were married to other partners fell in love.
When the woman became pregnant, they divorced their respective
partners and married. T h e woman had previously been childless. T h e
man had a daughter from his first marriage, whom he left with her
mother. T h e man and his new wife both felt guilty about the man's
first wife and their dream was that she would forgive them. In fact,
22 Love's Hidden Symmetry

she was very resentful of t h e m , because she a n d her d a u g h t e r were


paying the price for the couple's happiness.
W h e n they spoke to a friend about their wish to be forgiven, he
asked t h e m to imagine what would h a p p e n if their wish were fulfilled
a n d the ex-wife really forgave them. W h e n they did so, they b o t h real-
ized that they had avoided feeling the full weight of their guilt a n d
t h a t their wish for forgiveness d i d n ' t do justice to the dignity a n d
n e e d s of the m a n ' s first wife. T h e y decided to admit to his first wife
a n d to his child that they h a d d e m a n d e d a great sacrifice for their
own happiness, a n d that they would meet all just d e m a n d s from the
two who h a d b e e n injured. T h e y t h e n stood by their decision.

Love is well served when the victim's demands for compensation


remain appropriate.

F o r g i v e n e s s a n d Reconciliation

Forgiveness that is truly healing preserves the dignity of the guilty


p e r s o n as well as that of the victim. T h i s forgiveness requires that
victims n o t go to extremes in what they d e m a n d , a n d that they
accept the appropriate compensation a n d a t o n e m e n t offered by the
perpetrator. W i t h o u t the forgiveness that acknowledges genuine
r e m o r s e a n d accepts appropriate atonement there's no reconcili-
ation.

An "Aha" Experience

A w o m a n divorced her h u s b a n d in order to be with h e r lover. After


m a n y years, the w o m a n b e g a n to regret her decision. She discovered
that she still loved her ex-husband and w a n t e d to be m a r r i e d to h i m
again, especially as he h a d remained single. W h e n she spoke to h i m
a b o u t her feelings, he avoided answering, either positively or nega-
tively, b u t agreed to talk the matter over with a counselor. T h e c o u n -
selor asked the m a n what he h o p e d to get from t h e meeting. He
laughed halfheartedly and said, " A n aha! experience!"
T h e counselor asked the w o m a n what she h a d to offer that would
make her former h u s b a n d interested in living with her again. She said
that she h a d n ' t really t h o u g h t about what she h a d to offer, and was
u n a b l e to answer convincingly. N o t surprisingly, the m a n r e m a i n e d
cautious a n d u n c o m m i t t e d .
T h e counselor suggested that she m u s t , first of all, recognize that
she h a d caused her ex-husband pain, and t h e n give h i m cause to
Guilt, Innocence, and the Limits of Conscience 23

believe that she was prepared to make reparations. T h e w o m a n


t h o u g h t it over for a while, and then looked directly at h e r former
h u s b a n d , a n d said convincingly, " I ' m truly sorry for what I did to
you. I want to be your wife again, and I will love you a n d care for you
so that you will be h a p p y a n d so that you can trust m e . "
T h e m a n r e m a i n e d n o n c o m m i t t a l . T h e counselor said t o h i m , "It
m u s t have h u r t you a lot a n d you d o n ' t want to risk a repeat." T h e
m a n h a d tears in his eyes a n d the counselor continued, "A p e r s o n
like you, to w h o m something painful was d o n e , often feels morally
superior a n d assumes the right to reject the other;" He a d d e d ,
"Against s u c h innocence, a guilty p e r s o n has no c h a n c e . " T h e m a n
smiled and t u r n e d to his former wife.
" T h a t was your " a h a " experience. Pay me my fee," said the c o u n -
selor, " a n d what you make out of your " a h a " is up to you. I d o n ' t
even want to know."

W h e n We M u s t C a u s e P a i n

When one partner's action in an intimate relationship results in


separation, we tend to believe that he or she made a free and inde-
pendent choice. But it's often the case that, had that partner not
acted, he or she would have suffered some injury. Then the roles
would have been reversed, the guilt and consequences exchanged.
Perhaps the separation was necessary because the soul required,
more space to grow, and the one who left was already suffering. In
such situations, suffering is unavoidable. Our choices are limited to
acting so that something constructive emerges out of the unavoid-
able pain we must cause or suffer. Often partners stay in a painful
situation until they have suffered enough to compensate for the pain
their leaving will cause the other.
When partners separate, it isn't only the one who goes who has a
new chance. The one who is left often also has a chance to make a
new beginning. But when one partner stays stuck in pain and rejects
the constructive possibilities presented by the separation, he or she
makes it difficult for the partner who left to start a new life. Then
they remain tightly tied to each other in spite of their separation.
On the other hand, when the one who was left manages to accept
the opportunity for something better, then he or she also grants the
former partner freedom and relief. Making something truly good
out of misfortune is probably the most constructive form of forgive- I
24 Love's Hidden Symmetry

ness in such situations because it reconciles even when the separa-


tion remains.

S u b m i t t i n g to Fate

People sometimes feel guilty when they gain some advantage at


another's expense—even when they can do nothing to stop it or
change it. Here are two examples.

My Advantage at Your Expense

' A boy was b o r n , b u t his m o t h e r died. No one t h o u g h t of holding the


boy responsible for his mother's death, b u t his knowledge of his i n n o - ,
cence d i d n ' t assuage his feeling of guilt. Because fate h a d tied his
b i r t h to his mother's death, the pressure of guilt r e m a i n e d inexorable,
a n d h e unconsciously c r e a t e d f a i l u r e i n h i s l i f e i n a v a i n a t t e m p t t o
atone for something he h a d n ' t d o n e .

Blowout

A m a n ' s car h a d a blowout, went into a skid, a n d crashed into


a n o t h e r car. T h e driver of the second car was killed, b u t the first m a n
lived. Although he h a d been driving safely, his life r e m a i n e d tied to
the d e a t h of the other m a n and he c o u l d n ' t escape his feelings of
guilt. He was u n a b l e to enjoy his success until he c a m e to see that the
deceased m a n was d e m e a n e d by his misery, n o t h o n o r e d .

We're helpless against such guilt and innocence at the hands of


chance and happenstance. If we were guilty or we deserved a reward
because of our freely chosen actions, we would retain power and
influence. But in these situations, we recognize that we're subject to
forces we can't control, forces that decide whether we live or die, are
saved or perish, thrive or decline—independently of our actions for
good or evil.
Such vulnerability to happenstance is so frightening to many
people that they prefer to spoil their unearned good fortune and to
repudiate the bounty of life rather than to accept it gracefully. They
often attempt to create personal guilt or to accumulate good deeds
after the fact in order to escape the vulnerability to unearned rescue
or undeserved suffering.
It's common for persons who have an advantage at the cost of
another to try to limit their advantage by committing suicide,
Guilt, Innocence, and the Limits of Conscience 25

b e c o m i n g ill, or by doing s o m e t h i n g to m a k e themselves truly


guilty, and t h e n suffering the consequences. All such solutions are
c o n n e c t e d to magical thinking a n d they are a childlike form of deal-
ing with u n e a r n e d good fortune. T h e y actually increase guilt rather
t h a n diminish it. F o r example, w h e n a child—as in the e x a m p l e
above—whose m o t h e r died at t h e child's birth later limits his or h e r
happiness or c o m m i t s suicide, t h e n the mother's sacrifice was for
n o t h i n g , and she's implicitly m a d e responsible for the d e a t h of h e r
child as well.
If t h e child could have said, " M o t h e r , your d e a t h shall n o t have
b e e n in vain. I will m a k e s o m e t h i n g out of my life in m e m o r y of
you, because I know its value," t h e n the pressure of guilt at the h a n d
of fate could have b e c o m e a force for good, allowing the child to
reach goals impossible for others. T h e n the m o t h e r ' s d e a t h would
have had a good effect and could have b r o u g h t the child peace for a
long time.
H e r e , too, everyone involved is subject to a pressure toward e q u i -
librium—whoever has received something from fate w a n t s to give
back in kind, or w h e n that's n o t possible, then at least to c o m p e n -
sate with failure. But these r e m a i n vain a t t e m p t s , as destiny is
utterly indifferent to o u r d e m a n d s a n d attempts at c o m p e n s a t i o n s
and restitution.

Humility in the Face of Fate

It is o u r i n n o c e n c e that m a k e s o u r suffering at t h e h a n d s of h a p -
p e n s t a n c e so difficult to bear. If we were guilty b e c a u s e of o u r o w n
actions a n d were p u n i s h e d , or if we were i n n o c e n t of w r o n g d o i n g
a n d were s p a r e d as a result, we c o u l d a s s u m e t h a t t h e c o n d i t i o n of
c i r c u m s t a n c e follows a m o r a l o r d e r a n d the rules of justice a n d
fair play. We could believe t h a t we control guilt a n d i n n o c e n c e
with o u r g o o d behavior. B u t w h e n w e ' r e spared regardless of o u r
p e r s o n a l guilt or i n n o c e n c e while others p e r i s h w i t h o u t regard
for their w o r t h i n e s s or u n w o r t h i n e s s , t h e n we k n o w t h a t w e ' r e
completely vulnerable to t h e forces of c h a n c e a n d w e ' r e u n a v o i d -
ably c o n f r o n t e d with the c a p r i c i o u s n e s s of guilt a n d i n n o c e n c e .
W h e n guilt a n d d a m a g e r e a c h tragic d i m e n s i o n s a n d b e c o m e o u r
fate, reconciliation is only possible if we relinquish c o m p e n s a t i o n
completely.
26 Love's Hidden Symmetry

T h e o n l y possibility t h e n o p e n t o u s i s s u b m i s s i o n , t o c h o o s e t o
s u r r e n d e r to t h e inexorable force of destiny, to either o u r a d v a n t a g e
o r o u r d i s a d v a n t a g e . W e m a y call t h e i n n e r a t t i t u d e t h a t m a k e s i t
possible to s u r r e n d e r in this way humility; t h a t is, a h u m b l e forgive-
ness a n d s u b m i s s i o n t o t r u e helplessness. I n s u c h s i t u a t i o n s , w h e n
b o t h t h e w r o n g d o e r a n d t h e o n e w r o n g e d s u b m i t t o t h e i r inevitable
fate w i t h humility, they p u t a n e n d t o guilt a n d c o m p e n s a t i o n . I t
allows t h e m to enjoy life a n d h a p p i n e s s — a s l o n g as they l a s t — i n d e -
p e n d e n t l y of t h e p r i c e o t h e r s have p a i d . It allows t h e m to consent to
their o w n d e a t h s a n d to t h e difficulties life p r e s e n t s regardless of
p e r s o n a l guilt a n d i n n o c e n c e .

Where's My Grandson?
A young man who had just learned to drive had an accident. His
grandmother, who was a passenger, was fatally injured. As she came
to consciousness in the hospital just before she died, she asked,
"Where's my grandson?" As he was brought to her, she said, " D o n ' t
blame yourself. It's my time to die."
Unbidden, the thought welled up in him with the tears, "I submit
to carrying the weight of being the instrument of your passing. When
the time comes, I will do something good in your memory." And one
day he did.

T h i s h u m i l i t y l e n d s u s s e r i o u s n e s s a n d weight. W h e n w e feel t r u e
humility, w e realize t h a t i t i s n ' t just w e w h o d e t e r m i n e o u r fate, b u t
also t h a t it is o u r fate t h a t d e t e r m i n e s u s . H a p p e n s t a n c e acts to o u r
benefit o r h a r m a c c o r d i n g t o laws w h o s e secrets w e c a n n o t — a n d
m u s t n o t — f a t h o m . H u m i l i t y i s the a p p r o p r i a t e a n s w e r t o guilt a n d
g o o d f o r t u n e at t h e h a n d s of fate. It p u t s us on a level w i t h t h e less
fortunate, enabling us to honor t h e m — n o t by diminishing or disre-
g a r d i n g t h e a d v a n t a g e w e have a t their e x p e n s e , b u t b y g r a t e f u l l y
t a k i n g it in spite of the high price they p a i d , a n d by seeing to it t h a t
o t h e r s profit from it as well.

CONSCIENCE IN THE
SERVICE OF SOCIAL ORDER

T h e t h i r d necessity for t h e success of love in i n t i m a t e r e l a t i o n s h i p s


is o r d e r . " O r d e r " refers, first of all, to t h e rules a n d social c o n v e n -
Guilt, Innocence, and the Limits of Conscience 27

t i o n s t h a t c o n s t r a i n t h e c o m m u n a l life o f a s o c i a l g r o u p . All e n d u r -
ing relationships develop n o r m s , rules, beliefs, a n d t a b o o s that are
b i n d i n g o n their m e m b e r s . I n this way, relationships b e c o m e rela-
tionship systems with o r d e r a n d s t r u c t u r e . T h e s e social c o n v e n t i o n s
c o n s t i t u t e t h e s u r f a c e c o n v e n t i o n t o w h i c h all g r o u p m e m b e r s c o n -
sent, b u t w h i c h vary widely from g r o u p to g r o u p . S u c h orders set
the boundaries of membership: Those who conform belong and
t h o s e w h o d o n ' t follow t h e c o n v e n t i o n s o f t h e g r o u p s o o n l e a v e . W e
c a n s e e t h i s s y s t e m i c d y n a m i c clearly w h e n w a t c h i n g a flock o f b i r d s
i n f l i g h t . W i t h i n t h e f l o c k , e v e r y b i r d f l i e s its i n d i v i d u a l p a t h , b u t
w h e n it deviates too widely from the flight of t h e others, we see it
leave t h e f l o c k . S o c i a l o r d e r s c o n s t r a i n o u r b e h a v i o r w i t h i n o u r
g r o u p a n d give f o r m t o o u r r o l e s a n d f u n c t i o n s , b u t w e d o n ' t feel
s u c h d e e p guilt at violating t h e m as w h e n we injure b o n d i n g or the
balance of giving a n d taking.

Additional Considerations

In earlier times, the consequences of being excluded from one's


g r o u p or family m u s t have b e e n m u c h m o r e serious t h a n today
(although such exclusion still carries p r o f o u n d c o n s e q u e n c e s in some
rural areas). We live in a time of rapidly changing social o r d e r s , a n d
while this social evolution increases flexibility, mobility, and personal
freedom of choice, it also simultaneously increases alienation, disori-
entation, the loss of roots, and may limit the sense of well-being that
.naturally c o m e s with clear belonging. M a n y of t h e individual a n d
family p r o b l e m s that people bring to therapy are t h e result of t h e
b r e a k d o w n of old social a n d family orders a n d the difficulty of devel-
oping new orders that both stand the test of time a n d serve love. For
example, the traditional orders that defined the roles a n d division of
labor b e t w e e n m e n a n d w o m e n are changing so rapidly that m a n y
couples m u s t expend e n o r m o u s effort to develop n e w ones a p p r o p r i -
ate to their situations. We frequently observe h o w u n p r e d i c t a b l e the
long-term effects of these new orders are on their children a n d on
their love, a n d that their efforts are not always rewarded with success.
T h e y work very hard to achieve an order in their togetherness that
once was freely given by the n o r m s of their c o m m u n i t y . M a n y have
b e e n pleased to discover that they can maintain b o n d i n g a n d balance
of giving a n d taking within their family even w h e n they deviate from
t h e traditional social orders of their g r o u p or c o m m u n i t y . [H.B.]
28 Love's Hidden Symmetry

THE SYSTEMIC CONSCIENCE


OF THE GREATER WHOLE

In addition to the feelings of guilt a n d i n n o c e n c e that we c o n -


sciously feel in the service of b o n d i n g , the balance of giving and tak-
ing, a n d social convention, there's also a h i d d e n conscience
operating in o u r relationships that we do n o t feel. It's a systemic
conscience that has priority over o u r personal feelings of guilt a n d
innocence and w h i c h serves other orders. T h e s e orders are the hid-
d e n natural laws that shape and constrain the behavior of h u m a n
relationship systems. T h e y are, in p a r t , t h e natural forces of biology
and evolution; in p a r t , the general dynamics of complex systems
b e c o m i n g manifest in o u r intimacy; a n d in p a r t , the forces of Love's
H i d d e n S y m m e t r y operating within the soul.
A l t h o u g h we are n o t directly aware of it, we can recognize t h e
orders of this h i d d e n conscience by their effect, by the suffering that
results from their b e i n g violated, and by t h e rich and stable love
they s u p p o r t . We often violate t h e O r d e r s of Love w h e n we follow
o u r personal conscience. Tragedies in families a n d in intimate rela-
tionships—as we will see in the following chapters—are often asso-
ciated with conflicts b e t w e e n t h e conscience guarding b o n d i n g ,
giving a n d taking, a n d social convention and the h i d d e n conscience
guarding t h e family system. But love flourishes w h e n personal c o n -
science a n d social convention s u b m i t to the o r d e r s and h i d d e n sym-
m e t r y of love.

Breaking the Magic Spell

W h o e v e r desires to solve the mystery of Love's H i d d e n S y m m e t r y


enters a c o m p l e x labyrinth a n d m u s t carry m a n y balls of twine_to
distinguish the paths that lead to daylight from those that lead
deeper into the abyss. We are forced to feel o u r way in darkness,
confronting the deceptions a n d illusions that weave themselves
a r o u n d u s , dulling o u r senses a n d paralyzing o u r u n d e r s t a n d i n g as
we try to unrave the secrets of t h e good b e y o n d guilt a n d i n n o -
cence. Children are led into this surreality w h e n they're told that
babies are b r o u g h t by storks, a n d weary prisoners m u s t have felt it
as well w h e n they read the sign above t h e gate of the d e a t h c a m p ,
"Work will m a k e you free."
Guilt, Innocence, and the Limits of Conscience 29

Nevertheless, many have had the courage to enter the labyrinth,


to peer into the darkness, and to break the spell of false belief. Then
they are like the minstrel waiting quietly on the corner to play a
countermelody to waken the spellbound children as the Pied Piper
marches past. Or like the boy, upon watching a crowd cheering a
demented dictator, exclaimed what others knew but were afraid to
admit, "He's naked!"

The Emperor's New Clothes

At an academic symposium, a well-known professor of philosophy


was m u c h applauded w h e n he eloquently defended the idea that the
greatest personal freedom is achieved when an individual is no longer
d e p e n d e n t on anyone else.
As the t h u n d e r of applause died down, one of the participants
stood and said, in a loud voice with childlike simplicity, " T h a t ' s not
right!" A wave of shock and indignation swept through the r o o m .
After the audience had calmed, the m a n added, "Everyone can see
that at any m o m e n t we are dependent on many things—on the air we
breathe, on the farmer who grows our food, on our friends and fam-
ily. We are all parts of a greater whole, and we depend on it as it
depends on us. What freedom is that when we refuse to see what is
and are c o n d e m n e d to live in the illusion that things are different
than they are? T h e freedom that I love comes when I acknowledge
reality as it is and consent to it. T h e n I can pay in full measure what
I owe and I am free from debt, and I can take in full measure what is
given to me and I am free to need."

The intelligence of the systemic symmetry of love operating


unseen in our relationships watches over love. It is easier to follow
than to understand. We recognize it, if it is important to us, in the
subtle movements of our inwardness and in the careful observation
of our relationships. We recognize its laws only when we see the
consequences of what we have done for ourselves and others—
whether love increases or it is diminished.
How we recognize the limits of personal conscience, where they
help us as well as where we must overcome them, and how we may
know the intelligence of the Greater Soul that supports love are
described in the following chapters.
It is the path of the knowledge of good and evil beyond feelings
of guilt and innocence, and it serves love.
30 Love's Hidden Symmetry

Helping Revelations
A young m a n seeking further knowledge sets out on his bicycle into
the countryside. He is driven by the joy of exploration and his e n t h u -
siasm knows no b o u n d s . Far b e y o n d his usual territory, he finds a
n e w p a t h . H e r e there are no m o r e signs to guide h i m , a n d he m u s t
rely on what his eye can see and what his pedaling legs can measure.
N o w what was only an intuition b e c o m e s experience.
His p a t h e n d s at a wide river a n d he gets off his bicycle. He sees
that going on requires leaving everything he has on the riverbank,
leaving the safety of solid g r o u n d , putting himself in the h a n d s of a
force that is stronger t h a n he is, a n d allowing himself to be overpow-
ered a n d swept along. He hesitates, and t h e n retreats.
T h i s is his first revelation.
Riding h o m e , he admits to himself that he u n d e r s t a n d s very little
that could be helpful to o t h e r s , a n d even that little which he knows,
he could scarcely c o m m u n i c a t e . He imagines himself to be following
a n o t h e r bicycle rider whose fender is rattling. He imagines calling
out, "Hey, your fender's rattling!" T h e other answers, " W h a t ? " H e
imagines yelling louder, "Your fender's rattling!"
T h e other answers, "I can't hear you. My fender's rattling."
He realizes, " H e d i d n ' t need my help at all!"
T h i s is his second revelation.
A short time later, he asks an old teacher, " H o w do you m a n a g e to
help other people? M a n y people come to you asking for advice, a n d
they leave feeling better even t h o u g h you know little of their affairs."
T h e teacher answers, " W h e n s o m e o n e loses courage a n d d o e s n ' t
w a n t to go o n , t h e p r o b l e m is seldom lack of knowledge, b u t rather
wanting safety w h e n courage is called for, and seeking freedom
where necessity leaves no choice. A n d so he goes in circles. A teacher
resists a p p e a r a n c e and illusion. He finds his center a n d waits for a
helpful word, as a ship with sails raised waits to catch the wind. W h e n
s o m e o n e c o m e s seeking help, the teacher is waiting where the visitor
himself m u s t go, a n d if an answer c o m e s , it comes for b o t h of t h e m ,
for b o t h are listeners."
A n d t h e n the teacher a d d s , "Waiting at the center is effortless."
C H A P T E R T W O

Man and Woman:


The Foundation
of Family

T h e f o u n d a t i o n of family is t h e sexual a t t r a c t i o n b e t w e e n a m a n
a n d a w o m a n . W h e n a m a n desires a w o m a n , he desires w h a t h e , as
m a n , n e e d s a n d d o e s n o t have. W h e n a w o m a n desires a m a n , s h e ,
t o o , desires w h a t she, as w o m a n , is missing. M a l e a n d female f o r m a
c o m p l e m e n t a r y p a i r o f p a r t n e r s w h o m u t u a l l y define a n d c o m p l e t e
one another. Each is what the other needs, and each needs what the
o t h e r is. If love is to s u c c e e d , we m u s t give w h a t we are and t a k e
from o u r p a r t n e r w h a t w e n e e d . G i v i n g ourselves, t a k i n g a n d having
our partner, we become m a n or woman, and with him or her, we
become a couple.
T h e e x p r e s s i o n o f love i n sexual i n t i m a c y , a n d s o m e t i m e s t h e a c t
o f sexual i n t e r c o u r s e a l o n e , often b o n d s p a r t n e r s t o e a c h o t h e r
w h e t h e r they w a n t i t o r n o t . I t i s n ' t i n t e n t i o n o r choice t h a t e s t a b -
lishes t h e b o n d , b u t t h e physical act itself. T h i s d y n a m i c c a n b e
o b s e r v e d i n t h e sense o f protectiveness t h a t s o m e r a p e a n d incest
victims feel t o w a r d t h e p e r p e t r a t o r s , a n d in t h o s e casual sexual
e n c o u n t e r s t h a t leave lifelong traces.

31
32 Love's Hidden Symmetry

O u r shyness in naming and affirming this most intimate aspect of


a couple's relationship is related to the fact that sexual passion is
still regarded in some circles as being demeaning and undignified.
Nevertheless, sexual consummation is the greatest possible human
I act. No other human action is more in harmony with the order and
the richness of life, expresses more fully our participation in the
wholeness of the world, or brings with it such profound pleasure
and, in its consequences, such loving suffering. No other act brings
such rewards or entails greater risks, demands more from us, and
makes us so wise, knowing, and human as when we take each other,
know each other, and belong to each other in love. In comparison,
all other human actions seem merely a prelude, an encore, a solace,
or a consequence—an impoverished imitation.
T h e sexual expression of love is also our most humble action.
N o w h e r e else do we expose ourselves so completely, uncovering our
deepest vulnerability. We don't guard anything else with such deep
shame as this inner place where partners show each other their
most intimate selves and give those selves into each other's keeping.
T h r o u g h the sexual expression of love, both men and women leave
their mothers and fathers and "cleave" to one another—as the Bible
describes it—and they become one flesh.
W h e t h e r we like it or not, the special and, in a very deep sense,
indissoluble bond between partners arises out of, and is the result
of, their sexual union. O n l y this act makes them a couple, and only
this act can make them parents. F o r this reason, if their sexuality is
limited in some way—for example, by inhibitions or by one part-
ner's having been sterilized—the bond doesn't form completely,
even if the couple desires it. T h i s is also true of platonic partner-
ships in which partners avoid the risks of sexuality and confront less
guilt and responsibility if they separate. O n c e partners have estab-
lished a bond by sharing sexual intimacy, separation without hurt
and guilt is no longer possible. T h e y no longer can walk away as if
their togetherness didn't exist. A l t h o u g h this bonding causes hard-
ship for parents who separate, it also protects their children from
capricious or self-centered separations.
T h e crucial role that sexuality plays in a couple's bonding
makes apparent the supremacy of the flesh over the spirit, as well
as the wisdom of the flesh. We may be tempted to devalue the flesh
in comparison with the spirit, as if that which is done out of physi-
cal need, desire, longing, and sexual love has less value than what
Man and Woman: The Foundation of Family 33

w e g a i n t h r o u g h r e a s o n a n d m o r a l will. Physical d e s i r e n e v e r t h e -
less d e m o n s t r a t e s its p o w e r , a n d s o m e t i m e s its w i s d o m , a t t h e
p o i n t a t w h i c h r e a s o n a n d m o r a l i t y r e a c h t h e i r limits a n d recoil
D e s i r e still rises t o serve after r e a s o n ' s c o l d c o n s t r a i n t s have w e a -
ried o r g r o w n c a l l o u s . T h e h i g h e r r e a s o n a n d t h e d e e p e r m e a n i n g
t h a t arise o u t o f o u r i n s t i n c t u a l physical u r g e s o v e r p o w e r a n d c o n -
trol r a t i o n a l i t y a n d will. T h e y are closer t o t h e h e a r t o f life a n d a r e
more enduring.

The Spirit Is Willing, the Flesh Is Wise

Some say that body


in comparison to Spirit
—is less.
As if that done in longing
and sexual desire
—were less
than that chosen out of
Reason and by Moral Will.

But desire displays


courage and wisdom
when Will and Reason
cower and shrink and
dare not to serve Life.

In the Desire of the Flesh


hides a higher reason
and burns a deeper meaning
outshining rationality and
overpowering the will.
Desire is closer to the Heart of life,
more obedient,
and more enduring.

It is the flesh that rules the will.


I say,
The Spirit is willing, but
The Flesh is Wise.
34 Love's Hidden Symmetry

Additional Considerations

Hellinger's insistence on the creative and life-affirming n a t u r e of


sexual desire contrasts sharply with the views of those w h o consider
"desires of the flesh" to be a nuisance or even sinful, and also with
the views of those w h o see sexuality merely as a pleasure u n c o n -
nected to p a r e n t h o o d .
" M a l e " a n d "female" d e n o t e — a m o n g other things—the physi-
ological specialization necessary for procreation. In this sense, male
and female need one another, complement and complete one another,
b u t it would be a grave error to reduce maleness a n d femaless to this
biological dimension alone. Nevertheless, our psychotherapeutic
work shows that people who downplay or ignore its i m p o r t a n c e regu-
larly e n c o u n t e r difficulty in their intimate relationships. W h e n Hell-
inger speaks of the sexual expression of love b e t w e e n a m a n a n d a
w o m a n , he isn't excluding or discounting other forms of loving,
sexual relationships, b u t he is insisting on h o n o r i n g this inescapable
aspect of p a r e n t h o o d .
Increasing n u m b e r s of m e n and w o m e n are living in n o n t r a d i -
tional families. T h e r e are singles a n d couples who neither have n o r
desire children, just as there are m e n who desire m e n a n d w o m e n
w h o desire w o m e n . Faced with a population explosion, n a t u r e
increasingly d e m a n d s a n d supports couples foregoing p a r e n t h o o d ,
providing t h e m with alternative expressions of h u m a n n e s s a n d love.
Still, m a n y people with w h o m we have worked feel a painful loss at
foregoing p a r e n t h o o d a n d work hard to accept their loss without
minimizing it, to find lifestyles that bring m e a n i n g a n d the d e e p sat-
isfaction of soul that c o m e automatically to parents in a healthy fam-
ily. W h e n they succeed, they know that they serve a n d are s u p p o r t e d
by life in what they do, a n d participate fully in its b o u n t y a n d mys-
tery. Still, m a n y c o n t i n u e to look wistfully at families with children
a n d do w o n d e r what it would have b e e n like to have b e e n parents.
T h i s is especially true as they grow older and a p p r o a c h d e a t h . T h e i r
loss—no matter h o w appropriate—is a heavy b u r d e n a n d deserves
full acknowledgment a n d appreciation. H . B .

CARING FOR DESIRE

If the sexual desires of one of the partners aren't reciprocated, he or


she is in a weak position because the other has the power to reject.
Although the one who meets a desire needn't take any risks, he or
she appears to be stronger. The one who desires appears to be needy
and taking rather than generous and giving, and the one who meets
Man and Woman: The Foundation of Family 35

the desire a l t h o u g h he or she m a y be loving, a p p e a r s to give a n d to


help w i t h o u t taking. I n this d y n a m i c , t h e o n e w h o desires m u s t feel
grateful, a s t h o u g h h e o r she h a d taken w i t h o u t h a v i n g given, a n d
t h e o n e w h o w i t h h o l d s n e e d a n d m e e t s desire feels free, a n d p e r h a p s
even superior, as t h o u g h his or h e r giving involved no taking.
Some partners hold on to the power and superiority of being
t h e giver, b u t t h e y d a m a g e their t o g e t h e r n e s s . F o r a r e l a t i o n s h i p t o
s u c c e e d over t i m e , t h e risk of r e j e c t i o n , as well as t h e joys a n d
p l e a s u r e s of giving, m u s t be s h a r e d . D e s i r i n g is still difficult for
many w o m e n because they must break strong cultural taboos, and
t h e y still m a y b e rejected o r feared a t f i r s t w h e n t h e y e x p o s e t h e i r
d e s i r e . N e v e r t h e l e s s , i n t h e r a p y , s o m e t h i n g i n t e r e s t i n g often h a p -
p e n s w h e n a w o m a n tells h e r m o t h e r , " S o m e t i m e s I c a n h a r d l y
w a i t to m a k e love w i t h my h u s b a n d " — e v e n if s h e says it only in
her imagination.
P a r t n e r s w h o care for desire c a n agree that w h e n the m o s t inti-
m a t e self of o n e is o p e n a n d v u l n e r a b l e — a s it is w h e n desire is
e x p o s e d — t h e n t h e o t h e r m u s t respect t h e desire, even if he or she
d o e s n ' t fulfill it. We are especially v u l n e r a b l e w h e n we desire, so a
p a r t n e r s h o u l d n ' t have to risk a h u m i l i a t i n g rejection w h e n he or
she feels a n d expresses desire. If c o u p l e s h o n o r this, t h e y can risk
desiring again, a n d their relationship c a n achieve d e p t h a n d inti-
macy. B o t h m u s t desire, a n d each m u s t t r e a t t h e o t h e r ' s desires w i t h
respect a n d love. W h e n sexuality serves t h e relationship as well as
b e i n g its goal, b o t h t h e sexuality a n d t h e loving p a r t n e r s h i p are
d e e p e r , freer, a n d m o r e a u t h e n t i c .
B e c a u s e b o t h m e n a n d w o m e n fear s u c h p r o f o u n d n e e d w i t h t h e
n a k e d d e p e n d e n c y it implies a n d t h e d a n g e r of d e v a s t a t i n g rejec-
tion, m a n y p e o p l e seek t o develop the o p p o s i t e g e n d e r w i t h i n t h e m -
selves. M e n seek to b e c o m e like w o m e n , as if t h e y c o u l d be w o m e n ,
a n d w o m e n seek to b e c o m e like m e n , as if they c o u l d be m e n . If
they s u c c e e d in this, t h e y no longer n e e d a p a r t n e r , a n d t h e i r rela-
tionship b e c o m e s essentially a m a t t e r of c o n v e n i e n c e .
In o r d e r for a p a r t n e r s h i p b e t w e e n a m a n a n d a w o m a n to fulfill
its p r o m i s e , t h e m a n m u s t b e a m a n a n d t h e w o m a n m u s t b e a
w o m a n . In p a r t n e r s h i p s b e t w e e n a m a n a n d a w o m a n , she r e m a i n s
i n t e r e s t e d in h i m only w h e n he is a m a n a n d r e m a i n s o n e , a n d t h e
reverse is t r u e for h i m . T h i s m e a n s t h a t a m a n w h o desires to love a
w o m a n a s his e q u a l p a r t n e r m u s t preserve his n e e d for h e r b y p r e -
serving his i n c o m p l e t e n e s s . I n s t e a d of d e v e l o p i n g t h e feminine in
36 Love's Hidden Symmetry

himself, he m u s t allow his p a r t n e r to offer it to h i m as a gift, a n d he


m u s t take from h e r t h e feminine she offers. A w o m a n w h o desires to
love a m a n m u s t also a c c e p t t h e m a s c u l i n e from h e r p a r t n e r . W h e n
a m a n and a w o m a n both want and need what the other has, and
have w h a t t h e o t h e r n e e d s a n d w a n t s , t h e n they are e q u a l i n t h e i r
i n c o m p l e t e n e s s — a n d i n their ability t o give. W h e n b o t h r e s p e c t
their limitations a n d p r e s e r v e their n e e d , their m u t u a l n e e d s
c o m p l e m e n t a n d c o m p l e t e o n e a n o t h e r , a n d their giving a n d t a k i n g
s t r e n g t h e n their b o n d .
T h i s systemic view is exactly t h e o p p o s i t e of t h e p o p u l a r idea t h a t
m e n s h o u l d develop t h e feminine i n themselves a n d t h a t w o m e n
s h o u l d develop their m a s c u l i n e p o t e n t i a l . P e r s o n s w h o d o s o d o n ' t
n e e d a p a r t n e r to give t h e m w h a t they're m i s s i n g , a n d t h e y often
prefer to live alone.

The Basso Continuo


A couple's relationship is conducted like a baroque concert: a variety
of the most beautiful melodies rings in the upper register, and below,
a basso continuo supports and leads the melodies and gives them
weight and depth. In a couple's relationship, the basso continuo is: "I
take you, I take you, I take you, I take you to be my wife, I take you to
be my husband. I take you to myself and give myself to you with love."

LOVE BETWEEN PARTNERS

Love b e t w e e n p a r t n e r s requires t h e r e n u n c i a t i o n of o u r first a n d


m o s t i n t i m a t e love, o u r love as a child for o u r p a r e n t s . O n l y w h e n a
boy's a t t a c h m e n t — e i t h e r loving or resentful—to his m o t h e r is
resolved c a n he give himself fully to his p a r t n e r a n d e n t e r m a n h o o d .
A girl's a t t a c h m e n t to h e r father m u s t also be resolved before she c a n
give herself to h e r p a r t n e r a n d be a w o m a n . Successful t o g e t h e r n e s s
d e m a n d s the sacrifice a n d transformation of o u r earlier child b o n d to
o u r p a r e n t s — t h e b o y to his m o t h e r a n d the girl to h e r father.
A b o y lives his p r e n a t a l a n d early c h i l d h o o d years p r i m a r i l y
w i t h i n his m o t h e r ' s s p h e r e of influence. If he r e m a i n s t h e r e , h e r
influence floods his p s y c h e , a n d he experiences t h e feminine as all
i m p o r t a n t a n d all powerful. U n d e r his m o t h e r ' s d o m i n a n c e , h e m a y
well b e c o m e a skillful s e d u c e r a n d lover, b u t he d o e s n o t d e v e l o p
i n t o a m a n w h o appreciates w o m e n a n d w h o c a n m a i n t a i n a l o n g -
Man and Woman: The Foundation of Family 37

t e r m loving relationship. N o r d o e s h e b e c o m e a s t r o n g a n d d e d i -
cated father to his o w n children. To b e c o m e a m a n c a p a b l e of
joining fully in a p a r t n e r s h i p of e q u a l s , he m u s t give up t h e first a n d
m o s t i n t i m a t e love of his life—his m o t h e r — a n d m o v e i n t o his
father's s p h e r e of influence.
In earlier t i m e s , t h e process t h r o u g h w h i c h a b o y left his m o t h e r
was socially s t r u c t u r e d a n d s u p p o r t e d b y rites o f initiation a n d p a s -
sage. H a v i n g p a s s e d t h r o u g h t h e s e rituals, a b o y h a d a firm p l a c e in
his father's w o r l d a n d c o u l d n ' t r e t u r n to live in his m o t h e r ' s h o u s e
as a child. In o u r c u l t u r e , the formal rituals t h a t o n c e s u p p o r t e d this
process have d i s a p p e a r e d a n d t h e p r o c e s s of m o v i n g o u t of t h e
m o t h e r ' s s p h e r e is often painfully difficult. E v e n t h e military service
t h a t o n c e served t o h e l p boys leave their m o t h e r ' s s p h e r e a n d e n t e r
their father's has lost its viability for m a n y y o u n g m e n .
A girl also e n t e r s life within h e r m o t h e r ' s s p h e r e of influence, b u t
she e x p e r i e n c e s the feminine a n d a t t r a c t i o n to t h e m a s c u l i n e differ-
ently from h e r b r o t h e r . H e r father h o l d s a fascination for h e r , a n d if
all goes well, she c a n practice t h e a r t of a t t r a c t i n g m e n in the s t e a d y
safety of his love. If however, she stays in h e r father's s p h e r e of
influence, she b e c o m e s a " d a d d y ' s girl." S h e m a y b e c o m e s o m e -
o n e ' s lover, b u t she d o e s n ' t m a t u r e fully i n t o h e r w o m a n h o o d ; s h e
h a s difficulty relating as an e q u a l p a r t n e r a n d b e c o m i n g a g e n e r o u s ,
giving m o t h e r t o h e r children. T o b e c o m e a w o m a n , it's n e c e s s a r y
for a girl to leave t h e first m a n in h e r life—her f a t h e r — a n d to r e t u r n
to stand by her mother.

Questions and Answers


Question: C a n ' t a child have a n equally b a l a n c e d relationship
with b o t h t h e father a n d t h e m o t h e r ?

Hellinger: O f c o u r s e . T h i s h a p p e n s w h e n b o y s m o v e into their


father's s p h e r e of influence a n d girls r e t u r n to their m o t h e r ' s . If y o u
look at real p e o p l e , you see t h a t a son w h o is c o n n e c t e d to his father
has m o r e r e s p e c t a n d a p p r e c i a t i o n for his m o t h e r t h a n d o e s a s o n
w h o r e m a i n s tied t o h e r — a n d the m o t h e r d o e s n ' t lose a n y t h i n g .
Likewise, a d a u g h t e r w h o has m o v e d from h e r father's s p h e r e of
influence b a c k t o h e r m o t h e r ' s d o e s n ' t lose h e r father, n o r d o e s h e
lose her. Q u i t e t h e c o n t r a r y , she develops m o r e r e s p e c t a n d a p p r e -
ciation for h i m . E v e n m o r e i m p o r t a n t , t h e p a r e n t s ' relationship is
38 Love's Hidden Symmetry

s t r o n g e r w h e n t h e s o n s are n e a r their father a n d t h e d a u g h t e r s are


n e a r their m o t h e r . T h e n there's n o confusion i n t h e family.

Question: H a v e I u n d e r s t o o d y o u correctly t h a t w h e n I affirm my


m o t h e r ' s right t o w o m a n h o o d , I've t a k e n m y p r o p e r place n e x t t o
her?

Hellinger: N o . A n y d a u g h t e r w h o a s s u m e s she h a s t h e a u t h o r i t y
t o affirm o r d e n y h e r m o t h e r ' s right t o w o m a n h o o d h a s set herself
above h e r m o t h e r .

Question: A n d if I simply a c c e p t her?

Hellinger: A c c e p t i n g h e r implies a s u p e r i o r generosity on y o u r


p a r t . A c c e p t i n g a n d affirming y o u r w o m a n h o o d as a gift from h e r is
humble.

R a i n e r (group participant): It's s t r a n g e t h a t so m u c h h a s b e e n


w r i t t e n a b o u t t h e m o t h e r - c h i l d relationship a n d s o little a b o u t t h e
f a t h e r - c h i l d relationship.

Hellinger: Do y o u have a d a u g h t e r or a son?

Rainer: I have an eight-year-old d a u g h t e r .

Hellinger: T h e n it's a b o u t t i m e t h a t you let h e r g o b a c k t o h e r


m o t h e r ' s s p h e r e of influence.

Rainer: Yes, I've t h o u g h t a lot a b o u t the process of letting go of


my d a u g h t e r , b u t at t h e s a m e t i m e , I k n o w t h a t there's n o t h i n g I c a n
do to make it happen.

Hellinger: O f c o u r s e t h e r e is.

Rainer: I m e a n t h a t I c a n ' t force it. I c a n ' t m a k e it h a p p e n .

Hellinger: C e r t a i n l y you can!

Rainer: But that's not what I want.

H e l l i n g e r : Well, at least t h a t ' s a clear m e s s a g e . W h a t I've b e e n


saying d o e s have definite implications for a c t i o n — o t h e r w i s e I'd save
my breath.

Rainer: So w h a t c o u l d I do?

Hellinger: Well, for o n e t h i n g , w h e n you look a t h e r , y o u c o u l d


a d m i r e y o u r wife in her.
Man and Woman: The Foundation of Family 39

Rainer: T h a t ' s a great idea. I like it (laughing).

Hellinger: O r you m i g h t tell y o u r d a u g h t e r t h a t she's a l m o s t a s


wonderful as h e r m o t h e r .

Rainer: A n o t h e r t h i n g that's b o t h e r i n g m e i s . . .

Hellinger: (Interrupting him and speaking to the group) H e ' s


c h a n g i n g t h e subject, b u t that's okay. H e ' s n o t i c e d that things are
getting serious. H e ' s s t a r t i n g t o realize w h a t h e h a s t o deal with.
S o m e t i m e s , w h e n a father h o l d s on to his d a u g h t e r , it's h a r d for h e r
to r e t u r n to h e r m o t h e r ' s s p h e r e of influence. S h e feels i m p o r t a n t ,
believing t h a t she c o u l d fill his n e e d , b u t t h a t job's t o o big for a
child. C o m p a r e d with a wife, a d a u g h t e r is a c o n s o l a t i o n prize.

Question: L a s t n i g h t , after I w e n t to b e d , I k e p t t h i n k i n g a b o u t
the " s p h e r e s of i n f l u e n c e " of the m o t h e r a n d father. You said that a
m a c h o m a n i s o n e w h o h a s r e m a i n e d b o u n d t o his m o t h e r for t o o
long. W h a t a b o u t a n effeminate m a n ? W o u l d y o u say t h a t this
t e n d e n c y is a result of staying too l o n g in t h e father's s p h e r e of
influence?

H e l l i n g e r : N o . I n this respect, a m a c h o m a n a n d a n e f f e m i n a t e
m a n are t h e s a m e — t h e y ' v e b o t h r e m a i n e d i n the m o t h e r ' s s p h e r e o f
influence. A D o n J u a n is also a m o t h e r ' s s o n w h o h a s n ' t m a d e it to
m a n h o o d . H e ' s h o p i n g that b y having m a n y w o m e n h e c a n c o n -
t i n u e to p a r t i c i p a t e in w o m a n h o o d forever. N e e d i n g to have a lot of
p a r t n e r s is a quality of b e i n g stuck in m o t h e r ' s s p h e r e . A m a n w h o ' s
m o v e d o u t of his m o t h e r ' s s p h e r e c a n t a k e w h a t he n e e d s f r o m , a
p a r t n e r , a n d he c a n give himself a n d b e c o m e a p a r t n e r . B r a g g i n g ,
s t r u t t i n g , m a c h o types are m o t h e r s ' darlings.

Question: W o u l d y o u elaborate o n y o u r c o n c e p t o f s p h e r e o f
influence?

Hellinger: I ' m trying t o avoid defining c o n c e p t s . W h a t w e ' r e d i s -


cussing a r e n ' t c o n c e p t s that are t r u e or false. I ' m trying to d e s c r i b e
difficult experiences in a way t h a t e n a b l e s us to deal with t h e m b e t -
ter a n d will b e m o r e helpful t o p e o p l e i n n e e d . T h e r e ' s n o t h i n g
m o r e to it t h a n t h a t . As s o o n as we claim t h a t o u r d e s c r i p t i o n s are
the " T r u t h , " t h e n t h e y ' r e a false t h e o r y a n d will i m m e d i a t e l y be d i s -
credited. W h a t I'm d e s c r i b i n g isn't absolutely " t r u e . " It's a p h e n o m -
enological description of certain d y n a m i c s I've o b s e r v e d in my w o r k
40 Love's Hidden Symmetry

w i t h c o u p l e s a n d families over t h e years. I w a n t to leave it at t h a t .


Please d o n ' t m a k e m o r e o u t of w h a t I say t h a n I i n t e n d .
So b e i n g in s o m e o n e ' s s p h e r e of influence simply describes b e i n g
u n d e r the p e r s o n ' s influence. F o r e x a m p l e , w h e n it's especially
i m p o r t a n t for a girl to please h e r father, t h e n she's in his s p h e r e of
influence. O r , i n s o m e families, t h e m o t h e r a n d son c o l l u d e t o s c o r n
a n d be c o n d e s c e n d i n g to t h e father. T h a t ' s basically all 1 m e a n .

Question: A d a u g h t e r also experiences h e r first relationship w i t h


h e r m o t h e r . I f she h a s t o r e t u r n t o h e r m o t h e r ' s s p h e r e o f influence,
t h a t m e a n s t h a t she m u s t have already m o v e d away from h e r m o t h e r
t o h e r father, a n d t h e n can g o b a c k again.

Hellinger: Exactly! (Laughing) T h a t ' s the r e a s o n it's so easy for


w o m e n — t h e y c a n go b a c k . A son experiences t h e f e m i n i n e as so all-
powerful, attractive, a n d pervasively i m p o r t a n t that he feels t o o
weak to give it u p . He c a n ' t q u i t e leave u n d e r his o w n p o w e r . If h e ' s
to give up b e i n g a b o y a n d b e c o m e a m a n , he h a s to c o n n e c t to his
father a n d g r a n d f a t h e r , a n d t o t h e world o f m e n . T h a t ' s w h e r e h e
f i n d s t h e s t r e n g t h h e n e e d s t o move o u t o f his m o t h e r ' s s p h e r e .

Question: D o e s n ' t a girl miss s o m e t h i n g if she just stays in h e r


m o t h e r ' s s p h e r e of influence? I s n ' t it i m p o r t a n t for h e r to leave a n d
then return?

Hellinger: T h a t ' s right. First, she h a s t o m o v e t o h e r father, a n d


t h e n b a c k t o h e r m o t h e r . I f she k n o w s only h e r m o t h e r ' s influence,
she d o e s n ' t e x p e r i e n c e t h e a t t r a c t i o n o f t h e m a s c u l i n e w i t h h e r
father.

Question: You said t h a t a w o m a n h a s a difficult t i m e fully a c c e p t -


ing a m a n if she h a s n ' t r e l i n q u i s h e d h e r father. I k e e p t h i n k i n g
about that.

H e l l i n g e r : W h e n a w o m a n is still tied to h e r father, she often


secretly believes t h a t s h e w o u l d be a b e t t e r p a r t n e r for h i m t h a n h e r
m o t h e r is. T h a t ' s a child's belief. If she looks h o n e s t l y at t h e real
c o n s e q u e n c e s for h e r of b e i n g his p a r t n e r , she p u t s t h a t child belief
in an a d u l t c o n t e x t . T h e r e ' s a s e n t e n c e t h a t c a n h e l p h e r give up t h e
u n h e a l t h y tie to h e r father. S h e c a n tell h i m , " M o t h e r ' s a little b e t t e r
for y o u t h a n I a m . "
Man and Woman: The Foundation of Family 41

Q u e s t i o n : W h a t ' s the masculine in a w o m a n a n d the feminine in


a m a n ? W h a t are masculine a n d feminine at all? At least, what's your
opinion?

H e l l i n g e r : T h a t ' s something I haven't b e e n able to figure o u t yet


(laughing). F o r a m a n , there's always s o m e t h i n g h i d d e n a b o u t
w o m e n , a n d t h e other way a r o u n d . I d o n ' t even completely u n d e r -
stand the masculine yet. But what we're talking a b o u t d o e s n ' t have
to do with c o n c e p t u a l u n d e r s t a n d i n g . I ' m n o t p r o p o s i n g a theory of
masculinity a n d femininity. I ' m trying to describe w h a t people
experience in t h e family constellations a n d in their relationships,
a n d also to o p e n up a space for you to c o m e into c o n t a c t with cer-
tain things that can be k n o w n only by experiencing t h e m . T r y i n g
intellectually to u n d e r s t a n d an experience is like trying to h o l d a
fire. If you try to grasp such things intellectually, t h e n from the fire
you've only got the ashes.

Q u e s t i o n : It seems to me that what you're describing is just t h e


old O e d i p u s stuff in a different language. I c a n ' t see the difference
between w h a t you're describing a n d the psychoanalytic O e d i p u s
complex.

H e l l i n g e r : T h e r e ' s a basic m i s u n d e r s t a n d i n g of p h e n o m e n o l o g y
implied in your question. W h e n you immediately place your experi-
ence here in the context of s o m e t h i n g you already know, you can't
observe anything new.
Of course, psychoanalysis has a deep u n d e r s t a n d i n g of w h a t h a p -
pens in p a r e n t - c h i l d relationships, b u t what I ' m describing isn't the
same as the O e d i p u s complex. Psychoanalytic thinking is different
from systemic thinking. As soon as you say " O e d i p u s complex," t h e
p h e n o m e n o l o g y of the system d y n a m i c disappears and y o u ' r e left
with the p s y c h o d y n a m i c construct you already know. You're m o v i n g
in a different t h o u g h t world. I ' m n o t talking a b o u t h o w o n e thing
causes a n o t h e r , n o r am I trying to describe u n c o n s c i o u s processes.
I ' m describing w h a t I've actually seen people do. I ' m describing
their actual feelings a n d behaviors a n d looking at h o w they are sys-
temically associated with one another. No causality is implied, just
systemic association. T h a t ' s a different level of abstraction t h a n psy-
choanalytic theory.
If you're interested in observing the system dynamics of h u m a n
relationships, you n e e d to focus your attention on w h a t p e o p l e actu-
42 Love's Hidden Symmetry

ally d o . T h a t ' s t h e p h e n o m e n o l o g i c a l m e t h o d . O t h e r w i s e , all y o u


have are t h e w o r d s a n d c o n c e p t s dissociated from e x p e r i e n c e . T h a t ' s
n o t e n o u g h t o b e o f real help t o a n y o n e .

RENEWING MALENESS A N D FEMALENESS

W h e n p a r t n e r s e n t e r a relationship, e a c h brings his or h e r i n d i v i d u -


ality to their t o g e t h e r n e s s , a n d in their t o g e t h e r n e s s , they lose it. A
w o m a n confirms h e r h u s b a n d a s m a n , b u t she challenges his m a l e -
ness a n d takes it from h i m , a n d his m a l e n e s s decreases in t h e c o u r s e
of their p a r t n e r s h i p . Likewise, a m a n confirms his wife's w o m a n -
h o o d , b u t h e also challenges h e r femaleness a n d takes i t from h e r ,
a n d she b e c o m e s less of a w o m a n . If t h e p a r t n e r s h i p is to r e m a i n
exciting for b o t h , t h e y m u s t c o n s t a n t l y r e n e w their m a l e n e s s a n d
femaleness.
A m a n r e n e w s his m a l e n e s s in the c o m p a n y of m e n a n d a w o m a n
h e r femaleness in t h e c o m p a n y of w o m e n , so t h e y m u s t leave their
relationship from t i m e to time in o r d e r to refresh their m a l e n e s s a n d
femaleness. T h e actual c o n t e n t o f t h e e x c h a n g e s a m o n g t h e m e n o r
t h e w o m e n is u n i m p o r t a n t . It m i g h t be at a coffee klatch, t h e c o r n e r
b a r , a c l u b , a consciousness-raising g r o u p , or on a s p o r t s t e a m .
W h a t matters is being together with other m e n or with other
w o m e n a n d d o i n g things m e n a n d w o m e n d o w h e n t h e y g a t h e r
a m o n g themselves. If a couple d o e s this, t h e relationship r e t a i n s its
creative t e n s i o n , a n d c a n c o n t i n u e t o develop a n d d e e p e n . T h i s ele-
m e n t of relationship is. overlooked in the r o m a n t i c ideal of love,
w h i c h envisions a loving c o u p l e giving e a c h o t h e r e v e r y t h i n g e a c h
needs.

T H E B O N D BETWEEN PARTNERS

T h e b o n d b e t w e e n a m a n a n d a w o m a n requires that t h e m a n w a n t
t h e w o m a n as woman a n d t h a t t h e w o m a n w a n t t h e m a n as man.
T h e i r b o n d d o e s n ' t develop fully if t h e y w a n t e a c h o t h e r for o t h e r
r e a s o n s : for e x a m p l e , for recreation or a d o r n m e n t , or as a p r o v i d e r ;
or b e c a u s e o n e of t h e m is rich or p o o r , C a t h o l i c or P r o t e s t a n t , Jew
or Muslim, H i n d u or Buddhist; or because one wants to conquer or
p r o t e c t o r i m p r o v e o r save the o t h e r ; o r b e c a u s e o n e w a n t s t h e o t h e r
p r i m a r i l y to be t h e father or m o t h e r of his or h e r c h i l d r e n . P a r t n e r s
Man and Woman: The Foundation of Family 43

w h o c o m e t o g e t h e r for s u c h r e a s o n s d o n ' t develop t h e s t r e n g t h o f


t o g e t h e r n e s s t h a t e n a b l e s t h e m t o w e a t h e r serious crises.
If a m a n r e m a i n s a son looking for a m o t h e r , or if a w o m a n
r e m a i n s a d a u g h t e r l o o k i n g for a father, their r e l a t i o n s h i p s , a l t h o u g h
they m a y b e i n t e n s e a n d loving, a r e n ' t relationships o f a d u l t w o m e n
a n d m e n . P e o p l e e n t e r i n g i n t o relationships w i t h t h e h o p e — a c -
k n o w l e d g e d o r n o t — t h a t they'll get s o m e t h i n g t h e y d i d n ' t get i n
their relationships w i t h their m o t h e r s or fathers, are looking for par-
e n t s . T h e b e l o n g i n g t h a t t h e n develops i s that o f child a n d p a r e n t . I t
s o m e t i m e s h a p p e n s t h a t a m a n looking for a m o t h e r finds s o m e o n e
looking for a s o n , or t h a t a w o m a n seeking a father finds s o m e o n e
h o p i n g for a d a u g h t e r . S u c h couples m a y be very h a p p y for a while,
b u t s h o u l d t h e y have c h i l d r e n , they a n d their c h i l d r e n will e x p e r i -
e n c e difficulties as t h e y adjust their p a r t n e r s h i p .
L o v e is limited in exactly t h e s a m e way w h e n o n e p a r t n e r acts
t o w a r d t h e o t h e r w i t h t h e a u t h o r i t y of a p a r e n t , a n d a t t e m p t s to
t e a c h , i m p r o v e , o r h e l p t h e other. Every a d u l t h a s already b e e n
b r o u g h t u p a n d t a u g h t h o w t o b e h a v e , a n d all a t t e m p t s t o d o t h a t
again are c e r t a i n t o d a m a g e love. It's n o w o n d e r t h a t t h e p a r t n e r
w h o ' s b e i n g t r e a t e d like a child reacts by p u l l i n g o u t of t h e relation-
s h i p — t h e way a child pulls away from t h e f a m i l y — a n d seeks relief
o u t s i d e t h e relationship. M o s t p o w e r conflicts i n i n t i m a t e p a r t n e r -
ships o c c u r w h e n o n e p a r t n e r tries to treat t h e o t h e r as a child,
m o t h e r , or father.

Bonding in Second Relationships

A s e c o n d loving p a r t n e r s h i p is different from t h e first b e c a u s e s e c -


o n d p a r t n e r s sense their p a r t n e r s ' f o r m e r b o n d s . W e see this i n t h e
c a u t i o n w i t h w h i c h w e a p p r o a c h n e w p a r t n e r s , a n d also i n o u r slow-
ness t o give ourselves a n d t o take a n d have o u r n e w p a r t n e r s a s
freely as o u r earlier o n e s . B o t h p a r t n e r s e x p e r i e n c e their s e c o n d
p a r t n e r s h i p in t h e s h a d o w of t h e first, even w h e n t h e first p a r t n e r is
d e c e a s e d . F o r this r e a s o n , a s e c o n d love s u c c e e d s only w h e n t h e
b o n d to the first is acknowledged and honored, when the new part-
ners k n o w t h a t they follow t h e f i r s t a n d are i n d e b t e d t o t h e m .
O u r s e c o n d t o g e t h e r n e s s d o e s n ' t have the s a m e s t r e n g t h o r q u a l -
ity as t h e first, a n d it isn't necessary. T h i s d o e s n ' t m e a n t h a t a
s e c o n d relationship is a n y less h a p p y or loving. In fact, a s e c o n d
44 Love's Hidden Symmetry

partnership is often happier than the first, and a second love much
more satisfying. Still, the density of the bond generally decreases
with each successive relationship. That's the reason why the guilt
and sense of responsibility resulting from a second divorce are gen-
erally less than from a first, and why a second divorce is usually
easier and less painful than a first. We can gauge the strength of the
bond by the amount of guilt, pain, and loss that accompanies a
separation.

My Second Wife

A m a n objected to the observation that b o n d i n g decreases with each


relationship. He maintained that his b o n d i n g to his second wife was
m u c h stronger t h a n his b o n d i n g to his first wife h a d been.
Everyone could see that this m a n and his second wife were very
h a p p y together a n d that their love was true and deep. He told h o w
painful a n d d a m a g i n g his first marriage h a d b e e n , a n d it b e c a m e
clear that he never again wanted to be so vulnerable as he h a d b e e n
t h e n . He h a d stayed in his first marriage, in part, to be near his son.
He a n d his second wife h a d no children.
W h e n asked what would h a p p e n if his second marriage were to
sour a n d b e c o m e as his first h a d b e e n , he r e s p o n d e d that, although
he c o u l d n ' t imagine that h a p p e n i n g , he would leave before he would
repeat what he h a d experienced before. T h e n he u n d e r s t o o d that,
although he loved his second wife m o r e , he was b o u n d to h e r less
tightly t h a n he was to his first wife.

Sweethearts

A w o m a n from a small t o w n m a r r i e d her first sweetheart shortly after


g r a d u a t i o n from high school. T h e y h a d four children and a n o r m a l
life together. H e r h u s b a n d died in his late 50s, b u t she lived 25 m o r e
years. She never looked at another m a n , a n d never considered a sec-
o n d p a r t n e r s h i p . She said, "I can't imagine being with a n o t h e r m a n .
We h a d always b e e n together."

An 84-year-old w o m a n told h o w she had survived three h u s b a n d s .


She h a d lost h e r first two h u s b a n d s in two different wars a n d the
third to old age. She said, " T h e third was the nicest and I h a d h i m
t h e longest, b u t I miss the first the most. We were so y o u n g t h e n , and
so in love."
Man and Woman: The Foundation of Family 45

Examples from Seminars

Question: I asked my h u s b a n d a b o u t his first wife. It h u r t to h e a r


h i m talk a b o u t h e r , b u t it was also g o o d for m e .

Hellinger: N o t long ago, a m a n c a m e to a session w i t h his girl-


friend. T h e y h a d d e c i d e d t o get m a r r i e d . H e ' d b e e n m a r r i e d before
a n d h a d a s o n from t h a t m a r r i a g e . We set up the c o n s t e l l a t i o n , of his
p r e s e n t family, w h i c h i n c l u d e d his first wife, his s o n , a n d his p r e s e n t
girlfriend. W h e n I asked h i m w h o was missing, he said, " O h yes, I
was m a r r i e d o n c e p r i o r to my last m a r r i a g e , b u t it w a s only a s t u -
d e n t love, a n d it w a s n ' t really i m p o r t a n t . " We b r o u g h t his first wife
into t h e constellation, a n d it w a s i m m e d i a t e l y clear t h a t s h e w a s t h e
decisive p e r s o n . S h e h a d n ' t b e e n a c k n o w l e d g e d o r h o n o r e d . A s t h e
constellation d e v e l o p e d , i t b e c a m e very clear t o t h e w o m a n r e p r e -
s e n t i n g his s e c o n d wife that she h a d left h i m o u t of u n c o n s c i o u s
solidarity w i t h his first wife. W h e n w e p u t the girlfriend a n d h e r
h u s b a n d - t o - b e i n t o t h e constellation, she felt u n c o m f o r t a b l e s t a n d -
ing close to h i m , a n d b e t t e r w h e n she m o v e d away a b i t . T h a t ' s a
typical p o s i t i o n for a s e c o n d or t h i r d wife.
A s e c o n d wife d o e s n ' t c o m p l e t e l y t r u s t herself to t a k e h e r h u s -
b a n d in the s a m e way as a first wife d o e s . S h e h a s h i m , b u t t h e first
wife a n d t h e p r e v i o u s children have given h i m u p . H e r feeling o f
guilt is t h e p r i c e she pays. S t a n d i n g a p a r t from h i m , she c o u l d see
that she was his third wife a n d t h a t she followed t h e o t h e r two.
F r o m t h a t p o s i t i o n , it w a s easier for h e r to h o n o r their roles in t h e
m a n ' s life.
At o u r n e x t session, t h e girlfriend said she was feeling really
d o w n . S h e said w h e n she t h o u g h t a b o u t t h e o t h e r wives, she felt
that s h e really h a d no c h a n c e herself. I said to h e r , " T h e r e are t h r e e
w o m e n w h o m u s t b e fully h o n o r e d , t h e f i r s t , t h e s e c o n d , and t h e
third."

Question: D o e s t h a t still apply if a c o u p l e m e e t s after t h e y have


already d i v o r c e d their first p a r t n e r s ?

Hellinger: It h a s to do w i t h t h e d i s c r e p a n c y of gain a n d loss for


everyone, a n d it's i n d e p e n d e n t o f m o t i v a t i o n s , m o r a l s , o r p e r s o n a l
histories. T h e f i r s t p a r t n e r s have lost their m a t e s , a n d t h e s e c o n d
p a r t n e r s have g a i n e d t h e m . If t h e r e are children w h o have lost a
p a r e n t , t h a t carries even m o r e weight. N e w p a r t n e r s t a k e t h e p l a c e
of t h e earlier p a r t n e r s , b u t their systemic obligation to t h e earlier
46 Love's Hidden Symmetry

p a r t n e r s and their feelings of guilt prevent t h e m from taking their


n e w p a r t n e r s as completely as they took their earlier p a r t n e r s .
T h e situation improves if they a d m i t to themselves that their gain
is t h e first partner's loss, and that they c o u l d n ' t have their n e w p a r t -
ners unless the earlier p a r t n e r s h a d given t h e m u p . H o n o r i n g all the
others in the system is crucial to achieving systemic balance. A m a n
a n d his second wife can then move closer together, b u t they still
have an obligation to the first wife, a n d their relationship will never
be the same as a first relationship. T h e same is naturally t r u e for a
w o m a n who's gained her h u s b a n d at a n o t h e r w o m a n ' s expense. A
n e w relationship has a better chance for success if the p a r t n e r s rec-
ognize their i n d e b t e d n e s s to the earlier p a r t n e r s , allow themselves
to b e c o m e aware of their feelings of guilt, and acknowledge the guilt
a n d i n d e b t e d n e s s that c o m e with their relationship. T h e i r relation-
ship t h e n d e e p e n s , a n d they have fewer illusions.

BALANCING GIVING AND TAKING

Love flourishes b e t w e e n p a r t n e r s w h e n they are well m a t c h e d , bal-


ancing each other like h a n g i n g scales w h e n b o t h dishes are alter-
nately filled with different things of equal weight. Like the scales,
their relationship system tilts from side to side as t h e n e e d s or con-
tributions of the o n e or the other temporarily b e c o m e m o r e i m p o r -
tant. If one is especially strong at o n e time, love requires the o t h e r
to be equally strong at a n o t h e r time; if o n e has special potentials or
liabilities, t h e n the o t h e r m u s t offer an equivalent. W h e n they're well
m a t c h e d , their love m a y develop in a p a r t n e r s h i p of equals.
Being well m a t c h e d m e a n s that p a r t n e r s give themselves to each
o t h e r equally and take one a n o t h e r equally; that they n e e d a n d sat-
isfy o n e a n o t h e r equally; and that each acknowledges a n d respects
equally the functions and values of t h e other. A l t h o u g h they are
equal, they are also different. Only t h e n can their relationship be a
p a r t n e r s h i p of equals.
Being well m a t c h e d allows p a r t n e r s to maintain a b a l a n c e of giv-
ing a n d taking in w h i c h each gives to the other what he or she has to
offer a n d takes fully from t h e other w h a t is n e e d e d . T h e f u n d a m e n -
tal balance of giving and taking that love requires is t h r e a t e n e d
w h e n o n e p a r t n e r habitually gives o r takes m o r e , o r w h e n what i s
given in love is n o t taken in love.
Man and Woman: The Foundation of Family 47

Overcoming Limiting Roles and Norms

B e c a u s e t h e roles a n d functions o f m e n a n d w o m e n d e p e n d , t o a
large e x t e n t , o n t h e n o r m s o f c u l t u r e , class, a n d social g r o u p , t h e y
vary widely from g r o u p t o g r o u p a n d from c u l t u r e t o c u l t u r e . B u t
love follows n a t u r a l laws t h a t are m o r e f u n d a m e n t a l t h a n t h e h a b i t s
and customs of culture, and it sometimes d e m a n d s of us what our
family a n d o u r c u l t u r e forbid.
P e r h a p s an i m a g e will help in y o u r u n d e r s t a n d i n g the difference
b e t w e e n cultural h a b i t a n d w h a t love r e q u i r e s . I n every c o u n t r y ,
p e o p l e c o o k their food a c c o r d i n g to their p a r t i c u l a r recipes, w i t h
c e r t a i n h e r b s a n d spices. C h i l d r e n raised i n t h a t c o u n t r y t h e n
develop a taste for t h o s e foods. It m a y h a p p e n t h a t s o m e o n e w h o
was raised on mild food c a n n o t eat food p r e p a r e d with t h e fiery
spices o f a n o t h e r l a n d . T h e g r u b s o r oily f i s h p r i z e d b y s o m e m a y b e
disgusting t o o t h e r s . W h a t recipes o n e follows a n d w h a t foods o n e
likes are largely l e a r n e d choices. T h e intelligence o f n a t u r e , o n t h e
o t h e r h a n d , dictates t h a t w e m u s t eat t o live, a n d m u s t n o t eat w h a t
is p o i s o n . W h a t a n d h o w we eat are largely m a t t e r s of c o n v e n t i o n
a n d t h e availability o f food, a n d m a y b e modified a s o p p o r t u n i t y
a n d n e e d allow. M a l n u t r i t i o n , w h e t h e r c a u s e d b y f a m i n e o r b y over-
eating, results in illness, a n d eventually d e a t h . T h i s is a n a t u r a l law
that i s u n c h a n g e a b l e . T h e social c u s t o m s t h a t g u i d e t h e roles a n d
functions o f m e n a n d w o m e n vary greatly from g r o u p t o g r o u p , like
recipes a n d spices. B u t across all c u l t u r e s , t h e r e are s o m e t h i n g s
t h a t n o u r i s h love a n d o t h e r things that d a m a g e it.
W h e n t w o p e o p l e join in a p a r t n e r s h i p , e a c h b r i n g s a m o d e l for
p a r t n e r s h i p a n d for t h e roles a n d functions o f m e n a n d w o m e n
b a s e d on t h e values of his or her family of origin, a n d they b o t h fol-
low t h e s e r u l e s , p a t t e r n s , a n d n o r m s o u t o f h a b i t . T h e y feel g o o d
w h e n t h e y follow these old p a t t e r n s even if t h e p a t t e r n s are d e s t r u c -
tive, a n d they feel guilty if they a b a n d o n t h e m for n e w o n e s , even if
the n e w o n e s are b e t t e r . F o r love to s u c c e e d , it is often n e c e s s a r y for
p a r t n e r s t o rise above t h e dictates o f the c o n s c i e n c e b i n d i n g t h e m
to their reference g r o u p s . T h u s , the price of love is often guilt.

Consenting to Guilt: 1
A young couple, very much in love, decided that they wanted their
partnership to be based on equality. Rather than carefully attending to
their sense of systemic balance, they followed a rigid concept of bal-
48 Love's Hidden Symmetry

ance a n d s c r u p u l o u s l y divided all of their tasks 5 0 / 5 0 b e t w e e n t h e m .


T h i s a r r a n g e m e n t functioned w i t h o u t serious p r o b l e m s until they
d e c i d e d to have children. T h e y eventually s o u g h t counseling in a state
of u t t e r e x h a u s t i o n a n d frustration, on the verge of separation. T h e y
gradually c a m e to u n d e r s t a n d that t h e only m e a s u r e of equality in a
p a r t n e r s h i p is the m u t u a l feeling of b a l a n c e a n d satisfaction. U p o n
dividing their tasks a n d responsibilities a c c o r d i n g to their inner sense
of b a l a n c e r a t h e r t h a n their c o n c e p t of fairness, they s o o n recovered
their h e a l t h , a n d love b e g a n to flow b e t w e e n t h e m o n c e again.

Consenting to Guilt: 2

A n o t h e r y o u n g c o u p l e , also very m u c h in love, d e c i d e d that they


w a n t e d to live their p a r t n e r s h i p a c c o r d i n g to t h e principles of their
f u n d a m e n t a l i s t religion. T h e y divided t h e roles a n d functions o f m a n
a n d w o m a n a c c o r d i n g t o t h e dictates o f their faith. T h e w o m a n stayed
a t h o m e a n d did t h e things w o m e n i n that religion d o , while the m a n
w o r k e d a n d did t h e things p r o p e r for a m a n in that system. U n l i k e
m a n y o t h e r couples in that religion to w h o m this style of relationship
b r o u g h t joy a n d t h e flowering of love, this y o u n g couple b e c a m e
u n h a p p y . T h e wife, w h o h a d a professional e d u c a t i o n , discovered t h a t
she missed h e r w o r k a n d the c o m p a n y of o t h e r professionals, while
t h e m a n , w h o w a s affectionate a n d playful, missed having m o r e t i m e
for his children. T h e y s o u g h t the h e l p of a friend a n d were able, in a
long a n d painful p r o c e s s , to rise above their original c o n c e p t of bal-
a n c e , to l e a r n to a t t e n d to the inner flow of their togetherness a n d ,
t h u s , to find a larger b a l a n c e t h a t did s u p p o r t their love.

B o t h couples faced the s a m e systemic p r o b l e m a n d solved it by


c o n s e n t i n g t o guilt. A l t h o u g h t h e specific r e q u i r e m e n t s o f t h e i r c o n -
sciences differed, e a c h h a d t o rise above t h e social beliefs t h e y h a d
brought to their relationship a n d l e a r n t o feel t h e p r e s e n c e o r
absence of a t r u e systemic balance.

Two Styles of Love

A South American woman married a Northern European man. She


longed for t h e stability his E u r o p e a n reserve p r o m i s e d , a n d he for t h e
e m o t i o n a l w a r m t h a n d liveliness t h a t b u r n e d in her. N e v e r t h e l e s s ,
they b e g a n to have difficulties shortly after their first child was b o r n .
T h e m a n was u s e d to keeping his distance a n d to respecting a w o m -
an's p e r s o n a l s p a c e . He feared excessive closeness. S h e felt his dis-
t a n c e n o t a s respect, b u t a s a b a n d o n m e n t , a n d r e a c t e d with p a n i c a n d
r e s e n t m e n t . H e w a s frightened b y h e r "irrational h e a t " a n d w i t h d r e w
Man and Woman: The Foundation of Family 49

even more, resenting her demands and control. Both hoped that the
other would adopt a different way of doing things. Their differences
soon escalated until they were no longer able to talk to each other.
T h e love they felt for each other and for their child was barely,
adequate to contain the pain of their differences. They found a solu-
tion only when both were willing to surrender parts of their identi-
ties—their cultural and family habits and styles of communication—
and could agree on a third way of being together.

T h e systemic c o n s c i e n c e t h a t g u a r d s equality i n p a r t n e r s h i p s
i s n ' t swayed b y g o o d i n t e n t i o n s o r wishful thinking. W h e t h e r o r n o t
t h e roles a n d functions of p a r t n e r s in a relationship are in b a l a n c e
c a n be s e e n only in t h e d e g r e e of their love a n d satisfaction a n d n o t
i n w h a t t h e p a r t n e r s m a y claim o r believe. S o m e t i m e s u n b a l a n c e
b e c o m e s clear only in t h e c o u r s e of t i m e .
F o r a p a r t n e r s h i p to s u c c e e d , t h e p a r t n e r s n e e d to carefully
reevaluate t h e values a n d the p a t t e r n s t h a t they've i n h e r i t e d from
their families a n d e x c h a n g e s o m e o f t h e m for o n e s t h a t are b e t t e r
for t h e p a r t n e r s h i p . W h i l e d o i n g this, b o t h families m u s t b e
r e s p e c t e d even w h e n they d o n ' t m e e t t h e o t h e r ' s s t a n d a r d s . F o r
e x a m p l e , i f they d o n o t b e l o n g t o t h e s a m e religion, it's m u c h easier
t o d a y t h a n formerly for t h e m t o r e s p e c t b o t h families a n d t o c o m -
b i n e their confessions on a n e w level, p e r h a p s by joining a different
faith or by b e c o m i n g active in a social service.
A n i m a g e p o r t r a y s this p r o c e s s : T w o p e o p l e are s t a n d i n g o n
o p p o s i t e b a n k s of a river. If they simply call o u t to o n e a n o t h e r ,
" T h i s i s m y p o s i t i o n , " n o t h i n g c h a n g e s , a n d the river c o n t i n u e s t o
flow by, indifferent to their s h o u t s . If they w a n t to k n o w t h e love
t h a t ' s possible t o equal p a r t n e r s , t h e y b o t h have t o get i n t o t h e river
a n d allow t h e m s e l v e s t o b e c a r r i e d b y t h e c u r r e n t . O n l y t h e n c a n
they c o m e t o g e t h e r , feel t h e river's force, a n d k n o w w h a t life offers
and demands.
W h e n p e o p l e have b e e n h u r t o r d a m a g e d i n their r e l a t i o n s h i p
w i t h their original family, they c a r r y t h a t h u r t a n d suspicion i n t o
t h e n e w p a r t n e r s h i p . T h e y c a n ' t avoid b r i n g i n g their old s y s t e m i n t o
t h e n e w o n e . I n fact, unresolved a t t a c h m e n t s t o t h e family o f origin
are a m a j o r c a u s e of difficulty in relationships.

My Husband, My Grandmother
A man and a women felt deeply connected to each other, yet they
frequently had severe conflicts that they couldn't understand.
50 Love's Hidden Symmetry

Although they h a d three children, they separated for six m o n t h s . O n e


day, as they met with a therapist, he noticed the w o m a n ' s expression
changing, until she looked like an old w o m a n unreasonably berating
her h u s b a n d . T h e therapist asked, " W h o is this old w o m a n ? " T h e
w o m a n t h o u g h t a while and t h e n suddenly r e m e m b e r e d h o w her
grandfather, w h o owned a bar, often pulled her g r a n d m o t h e r a r o u n d
by the hair, humiliating her in front of the patrons.
As she r e m e m b e r e d this, she recognized a similarity b e t w e e n the
anger she often felt against her h u s b a n d a n d her g r a n d m o t h e r ' s
toward her grandfather. W h e n she b e c a m e angry at her h u s b a n d , she
saw h i m as her g r a n d m o t h e r had seen her grandfather, a n d n o w she
could see her h u s b a n d as he really was.

Sometimes people treat their partnership in the same way that


they treat m e m b e r s h i p in a voluntarily chosen group. Instead of
closely a t t e n d i n g to w h a t their sense of b e l o n g i n g r e q u i r e s , t h e y act
as if t h e y c o u l d arbitrarily set t h e goals, d u r a t i o n , a n d s t r u c t u r e s of
their relationship, a n d change t h e m as they wish. T h e y m a y recog-
nize t o o late t h a t a loving p a r t n e r s h i p only flourishes w h e n t h e p a r t -
ners respect their b o n d a n d the constraints it imposes on t h e m . T h e
i n t e r d e p e n d e n c e o f love a n d s y s t e m i c o r d e r i s i n e s c a p a b l e .
Saint A u g u s t i n e ' s suggestion, "First love, a n d t h e n do as y o u
w i l l , " i s d o o m e d t o fail. M a n y m i s t a k e n l y b e l i e v e t h a t love a l o n e i s
e n o u g h , o r t h a t love c a n m a k e u p for w h a t e v e r else i s m i s s i n g f r o m
a r e l a t i o n s h i p . T h e i l l u s i o n t h a t love a l o n e c a n b e e n o u g h p r e v e n t s
us from perceiving the limits of w h a t we c a n a n d c a n n o t d o .

My Love Will Change Him

A y o u n g w o m a n , against her p a r e n t s ' wishes, married a m a n w h o was


f o n d of drink, gambling, and w o m e n . After many miserable years
together, he died, leaving her destitute with four children, three of
w h o m still n e e d e d her care. In talking with a friend, she realized that,
as a young w o m a n , she h a d believed that if she loved her h u s b a n d
e n o u g h , her love would change him. Rather t h a n admit to herself the
error of her belief, she stayed with h i m , giving h i m m o r e a n d m o r e ,
a n d paid heavily for her hubris with suffering. She also came to real-
ize that her m o t h e r h a d h o p e d to improve her father, w h o , like her
h u s b a n d , h a d successfully resisted all efforts to be improved.

B e c a u s e it's a n e m e r g e n t q u a l i t y o f s y s t e m i c o r d e r , love d e v e l o p s ,
flows, a n d blossoms only in an environment of systemic balance.
A t t e m p t s t o c o m p e n s a t e a s y s t e m i c i m b a l a n c e b y i n c r e a s i n g love
Man and Woman: The Foundation of Family 51

are b o u n d to fail. Like a seed in fertile g r o u n d , love d o e s n ' t try to


c h a n g e t h e soil. Love develops b e t w e e n h u m a n s a n d is essential to
u s , b u t it c a n ' t influence t h e larger system t h a t gave it b i r t h — a n d
o u r love for o n e a n o t h e r plays only a m i n o r role in the larger u n i -
verse of galaxies a n d stars.

Hierarchy Between Parents

C e r t a i n d a n c e s , like the waltz a n d t a n g o , are m o s t beautiful w h e n


p a r t n e r s are well m a t c h e d i n skill a n d style, a n d w h e n o n e leads a n d
t h e o t h e r follows. Skillful d a n c e r s usually a g r e e t h a t they feel b e s t
w h e n their respective skills m a k e it n a t u r a l for t h e m a n to lead a n d
t h e w o m a n to follow.
T i m e , weight, a n d function interact t o d e t e r m i n e w h o leads a n d
w h o follows in i n t i m a t e relationships. S i n c e p a r t n e r s e n t e r a rela-
t i o n s h i p s i m u l t a n e o u s l y , t h e t i m e factor i s n e u t r a l i z e d , b u t a m o n g
siblings, t h e elder siblings take p r e c e d e n c e over t h e y o u n g e r o n e s .
I n spite o f o u t w a r d a p p e a r a n c e s , i n relationships b e t w e e n p a r -
e n t s , t h e w o m a n a l m o s t always h a s greater weight. P e r h a p s b e c a u s e
of t h e i m m e d i a c y of h e r b o d y ' s involvement in p r e g n a n c y , b i r t h ,
and nursing her children, her b o n d to t h e m is naturally intimate
a n d powerful. T h r o u g h t h e m , she also is b o u n d to life a n d feels an
i m p o r t a n c e h e r h u s b a n d m u s t w o r k h a r d t o achieve. S u c h a w o m a n
is t h e c e n t e r a r o u n d w h i c h h e r family is o r g a n i z e d , a n d a l t h o u g h
she m a y b e m o r e r e s t r i c t e d t h a n h e r h u s b a n d , she e x u d e s a s e c u r e
c o n t e n t m e n t a n d confident f r e e d o m t h a t , paradoxically, are g r a n t e d
b y h e r g r e a t e r weight.
B u t c h i l d r e n w h o r e m a i n c e n t e r e d a r o u n d their m o t h e r t o o l o n g
find it difficult to achieve a u t o n o m y , a n d t h e m a t u r e , p e r s o n a l love
o f w e l l - m a t c h e d p a r t n e r s d o e s n o t develop w h e n o n e o r t h e o t h e r
d o m i n a t e s . C o r r e s p o n d i n g l y , we observe r e p e a t e d l y in constella-
tions t h a t all m e m b e r s of a family i m m e d i a t e l y feel b e t t e r w h e n t h e
family's c e n t e r of gravity c a n a p p r o p r i a t e l y be shifted to t h e m a n ' s
s p h e r e — c h i l d r e n feel t h e e x u b e r a n t security n e c e s s a r y to explore
t h e w o r l d , a n d t h e c o u p l e ' s love rekindles a n d c o m e s to life.
Love is usually well served w h e n a w o m a n follows h e r h u s b a n d
i n t o his l a n g u a g e , his family, a n d his c u l t u r e , a n d w h e n she agrees
t h a t their c h i l d r e n will follow h i m as well. S u c h following feels n a t u -
ral a n d g o o d t o w o m e n w h e n their h u s b a n d s lead with heartfelt
52 Love's Hidden Symmetry

c o n c e r n for t h e family's well-being, a n d w h e n t h e y u n d e r s t a n d t h e


m y s t e r i o u s systemic law t h a t t h e m a s c u l i n e serves t h e f e m i n i n e .
M e n a n d their families suffer grave c o n s e q u e n c e s w h e n this service
is avoided, is d i s t o r t e d , or r e m a i n s unfulfilled.
I n a d d i t i o n t o the hierarchy established b y t i m e a n d weight, t h e
division of function also plays a role in d e t e r m i n i n g w h i c h p a r t n e r
leads. A l t h o u g h this is c h a n g i n g in m a n y c o u n t r i e s , t h e families w i t h
w h i c h w e w o r k still generally function b e t t e r w h e n the w o m a n car-
ries t h e p r i m a r y responsibility for the family's i n t e r n a l well-being,
a n d t h e m a n is responsible for t h e family's security in t h e w o r l d a n d
is followed w h e r e he leads.
Obviously, this traditional division of functions c a n n o t , a n d m u s t
n o t , b e m a i n t a i n e d i n s o m e families. S o m e t i m e s m e n c a n ' t p r o t e c t
their families b e c a u s e of c i r c u m s t a n c e s of w a r or loss of i n c o m e , or
b e c a u s e they fall ill or b e c o m e disabled. S o m e m e n lack t h e
s t r e n g t h to lead in a h e a l t h y way b e c a u s e they have n o t c o m p l e t e d
the m o v e m e n t of leaving their m o t h e r s ' spheres of influence a n d
c o n n e c t i n g t o their fathers, their g r a n d f a t h e r s , a n d t h e h e a l t h y
world o f m e n . S o m e w o m e n refuse t o follow b e c a u s e t h e y r e m a i n
b o u n d i n their fathers' spheres o f influence a n d have b e e n u n a b l e t o
c o n n e c t t o their m o t h e r s , their g r a n d m o t h e r s , a n d t h e p r i m a l force
o f w o m a n h o o d . O t h e r s c a n n o t follow b e c a u s e t h e y c o n t i n u e t o have
an i m p o r t a n t function in their family of origin, p e r h a p s b e c a u s e of
exceptionally difficult o r tragic h a p p e n s t a n c e . T h e n t h e w o m a n
m u s t n o t follow h e r h u s b a n d , b u t she still m u s t a g r e e t h a t their chil-
d r e n follow h i m as he g u i d e s t h e m to t h e greater safety of his f a m i -
ly's s p h e r e of influence. At t i m e s t h e d a m a g e in t h e m a n ' s family is
s o great t h a t t h e family c a n only find p e a c e a n d g o o d o r d e r w h e n h e
a n d t h e c h i l d r e n move i n t o the w o m a n ' s s p h e r e , a n d h e m u s t follow
h e r t h e r e . S u c h couples m u s t t h e n take extra care t o e n s u r e t h a t
their giving a n d taking r e m a i n b a l a n c e d , a n d t h a t t h e w o m a n
d o e s n ' t b e c o m e a s u b s t i t u t e for h e r h u s b a n d ' s m o t h e r or father.

Example
A participant in a workshop reacted with outrage to the idea that love
flows most easily when men lead and women follow. She told with
dignity how her first husband had become violent to her, how her
second husband had begun to molest her daughter sexually, and how
her third husband, although a good and loving man, had no ambition
and was content with his modest earnings and simple life. She said,
Man and Woman: The Foundation of Family 53

" A r e you telling m e I s h o u l d follow these m e n ? " T h e g r o u p leader


p a u s e d , a n d a n s w e r e d , " O b v i o u s l y love w o u l d n o t have b e e n served
h a d you followed. B u t i m a g i n e for a m o m e n t t h a t y o u r p r e s e n t p a r t -
n e r were to c h a n g e as you desire a n d a s s u m e full responsibility for
you a n d y o u r family. H o w w o u l d you feel?" T h e w o m a n i m m e d i a t e l y
b e a m e d , " T h e n I could relax at last."

M a n y w o m e n a r e s u r p r i s e d t o d i s c o v e r t h e p r o f o u n d relief, t h e
d e e p c o n t e n t m e n t , a n d t h e e a s e t h e y s p o n t a n e o u s l y feel w h e n a
family s y s t e m is b r o u g h t into s y m m e t r y , a n d t h e y find t h e m s e l v e s
n a t u r a l l y following a m a n w h o leads in t h e t r u e service of his family.
And men often experience a strange transformation w h e n their
service is acknowledged a n d appropriately valued.

Additional Considerations

T h i s o b s e r v a t i o n b y Hellinger h a s c a u s e d c o n s i d e r a b l e controversy,
a n d s o m e p e o p l e have wrongly u n d e r s t o o d h i m t o b e a d v o c a t i n g t h a t
w o m e n r e t u r n t o traditional roles a n d functions. C e r t a i n l y these
o b s e r v a t i o n s at first a p p e a r to challenge m u c h of t h e g o o d t h a t the
w o m a n ' s m o v e m e n t h a s gained. A b o u t two-thirds o f the families with
w h i c h we w o r k are h a p p i e r a n d function b e t t e r if they c a n find t h e
h i d d e n s y m m e t r y t h a t allows t h e m a n t o lead well a n d the w o m a n
a p p r o p r i a t e l y to follow. F a r from b e i n g a m o r a l p o s i t i o n , this
describes a s p o n t a n e o u s l y felt b o d y reaction t h a t is clear to see in all
family m e m b e r s if such a s y m m e t r y is f o u n d , especially t h e c h i l d r e n .
As representatives in a constellation m a n y w o m e n have b e e n s u r -
p r i s e d ( a n d s o m e t i m e s a little e m b a r r a s s e d ) to feel the sense of
" r i g h t n e s s " this h i d d e n systemic s y m m e t r y gives t h e m , a n d t o see
h o w it frees t h e i r c h i l d r e n . T h e n e e d to p r o t e c t their family's well-be-
ing is o n e of t h e d e e p e s t feelings m e n n o r m a l l y have, a n d failure in
this leaves d e e p w o u n d s . M a n y m e n have b e e n s u r p r i s e d ( a n d also a
little e m b a r r a s s e d ) at t h e welling-up of dignity a n d e m o t i o n w h e n
their efforts are " g o o d - e n o u g h , " a n d their service is recognized a n d
valued.
It's n o t clear w h e t h e r this is a m a t t e r of socialization a l o n e , or if
e v o l u t i o n a r y factors are involved. W e m a y s p e c u l a t e t h a t , f r o m t h e
p o i n t of view of evolution, o n c e fertilization h a s t a k e n p l a c e , t h e
father i s m o r e e x p e n d a b l e t h a n t h e m o t h e r a n d child, a n d t h a t h e
c o n t i n u e s to have a life-serving function w h e n he c o n t r i b u t e s to their
survival a n d well-being. B e r t Hellinger d o e s n o t explain this p h e -
n o m e n o n , saying, "I do n o t k n o w why this is so, b u t I see t h a t it is a
54 Love's Hidden Symmetry

deep movement within the soul that has a powerful effect for good,
especially on the children in a family, and I respect it."
Some people confuse the term "follow" with being subservient or
inferior, while others confuse domination and belligerence with
"leading." Love, in contrast to evolution, requires both partners to be
equally present and equally important throughout their partnership.
Love requires the symmetry of their togetherness to be authentic and
it isn't deceived by false assertions or good intentions.
Each situation is unique, and the constellations are one means to
determine who appropriately leads or follows in a specific family.
[H.B.]

GROWING TOWARD D E A T H

T h e d e e p e r a relationship develops a n d t h e l o n g e r it e n d u r e s , t h e
m o r e d e a t h e n t e r s a n d b e c o m e s a p a r t of it. We m a y e n t e r a p a r t n e r -
ship w i t h an e x p e c t a t i o n t h a t it will fulfill us a n d e n d o u r n e e d or
loneliness. T h e reality is t h a t it ultimately leads to d e a t h . E v e n w h e n
love thrives in a p a r t n e r s h i p , an i n c o m p l e t e n e s s of t h e soul r e m a i n s
for e a c h p a r t n e r t h a t t h e p a r t n e r s h i p c a n n o t fill. D e a l i n g w i t h this
p r o f o u n d a n d m o s t h u m a n i n c o m p l e t e n e s s leads u s t o t h e g r e a t e r
mysteries of life, to t h e spiritual a n d religious d i m e n s i o n . As illu-
sions fade a n d die, couples w h o s e love r e m a i n s vital i n t o old age
c o n f r o n t b o t h t h e limits o f p a r t n e r s h i p a n d t h e s e g r e a t e r mysteries.
Sacrificing t h e h o p e t h a t their p a r t n e r s will satisfy w h a t n o p a r t n e r
c a n , t h e y b e g i n to look m o r e lovingly at e a c h o t h e r , releasing e a c h
o t h e r from their earlier expectations a n d s u r r e n d e r i n g to a p r o c e s s
whose outcome remains unseen.
E v e r y i n t i m a t e relationship is c a r r i e d by t h e flow of t i m e , m o v i n g
t o w a r d its o w n e n d a n d m a k i n g r o o m for w h a t c o m e s n e x t . F o r
e x a m p l e , p a r e n t s lose f r e e d o m w h e n a child is b o r n , b u t t h e joy of
h a v i n g a child a n d t h e sense of fulfillment in b e i n g p a r e n t s r e p l a c e
w h a t they s u r r e n d e r . T h e p e a k intensity in a relationship b e t w e e n a
m a n a n d a w o m a n usually o c c u r s w i t h t h e b i r t h of their first child.
After t h a t , t h e relationship c h a n g e s o r i e n t a t i o n , t u r n i n g o u t w a r d ;
o t h e r factors increasingly play a role; a n d gradually t h e intensity of
t h e original t o g e t h e r n e s s decreases. T h e s e sacrifices of i n t i m a c y are
a p p r o p r i a t e . T h e y b r i n g u s b a c k t o e a r t h , freed from naive e x p e c t a -
tions of w h a t a relationship c o u l d b e .
Man and Woman: The Foundation of Family 55

E v e r y crisis e n a b l e s a c o u p l e to practice dying. It r e q u i r e s p a r t -


n e r s t o give u p s o m e t h i n g they have c h e r i s h e d , b u t their love c o n -
t i n u e s on a d e e p e r , m o r e e n d u r i n g level. As t h e coverings of
unrealistic h o p e are p e e l e d away, p a r t n e r s are increasingly e x p o s e d
a n d c a n b e seen a n d loved a s t h e y a r e — a n d see a n d love t h e i r p a r t -
n e r s . S u c h a love is b e y o n d illusion a n d abides in w h a t is.
W i t h e a c h s u r r e n d e r a n d loss, t h e n e w t h a t e n t e r s t h e r e l a t i o n -
ship i s m o r e m o d e s t a n d m o r e relaxed. A t t h e s a m e t i m e , t h e i r love
b e c o m e s m o r e n o u r i s h i n g for t h e soul t h a n t h e love of n e w l y w e d s .
A s t h e c o u p l e ' s relationship moves b a c k d o w n t o e a r t h a n d b e c o m e s
m o r e m o d e s t , t h e y g r o w close t o d e a t h a n d m u s t befriend it. T h u s ,
o n e c a n often see expressions of p r o f o u n d serenity on t h e faces of
happily m a r r i e d o l d e r p e o p l e b e c a u s e they n o l o n g e r fear loss a n d
death.

Fullness

A youth asked an old man:


"What is the difference between you,
who are now almost part of what has been,
and me, who is still becoming?'"

The old man replied:


"I have been more.

"The dawning day seems greater


than the one before because
the day at dusk is mostly past.
But the new day, although it's yet to come,
can only be what it already is,
and so, it too grows more by fading.

"It climbs like yesterday


steeply toward the noon,
reaching zenith just before the greatest heat;
rests a while on high, or so it seems,
until, as if drawn by its own increasing weight,
which grows with the advancing hour,
it bows deeply to the night.
56 Love's Hidden Symmetry

And like the day that went before,


it reaches its completion when it, too, is fully past.

"But nothing that has been can ever really disappear.


It remains because it has existed.
Although it now is past, its effect continues
and becomes still more through the new that follows.
Like a round drop of rain falling from a passing cloud
dissolves in an ocean, which remains.

"Only what never could come into being


because we dreamed of it but did not act,
thought of it but failed to implement the thought—
all that remains unknown to our experience,
all that for which we feared to pay the price—
all that is lost.
"Experience unlived is lost forever.

"Thus, the god of the right and fitting moment


appears to us like a youth
with a lock of hair in front and a bald patch behind.
We grasp him by his curls in front
and from behind we clutch at emptiness."

The youth then asked: "What must I do


to become what you have been?"

The old man answered: "Be!"

QUESTIONS A N D ANSWERS
REGARDING SPECIAL ISSUES

Abortion and Its Effect on Partnership


Question: H o w d o e s a n a b o r t i o n o r m i s c a r r i a g e affect the family
system?

Hellinger: M i s c a r r i a g e s d o n ' t usually affect t h e system at all, as


long a s t h e m o t h e r ' s h e a l t h h a s n ' t b e e n j e o p a r d i z e d . M y o b s e r v a t i o n
h a s b e e n t h a t a n a b o r t i o n d o e s n ' t usually affect t h e o t h e r c h i l d r e n
Man and Woman: The Foundation of Family 57

in t h e family, b u t it d o e s affect the p a r e n t s ' relationship. It m a y be


different in o t h e r c u l t u r e s , b u t in o u r c u l t u r e , a b o r t i o n h a s an effect
d e e p i n t h e soul t h a t ' s q u i t e i n d e p e n d e n t o f w h a t e v e r t h e p a r e n t s
m a y consciously believe a b o u t a b o r t i o n — a l t h o u g h this varies s o m e -
w h a t from family to family.
T h e m a i n p r o b l e m with a b o r t i o n o c c u r s w h e n p e o p l e a p p r o a c h i t
a s t h o u g h i t c o u l d u n d o s o m e t h i n g t h a t has already h a p p e n e d . I n
fact, p a r t n e r s often find the b u r d e n of guilt a n d the c o n s e q u e n c e s of
a n a b o r t i o n w o r s e t h a n the b u r d e n o f having the child.
In s o m e situations, a b o r t i o n m a y be the least destructive of the
available alternatives, b u t it's an option that carries a heavy price. I've
w o r k e d with couples w h o s e decision to a b o r t I h o n o r a n d respect—
they m a d e the decision consciously a n d they a c c e p t e d t h e c o n s e -
q u e n c e s of their choice with a sense of reverence for the child. T h e
u n b o r n child a p p e a r e d before t h e m as a p e r s o n w h o n e e d e d a n d
deserved to be seen. If the decision to a b o r t can be m a d e in the p r e s -
e n c e of the u n b o r n child, with all of the pain a n d guilt t h a t entails,
a n d with a full awareness of w h a t ' s being asked of this child, t h e n the
decision brings d e e p suffering. T h a t kind of a b o r t i o n h a s a very dif-
ferent quality t h a n an a b o r t i o n d o n e to avoid the c o n s e q u e n c e s of
o u r o w n choices. It affects the p a r t n e r s for a long t i m e , b u t it also has
the potential to d r a w t h e m closer together a n d to d e e p e n their love.
O n e frequent consequence of an abortion is that the partnership
is over, a n d t h e p a r e n t s have to start again if t h e y w a n t to stay
together. I f t h e p a r t n e r s a r e n ' t m a r r i e d , they often drift a p a r t . W h e n
an a b o r t i o n o c c u r s in a m a r r i a g e , t h e n the sexual r e l a t i o n s h i p often
b e c o m e s difficult, or stops altogether. It isn't n e c e s s a r y t h a t this be
so, a n d t h e r e are s o l u t i o n s , b u t if t h e p a r t n e r s t r y to avoid the c o n -
s e q u e n c e s of their actions a n d their feelings of g u i l t — p e r h a p s by
m i n i m i z i n g t h e gravity o f w h a t they've d o n e , o r b y avoiding c o n -
fronting their u n b o r n child as a p e r s o n — t h e y p a y t h e p r i c e for their
n e g l e c t s o m e w h e r e else.
B o t h p a r e n t s have equal responsibility for an a b o r t i o n , just as
t h e y have e q u a l responsibility for t h e p r e g n a n c y , a n d o n e p a r t n e r
c a n ' t p u s h i t off o n t o t h e o t h e r w i t h o u t d a m a g i n g their r e l a t i o n s h i p
or themselves.

Question: I've b e e n t h i n k i n g a b o u t the i m p o r t a n c e o f family


m e m b e r s w h o have b e e n e x c l u d e d . I ' m w o n d e r i n g i f i t i s n ' t i m p o r -
t a n t for siblings t o k n o w t h a t there's b e e n a n a b o r t i o n .
58 Love's Hidden Symmetry

H e l l i n g e r : It's n o n e of their b u s i n e s s . T h i s is s o m e t h i n g private


b e t w e e n the p a r e n t s , a n d it s h o u l d r e m a i n t h e r e . I've rarely seen a
case w h e r e it m a d e difficulties for t h e o t h e r children.

Question: You said t h a t relationships are d i s r u p t e d after a n a b o r -


tion. Is t h a t t r u e even if t h e a b o r t i o n is a f o u r t h or fifth child?

Hellinger: T h a t ' s b e e n m y o b s e r v a t i o n , yes.

Question: A n d i f t h e child was that o f a n o t h e r m a n o r a n o t h e r


woman?

H e l l i n g e r : In that case, the m a r r i a g e as it was is over. E v e n w h e n


p a r t n e r s stay t o g e t h e r after t h e a b o r t i o n , their r e l a t i o n s h i p is c e r t a i n
to be different from w h a t it was before. If t h e child w a s conceived
with another person during the marriage, that's the start of a n e w
system, a n d t h e old p a r t n e r s h i p is over anyway. S o m e p e o p l e t e n d
to t r e a t a b o r t i o n as if it were h a r m l e s s , b u t if y o u w o r k w i t h m e n
a n d w o m e n w h o have g o n e t h r o u g h it, you see t h a t i t often h a s
c o n s e q u e n c e s m u c h m o r e serious t h a n they e x p e c t e d .

Question: W h a t if t h e father d o e s n ' t k n o w a b o u t it?

H e l l i n g e r : If t h e m o t h e r d o e s n ' t tell h i m , their r e l a t i o n s h i p is


already over. If he were to know, h e ' d have to take a p o s i t i o n . An
a b o r t i o n is an e x t r e m e case of giving a n d taking b e c a u s e t h e child
gives all a n d t h e p a r e n t s take all. F a t h e r s w h o k n o w n o t h i n g a b o u t
an a b o r t i o n still gain an a d v a n t a g e from t h e child's d e a t h , a n d their
actions still have c o n s e q u e n c e s . T h e y have t h e right t o k n o w a n d
s h o u l d b e told.
S o m e p e o p l e c o n d e m n themselves t o d e a t h following a n a b o r -
tion. T h e y actually c o n t r a c t a serious illness or c o m m i t suicide.
S u c h decisions a r e n ' t m a d e m e r e l y o u t o f d e p r e s s i o n o r superficial
feelings of guilt, a n d they deserve to be u n d e r s t o o d in their d e p t h
a n d profundity. If an u n b o r n child is asked to give up life, t h e p a r -
ents have an obligation to see to it t h a t it w a s n ' t in vain. R a t h e r t h a n
d y i n g , t h e y h o n o r t h e child b e t t e r by living fully.
W h e n an a b o r t e d child is set up in a family constellation, that h a s
an exceptional effect on t h e representatives of t h e p a r e n t s a n d t h e
child. H o w w a s t h a t for you, C l a u d e ? (Claude had represented an
aborted child in a constellation earlier in the workshop.)

Claude: I felt c o m p l e t e l y a l o n e . I h a d no sense of life.


Man and Woman: The Foundation of Family 59

H e l l i n g e r : T h a t ' s a typical reaction. T h e child feels alone,


rejected, a b a n d o n e d , u n s e e n , a n d u n a c k n o w l e d g e d . T h e solution is
for o n e or b o t h of the parents in the constellation to m a k e a c o n n e c -
tion with the child (it h a p p e n s symbolically t h r o u g h t o u c h ) , and to
take the child into their hearts. T h e n the child can accept his or h e r
fate. S u c h a solution is only possible if t h e p a r e n t s feel g e n u i n e grief
a n d accept their pain. T h e i r willingness to e n d u r e their grief a n d
pain h o n o r s their child a n d reconnects t h e m with the child.
Young children have a basic willingness to die for their p a r e n t s .
T h e y instinctively u n d e r s t a n d that d e a t h a n d life go together a n d
c a n ' t be separated, so they d o n ' t feel the n e e d to hold on to life at
any price. W h e n parents are able to recognize an a b o r t e d child as a
p e r s o n a n d to acknowledge that this child has sacrificed life for
t h e m , there's peace in the system. T h i s peace c o m e s only after t h e
child has been acknowledged as a real " o t h e r " a n d has b e e n taken
into the p a r e n t s ' hearts.
In a constellation, a healing ritual can be performed by having
the child's representative sit in front of t h e parents a n d lean against
t h e m . T h e p a r e n t s can t h e n lay their h a n d s on the child's h e a d , a n d
feel the c o n n e c t i o n with love and grief. T h a t often has a g o o d effect
on the whole constellation, and there's a p r o f o u n d c h a n g e in t h e
p a r e n t s if they succeed in allowing the child to b e c o m e a real p e r s o n
to t h e m . W h e n b o t h parents allow themselves to feel the pain of
their loss and of what they have asked from their child, there can be
a d e e p a t o n e m e n t a n d reconciliation. T h e i r pain h o n o r s their child
so that the child feels included, finds his or h e r place, and is at
peace. By accepting their pain and guilt, t h e p a r e n t s b e c o m e whole,
a n d their wholeness gives t h e m strength. T h e i r p a r t n e r s h i p can
grow again, b u t it will be on a n e w level. If only o n e of the p a r t n e r s
experiences t h e pain, the partnership is b r o k e n , a n d they usually
separate.
A n o t h e r healing exercise after an a b o r t i o n is for the p a r e n t s to
imagine themselves taking the child by t h e h a n d a n d showing h i m
or h e r good things of t h e world. Perhaps for a year or two, t h e p a r -
ents imagine showing the child the things they do and t h e places
they visit, just as they would show a living child. After that, the child
can really be d e a d and find peace.
T h i s is an exercise that m u s t be carried o u t with great c a u t i o n
a n d with u t m o s t respect. T h r o u g h suffering with full awareness a n d
consent, a fullness is gained that's often n o t possible w h e n p e o p l e
60 Love's Hidden Symmetry

h i d e b e h i n d a f a c a d e o f joy a n d c h e e r f u l n e s s . T h a t fullness i s t h e
p a r e n t s ' r e w a r d for c o n s e n t i n g t o t h e fullness o f t h e i r g u i l t a n d t h e i r
loss. S o m e t h i n g g o o d o r s p e c i a l c a n also b e d o n e i n r e m e m b r a n c e
of the child. It doesn't have to be anything big, b u t it s h o u l d be
something that wouldn't otherwise have b e e n d o n e .
W h e n the subject of abortion comes up in seminars, I do my best
t o avoid it. I t ' s p r a c t i c a l l y i m p o s s i b l e t o k n o w w h a t t h e u l t i m a t e
g a i n s a n d l o s s e s a r e i n s u c h s i t u a t i o n s , a n d s o it's v e r y difficult t o
k n o w w h a t t h e b e s t solution is—or the least destructive. W h a t I've
offered a r e a few g e n e r a l i z a t i o n s , b u t e a c h s i t u a t i o n i s d i f f e r e n t , a n d
t h e r a p i s t s n e e d t o l o o k v e r y carefully a t t h e i n d i v i d u a l p e r s o n s i n
actual situations.
I've only b e e n r e p o r t i n g w h a t I've seen in my w o r k with families,
a n d I d o n ' t w a n t t o say a n y t h i n g m o r e a b o u t it. I t ' s a v e r y difficult
s u b j e c t . (Long silence) I'll tell y o u a m e d i t a t i v e s t o r y .

The Guest

W h e r e the Wild West once was, a m a n with a backpack was w a n d e r -


ing t h r o u g h the lonely land. He h a d walked for h o u r s , the s u n was
high in the sky, a n d his thirst was growing. He saw a farmhouse on
the horizon a n d thought, " T h a n k G o d , at last a n o t h e r h u m a n being
in all this loneliness. I'll stop there and ask for a drink, and p e r h a p s
we'll sit on the p o r c h and talk a while before I set off again." A n d he
imagined how nice it would be.
But as he drew near to the h o u s e , he saw the farmer working in
the garden, a n d he began to have second thoughts. " H e ' s probably
very busy a n d doesn't have time, and if I b o t h e r h i m , he'll feel
annoyed. He may think I ' m r u d e . " W h e n at last he reached the gar-
d e n gate, he waved to the farmer a n d walked on.
T h e farmer h a d seen h i m in the distance a n d felt pleased. " T h a n k
G o d , " he h a d thought, "at last another h u m a n being in all this lone-
liness. I h o p e he comes here. We could drink something together, a n d
perhaps sit on the p o r c h a n d talk a while before he goes on his way."
T h e farmer went into the house and p r e p a r e d something cool to
drink.
But as the walker c a m e closer, the farmer began to think. " H e ' s
most certainly in a hurry. If I speak to h i m , I'll p u t h i m in an awk-
ward situation. He may feel that I ' m pushing myself on him. B u t per-
haps he's thirsty a n d will c o m e over on his own. T h e best thing would
be for me to go into the garden and act busy. Surely he'll see m e , a n d
Man and Woman: The Foundation of Family 61

if he w a n t s a n y t h i n g , he'll ask m e . " W h e n the walker only w a v e d in


passing, the f a r m e r t h o u g h t , " T o o b a d ! '
T h e walker walked o n a n d o n . T h e s u n was h o t a n d his thirst was
growing. It was h o u r s before he saw a n o t h e r h o u s e on the h o r i z o n .
He t h o u g h t to himself, " T h i s t i m e I will a p p r o a c h t h e f a r m e r , even if
I ' m a n u i s a n c e to h i m . I am so thirsty t h a t I simply m u s t have s o m e -
thing to drink."
As t h e f a r m e r saw the walker in the d i s t a n c e , he t h o u g h t to h i m -
self, " O h G o d ! Just w h a t I d o n ' t n e e d w h e n I have so m u c h to do. I
c a n ' t take care of a n y o n e else right now." He c o n t i n u e d his work
w i t h o u t looking u p .
T h e walker w a t c h e d h i m g o o u t into t h e field a n d followed h i m
a n d said, " I a m very thirsty. C o u l d you please give m e s o m e t h i n g t o
d r i n k ? " T h e f a r m e r t h o u g h t , " I c a n ' t s e n d h i m away, i t w o u l d n ' t b e
right." S o h e t o o k t h e stranger into the h o u s e a n d gave h i m s o m e -
t h i n g to drink.
T h e s t r a n g e r said, " I saw your g a r d e n . It's clear t h a t s o m e o n e h a s
w o r k e d h e r e w h o u n d e r s t a n d s g a r d e n i n g a n d loves p l a n t s . " T h e
f a r m e r said, " S o you like g a r d e n i n g ? " T h e n they sat d o w n o n the
p o r c h a n d talked for a long t i m e . Finally, t h e s t r a n g e r said, "I m u s t
b e o n m y way now." T h e f a r m e r a n s w e r e d , " B u t t h e s u n i s getting
low. Stay the n i g h t with m e . We'll breakfast early in the m o r n i n g a n d
you c a n b e off t h e n . " T h e stranger agreed.
A s evening c a m e , they sat o n t h e p o r c h a n d w a t c h e d t h e vastness
of the w e s t e r n sky transfigured in the evening light. In the d a r k n e s s ,
t h e stranger talked a b o u t h o w his world h a d c h a n g e d w h e n h e h a d
b e g u n to feel t h a t s o m e o n e was a c c o m p a n y i n g h i m step by step. At
first, he said, he h a d refused to believe t h a t a n o t h e r was always t h e r e ,
a n d t h a t w h e n h e s t o p p e d , the o t h e r s t o p p e d , a n d w h e n h e w e n t o n ,
the o t h e r w e n t on as well. A n d it h a d t a k e n a while before he h a d
u n d e r s t o o d w h o his c o m p a n i o n was. " M y c o n s t a n t c o m p a n i o n i s m y
d e a t h , " he said. "I have g r o w n so a c c u s t o m e d to his p r e s e n c e t h a t I
w o u l d miss h i m n o w if he w e r e n ' t there. He is my t r u e s t a n d best
friend. W h e n I d o n ' t k n o w what's right or w h a t to d o , I s t o p a while
a n d wait for his answer. I have a b a n d o n e d myself to h i m , a n d I k n o w
h e ' s there a n d I am h e r e . W i t h o u t h a n g i n g on to my o w n desires, I
wait for his m e s s a g e to c o m e to m e . W h e n I am c e n t e r e d a n d have
c o u r a g e , a w o r d c o m e s from h i m to m e , a n d , like a lightning flash,
illuminates t h e d a r k a n d I b e c o m e clear.'
T h e f a r m e r f o u n d this talk strange, a n d gazed silently i n t o t h e
night. After a l o n g t i m e , he saw his o w n d e a t h as his c o m p a n i o n .
A n d h e b o w e d his h e a d t o h i m . A n d a s h e paid his respects t o his
o w n d e a t h , it was as if the rest of his life were c h a n g e d . It b e c a m e
62 Love's Hidden Symmetry

precious as the love that anticipates a parting, and like such love,
filled to overflowing.
In the morning, they broke their fast together, and the farmer
said, "Even though you are leaving, my friend remains." They went
outside, shook hands, and said goodbye. T h e stranger went on his
way and the farmer returned to his field.

Examples from Seminars

Adrian: (Adrian had left his wife and children to live with Jennifer,
who then became pregnant.) I just w a n t e d to say that Jennifer, my
p a r t n e r , is p r o b a b l y h a v i n g an a b o r t i o n today, a n d I c a n ' t do any-
t h i n g a b o u t it. (His voice drops.) I feel so confused a n d helpless. I
wish t h e r e w e r e s o m e t h i n g I c o u l d d o , b u t h e r e I sit, 3 0 0 miles
away. I just have to a c c e p t it.

H e l l i n g e r : A d r i a n , if she goes t h r o u g h with it against y o u r


wishes, you'll be t o u c h e d by d e a t h . A p a r t of you will die t o o
(pause). T h a t will m e a n t h a t y o u r p a r t n e r s h i p with Jennifer is p r o b -
ably over. It's likely t h a t you'll lose Jennifer, b u t you'll lose y o u r first
family for s u r e . You're free to c o n s e n t to t h a t , or n o t . If you c o n s e n t
to this d y i n g , a n e w s t r e n g t h m a y develop in y o u . It c o m e s from t h e
guilt t h a t you s h a r e , from t h e u n b o r n child's sacrifice, a n d from
y o u r loss of y o u r family. If you c a n c o n s e n t to all of t h a t , a load will
fall from y o u r s h o u l d e r s , b u t if y o u t r y to find t h e easy way o u t ,
you'll have a heavy b u r d e n to carry. (Adrian breathes deeply, and
withdraws in a mood of self-pity.)

H e l l i n g e r (to the group): W h a t he's d o i n g n o w is self-damaging. It


has a quality of heaviness a n d self-centeredness t h a t ' s i n a p p r o p r i a t e ;
his loss is certainly less t h a n t h e child's.

A d r i a n (very softly): You're asking q u i t e a lot.

Hellinger: T h e h e a l i n g o p t i o n isn't always t h e easiest. (Pause)


T h e r e ' s a d r a m a t i c quality to y o u r reaction that's i n a p p r o p r i a t e . It's
c h a n n e l i n g y o u r energy into self-pity a n d away from effective a c t i o n .
T h e r e ' s no a d v a n t a g e in that. So we'll let you c h e w on it for a while.

June: I w a s deeply t o u c h e d by w h a t you said a b o u t a b o r t i o n . I


feel a lot of p a i n a b o u t my a b o r t i o n (begins to cry) a n d a lot of
anger.
Man and Woman: The Foundation of Family 63

Hellinger: (After a long pause) T h a t k i n d of a n g e r is a d i s t r a c t i o n .


It's an i n d i c a t i o n of t r y i n g to p u s h responsibility o n t o s o m e o n e else.
You have to a c c e p t y o u r s h a r e of t h e responsibility, b e c a u s e , w i t h an
a b o r t i o n , y o u r share o f t h e responsibility c a n ' t b e p u s h e d off o n t o
y o u r p a r t n e r — o r a n y o n e else.

June: I've b e e n t h i n k i n g a b o u t it, t r y i n g t o r e m e m b e r w h e n m y


h u s b a n d a n d I started talking a b o u t separating. It's b e e n exactly a
year a n d a half—shortly after t h e a b o r t i o n . T h a t w o u l d have b e e n
o u r t h i r d child.

Hellinger: (With reference to June's family constellation, in which she


looked in a different direction, away from her husband) You w e r e look-
ing at t h a t child, J u n e . (June starts to cry again, this time more sin-
cerely) L e t t h e p a i n have all t h e r o o m in y o u t h a t it deserves. T h a t ' s
a h e a l i n g p a i n t h a t h o n o r s t h e child. T h e p a i n will h e l p you see w h a t
t o d o , s o t h a t y o u r u n b o r n child's sacrifice w o n ' t have b e e n i n vain.
(Pause) A r e t h e r e any o t h e r q u e s t i o n s a b o u t this?

Louis: C o u l d you say m o r e a b o u t t h e role o f m i s c a r r i a g e i n t h e


family system?

H e l l i n g e r : As I said before, miscarriages generally d o n ' t affect


t h e family system, a n d s e l d o m affect t h e relationship b e t w e e n a m a n
a n d a w o m a n . T h e y s h o u l d b e t r e a t e d a s things t h a t just h a p p e n a n d
n o t a t t a c h e d t o any p e r s o n a l guilt. F o r e x a m p l e , a m o t h e r w h o h a s
m i s c a r r i e d m a y feel guilty a n d ask, " W h a t have I d o n e to c a u s e this
t o h a p p e n ? " T h a t ' s a n i n a p p r o p r i a t e q u e s t i o n . It's p r e s u m p t u o u s t o
ask s u c h a t h i n g , a n d only creates craziness. If a t h e r a p i s t says,
" Y o u ' v e h a d five miscarriages, so you m u s t be r e s p o n s i b l e in s o m e
way," I'd c o n s i d e r t h a t a destructive i n t e r v e n t i o n .

Louis: I w a s asking b e c a u s e of a client of m i n e . O n e of his d r e a m s


m a d e m e s u s p e c t t h a t t h e r e h a d b e e n m i s c a r r i a g e s i n his family,
w h i c h he t h e n c o n f i r m e d . T h a t ' s why I w a s w o n d e r i n g if t h a t c o u l d
be important.

Hellinger: W e r e they his siblings?

Louis: Yes.

Hellinger: It s o u n d s as if he could be an e x c e p t i o n to w h a t I just


said. It c o u l d be that they have i m p o r t a n c e for h i m . If so, t h e s o l u -
tion w o u l d b e for h i m t o h o n o r their fate a n d say t o t h e m , "You
64 Love's Hidden Symmetry

d i d n ' t c o m e i n t o t h e world. I did c o m e into t h e w o r l d . You're d e a d ,


I ' m alive." T h e n he'll have t o deal w i t h the guilt o f b e i n g t h e survi-
vor, o f b e i n g alive w h e n t h e o t h e r s have died, even t h o u g h h e c o u l d
do n o t h i n g a b o u t it. You already k n o w the m a g i c f o r m u l a : " Y o u ' r e
d e a d . I will live a little while longer, a n d t h e n I, t o o , will d i e . " T h i s
f o r m u l a r e c o n n e c t s t h e living a n d t h e d e a d , a n d t h e living n o longer
n e e d to feel that they're s o m e h o w taking a d v a n t a g e of the d e a d .
T h i s e x a m p l e of y o u r s shows h o w d a n g e r o u s it is to try to m a k e a
c o m p r e h e n s i v e general t h e o r y from a limited o b s e r v a t i o n . I ' m giv-
ing y o u m y general o r i e n t a t i o n s , b u t d o n ' t let t h e m get i n t h e way o f
y o u r seeing w h a t ' s actually t h e case w i t h the p e o p l e w i t h w h o m y o u
work.

Artificial Insemination

Question: W h a t a b o u t artificial i n s e m i n a t i o n ? I ' m w o r k i n g w i t h a


c o u p l e w h o c a n ' t have children, a n d they're g o i n g t o great l e n g t h s
t o m a k e artificial i n s e m i n a t i o n possible. W h a t are t h e c o n s e q u e n c e s
for t h e m ?

Hellinger: T h e r e s h o u l d n ' t b e a n y p r o b l e m i f t h e s e m e n i s from


the m a n .

Question: N o , they w a n t t o u s e s e m e n from a s e m e n b a n k .

Hellinger: W h y o n e a r t h w o u l d they d o that? I f they u s e s e m e n


from a n o t h e r m a n , they g o o u t s i d e t h e b o u n d a r i e s o f their p a r t n e r -
ship, a n d they'll b e i n d a n g e r o f splitting u p . T h e i r p a r t n e r s h i p
m i g h t a l r e a d y be in j e o p a r d y anyway. I k n o w t h a t m a n y p e o p l e
believe t h a t it d o e s n ' t m a t t e r , b u t my observations have b e e n differ-
ent. W h e n p a r t n e r s are faced w i t h a particularly difficult fate, s u c h
a s n o t b e i n g able t o have t h e c h i l d r e n they w a n t t o have, t h e y n e e d
t o b e e x t r e m e l y careful a b o u t w h a t they d o t o t r y t o c h a n g e t h a t
fate. It i s n ' t as easy to c h a n g e fate w i t h technological i n t e r v e n t i o n s
as m a n y p e o p l e like to think, a n d t h e c o n s e q u e n c e s for t h e system
are u n e x p e c t e d , a n d usually g r e a t e r t h a n they like t o a d m i t . F o r
e x a m p l e , if a h u s b a n d c a n ' t have children a n d his wife sleeps w i t h
a n o t h e r m a n or is artificially i n s e m i n a t e d in o r d e r to b e c o m e p r e g -
n a n t , she's n o t a c c e p t i n g h e r h u s b a n d as he is, a n d t h a t b o d e s ill for
their p a r t n e r s h i p . If she desires to be in p a r t n e r s h i p w i t h h i m , t h e n
she w o u l d be well advised to a c c e p t h i m as he is, i n c l u d i n g his limi-
Man and Woman: The Foundation of Family 65

rations. O t h e r w i s e , she s h o u l d s e p a r a t e from h i m , w i t h all of t h e


c o n s e q u e n c e s t h a t carries.

I'm Going to Marry Him


A man who couldn't conceive children because of an illness he had
had told his wife that she should find a man who was willing to
inpregnate her and they would raise the child together as their own.
She found a well-known actor who was willing, and she became
pregnant and delivered a healthy baby girl. Shortly thereafter, the
marriage collapsed. She met another man, became pregnant again,
and married him. The first daughter thought that the mother's first
husband was her father. But the strange thing is that whenever she
saw the actor on television, the daughter would say, " I ' m going to
marry him." T h e woman eventually told the child the truth.

The Couple Comes Before the Children


Question: I w o r k with a lot of families in w h i c h t h e p a r t n e r s p u t
t h e children's n e e d s above everything else. I've t h e i m p r e s s i o n t h a t
t h e c h i l d r e n d o n ' t feel safe w h e n they have t o o m u c h f r e e d o m o r
t o o m u c h a t t e n t i o n . C o u l d you say s o m e t h i n g a b o u t t h e relation-
ship b e t w e e n p a r e n t s a n d c h i l d r e n as y o u see it?

Hellinger: T h e f u n d a m e n t a l relationship in a family is t h e rela-


t i o n s h i p b e t w e e n the father a n d t h e m o t h e r . It's t h e f o u n d a t i o n o f
p a r e n t h o o d . T h e s t r e n g t h n e c e s s a r y for g o o d p a r e n t i n g flows o u t o f
the couple's relationship. As l o n g as that relationship is g o o d a n d is
t h e f o u n d a t i o n of t h e family, the c h i l d r e n feel s e c u r e .
C h i l d r e n feel b e s t w h e n their father h o n o r s a n d r e s p e c t s himself
a n d his wife i n t h e m , a n d w h e n their m o t h e r also h o n o r s a n d
respects herself a n d h e r h u s b a n d i n t h e m . T h e n t h e p a r e n t s ' rela-
tionship w i t h their children is a c o n t i n u a t i o n a n d a fulfillment of
their relationship w i t h o n e a n o t h e r ; t h e children are t h e c r o w n i n g
a n d the c o m p l e t i o n of their love for e a c h other. C h i l d r e n feel free
w h e n their p a r e n t s love o n e a n o t h e r .
C r u c i a l h e r e are t h e direction a n d t h e quality of t h e love. W h e n a
father's love for his d a u g h t e r h a s a g o o d effect, it flows to h e r
t h r o u g h his wife; it takes a d e t o u r t h r o u g h her. T h e s a m e is t r u e of a
m o t h e r ' s love for h e r s o n s , w h i c h flows to t h e m via h e r h u s b a n d .
W h e n p a r e n t s love their children in t h a t way, their love for t h e chil-
66 Love's Hidden Symmetry

d r e n brings t h e m closer together, a n d t h e c h i l d r e n feel free a n d


secure.
W h e n a m a n a n d a w o m a n join t o g e t h e r , t h e y are a c o u p l e first,
a n d only later d o they b e c o m e p a r e n t s . T h e p a r t n e r relationship
c o m e s before the p a r e n t relationship a n d takes p r e c e d e n c e . T h e i r
t o g e t h e r n e s s b e c o m e s manifest i n their children, a n d their c h i l d r e n
are an expression of their m a l e n e s s a n d femaleness. A m a n a n d a
w o m a n are physically a n d visibly u n i t e d in their c h i l d r e n .
A l t h o u g h t h e c o n t i n u a t i o n of life a n d of t h e species is t h e biologi-
cal function of their coupling, t h e c o u p l e ' s relationship m a i n t a i n s
systemic p r e c e d e n c e over the relationship w i t h their c h i l d r e n . T h e
p a r e n t s ' love for their child s h o u l d be t h e c o n t i n u a t i o n a n d t h e
c r o w n i n g of their love for each o t h e r as a c o u p l e . T h i s is so b e c a u s e
their love as a c o u p l e c a m e first, a n d as the roots of a tree s u p p o r t
a n d n o u r i s h its b r a n c h e s , that love s u p p o r t s a n d n o u r i s h e s t h e
children.
W h e n p a r e n t s in a family allow their love for t h e i r c h i l d r e n to
b e c o m e m o r e i m p o r t a n t t h a n their love for e a c h o t h e r as a c o u p l e ,
t h e n t h e o r d e r of love is d i s t u r b e d a n d t h e family is in d a n g e r of
b e c o m i n g dysfunctional. T h e solution is for t h e c o u p l e ' s relation-
ship to be given priority over their relationship w i t h their c h i l d r e n .
W h e n this h a p p e n s in a constellation, you c a n see it immediately.
T h e c h i l d r e n e x p e r i e n c e their p a r e n t s as a c o u p l e , t h e y relax, a n d
everyone feels b e t t e r .

When Father Acts Like a Man


A man and a woman married because he hoped to have needs met
that remained unfulfilled from his childhood, and she wanted to love
him as a mother loves a child. They were quite content until they had
a child. T h e n the woman's love appropriately began to flow to her
biological son. Her husband began to feel neglected and jealous, and
to compete with his son for his wife's attention. T h e woman felt
abandoned by her husband and felt a great longing for a partner who
was her equal.
The son was caught between his parents, was unable to relate
appropriately to either, and fell into a deep depression.
He was freed from his depression when his father assumed his
appropriate place beside his wife as a man in a partnership with a
woman, and as a father in relation to his son. T h e n the boy felt peace
and could be a child at last.
Man and Woman: The Foundation of Family 67

Singles and Couples Without Children

Q u e s t i o n : I ' m single a n d I ' m n o w too old to b e a r a child. I feel


excluded and devalued by what you're saying. Is there no place for
people like me in t h e s y m m e t r y you describe?

Hellinger: Single m e n a n d w o m e n a n d couples w i t h o u t children


obviously are n o t excluded from finding love a n d m e a n i n g in their
lives, b u t they have s o m e special issues to face a n d resolve. As you
m u s t already k n o w from your o w n experience, facing loneliness a n d
finding m e a n i n g in life can be especially painful for a single p e r s o n
w h o has no children. T h a t can be a very difficult situation. My
interest is in u n d e r s t a n d i n g what people in such circumstances can
do to ensure that their potential for love and m e a n i n g c o m e s to
fruition.
In the constellations we've d o n e , you've seen that we all share in
o u r family's fate a n d guilt. T h a t m e a n s that we share in suffering t h e
c o n s e q u e n c e s of what others in o u r system do, just as w h a t we do
affects t h e m . People w h o freely choose to be single also freely
accept the consequences of their choice, a n d they d o n ' t usually seek
therapy. However, m a n y people aren't single b e c a u s e they w a n t to
b e , b u t because they're caught in a systemic e n t a n g l e m e n t , or are
paying a d e b t they d i d n ' t incur. F o r example, a father abused his
wife, a n d b e c a u s e she felt d e p e n d e n t on h i m , she e n d u r e d t h e abuse
w i t h o u t leaving. T h e i r d a u g h t e r developed a lifelong distrust of m e n
a n d of intimacy and r e m a i n e d single. Being single, in o r d e r to be
happy, she m u s t organize her life very differently t h a n she w o u l d if
she were m a r r i e d . In m a n y ways, she has m o r e freedom t h a n h e r
m a r r i e d friends have, b u t she also pays a heavy price. S h e can't
know the freedom that paradoxically comes from being b o n d e d to a
p a r t n e r a n d from having to meet the d e m a n d s placed on a m o t h e r .
I k n o w it's n o t in vogue to say it, b u t there are still families in
which a w o m a n finds fulfillment a n d achieves h e r greatest p s y c h o -
logical weight a n d dignity by having m a n y children a n d a large, lov-
ing family. You can still see such w o m e n in the rural villages of s o m e
countries. T h e r e ' s a look of p r o f o u n d serenity on their faces, a n d
they radiate a quality of being at peace a n d g r o u n d e d in life. T h e i r s
is a simple a n d completely natural greatness. T h i s also applies to
their h u s b a n d s , although to a lesser degree. T h e d e m a n d s on such
parents are e n o r m o u s ; they have h a d to learn to let go, a n d to be
patient and take what life gives t h e m .
68 Love's Hidden Symmetry

T h e p a t h to finding fulfillment by having a large family has b e e n


blocked in o u r culture for b o t h w o m e n a n d m e n , b u t that d o e s n ' t
m e a n that we're free to d e m e a n it. Because this p r o f o u n d a n d n a t u -
ral h u m a n fulfillment is no longer possible, w o m e n m u s t seek o t h e r
forms of fulfillment, primarily in a career. T h e r e ' s a culturally
evolved illusion that helps t h e m in this—that a career is m o r e fulfill-
ing for a w o m a n t h a n is being trapped at h o m e with children. I
c a n ' t imagine that sitting in an office, staring at a c o m p u t e r all day,
is intrinsically m o r e fulfilling t h a n being at h o m e with children.
However, I do believe that the illusion is necessary so that w o m e n
can do what's d e m a n d e d of t h e m by the evolution of culture a n d
still experience satisfaction in their lives.
W o m e n often d o n ' t even notice this loss of possibility, or they
deny that it's a loss and discount it, as if it were u n i m p o r t a n t . W h e n
they do that, they devalue what once was the greatest fulfillment of
w o m a n h o o d , a n d scorn what's no longer possible. H a v i n g children
is devalued, h o m e m a k i n g is devalued, a n d m e n are devalued. T h i s
makes it possible for w o m e n to c o m m i t themselves to a career, b u t
t h e price is that they lose the connection to a n d respect for an
i m p o r t a n t aspect of being a w o m a n .
T h a t ' s t h e way it is with everything—doing o n e thing m e a n s n o t
doing s o m e t h i n g else. Everything we do is s u r r o u n d e d by the things
we decide against, the n o t - c h o s e n potentials that r e m a i n unrealized.
If what isn't chosen is scorned or d e m e a n e d , t h e n whatever has
b e e n chosen loses value a n d i m p o r t a n c e . On the o t h e r h a n d , if we
h o n o r a n d value all of the n o t - c h o s e n a n d unrealized possibilities,
what has b e e n chosen is enriched.
T h e r e are situations in which it's neither possible n o r desirable
for people to have children or to live in a p a r t n e r s h i p . W o m e n w h o
are fully aware of t h e value of what they've given up a n d w h o m a k e
their choices consciously can rescue the feminine from this implicit
devaluation a n d carry its fullness into their n e w lifestyle. A n d m e n
can rescue the masculine in a similar way. H o n o r i n g what w a s n ' t
chosen brings a different quality into their lives. S o m e t h i n g else is
w o n with a conscious relinquishment of lost possibilities.
If such a loss is acknowledged a n d a conscious decision is m a d e
to forego family or p a r t n e r s h i p without devaluing them, t h e n w h a t
isn't chosen adds s o m e t h i n g t o what has b e e n c h o s e n . T h e process
of acknowledging loss works in the soul a n d can b r i n g s o m e t h i n g
positive on a completely different level. Even t h o u g h it remains
Man and Woman: The Foundation of Family 69

unrealized, w h a t ' s n o t c h o s e n goes o n w o r k i n g w h e n it's h o n o r e d


a n d valued.

Getting Needs Met Isn't Enough for Love


Question: I've really b e c o m e aware o f m y n e e d for t e n d e r n e s s
a n d for b e i n g h e l d . I fall in love a n d have t h e feeling for a while t h a t
I've f o u n d t h e right p a r t n e r a n d t h a t all m y n e e d s will b e m e t . T h e n
s o m e t h i n g c h a n g e s , a n d either he leaves me or I lose interest in h i m .

Hellinger: M o s t p a r t n e r s h i p s actually start o u t t h a t way, with


s o m e o n e looking for a p a r t n e r to fulfill his or h e r n e e d s a n d long-
ings. T h e p r o b l e m is t h a t t h e o t h e r p e r s o n is usually l o o k i n g for t h e
s a m e t h i n g . I suspect t h a t falling in love reactivates t h e n e e d s of o u r
i n n e r child, a n d t h e p a r t n e r t e n d s to get p u t in t h e p o s i t i o n of a
m o t h e r . W h e n m e n a n d w o m e n are o n t h e l o o k o u t for s o m e o n e t o
fill their n e e d s , at the d e e p e s t level, t h e y ' r e all l o o k i n g for a m o t h e r ,
a n d t h a t necessarily leads t o d i s a p p o i n t m e n t .
A p a r t n e r s h i p is a difficult u n d e r t a k i n g , a n d it's very different
from an affair, even an e x t e n d e d o n e . A p a r t n e r s h i p , at least w h a t I
m e a n by a p a r t n e r s h i p , has a c o m p l e t e l y different d e p t h . As you
said, you m a y find a m a n for a few m o n t h s , b u t he d o e s n ' t take y o u
seriously, in t h e s e n s e of w a n t i n g to m a k e his life with y o u . B e c a u s e
you see h i m a s a n o p p o r t u n i t y t o get w h a t you w a n t , he'll see t h e
relationship as a t e m p o r a r y o p p o r t u n i t y to get you to m e e t his
n e e d s as well.
T h a t vision is large e n o u g h for a love affair, b u t t o o small for an
e n d u r i n g p a r t n e r s h i p . B u t if, in y o u r h e a r t , y o u allow a vision to
g r o w that's w o r t h y of y o u r full dignity a n d t h e full p o w e r a n d d e p t h
of y o u r w o m a n h o o d — a vision w o r t h y of y o u r full h u m a n p o t e n -
t i a l — t h e n a m a n m a y c o m e a l o n g w h o c a n offer you a w o r t h y
r e s p o n s e . If love d e v e l o p s — a n d p e r h a p s even b e i n g in love a little
t o o — t h a t ' s fine. Falling in love is b l i n d , b u t love is alert. L o v e truly
accepts a n d w a n t s t h e o t h e r just a s h e o r she is. T h a t t o u c h e s s o m e -
t h i n g very d e e p a n d allows love to develop.
T h a t ' s s o m e advice from a n old m a n t o a y o u n g w o m a n .

Bruno: W h i l e w e ' r e on t h e subject of feelings, I've g o t a feeling


I ' m trying to u n d e r s t a n d a n d w o u l d like to talk a b o u t it. I c a n ' t
r e m e m b e r t h a t I've ever h a d this feeling before a n d I d o n ' t k n o w
exactly h o w to deal w i t h it. T h e feeling is t h a t I've f o u n d t h e right
70 Love's Hidden Symmetry

w o m a n for m e . J u s t that. She's t h e right o n e . T h e r e ' s n o p a s s i o n o r


desire, b u t only t h e feeling t h a t she's the right p e r s o n for m e .

Hellinger: I'd be suspicious of t h a t s e n t e n c e . If t h e s e n t e n c e were


" S h e ' s w o n d e r f u l , " i t w o u l d b e different, b u t w h e n you say " S h e ' s
right," w i t h o u t p a s s i o n or desire, it s o u n d s as if y o u m e a n t h a t she's
t h e p e r s o n w i t h w h o m you'll have t o c h a n g e the least.

Bruno: C a u g h t ! (Laughter in the group) On t h e o t h e r h a n d , that's


very nice, b e c a u s e I can be the way I a m .

Hellinger: N o , it's n o t good, a n d it'll very quickly b e c o m e a b u r -


d e n . T h e feeling t h a t c h a n g e isn't necessary limits y o u r p a r t n e r s h i p
in a way t h a t i s n ' t healthy. It's b e t t e r if s h e is simply " g o o d , " a n d
you are too.

Homosexual Couples

Q u e s t i o n : I ' m gay, a n d there d o e s n ' t s e e m t o b e any p l a c e for


h o m o s e x u a l s i n y o u r a p p r o a c h . W h a t c a n i t m e a n for m e w h e n y o u
say t h a t a m a n " b e c o m e s a m a n " in a relationship w i t h a w o m a n or
t h a t a w o m a n b e c o m e s a w o m a n in a relationship w i t h a m a n ? T h a t
m a k e s h e t e r o s e x u a l i t y t h e only way o f b e i n g h u m a n .

H e l l i n g e r : F i r s t , I w a n t to say a c o u p l e of general things a b o u t


t h e systemic view. E v e r y o n e is an integral p a r t of t h e relationship
systems in w h i c h he or she lives, a n d e v e r y o n e h a s an e q u a l value in
t h e f u n c t i o n i n g of t h o s e systems—everyone in t h e family system is
essential t o t h e system.
Differences in a social system a d d to its durability a n d stability.
T h e c o n s c i e n c e t h a t seeks t o e x c l u d e individuals from t h e g r o u p
b e c a u s e they are different operates on a different level t h a n d o e s t h e
systemic c o n s c i e n c e t h a t seeks to b a l a n c e t h e system as a w h o l e by
g u a r d i n g t h e right o f every m e m b e r t o b e l o n g t o t h e system. I t has
very serious c o n s e q u e n c e s for t h e y o u n g e r m e m b e r s of a family sys-
t e m w h e n s o m e o n e i s e x c l u d e d from t h e system b e c a u s e h e o r she
is different. I've s e e n m a n y cases in w h i c h y o u n g e r p e r s o n s suffered
terribly b e c a u s e t h e y h a d t o identify with a n o l d e r relative w h o was
e x c l u d e d from t h e family b e c a u s e of his b e i n g h o m o s e x u a l . T h i s
f u n d a m e n t a l c o m m i t m e n t to t h e intrinsic dignity a n d value of all
p e r s o n s m a k e s it possible to view differences openly.
Man and Woman: The Foundation of Family 71

H a v i n g said t h a t , there's an inescapable fact t h a t h o m o s e x u a l


c o u p l e s face: T h e i r love c a n ' t lead to their h a v i n g c h i l d r e n t o g e t h e r .
P r o c r e a t i o n ' s insistence o n heterosexuality h a s c o n s e q u e n c e s t h a t
c a n ' t be i g n o r e d as if they d i d n ' t exist. In any p a r t n e r s h i p w i t h o u t
c h i l d r e n , t h e p a r t n e r s c a n separate w i t h less g u i l t — t h e y only h u r t
one another. But when parents separate, that has e n o r m o u s conse-
q u e n c e s for their children, a n d they m u s t b e very careful o r their
c h i l d r e n will b e h a r m e d b y w h a t they d o . T h i s a d d e d guilt m a k e s i t
m o r e difficult for p a r e n t s to separate, b u t , paradoxically, it also s u p -
p o r t s their p a r t n e r s h i p . C o u p l e s w i t h o u t c h i l d r e n — i n c l u d i n g h o m o -
sexual c o u p l e s — d o n ' t have the s u p p o r t of t h e s e c o n s e q u e n c e s to
h o l d t h e m t o g e t h e r d u r i n g crises.
H o m o s e x u a l c o u p l e s , like o t h e r childless c o u p l e s interested in
l o n g - t e r m , loving p a r t n e r s h i p s , especially n e e d t o m a k e clear a n d
c o n s c i o u s decisions a b o u t t h e p u r p o s e a n d goals o f their p a r t n e r -
ship. S o m e goals are m o r e conducive to l o n g - t e r m stability in rela-
tionships t h a n are o t h e r s . W a n t i n g to avoid loneliness or t h e feeling
of e m p t i n e s s , for e x a m p l e , isn't a goal t h a t s u p p o r t s a l o n g - t e r m
p a r t n e r s h i p of e q u a l s .
E v e r y o n e h a s his or h e r o w n p a t h in life—part of it we c h o o s e , b u t
p a r t of it just c o m e s with life a n d isn't really c h o s e n . T h a t ' s t h e p a r t
that's h a r d t o deal with. T h e h o m o s e x u a l s w i t h w h o m I've w o r k e d —
even t h o s e w h o m a i n t a i n that they chose their sexual o r i e n t a t i o n
freely—have b e e n c a u g h t in systemic d y n a m i c s , e x p e r i e n c i n g in their
lives t h e c o n s e q u e n c e s of w h a t others in their system did or suffered.
T h e y ' v e b e e n i n d u c t e d into t h e service of t h e system, a n d as chil-
d r e n , they c o u l d n ' t defend themselves from t h e systemic pressures to
w h i c h they were subjected. So that's t h e s e c o n d t h i n g they have to
deal with, t h a t they're carrying s o m e t h i n g for t h e family.
I've rarely w o r k e d with s o m e o n e w h o w a n t e d t o " g e t over" b e i n g
homosexual. W h e n I work with homosexual persons, homosexuality
isn't t h e p r i m a r y issue. I merely try to b r i n g to light any e n t a n g l e -
m e n t s that m i g h t be limiting the fullness of life, b u t I have no i n t e n -
tion of trying to c h a n g e s o m e o n e ' s sexual o r i e n t a t i o n .
I've o b s e r v e d t h r e e p a t t e r n s of systemic e n t a n g l e m e n t s in c o n -
junction with homosexuality, but I don't know whether they're
actually its c a u s e :

• A child w a s p r e s s u r e d to r e p r e s e n t a p e r s o n of t h e o p p o s i t e
sex in t h e system, b e c a u s e a child of the s a m e g e n d e r w a s n ' t
72 Love's Hidden Symmetry

available. F o r e x a m p l e , a b o y h a d to r e p r e s e n t o n e of his
deceased older sisters, b e c a u s e n o n e of t h e other surviving
children was female. Or a n o t h e r boy h a d to represent his
f a t h e r ' s first f i a n c e e , w h o h a d b e e n t r e a t e d u n j u s t l y . T h i s i s t h e
m o s t p a i n f u l a n d difficult o f t h e t h r e e p a t t e r n s I ' v e s e e n .

• A child was p r e s s u r e d to represent s o m e o n e w h o h a d b e e n


e x c l u d e d f r o m t h e f a m i l y s y s t e m — o r w h o h a d b e e n vilified b y
t h e system—even t h o u g h that person was of the s a m e gender.
H o m o s e x u a l s living i n t h i s p a t t e r n h a v e t h e p o s i t i o n o f b e i n g
" o u t s i d e r s . " F o r e x a m p l e , a boy was systemically identified
w i t h h i s m o t h e r ' s first f i a n c e , w h o c o n t r a c t e d s y p h i l i s a n d
w i t h d r e w from t h e e n g a g e m e n t . A l t h o u g h t h e fiance h a d
acted honorably, he was scorned a n d despised by the boy's
m o t h e r . T h e b o y ' s feelings o f b e i n g s c o r n e d w e r e v e r y s i m i l a r
to w h a t t h e m a n m u s t have felt—as if t h e y w e r e his o w n
feelings.

• A child r e m a i n e d c a u g h t in the sphere of influence of the g e n -


der-opposite parent, and was not able to complete the psy-
chological m o v e m e n t of taking the s a m e - g e n d e r parent.

If It Would Have Helped, I Could Have Borne My Pain

In a training g r o u p for therapists, a w o m a n stood in a constellation of


her family of origin and was visually confronted for the first time
with what she h a d known but h a d not acknowledged—the extent of
t h e loss, n e e d , a n d d a m a g e in her family system. N o w h e r e in three
generations was an intact relationship to be seen. H e r p a r e n t s ' rela-
tionship was o n e of hate a n d disdain, and she was chosen to fill her
father's emotional and sexual needs from the time she was eight years
old until she was able to leave h o m e at the age of 18. T h e sexual acts
were brutal a n d painful, a n d had occurred with her m o t h e r ' s knowl-
edge a n d implicit consent.
In her previous therapy, she h a d explored her rage, pain, a n d sense
of betrayal, a n d had found relief, but no lasting resolution. As she
stood before the representative of her father, the therapist suggested,
"Tell h i m : 'It h u r t ! ' " As she did so, the deepest sobbing welled up
and b u r s t forth, a n d she spontaneously a d d e d , " A n d it d i d n ' t help. I
c o u l d n ' t take away your loneliness. I could have stood my pain, if
only it had helped your terrible loneliness." She p u t h e r a r m s a r o u n d
the m a n representing h e r father, who also was weeping openly, a n d
they held each other tenderly for a long time. She consciously felt for
Man and Woman: The Foundation of Family 73

the first time as an adult her child's love for her father and her secret
willingness to sacrifice herself for the good of her parents.
After a while, she told him, "I promise you that no more children
will be hurt as I was. I'll pay the price. It will stop with me." When
she then turned to the group and said, "I'm a lesbian," she did so
with enormous simplicity and with the full human dignity commen-
surate to her situation.
A year later, she still felt the freeing effects of her accepting the
role that fate had given her, accepting as a conscious choice what she
had previously unconsciously carried and could not change.

Viewed in this way, h o m o s e x u a l i t y d e m a n d s a heavy p r i c e . T h o s e


w h o m a n a g e to affirm their sexual o r i e n t a t i o n a n d c o n s t r u c t a
h a p p y , loving, meaningful life have a very different i n n e r s u p p o r t
t h a n d o t h o s e w h o fight against their destiny o r d e m e a n their l o s s —
w h e t h e r or n o t they consciously c h o s e it, or w o u l d w a n t to c h a n g e it
if they c o u l d .

Infidelity a n d T h r e e - W a y Relationships

Question: M y h u s b a n d h a s b e e n having a n affair w i t h a n o t h e r


w o m a n for m a n y years. At first, I h a d difficulty a c c e p t i n g it, b u t
over t h e years, I've given u p t r y i n g t o c h a n g e h i m . W o u l d y o u say
s o m e t h i n g a b o u t infidelity a n d e x t r a m a r i t a l relationships?

Hellinger: W h e n a w o m a n treats h e r h u s b a n d like a child, t r y i n g


to i m p r o v e his b e h a v i o r a n d acting as if she k n o w s w h a t ' s b e s t for
h i m , he often takes a lover. H i s lover is t h e n his t r u e p a r t n e r . If he
h a s a g o o d relationship w i t h his wife b u t still h a s a lover, t h e n t h e
lover m o s t likely r e p r e s e n t s his m o t h e r . T h e s a m e i s p r o b a b l y t r u e
for a w o m a n w h o takes a lover—either she's b e i n g t r e a t e d by h e r
h u s b a n d as if she were a child, or she's seeking in h e r lover s o m e o n e
t o r e p r e s e n t h e r father o r m o t h e r .
As a r u l e , a w o m a n w h o is c o n t e n t to live in a t h r e e - w a y r e l a t i o n -
ship is h e r father's d a u g h t e r . If she were looking for a s o l u t i o n , she'd
n e e d t o leave h e r father's s p h e r e o f influence a n d r e t u r n t o h e r
m o t h e r ' s . A m a n w h o lives in a t h r e e - w a y relationship often is a
m o t h e r ' s s o n , a n d t h e solution is for h i m to m o v e i n t o his father's
sphere.
A relationship o u t s i d e of a m a r r i a g e is often viewed as m o r a l l y
u n a c c e p t a b l e . In s u c h a situation, t h e so-called i n n o c e n t p a r t n e r
74 Love's Hidden Symmetry

s o m e t i m e s behaves as if his or h e r claim on t h e o t h e r p a r t n e r were


exclusive a n d p e r m a n e n t . T h a t ' s p r e s u m p t u o u s . T h e c o n s c i e n c e
t h a t w a t c h e s over relationships isn't i m p r e s s e d by s u c h claims. It
r e s p e c t s only t h e real quality of b o n d i n g a n d t h e ecology of give a n d
t a k e . I n s t e a d o f w i n n i n g t h e p a r t n e r b a c k with love, t h e injured
p a r t n e r often t o r m e n t s the o t h e r , as if s u c h d e m a n d s for exclusivity,
w i t h o u t regard for t h e fulfillment o f n e e d a n d desire, w o u l d m a k e
him or her want to return.
I a r g u e for s o m e t h i n g m o r e realistic. I have a d e e p r e s p e c t for
fidelity, b u t n o t t h e kind o f fidelity t h a t d e m a n d s , " I ' m t h e only p e r -
s o n w h o ' s allowed t o b e m e a n i n g f u l for you a n d from w h o m y o u ' r e
allowed t o take w h a t y o u n e e d . " I t often h a p p e n s t h a t y o u m e e t
s o m e o n e w h o b e c o m e s i m p o r t a n t t o you, a n d t h a t fact m u s t b e
r e s p e c t e d , just as t h e feelings of h u r t a n d loss t h a t arise m u s t be
r e s p e c t e d . S u c h a m e e t i n g c a n have a very positive effect on a p a r t -
n e r s h i p . No m a t t e r h o w it t u r n s o u t , a truly satisfactory r e s o l u t i o n is
only possible with love.

Jealousy

Q u e s t i o n : W o u l d y o u say s o m e t h i n g a b o u t jealousy? I have


attacks of jealousy a n d i m a g i n e my p a r t n e r ' s d o i n g all k i n d s of
things.

Hellinger: T h e systemic n a t u r e o f jealousy can b e seen w h e n w e


look carefully at w h a t it actually a c c o m p l i s h e s . Occasionally, jeal-
o u s y b r i n g s a c o u p l e closer together. T h i s h a p p e n s , for e x a m p l e ,
w h e n a w o m a n ' s jealousy p r o t e c t s h e r children a n d h e r h u s b a n d
from a capricious affair, or from a n o t h e r w o m a n ' s interference in
h e r family. B u t usually jealousy a c c o m p l i s h e s the o p p o s i t e of w h a t it
p u r p o r t s t o desire, driving t h e p a r t n e r s farther a p a r t . I f y o u have
attacks of jealousy, look at t h e situation h o n e s t l y a n d you will p r o b -
ably discover a secret systemic p r e s s u r e p u s h i n g you away from y o u r
p a r t n e r — t h e jealous p e r s o n u n c o n s c i o u s l y w a n t s t h e p a r t n e r t o
leave.
T h e r e are m a n y u n c o n s c i o u s systemic d y n a m i c s t h a t m a k e u s
p u s h o u r p a r t n e r s t o go:

• To confirm an earlier belief that we're n o t w o r t h y of love, for


e x a m p l e , o r t h a t we'll c a u s e u n h a p p i n e s s . S o m e p e o p l e fear
they'll b e a b a n d o n e d a n d u n c o n s c i o u s l y p u s h their p a r t n e r s
Man and Woman: The Foundation of Family 75

o u t . T h e y create w h a t they fear, as if b e i n g a b a n d o n e d w e r e


preferable to a c h o s e n separation.

• To be loyal to t h e beliefs a n d e x a m p l e s of y o u r family. F o r


e x a m p l e , to do as y o u r p a r e n t s did w h e n t h e y d i d n ' t fully take
o n e a n o t h e r , w h e n they s e p a r a t e d , o r w h e n o n e o f t h e m d i e d
early in their relationship;

• To fulfill an u n c o n s c i o u s identification w i t h a n o t h e r p e r s o n
w h o ' s o w e d s o m e t h i n g b y t h e system. F o r e x a m p l e , a w o m a n
d i d n ' t m a r r y b e c a u s e she was t a k i n g care o f h e r elderly p a r -
e n t s . H e r y o u n g e r niece u n c o n s c i o u s l y identified w i t h h e r a n d
she also d i d n ' t m a r r y ;

• To c o m p e n s a t e for s o m e p e r s o n a l obligation. F o r e x a m p l e , a
m a n a b a n d o n e d a n earlier family i n o r d e r t o e n t e r t h e p r e s e n t
p a r t n e r s h i p . H i s s e c o n d wife b e c a m e very jealous o f h i m a n d
w a n t e d to leave h i m . In t h e family constellation, it b e c a m e
clear to h e r t h a t she felt a solidarity w i t h a n d an obligation to
his first family.

Often w h e n o n e p a r t n e r is jealous, t h e p a r t n e r s h i p is already


over, b u t t h e p a r t i c i p a n t s h a v e n ' t yet a d m i t t e d it, o r they d o n ' t w a n t
to see it. If b o t h p a r t n e r s are willing, it's s o m e t i m e s possible to
b r i n g a p a r t n e r s h i p b a c k into o r d e r after jealousy h a s b r o k e n o u t ,
b u t this r e q u i r e s t h e m t o confront the systemic p r e s s u r e s t h a t are
p u s h i n g t h e m a p a r t . T h e y usually have t o face s o m e painful e x p e r i -
e n c e , p e r h a p s guilt, loneliness, or a fear of loss or i n a d e q u a c y . P a r t -
n e r s c a n say to e a c h o t h e r , " S o o n e r or later, I will lose y o u . " T h a t ' s
a very painful s e n t e n c e to say authentically, b u t it c a n r e s t o r e o r d e r
to the partnership.
It's often n o t possible for p a r t n e r s to b r i n g a relationship b a c k
into o r d e r after jealousy has surfaced. T h e n t h e y m u s t c h o o s e
b e t w e e n t w o k i n d s of p a i n : the p a i n of s e p a r a t i o n a n d t h e p a i n of
staying in an unsatisfying relationship. If t h e y c h o o s e to stay, it's
b e t t e r for t h e m to c o n s e n t to c o n t i n u i n g their relationship t h e way it
is a n d to give up their h o p e s a n d e x p e c t a t i o n s t h a t it will c h a n g e .
T h e w o r s t c h o i c e they c a n m a k e is to stay in an unsatisfying rela-
tionship a n d k e e p o n h o p i n g that things will b e different. H o w e v e r ,
that's t h e c h o i c e m o s t couples prefer.
76 Love's Hidden Symmetry

Enjoy Him While You've Got Him

A w o m a n told a therapy g r o u p h o w she t o r m e n t e d her h u s b a n d with


jealousy and, although she saw her behavior as irrational, she could
n o t stop. As she spoke about her jealousy, its systemic function
b e c a m e clear to the g r o u p leader and he showed h e r a solution. He
said, "You will lose your h u s b a n d sooner or later. Enjoy h i m while
you've still got him." A few days later, the h u s b a n d called t h e leader
a n d said, " T h a n k you. I have a wife again."
H e r h u s b a n d h a d participated in a workshop led by the same
g r o u p leader m a n y years earlier with a w o m a n with w h o m he h a d
lived for seven years. D u r i n g the group, he had told the w o m a n he
was with that he had a younger girlfriend, a n d was p l a n n i n g to m a r r y
her. He a t t e n d e d a second workshop with his n e w p a r t n e r , w h o m he
h a d married shortly after she b e c a m e pregnant. Outwardly, his new
wife acted as if her h u s b a n d h a d no b o n d to his earlier p a r t n e r , a n d
she sustained her claim on h i m through jealousy a n d public pressure.
Secretly, she felt a b o n d between her h u s b a n d a n d his ex-wife a n d
her own guilt for her p a r t in their separation. H e r jealousy was, t h e r e -
fore not the consequence of her h u s b a n d ' s actions, but rather her
secret acknowledgment of her own indebtedness to his former p a r t -
ner. H e r jealousy resulted in an inner separation from her h u s b a n d
a n d thus reflected his still-existing b o n d with his first p a r t n e r a n d
expressed solidarity with her.
In spite of this insight, she and the m a n separated several years
later.

Love S e t s Limits o n F r e e d o m

Question: F r o m w h a t you're b e e n saying a b o u t systemic


entanglements, it begins to s o u n d as if everything were predeter-
m i n e d . D o p a r t n e r s w h o w a n t t o live w h a t y o u call " a p a r t n e r s h i p
of e q u a l s " have any p e r s o n a l f r e e d o m , or is e v e r y t h i n g set by t h e
systemic constraints?

Hellinger: I n e v e r y r e l a t i o n s h i p , t h e b o u n d a r i e s a r e s e t differ-
ently; s o m e are b r o a d e r a n d m o r e permissive a n d o t h e r s are m o r e
restrictive. G u i l t begins as soon as y o u cross t h e b o u n d a r y of y o u r
r e l a t i o n s h i p s y s t e m . Y o u feel free a n d i n n o c e n t w i t h i n t h e b o u n d -
aries, a n d there's no freedom or i n n o c e n c e w i t h o u t clear b o u n d -
a r i e s . T h i s p r o c e s s i s c l e a r i n s c h o o l c h i l d r e n , for e x a m p l e , w h o o f t e n
b e c o m e d i s t r a u g h t if their t e a c h e r h a s n ' t set clear limits. W h e n t h e
Man and Woman: The Foundation of Family 77

b o u n d a r i e s have b e e n tested a n d are clearly defined, t h e area of


f r e e d o m is also clearly recognizable.
Fulfillment a n d satisfaction are f o u n d w i t h i n t h e b o u n d a r i e s of a
p a r t n e r s h i p . W h e n w e g o b e y o n d the b o u n d a r i e s , w e d a m a g e t h e
relationship, s o m e t i m e s s o m u c h t h a t w e n o longer c a n r e t u r n t o it.
F o r e x a m p l e , it s o m e t i m e s h a p p e n s in a c o u p l e ' s relationship t h a t
t h e limits are t o o n a r r o w , a n d o n e p a r t n e r o r t h e o t h e r (or b o t h )
takes a lover to s t r e t c h the b o u n d a r i e s a n d create n e w free s p a c e . If
the b o u n d a r i e s b e c o m e too loose a n d w h a t t h e p a r t n e r s h o l d i n
c o m m o n t o o u n c l e a r , t h e relationship i s t h r e a t e n e d . T h e n t h e y m u s t
t u r n b a c k a n d redefine their limits, o r s e p a r a t e .
T h e i r b e l o n g i n g t o o n e a n o t h e r sets limits o n their f r e e d o m , a n d
s u c h limits are an integral aspect of every r e l a t i o n s h i p system.
T h e r e ' s a p o i n t at w h i c h o u r f r e e d o m of c h o i c e is limited by t h e
c o n s e q u e n c e s t h a t o u r choices have for o u r sense of b e l o n g i n g . We
m a y c h o o s e to go b e y o n d t h e set b o u n d a r i e s of a r e l a t i o n s h i p , b u t
n o t w i t h o u t paying a price of guilt, n o t w i t h o u t c o n s e q u e n c e s for
our own and our partner's happiness, and not without endangering
o u r relationship. T h i s reflects a n a t u r a l law of s y s t e m s — t h a t there's
a limit b e y o n d w h i c h a system c a n n o t c h a n g e w i t h o u t evolving i n t o
a different system.

Separation

Question: I w o r k a lot w i t h couples in t h e p r o c e s s of separating.


S o m e t i m e s it goes p r e t t y well, a n d s o m e t i m e s t h e r e are h o r r i b l e
p r o b l e m s . A r e t h e r e a n y systemic d y n a m i c s t h a t influence that?

Hellinger: P e o p l e often allow themselves to suffer a long t i m e


before they feel free to leave a b a d situation b e c a u s e t h e y d o n ' t w a n t
t o h u r t their p a r t n e r , o r b e c a u s e t h e y ' r e afraid o f w h a t o t h e r s m i g h t
t h i n k or say. U s u a l l y o n e p e r s o n w a n t s a n e w a n d bigger s p a c e , a n d
d o e s n ' t feel justified in taking steps to get it, b e c a u s e it will h u r t
s o m e o n e . T h e p e r s o n acts as if his or h e r o w n suffering c o u l d n e u -
tralize the p a r t n e r ' s p a i n or justify t h e p e r s o n ' s a c t i o n in t h e eyes of
o t h e r s . T h a t ' s o n e r e a s o n t h a t divorce p r o c e e d i n g s take s o long.
W h e n a s e p a r a t i o n is finally a c c o m p l i s h e d , b o t h p a r t i e s have t h e
o p p o r t u n i t i e s for a n d the risks of a n e w b e g i n n i n g . If o n e p a r t n e r
rejects t h e o p p o r t u n i t y to m a k e a n e w b e g i n n i n g a n d ignores the
c h a n c e to create s o m e t h i n g g o o d , a n d i n s t e a d clings tightly to his or
h e r p a i n , t h e n it's difficult for t h e o t h e r p a r t n e r t o b e free. O n t h e
78 Love's Hidden Symmetry

o t h e r h a n d , i f b o t h a c c e p t the possibilities p r e s e n t e d a n d m a k e
s o m e t h i n g o u t o f t h e m , t h e n b o t h p a r t n e r s are free a n d u n b u r -
d e n e d . Of all of t h e possibilities for forgiveness in situations of
divorce a n d s e p a r a t i o n , this is t h e b e s t b e c a u s e it b r i n g s h a r m o n y
even w h e n s e p a r a t i o n occurs.
W h e n a s e p a r a t i o n d o e s n ' t go well, t h e r e ' s often a t e n d e n c y to
look for s o m e o n e to b l a m e . T h o s e involved try to get o u t from
u n d e r t h e weight of their fate by b l a m i n g s o m e o n e else. As a r u l e , a
m a r r i a g e d o e s n ' t e n d b e c a u s e o n e p a r t n e r is at fault a n d t h e o t h e r is
blameless, but because one or the other is entangled in the unre-
solved issues of his or h e r family of origin, or b e c a u s e they are b e i n g
led in different directions. By b l a m i n g o n e p a r t n e r , an illusion is
c r e a t e d t h a t s o m e t h i n g different c o u l d have b e e n d o n e , o r t h a t s o m e
n e w b e h a v i o r c o u l d r e s c u e t h e m a r r i a g e . T h e n t h e gravity a n d the
d e p t h o f t h e situation are ignored, a n d the p a r t n e r s b e g i n b l a m i n g
a n d a c c u s i n g e a c h other. T h e solution t o o v e r c o m i n g this illusion
a n d t h e d e s t r u c t i v e b l a m i n g i s for b o t h t o s u r r e n d e r t o t h e d e e p
grief they e x p e r i e n c e b e c a u s e their p a r t n e r s h i p h a s c o m e t o a n e n d .
T h i s grief d o e s n ' t last l o n g , b u t it goes very d e e p , a n d it's e x t r e m e l y
painful. O n c e they've allowed themselves to go t h r o u g h their griev-
ing, they c a n talk a b o u t w h a t n e e d s t o b e talked a b o u t a n d a r r a n g e
t h e t h i n g s t h a t n e e d t o b e a r r a n g e d with clarity, r e a s o n , a n d m u t u a l
respect. In a s e p a r a t i o n , anger a n d b l a m e are usually s u b s t i t u t e s for
t h e p a i n of grieving.
W h e n t w o p e o p l e c a n ' t m a n a g e t o s e p a r a t e cleanly, it's often
b e c a u s e t h e y h a v e n ' t fully t a k e n from o n e a n o t h e r w h a t e v e r h a s
b e e n given. T h e n o n e m u s t say t o t h e o t h e r , " I take t h e g o o d y o u ' v e
given m e . It's a great deal a n d I t r e a s u r e it. All t h a t I've given to
y o u , I have given gladly, a n d it's y o u r s to keep. I take responsibility
for my p a r t in w h a t ' s g o n e w r o n g b e t w e e n u s , a n d I leave y o u r p a r t
with y o u . I leave you n o w in p e a c e . " If they m a n a g e to say this to
e a c h o t h e r authentically, they c a n s e p a r a t e in p e a c e .
In s u c h situations, s o m e t i m e s telling a simple s t o r y is helpful.

The End
Two people, backpacks fully packed, set out together. Their path
leads through blooming gardens and meadows, and they're very
happy. T h e n the path gets steep. Eventually, one of them runs out of
provisions, and sits down. The other continues a little further and a
little higher. T h e path gets rocky and more difficult, and eventually
Man and Woman: The Foundation of Family 79

the second also eats the last of the food and sits down. Looking back
at the glorious colors of the meadows below, the person begins to
weep.

P a r t n e r s often b e h a v e as if their p a r t i c i p a t i o n in t h e r e l a t i o n s h i p
were like a c l u b m e m b e r s h i p t h a t h a s b e e n freely c h o s e n a n d c a n be
freely t e r m i n a t e d . B u t t h e u n c o n s c i o u s a n d relentless c o n s c i e n c e
g u a r d i n g love t e a c h e s otherwise. If we were free to t e r m i n a t e o u r
p a r t n e r s h i p s , s e p a r a t i o n w o u l d b e less agonizing. F r e d e r i c h H o l d e r -
lin d e s c r i b e s this in a p o e m .

The Lovers

Separate! It seemed so smart and good.


Why are we so shocked now, as if we'd murdered love?
Ah! We know so little of ourselves!
There's a hidden god in us who rules.

In a serious p a r t n e r s h i p of e q u a l s , we are b o u n d to o u r p a r t n e r s
a n d c a n ' t s e p a r a t e w i t h o u t p a i n a n d guilt. T h e c o n s e q u e n c e s are
invariably destructive w h e n p a r t n e r s s e p a r a t e irresponsibly. F o r
e x a m p l e , i f o n e p a r t n e r says, " I ' m going t o d o s o m e t h i n g for myself
and my development, and whatever happens to you is your p r o b -
l e m , " it's n o t infrequent t h a t a child will die or c o m m i t suicide fol-
lowing t h e s e p a r a t i o n . S u c h a s e p a r a t i o n is e x p e r i e n c e d by t h e child
as a c r i m e t h a t r e q u i r e s a t o n e m e n t . B o n d i n g is b o t h t h e r e w a r d a n d
t h e p r i c e of love.

Mother, I Leave the Consequences of Your Going with You


A woman had frivolously separated from her husband, and her
daughter became seriously ill shortly after the separation. In the fam-
ily constellation, the representative of the mother felt best when she
was placed outside the circle and the children were placed near their
father. When her daughter said to her, "Mother, I leave the conse-
quences of your going with you," she felt free, and everyone in the
constellation felt a sense of harmony.

Question: W h o d e c i d e s w h e t h e r a s e p a r a t i o n is irresponsible?

H e l l i n g e r : N o o n e d e c i d e s ; it's just felt. W h e n a s e p a r a t i o n


occurs, everyone knows immediately whether it was irresponsible.
Transcript
ERNEST, A N D A CHILD'S SUICIDE

F o l l o w i n g a family constellation, E r n e s t reacts to t h e suggestion


t h a t a p i c t u r e of a d e c e a s e d child be p u t up in t h e h o m e .

Ernest: If I w e r e to p u t up a p i c t u r e of my s o n [who c o m m i t t e d
s u i c i d e ] , t h e o t h e r c h i l d r e n w o u l d get very u p s e t . T h e y d o n ' t w a n t
t o have a n y t h i n g t o d o w i t h their d e c e a s e d b r o t h e r , a n d t h e y d o n ' t
w a n t t o b e r e m i n d e d o f his suicide.

Hellinger: If that's t h e way they feel, t h e n t h e y ' r e in d a n g e r of


b e c o m i n g suicidal, too. We c o u l d set up a constellation of y o u r f a m -
ily, a n d see w h a t ' s going o n . W o u l d you like to do that?

Ernest: Yes.

Hellinger: Okay. We'll set u p your c u r r e n t family. H o w m a n y


c h i l d r e n d o y o u have?

Ernest: T h e r e are t w o m o r e .

Hellinger: A n d the b o y w h o killed himself, w h i c h p o s i t i o n i n t h e


family d i d he have?

Ernest: T h e youngest.

Hellinger: H a v e either you or your wife ever b e e n in a p r e v i o u s


relationship?

Ernest: No.

Hellinger: T h e n w e n e e d y o u , y o u r wife, a n d t h e t h r e e c h i l d r e n .
G o a h e a d a n d set i t u p . You've seen h o w it's d o n e . S t a r t w i t h y o u r
representative a n d lead h i m to his place. Stay c e n t e r e d in yourself.
W h a t e v e r c o m e s from y o u r h e a d w o n ' t help u s . Feel y o u r way i n t o
t h e situation a n d p u t everyone w h e r e it feels right. (Ernest places rep-
resentatives with the exception of a representative for his wife.) A n d y o u r
wife?

80
Man and Woman: The Foundation of Family 81

Ernest: I c a n ' t p u t h e r in.

Hellinger: W h a t does that m e a n ?

Ernest: She d o e s n ' t w a n t to see it.

H e l l i n g e r : T h e n move her t o the place where s o m e o n e w h o


d o e s n ' t w a n t to see m u s t stand.

Hellinger: W h a t ' s h a p p e n i n g for the father?

Ernest's Representative: I feel very tense in this confrontation,


and I c a n ' t tell w h a t else is going o n .

Hellinger: W h a t ' s h a p p e n i n g for the wife?

Wife: My throat feels like it's being choked, and my a r m s are


paralyzed.

Hellinger: W h a t ' s h a p p e n i n g with the eldest?

First Child: I feel a great weight, a n d my h e a r t is p o u n d i n g .

T h i r d C h i l d : I ' m afraid of my youngest brother. It makes me


u n h a p p y that there're all looking s o m e w h e r e , b u t no o n e looks any-
one else in the eye.

*Legend: Husb—Ernest's representative; Wife—Ernest's wife's representative;


1—first child, a son; 3—third child, a son; +4—fourth child, a son, died in infancy.
82 Love's Hidden Symmetry

Hellinger: H o w ' s the youngest feeling?

D e c e a s e d Child: I've got a p o u n d i n g h e a r t a n d I ' m shaking. N o


air.

H e l l i n g e r (to deceased child): Go out, a n d close the d o o r after you.

Hellinger: W h a t does that change for the father?

Ernest's Representative: T h a t ' s a relief

Hellinger: F o r the mother?

Wife: Better (surprised).

H e l l i n g e r (to first child): A n d for you?

First Child: Worse.

Third Child: T h a t ' s m u c h better. I can breathe m u c h m o r e easily.

H e l l i n g e r (to group): W h y does a child c o m m i t suicide? O u t of


love. T h e representatives' reactions of relief show that this family
n e e d e d s o m e o n e t o disappear. T h e question is: W h o really n e e d e d
to go?
(To Ernest): So, w h o really was u n d e r pressure to go?

Ernest: T h e r e were so many. Even in my g r a n d p a r e n t s ' generation.

Hellinger: So w h o all died?


Man and Woman: The Foundation of Family 83

Ernest: An uncle a n d my g r a n d m o t h e r , also by suicide.

Hellinger: W h o s e b r o t h e r was the uncle?

Ernest: H e was m y m o t h e r ' s brother. T h e g r a n d m o t h e r was m y


father's m o t h e r .

Hellinger: A n d they b o t h c o m m i t t e d suicide?

E r n e s t : Yes. A n d t h e n two of my b r o t h e r s died w h e n they were


y o u n g , and a little daughter.

Hellinger: Your daughter?

Ernest: My daughter, very young (murmur of surprise in the group).

H e l l i n g e r (to group): Do you notice h o w forgotten persons are


still present, even w h e n they're deceased? (Brings representative of
youngest son back into constellation.)
(To representative of youngest son): H o w did you feel o u t there?

D e c e a s e d C h i l d : Better.
Hellinger: C o m e b a c k in a n d take t h e exact place you h a d before
you went out. D i d you hear that you have a y o u n g e r sister?

D e c e a s e d Child: Yes.

H e l l i n g e r (to Ernest): Was the d a u g h t e r w h o died the eldest?

Ernest: She was the second.

Hellinger: P u t her in the constellation. (Ernest places her next to


her deceased brother.)
(To Ernest) G e t centered. W h e r e m u s t she go, exactly? L o o k at the
whole constellation a n d feel where her place is.

Ernest: H e r e (next to her brother), she's together with the d e a d .


Over there (by the other brothers), she's with t h e living.

H e l l i n g e r : T h a t ' s a t h o u g h t . T h a t ' s n o t a feeling.


{To group:) W h e n people set up a constellation according to a c o n -
cept, it d o e s n ' t work.

Ernest: H e r e , she's with the dead.

H e l l i n g e r : T h a t ' s only a theory you're stuck o n .


(To Ernest's representative): W h e r e does she belong?
84 Love's Hidden Symmetry

Ernest's Representative: By her mother.

Hellinger: Where?

Ernest's Representative: To h e r left. (Representative moves to


indicated position.)

H e l l i n g e r (to wife's representative): Exactly w h e r e d o e s she n e e d to


be for you?

Wife: I ' m s u d d e n l y icy cold. I c a n ' t see her.

Hellinger: W h e r e d o e s she n e e d t o b e for you?

Wife: I n front o f m e .

H e l l i n g e r (to wife): T a k e h e r in y o u r a r m s . B r e a t h e . (Mother and


daughter hold each other tenderly.)
(To Ernest): Of w h a t d i d she die?

Ernest: S h e c o u l d n ' t b r e a t h e . H e r lungs were u n d e v e l o p e d . S h e


c o u l d only b r e a t h e for t w o days.

H e l l i n g e r (to Ernest's representative): H o w are y o u d o i n g now?

Ernest's Representative: M y h e a r t ' s very w a r m .

H e l l i n g e r (to youngest son): H o w are y o u doing?

* Legend addition: +2—second child, a daughter, who died in infancy


Man and Woman: The Foundation of Family 85

Deceased Child: I ' m m u c h better now.


H e l l i n g e r (to group): W h e n she's there, he can stay.
(To eldest son): A n d you?
First Child: I ' m relieved.
Third Child: Me t o o , b u t I'd like it better if she'd c o m e over h e r e
to us.
H e l l i n g e r : We'll do that later.
(To deceased daughter): H o w are you doing?
Deceased Daughter: I ' m r e m e m b e r i n g that w h e n I was a little
baby, I almost died. I c o u l d n ' t b r e a t h e and I was very often in a
sanitarium with a s t h m a and bronchitis.
H e l l i n g e r : T h a t ' s your personal m e m o r y . F o r now, just stay in
the role. Obviously, E r n e s t d i d n ' t choose you by c h a n c e alone. B u t
h o w is it for you to be by your m o t h e r ?
Deceased Daughter: Good.
Hellinger: A n d how's the m o t h e r doing?
Wife: I feel calmer. It's also b e c o m e very w a r m in h e r e .
H e l l i n g e r (to group): N o w we can try to find an o r d e r for the
family, that is, we'll look for what could be a good o r d e r for t h e m .
(Hellinger moves the parents next to each other with the deceased daugh-
ter sitting on the floor in front of them, her back leaning against them. The
other children are across from them.)
86 Love's Hidden Symmetry

H e l l i n g e r (to parents): Lay your h a n d s gently on t h e d e a d girl's


h e a d or shoulder so that she's really together with you. L o o k at each
other while you feel t h e presence of your child.
{To deceased daughter): H o w do you feel there?

Deceased Daughter: I feel threatened.

H e l l i n g e r : T h r e a t e n e d ? T h e n go over to your b r o t h e r s . . . close


to t h e m . . . really in between t h e m , in y o u r place.

Hellinger: H o w ' s that for you?

Deceased Daughter: Very protected.

First Child: Good!

Third Child: Also good.

D e c e a s e d Child: N o t s o good.

H e l l i n g e r (to Ernest's representative): H o w are you doing?

Ernest's Representative: Good.

Wife: I feel slightly c r a m p e d on my right side.

H e l l i n g e r (to parents): Switch sides. Is t h a t better or worse?

Wife: Better.

Ernest's Representative: Better.


Man and Woman: The Foundation of Family 87

H e l l i n g e r (to youngest son): H o w are you d o i n g now?

D e c e a s e d Child: M y heart's p o u n d i n g a n d I ' m shaking like I


was at the start.

H e l l i n g e r (to Ernest): O n c e m o r e , w h a t h a p p e n e d in your family?

Ernest: Earlier?

Hellinger: W h o died?

Ernest: M y father's m o t h e r ; then m y m o t h e r ' s brother, two very


y o u n g b r o t h e r s of m i n e , and my father.

Hellinger: So, we've still got a whole gallery of d e a d people. H o w


old was your father w h e n he died?

Ernest: Fifty-five.

Hellinger: H o w did your g r a n d m o t h e r die?

Ernest: She c o m m i t t e d suicide.

Hellinger: H o w old was she?

Ernest: Thirty-four.
(Hellinger asks the parents to switch places once again. Then representa-
tives are added for Ernest's father, his younger brothers, and his paternal
88 Love's Hidden Symmetry

grandmother. Several configurations are tried, with the representatives'


help, until correct positions are found.)

H e l l i n g e r (to Ernest's representative): H o w do you feel w h e n you


see t h e m all?

Ernest's Representative: I feel good. My father gives me


strength.

H e l l i n g e r (to youngest son): H o w do you feel n o w ?

D e c e a s e d Child: M u c h b e t t e r . B u t I n e e d t o b e able t o see m y


g r a n d f a t h e r clearly.

Hellinger: Okay, we'll slide t h e m over a bit. H e ' s t h e m o s t i m p o r -


t a n t for y o u .

D e c e a s e d Child: As t h e g r a n d f a t h e r c a m e in, I i m m e d i a t e l y felt


better.

H e l l i n g e r (to group): My h u n c h is that with so m a n y d e a t h s a n d


suicides in this family, E r n e s t u n c o n s c i o u s l y w a n t e d to c o m m i t sui-

*Legend: +Brl—Ernest's brother, died young; +Br2—Ernest's brother, died


young; Fa—Ernest's father, died at age of 55; +GrMo—Ernest's paternal grand-
mother, committed suicide at age of 34.
Man and Woman: The Foundation of Family 89

cide, o r h a d t h e feeling t h a t h e n e e d e d t o die y o u n g i n o r d e r t o fol-


low all of t h o s e w h o h a d g o n e before. H i s y o u n g e s t s o n did it in his
place.
T h a t ' s a d y n a m i c we often see in families t h a t have e x p e r i e n c e d
serious illness, f r e q u e n t a c c i d e n t s , or suicide. It's called, " B e t t e r I go
t h a n you, d e a r F a t h e r , o r d e a r M o t h e r . " T h a t ' s t h e case h e r e . T h e
first constellation E r n e s t set up s h o w e d t h a t very clearly—the
y o u n g e s t s o n w a s s t a n d i n g in front of his father to k e e p h i m from
leaving.
(To Ernest): W h a t shall we do w i t h you? P u t yourself in y o u r p l a c e
in t h e constellation so t h a t you c a n feel h o w it is to be t h e r e .

Ernest: I have a n o t h e r intuition.

Hellinger: P u t yourself into t h e constellation first. (Ernest takes


his place in the constellation. Hellinger watches his reaction.)
(To group): I d o n ' t t h i n k he'll be able to set t h a t right. H e ' s t o o old
t o b e able t o really resolve t h a t d y n a m i c . W e n e e d t o r e s p e c t t h a t .
T h e r e are limits t o w h a t w e c a n d o t h a t are set b y o u r age. I n p r i n -
ciple, t h e w o r s t h a s already h a p p e n e d . H i s y o u n g e s t s o n h a s a l r e a d y
c o m m i t t e d suicide, a n d it's t o o late to save h i m .
T h e q u e s t i o n i s w h e t h e r o r n o t w e c a n d o a n y t h i n g for t h e o t h e r
sons. He c o u l d save t h e m if he w o u l d give his d e c e a s e d s o n a p l a c e
in his h e a r t a n d say to h i m , "I k n o w t h a t y o u d i d it for m e , a n d I
c a r r y you in my h e a r t so that you live on in m e . I'll do s o m e t h i n g
good in m e m o r y of you"—whatever that might mean to him. A n d
h e c a n say t o his o t h e r s o n s , " H e h a s a p l a c e i n m y h e a r t , a n d I ' m
asking you to give h i m a place in y o u r h e a r t s t o o . Also, look at y o u r
sister w h o i s s t a n d i n g b e t w e e n you a n d w h o b e l o n g s t o u s . "
T h a t w o u l d b e a n O r d e r o f L o v e , a n d a r e s o l u t i o n t h r o u g h love.
(To Ernest): Is t h a t clear e n o u g h for you? (Ernest nods,pause, repre-
sentatives sit down.)
(To group): A r e t h e r e any questions?

Participant: My s o n c o n s t a n t l y p u t s his life in d a n g e r . M u s t I


wait until it h a s h a p p e n e d ?

H e l l i n g e r (looks at her for a long time, then gently): Is he d o i n g it


for you?

Participant: I d o n ' t know.


90 Love's Hidden Symmetry

H e l l i n g e r : H e ' s doing it for you. T h e r e was a gleam in your eyes


as you told a b o u t it. T h e resolution lies with you. (Pause) D o e s any-
o n e else have a question?

Participant: I'd like to know m o r e a b o u t s o m e t h i n g you said ear-


lier. You told E r n e s t that he's too old to find a resolution. Was that a
provocation? You o p e n e d s o m e t h i n g up.

Hellinger: He has already d o n e what n e e d e d to be done. It doesn't


m a t t e r h o w that h a p p e n e d . L o o k at him, h o w he's b e a m i n g at m e .

Related Questions

Q u e s t i o n : It seems to me that you ask a great deal from the cli-


ents. You said yourself that you go to the o u t e r m o s t limit. B u t I've
also noticed that you suddenly stop at a certain point so that the
work can c o n t i n u e on its own, so that it accumulates a certain
power. C a n you explain h o w you u n d e r s t a n d that process?

H e l l i n g e r : Together with the client, I survey the entire field of the


c o n s e q u e n c e s of his or h e r actions and fate. I d o n ' t limit it to what's
easy a n d pleasant. I go with clients to t h e limits of their systems, to
t h e b o u n d a r i e s where their systems stop. In effect, that m e a n s that
we eventually m e e t d e a t h , and with t h e m , I look at the possibility
that they will die, or that something terrible will h a p p e n . I a c c o m -
p a n y t h e m , I go with t h e m to the outer limits, w i t h o u t fear, w i t h o u t
hesitation. We look at everything that's t h e r e , up o n e side a n d d o w n
the other.
O n c e we've d o n e that, we've seen the entire field of reality that's
operating in their system. We've explored the whole field and we
know w h e r e the limits are. Only by going to the o u t e r limits can we
k n o w what's possible, the good as well as t h e bad. T h a t gives clients
strength, and with that strength, we can look for a resolution that's
good for everyone.
S o m e t i m e s t h e resolution is that we m u s t accept the inevitable,
that we've reached the limit, a n d that n o t h i n g else is easier or p o s -
sible. B u t usually there's a n o t h e r possible solution. W h e n there is
a n o t h e r possibility, it can be reached m o r e easily after we've already
b e e n to t h e o u t e r limits. T h e client can see t h e reality of t h e situa-
tion a n d can t h e n choose the best a n d m o s t appropriate p a t h for
himself or herself.
Man and Woman: The Foundation of Family 91

Question: M u c h of what you say s o u n d s d o g m a t i c . Yet, I ' m sur-


prised at h o w m u c h inner tranquillity a n d centeredness you m a i n -
tain in spite of the very heavy situations that p e o p l e repeatedly b r i n g
a n d the rather hostile confrontations by people in the a u d i e n c e t h a t
sometimes arise. I see, too, a gentleness of spirit in you that t o u c h e s
me deeply. H o w do you maintain your centeredness a n d the clarity
of y o u r perception?

H e l l i n g e r : Tranquillity and clarity of p e r c e p t i o n are m a d e p o s -


sible by consenting to the world as it is w i t h o u t any intention to.
change it. T h a t ' s fundamentally a religious a t t i t u d e , because it
aligns me with a ^greater whole without separating me from it. I
d o n ' t p r e t e n d to k n o w better or h o p e to achieve s o m e t h i n g b e t t e r
t h a n w h a t t h e inner forces already at work in the system would do
by themselves. W h e n I see something terrible, that, too, is an aspect
of t h e world, a n d I c o n s e n t to it. W h e n I see s o m e t h i n g beautiful, I
c o n s e n t to that also. I call this attitude " h u m i l i t y " — c o n s e n t i n g to
t h e world as it is. Only this consent makes perception possible.
W i t h o u t it, wishes, fears, j u d g m e n t s — m y constructs—interfere with
my perception
And there's a n o t h e r thing to consider. T h e O r d e r s of Love a r e n ' t
rigid structures. T h e y ' r e always changing; they're different from
m o m e n t to m o m e n t . T h e r e ' s something richly varied in t h e m , a
p r o f o u n d a b u n d a n c e that we can glimpse for only a brief m o m e n t .
T h a t ' s the reason why every family constellation is different, even
w h e n the issues in t h e families are similar. W h e n I recognize that an
order is a certain way, t h e n I say what I see. S o m e people w h o are
a c c u s t o m e d to thinking in t e r m s of " t r u e a n d false" or "right a n d
w r o n g " have a t e n d e n c y to hear what I say as a s t a t e m e n t a b o u t a
general t r u t h . It's not! It's only a recognition of the t r u t h that could
be glimpsed in a certain m o m e n t . It applies only to t h a t m o m e n t ,
a n d in that m o m e n t , it has its full t r u t h . If s o m e o n e isolates w h a t
I've seen from its m o m e n t a r y context a n d makes a general principle
o u t of it, t h e n it appears to be dogmatic. B u t others do that with
what I say—I d o n ' t .
C H A P T E R T H R E E

Parents and Children

T h e love b e t w e e n p a r e n t s and children, like love in o t h e r relation-


ships, is constrained by b o n d i n g , by giving a n d taking, a n d by divid-
ing functions appropriately. Unlike other love, p a r e n t - c h i l d love
succeeds w h e n a disparity of giving and taking is m a i n t a i n e d . T h e
first systemic O r d e r o f Love between p a r e n t s a n d children is that
p a r e n t s give a n d children take,
T h e m o s t valuable thing that children receive from their par-
e n t s — n o m a t t e r w h o their parents are or w h a t they m a y have
done—is t h e o p p o r t u n i t y to live. Receiving life from their p a r e n t s ,
children take their parents, and those p a r e n t s are t h e only possible
ones for t h e m . Children c a n ' t a d d to, omit from, or reject anything
in the life their p a r e n t s give, and it's also impossible for p a r e n t s to
a d d or withhold anything w h e n they give themselves as p a r e n t s to
their children.
T h i s first giving a n d taking between p a r e n t s a n d children is dif-
ferent from the giving and taking of gifts a n d favors. W h e n children
take life from their p a r e n t s , they take what their p a r e n t s previously
have taken from their own parents. In a certain sense, children are
their p a r e n t s a n d g r a n d p a r e n t s . Love succeeds w h e n children value
the life they have b e e n given—when they take their p a r e n t s as par-
ents as they are. Everything else that children n e e d in order to thrive
can be given by s o m e o n e else, b u t only their p a r e n t s can give t h e m
life.

92
Parents and Children 93

I'm Glad You Had Me


During a workshop on family systems, a businessman told the group
that his mother had given him away as a child so that she could live a
free and unburdened life. He had grown up in a foster family and
met his mother for the first time when he was 20 years old. At the
time that he participated in the workshop, he was over 40 and had
only seen his mother three or four times. T h e following day, he
remembered that she lived not far from the course site, and that
evening he visited her. He returned to the workshop the next day and
related how he had gone to her house and had told her, "Mother, I'm
glad you had me." T h e old woman beamed, and her heart knew
peace.

P a r e n t s k n o w d e e p satisfaction w h e n they are t a k e n b y their chil-


d r e n , w h e n they see t h e quick flash in a child's eye, or h e a r t h e
joyful l a u g h t e r t h a t says: " I ' m glad you h a d m e . " C h i l d r e n k n o w
p e a c e w h e n t h e y take their p a r e n t s — l i k e t h e m a n above d i d — a s
they a r e .
In a d d i t i o n to giving t h e m life, p a r e n t s also give their c h i l d r e n
o t h e r t h i n g s . T h e y care for t h e m , a n d p r o v i d e t h e m w i t h a d v a n t a g e s ,
d i s a d v a n t a g e s , a n d o p p o r t u n i t i e s for g o o d or ill. C h i l d r e n are
u n a b l e to b a l a n c e o u t the great disparity of giving a n d taking in
their relationship w i t h their p a r e n t s , even w h e n they w a n t to. A n d
so an irreconcilable disparity of giving a n d t a k i n g is t h e s e c o n d
O r d e r o f L o v e w i t h w h i c h children m u s t c o n t e n d .
T h e b o n d i n g love t h a t y o u n g children feel for their n a t u r a l p a r -
ents is b l i n d to t h e details of w h a t t h e p a r e n t s do or fail to d o . C h i l -
d r e n act as if love c o u l d tolerate no difference—as if o n l y b e i n g
similar w o u l d b o n d t h e m t o g e t h e r a n d t h a t b e i n g different m u s t
lead t o s e p a r a t i o n a n d loss. T h e i r actions b e a r witness t o t h e m a g i -
cal t h i n k i n g of t h e child's soul: " L i k e b o n d s to like."
T h i s u n c o n s c i o u s a s s u m p t i o n a b o u t love gives rise to a child's
instinctive u r g e t o b o n d t o the p a r e n t s b y b e i n g like t h e m . T h i s i s
easily s e e n i n y o u n g children w h o openly imitate their p a r e n t s , b u t
this a s p e c t of children's love c o n t i n u e s to o p e r a t e in t h e i n n e r lives
of a d u l t s as well, playing an i m p o r t a n t role in family r e l a t i o n s h i p s .
A c t i n g o u t of love, children follow their p a r e n t s even in suffering,
a n d a l t h o u g h it's usually u n c o n s c i o u s , t h e y p e r p e t u a t e their p a r e n t s '
misfortunes by copying them.
94 Love's Hidden Symmetry

A Good Girl
A 35-year-old woman told the group that she was getting a divorce.
She had been happily married and had three children. Although she
could give no satisfactory reason for wanting to divorce, she was ada-
mant and rejected out of hand all suggestions to reconsider. In a later
session, the therapist asked her about her parents. Her father had
died trying to rescue his companions on an aircraft carrier. T h e
therapist asked how old her mother was at that time. She replied,
\ "My mother lost my father when she was 3 5 . " T h e therapist then
« asked, "Must a good girl in your family lose her husband at 3 5 ? "

M o t i v a t e d b y b l i n d love, t h e d a u g h t e r did a s h e r m o t h e r h a d d o n e ,
s h a r i n g h e r loss as if a s e c o n d s e p a r a t i o n c o u l d equalize t h e first, as
if h e r divorce d e m o n s t r a t e d loyalty. C h i l d r e n u n c o n s c i o u s l y aspire
to e q u a l their p a r e n t s in suffering. T h e i r b o n d i n g love is so d e e p
t h a t i t b l i n d s t h e m , a n d they c a n ' t resist t h e t e m p t a t i o n t o try t o
care for their p a r e n t s b y taking o n their p a r e n t s ' suffering. A l t h o u g h
a c t i n g o u t o f love a n d believing t h a t t h e y are d o i n g g o o d , t h e y b e g i n
t o f u n c t i o n a s their p a r e n t s ' p a r e n t s , a n d t h e y live o u t t h e i r p a r e n t s '
greatest fears b y d a m a g i n g t h e m s e l v e s . T h e i r b l i n d love p r o t e c t s
their b o n d i n g t o their p a r e n t s , b u t b y f u n c t i o n i n g a s p a r e n t s a n d
trying t o give t o their p a r e n t s r a t h e r t h a n take from t h e m , t h e y
reverse t h e flow of giving a n d taking a n d t h e y i n a d v e r t e n t l y p e r -
p e t u a t e suffering. L o v e b e t w e e n p a r e n t s a n d c h i l d r e n o b e y s a hier-
archy w i t h i n t h e family t h a t d e m a n d s t h a t t h e y r e m a i n u n e q u a l
p a r t n e r s , t h a t p a r e n t s give a n d c h i l d r e n take. T h u s , t h e t h i r d Order
of Love is t h a t love s u c c e e d s b e s t w h e n c h i l d r e n are c h i l d r e n a n d
p a r e n t s are p a r e n t s — t h a t is, w h e n t h e h i e r a r c h y w i t h i n t h e family
a c c o r d i n g t o t i m e a n d function i s r e s p e c t e d .

GIVING A N D TAKING
BETWEEN PARENTS A N D CHILDREN

B o t h p a r e n t s a n d c h i l d r e n are t e m p t e d t o give a n d t a k e w h a t d a m -
ages love. M i s u n d e r s t a n d i n g s a b o u t w h a t love allows a r e c o m m o n ,
a n d t h e c o n s e q u e n c e s are often painful. T h e fact t h a t t h e giving a n d
taking b e t w e e n p a r e n t s a n d c h i l d r e n c a n ' t b e b a l a n c e d b y r e c i p r o c a l
giving d e m a n d s t h a t t h e y look for o t h e r r e s o l u t i o n s .
T h r e e c o m m o n p a t t e r n s o f giving a n d t a k i n g b e t w e e n p a r e n t s
a n d c h i l d r e n are injurious to love:
Parents and Children 95

1. C h i l d r e n refuse to take their p a r e n t s as t h e y are.

2. P a r e n t s t r y to give a n d children to t a k e w h a t is h a r m f u l .

3. P a r e n t s t r y to take from children a n d c h i l d r e n t r y to give to


parents.

Refusing to Take Parents as They Are

I n s t e a d of t a k i n g their p a r e n t s as they are, c h i l d r e n s o m e t i m e s p r e -


s u m e t o evaluate t h e m a s i f p a r e n t s h a d t o earn t h e right t o b e p a r -
ents. T h e y say, in effect, "I d o n ' t like this a b o u t y o u , so y o u ' r e n o t
my father." O r , "You d i d n ' t give me w h a t I n e e d e d , so you c a n ' t be
m y m o t h e r . " T h i s i s a n a b s u r d d i s t o r t i o n o f reality. P a r e n t s e n t e r
p a r e n t h o o d t h r o u g h t h e events o f c o n c e p t i o n a n d b i r t h , a n d t h e s e
acts a l o n e m a k e t h e m t h e child's p a r e n t s . C h i l d r e n are absolutely
powerless to c h a n g e a n y t h i n g a b o u t this first giving a n d taking.
C h i l d r e n e x p e r i e n c e i n n e r solidity a n d a clear sense of identity
w h e n they find r e s o l u t i o n w i t h their p a r e n t s , w h e n t h e y take b o t h
p a r e n t s a n d a c k n o w l e d g e t h e m a s they are. T h e y feel i n c o m p l e t e
a n d e m p t y w h e n t h e y e x c l u d e o n e o r b o t h o f their p a r e n t s from
their h e a r t s . T h e c o n s e q u e n c e of d e m e a n i n g or e x c l u d i n g a p a r e n t is
always t h e s a m e — c h i l d r e n b e c o m e passive a n d feel e m p t y . T h i s is a
c o m m o n cause of depression.
C h i l d r e n , even w h e n they've b e e n h u r t b y their p a r e n t s , c a n still
say: "Yes, y o u are my p a r e n t s . E v e r y t h i n g t h a t w a s in y o u is in me
too. I a c k n o w l e d g e t h a t you are my p a r e n t s , a n d I a c c e p t t h e c o n s e -
q u e n c e s t h a t h a s for m e . I take t h e g o o d from w h a t y o u gave, a n d I
t r u s t you to deal w i t h y o u r fate as you see fit." T h e n t h e y are free to
set a b o u t t h e often difficult w o r k of m a k i n g t h e b e s t o u t of w h a t
m a y be a very b a d situation.

The Rest House


Cloaked in memory and loss, a man wanders the streets of the town
where he was born. Many things that happened there remain hidden
from him, and many doors are locked. He wishes he could put that
past far behind him, but something holds him, as if he were wrestling
with a demon whose blessing he must win before he can go. And so
he feels caught between a desire to go forward and a need to stay,
between leaving and remaining.
96 Love's Hidden Symmetry

He comes to a park and sits down on a b e n c h , leans back, breathes


deeply. He closes his eyes. T r u s t i n g to an inner force, he allows his
t u r m o i l just to be a n d feels himself growing calm and supple like
reeds in the wind, in h a r m o n y with all diversity a n d with the spa-
ciousness of time.
He imagines himself as an o p e n house, and whoever wishes to may
enter. All w h o come bring something, stay a while, and then leave.
T h e r e ' s a perpetual c o m i n g in this h o u s e , a bringing, a staying, a
leaving. Everyone newly c o m e brings something, grows old in stay-
ing, a n d leaves w h e n the time is ripe.
M a n y w h o have been excluded or long forgotten enter his h o u s e .
T h e y too bring something, stay a while, and leave. Even those w h o
are unwelcome enter, and they too bring something, mingle with the
o t h e r s , stay a while, and leave.
W h o e v e r enters meets those w h o came before and those w h o will
c o m e after, and because they are many, all m u s t share. Everyone who
has a place has limits. W h o e v e r desires something m u s t also give.
T h o s e w h o enter continue to grow as long as they stay. T h e y came
after others had left, and will go when others need to c o m e . A n d so
in this house of coming and going, there are time and space e n o u g h
for everyone.
Sitting there in this way, the m a n feels comfortable in his h o u s e .
He feels at ease with all w h o have c o m e , are c o m i n g , a n d will c o m e ;
with all they've brought, are bringing, and will bring; a n d with those
w h o have stayed, are staying, or have left. It seems to h i m as if what-
ever had b e e n incomplete is n o w complete. He feels a long struggle
c o m i n g to an end, and leaving is n o w possible. He waits until he feels
t h a t the m o m e n t has c o m e , o p e n s his eyes, looks a r o u n d , stands u p ,
a n d goes.

C h i l d r e n c o n t r i b u t e t o t h e i r p a r e n t s ' feelings o f g u i l t w h e n t h e y
refuse to take t h e m as they are. If children r e m a i n u n h a p p y , caught
i n a c y c l e o f failure a n d s u f f e r i n g b e c a u s e t h e i r p a r e n t s ' c a r e t a k i n g
w a s deficient, then t h e p a r e n t s are guilty of causing h u r t to t h e chil-
d r e n t o w h o m t h e y g a v e life. I f c h i l d r e n a r e a b l e t o o v e r c o m e w h a t -
e v e r t h e y m a y h a v e s u f f e r e d i n c h i l d h o o d a n d l e a r n t o live h a p p y ,
satisfying lives, t h e n t h e i r p a r e n t s feel r e l i e v e d . B e c a u s e t h e y h a v e
g o o d lives, t h e s e c h i l d r e n d o n ' t c l i n g t o t h e i r r e s e n t m e n t s a g a i n s t
t h e i r p a r e n t s . R a t h e r , t h e y t a k e t h e life t h e y ' v e b e e n g i v e n a n d live i t
a s fully a s t h e y c a n . Still, m a n y p e o p l e p r e f e r t o r e m a i n u n h a p p y
r a t h e r t h a n t a k e life fully a n d a i d t h e i r p a r e n t s i n p u t t i n g o l d feel-
ings of guilt to rest.
Parents and Children 97

Refusing to Take Father as He Is: An Example

P a r t i c i p a n t : I have a question a b o u t children h o n o r i n g their


father. I've b e e n working intensively with a family for s o m e years.
T h e p a r e n t s are divorced a n d the father lives in a n o t h e r city. T h e
children reject their father with an intense h a t r e d b e c a u s e he repeat-
edly terrorized their m o t h e r . T h e y watched h i m b e a t her on several
occasions. T h e children also found out that their father h a d sexually
molested young schoolboys. H e ' s m a d e a g e n u i n e effort to change
a n d has repeatedly tried to establish contact with t h e m , h o p i n g that
s o m e form of reconciliation might be possible. H e ' s written t h e m
letters a n d sent t h e m presents, b u t they refuse to have anything to
do with h i m . T h e y even s h r e d d e d t h e family p h o t o a l b u m , tearing
o u t all t h e pictures of h i m .

Hellinger: H o w old are the children?

P a r t i c i p a n t : Ages 10 to 18. T h e y all live with their m o t h e r , a n d


they say they d o n ' t ever want to see their father again.

H e l l i n g e r : Okay. T h e first thing is that t h e hate that t h e children


feel toward their father is m o s t likely their m o t h e r ' s , a n d n o t their
own. It's just too intense to be merely children's h a t e . T h e fact of
their taking on their m o t h e r ' s h a t e doesn't p r o t e c t t h e m from t h e
c o n s e q u e n c e s of t h e h a t e . T h a t ' s very i m p o r t a n t to u n d e r s t a n d —
whatever we do has c o n s e q u e n c e s , a n d it has c o n s e q u e n c e s for o u r
children as well. H a v i n g a moral justification for d o i n g s o m e t h i n g
destructive d o e s n ' t e x e m p t the action from its c o n s e q u e n c e s , a n d
neither do good intentions r e d u c e the c o n s e q u e n c e s of harmful
actions.
It would be useful for the children to learn to allow their m o t h e r
to deal with h e r own h a t e . O n e strategic intervention w o u l d be for
t h e m to tell their m o t h e r , " A b o u t all this h a t e for D a d , we'll take
care of it for you." You can suggest that to t h e m , b u t d o n ' t explain
it. T h a t would be a first step to getting everyone thinking a b o u t
what's going on.
W h e n people are c a u g h t in other people's feelings, it's usually
b e t t e r to work with t h e m indirectly. So, after you offer the sentence
to t h e m , you could try a telling t h e m a long story with a surprise
ending. F o r example, here's a story a b o u t s o m e t h i n g t h a t really
happened.
98 Love's Hidden Symmetry

Where Do You Stand with Mother?

O n c e my wife and I were invited by the director of a psychosomatic


hospital to work with some of the patients who were staying there. We
worked very intensively for 14 days. T h e y all h a d a special p r o g r a m
every m o r n i n g and Primal G r o u p T h e r a p y every afternoon.
O n e w o m a n with w h o m I worked was extremely depressed. D u r -
ing a therapy session, she screamed with cold h a t r e d that she wished
her father h a d died in t h e war. On the next day, I asked her what h a d
h a p p e n e d to her father. She explained that he h a d suffered a head
w o u n d , a n d often h a d outbreaks and did crazy things that were very
difficult for her and her m o t h e r . T h e y c a m e to h a t e h i m , a n d to wish
t h a t he h a d died. But judging by the way she talked, I suspected that
t h e d a u g h t e r felt and expressed her mother's h a t e — n o t her own.
At our next meeting, I asked her if she h a d children. She said,
"I've got two sons." I said, " O n e of your sons will follow your father."
She looked at m e , b u t d i d n ' t say anything. I asked her h o w her m a r -
riage was. She said that it wasn't very good. H e r h u s b a n d took good
care of h e r and the children, which was why she stayed with h i m , b u t
she d i d n ' t like h i m very m u c h .
She was very depressed a n d agitated w h e n I next saw h e r a few
days later. W h e n I asked her what the matter was, she said that she
h a d received a letter from the h o m e for disturbed children where
h e r youngest son lived. H e ' d had a suicidal episode there. A l t h o u g h
she confirmed what I h a d said a few days earlier, she d i d n ' t see the
connection, and I d i d n ' t say anything either. T h e n she said, "I love
h i m so m u c h . " But the way she said it d i d n ' t seem genuine. So I told
h e r that it d i d n ' t s o u n d m u c h like love, and that it upset me to hear
her speak a b o u t h i m like that. She b e c a m e furious with me and sent
me away.
She was surprised w h e n I checked on her the next day. I asked her
to experiment with imagining that her son was there a n d telling h i m ,
"I hate your father, b u t I love you." After she did it, I asked her,
" H o w would your son respond if he heard you say t h a t ? " She said,
"I d o n ' t know." I asked, "Would he be able to react at all?" She
answered softly, " N o . " I said, " T h a t ' s what's making h i m crazy."
In the same r o o m was a young m a n whose m o t h e r h a d left h i m in
a hospital a n d disappeared. H e ' d been in a series of foster h o m e s a n d
h a d suffered a great deal, but he accepted his fate openly. I said to
her, " L o o k at him. H e ' s suffered a lot, b u t he d i d n ' t get psychotic. He
knows where he stands with his mother."

I f y o u tell t h e m a h o r r i b l e s t o r y like t h a t , p e r h a p s t h e y ' l l c a t c h o n


to the h i d d e n d y n a m i c . B e c o m i n g a father a n d being o n e have n o t h -
Parents and Children 99

ing to do with w h e t h e r the father's good or b a d . B e c o m i n g a father


or a m o t h e r is a process beyond good and evil. Conceiving a child
fundamentally serves life, so it doesn't d e p e n d on m o r a l j u d g m e n t s
for its honor.
I'll give y o u a n o t h e r e x a m p l e . A d o c t o r o n c e told a g r o u p t h a t
his father h a d b e e n a d o c t o r for t h e SS a n d h a d supervised m a n y
h u m a n e x p e r i m e n t s i n t h e c o n c e n t r a t i o n c a m p s . After t h e war, h e
was f o u n d guilty a n d given the d e a t h penalty, b u t s o m e h o w was
freed a n d he d i s a p p e a r e d . T h e son's q u e s t i o n w a s , " W h a t shall I
do a b o u t my father?" I said to h i m , " I n t h e m o m e n t y o u r father
i m p r e g n a t e d y o u r m o t h e r , h e w a s n ' t acting a s a n S S officer. T h e
two things are different, a n d you can a n d m u s t keep t h e m
separate."
Like this d o c t o r , it's possible for a child to acknowledge his or h e r
father as a father without assuming responsibility for t h e father's
actions. Children in such situations m u s t n o t minimize or excuse
their father's actions, b u t they can say, " W h a t you did is y o u r ,
responsibility. StilL_you are my father. W h a t e v e r you have d o n e ,
we're related. I ' m glad t h a t you gave me life. Even w h e n what you
did was horrible, I ' m your son, n o t your judge." W h a t o t h e r option
is o p e n to a child in a situation like that?
T h i s distinction is also very i m p o r t a n t for t h e children in y o u r
case. W h a t their father did makes it necessary for t h e m to separate
from h i m for a while, b u t they w o n ' t m a n a g e to separate as long as
the h a t e is so strong. T h e hate binds t h e m to h i m . T h e y ' l l be free
w h e n they honestly say, " W h a t you did was very h a r d for us, a n d
we're n o t going to see you for a while, b u t y o u ' r e still o u r father,
and we enjoy the life you gave us."
M a y b e you c a n help the m o t h e r , as well. She's probably caught in
an identification with s o m e o n e in her own system, a n d the exag-
geration of h e r hate c o m e s from that identification. P e r h a p s she's
taken on s o m e o n e ' s hate in t h e same way that h e r children are tak-
ing on h e r h a t e . If she's entangled, it'll be difficult for h e r to think
clearly a b o u t what's h a p p e n i n g . It might help h e r if she can find o u t
what was going on in her family. If she can find t h e p e r s o n to w h o m
the h a t e belongs, she m a y be able to give it back. T h e n she'll only
have to deal with her o w n h a t e and whatever else actually belongs
between her a n d her former h u s b a n d .
T h e r e ' s a d a n g e r that her children will later copy their father's
behavior a n d b e c o m e like h i m . If she gets to t h e place w h e r e she's
100 Love's Hidden Symmetry

genuinely looking for a r e s o l u t i o n , t h e systemic s o l u t i o n w o u l d be


for h e r to say, "I m a r r i e d y o u r father b e c a u s e I loved h i m , a n d w h e n
I see y o u , I still love h i m . " If she could h o n e s t l y say t h a t , t h e chil-
d r e n w o u l d b e free. B u t you p r o b a b l y w o u l d n ' t d a r e t o p r o p o s e
s o m e t h i n g like t h a t , w o u l d you?

Participant: N o , I wouldn't!

Hellinger: T h a t w o u l d b e a n effective i n t e r v e n t i o n . O f c o u r s e ,
y o u ' d have to offer it to h e r w i t h conviction, w i t h t r u e c o m p a s s i o n .
You c a n ' t say s o m e t h i n g like t h a t as a t e c h n i q u e .

Participant: T h e c o u r t s are going t o d e c i d e w h e t h e r o r n o t t h e


c h i l d r e n a n d t h e father c a n have c o n t a c t w i t h e a c h o t h e r . T h e
m o t h e r is c o n t e s t i n g visitation rights.

Hellinger: I ' d a g r e e w i t h h e r t h a t t h e r e s h o u l d b e n o c o n t a c t for


now. I'd tell t h e father t h a t it's a p p r o p r i a t e for h i m t o give u p his
r i g h t s t o visitation for t h e t i m e b e i n g . I f h e w e r e t o d o so, h e w o u l d
b e a c c e p t i n g t h e c o n s e q u e n c e s o f his a c t i o n s , a n d t h a t w o u l d
m a k e i t easier for t h e c h i l d r e n t o r e s p e c t h i m . T h e c o u r t s d e c i d e
a c c o r d i n g t o legal criteria, b u t t h e y often d e c i d e w h a t ' s p s y c h o -
logically b e s t anyway. I w o u l d n ' t e n c o u r a g e h i s p r o t e s t i n g t h e
decision.

Giving a n d Taking What Is Harmful

A m o n g t h e things t h a t p a r e n t s m u s t n o t give t h e i r c h i l d r e n , a n d
t h a t c h i l d r e n m u s t n o t take, are d e b t s , illnesses, obligations, b u r -
d e n s of c i r c u m s t a n c e , injustices suffered or c o m m i t t e d , a n d a n y
privileges g a i n e d by p e r s o n a l a c h i e v e m e n t . T h e s e are all things t h a t
p a r e n t s have e a r n e d o r suffered t h r o u g h p e r s o n a l effort o r c i r c u m -
s t a n c e . T h e y h a v e n ' t b e e n i n h e r i t e d from a p r e v i o u s g e n e r a t i o n in
o r d e r to be p a s s e d to the n e x t as a g o o d b e q u e s t , so t h e y r e m a i n t h e
p a r e n t s ' responsibility. It's t h e p a r e n t s ' job t o p r o t e c t their c h i l d r e n
from t h e negative effect of s u c h t h i n g s , a n d c h i l d r e n m u s t t r u s t their
p a r e n t s t o deal w i t h w h a t e v e r fate h a s m e t e d o u t — i n w h a t e v e r way
t h e p a r e n t s c h o o s e . W h e n p a r e n t s give w h a t i s h a r m f u l , o r w h e n
c h i l d r e n t a k e it, love is injured.
Parents and Children 101

T h e r e a r e n e g a t i v e c o n s e q u e n c e s of a different k i n d w h e n a
y o u n g e r p e r s o n feels e n t i t l e d t o t h e r e w a r d s a n d privileges o f a n
older person without having earned them.

A Better Lawyer
A young lawyer took over his father's highly successful law practice.
Because he was less experienced, and perhaps less gifted than his
father, many of the more important clients soon left. Rather than
accepting this loss of income and reduced standard of living, he
acted as if he had the right to the same success as his father—even
though he had not earned it with his own efforts. He began to accept
well-paid but illegal work.
His actions were soon exposed and he was barred from legal prac-
tice for some years.

My Mother the Actress


Fate smiled generously on a well-known actress, giving her both tal-
ent and luck. Fate was less generous with her daughter. However, the
daughter felt entitled to the same success as her mother and became
depressed and suicidal when she could not achieve it. She began to
hate her mother, as if her mother could have given her luck and tal-
ent, as well as life.
Eventually, the daughter found a life of her own in a different p r o -
fession, and enjoyed modest success, a happy family life, and a good
friendship with her mother.

C h i l d r e n m u s t differentiate t h e m s e l v e s f r o m t h e i r p a r e n t s a n d r e c -
o g n i z e t h e limits o f t h e i r r i g h t s a n d r e s p o n s i b i l i t i e s . T h i s t o o s h o w s
r e s p e c t a n d love for t h e i r p a r e n t s .
Children have advantages or disadvantages according to their
p a r e n t s ' c i r c u m s t a n c e s . F r o m w h a t t h e y ' r e given i n this way, chil-
d r e n c r e a t e a n e w t h e i r o w n a d v a n t a g e s a n d d e b t s . B u t love i s
i n j u r e d w h e n c h i l d r e n feel e n t i t l e d a n d d e m a n d t o t a k e w h a t t h e i r
p a r e n t s h a v e a c q u i r e d t h r o u g h p e r s o n a l efforts o r suffering. F o r
e x a m p l e , b i t t e r q u a r r e l s t h a t split families a n d d e s t r o y love m a y
result w h e n children expect or d e m a n d an inheritance.
An i n h e r i t a n c e is a gift f r o m p a r e n t s to t h e i r c h i l d r e n , a n d like
a n y gift, i t m a y b e given h o w e v e r t h e giver w i s h e s . E v e n i f o n e c h i l d
gets everything a n d the others n o t h i n g , r e s e n t m e n t has no g o o d
effect. A n i n h e r i t a n c e i s always u n e a r n e d , a n d c o m p l a i n i n g a b o u t
g e t t i n g less t h a n s o m e o n e else i s i n a p p r o p r i a t e . H o w e v e r , t h o s e w h o
102 Love's Hidden Symmetry

have received m o r e m a y freely give a fair share to t h o s e w h o have


b e e n given less, a n d t h e r e b y assure p e a c e a n d h a r m o n y i n t h e sys-
t e m . W h e n e v e r t h o s e w h o have received less are dissatisfied a n d
d e m a n d m o r e — a s if an i n h e r i t a n c e were a r i g h t — t u r b u l e n c e devel-
ops in t h e flow of love.
S o m e t i m e s c h i l d r e n t a k e s o m e t h i n g h a r m f u l f r o m their p a r e n t s ,
a n d s o m e t i m e s p a r e n t s t r y t o give t o their c h i l d r e n a n obligation,
r e s e n t m e n t , or d e b t , as if t h a t were a g o o d i n h e r i t a n c e . F a t e brings
a d v a n t a g e a n d m i s f o r t u n e i n different m e a s u r e s . I n d i v i d u a l s m a y b e
able t o t u r n m i s f o r t u n e aside o r escape its c o n s e q u e n c e s , b u t s o m e -
t i m e s they c a n n o t a n d so m u s t suffer the c o n s e q u e n c e s of fortune's
whimsy. S u c h u n a v o i d a b l e blows of fate, however, also give s t r e n g t h
and wisdom to those who understand and surrender to them. T h e
g o o d qualities e a r n e d i n this way m a y t h e n b e p a s s e d o n t o others
w i t h o u t t h e p r i c e t h a t ' s already b e e n p a i d . P a s s i n g o n w i s d o m
e a r n e d t h r o u g h suffering is possible only if t h e o t h e r m e m b e r s of
t h e system have t h e c o u r a g e , r e s p e c t , a n d w i s d o m n o t t o interfere.
F o r e x a m p l e , g r a n d p a r e n t s w h o have a c c e p t e d w i t h g r a c e w h a t e v e r
u n a v o i d a b l e suffering a n d loss fate h a s given give freely to their
g r a n d c h i l d r e n , a n d are loved b y t h e m . B u t w h e n e v e r y o u n g e r p e r -
s o n s — e v e n if m o t i v a t e d by love—take on b u r d e n s or obligations
from o l d e r p e r s o n s , t h e y i n t r u d e into t h e m o s t p e r s o n a l s p h e r e o f
t h o s e o l d e r p e r s o n s a n d r o b t h e m a n d their suffering o f t h e p o w e r
for g o o d .
T h e o r d e r of giving a n d taking in a family is t u r n e d u p s i d e d o w n
w h e n p a r e n t s h a v e n ' t t a k e n e n o u g h from their o w n p a r e n t s , o r
w h e n they h a v e n ' t t a k e n a n d given e n o u g h t o e a c h o t h e r i n their
p a r t n e r s h i p . T h e n they w a n t their e m o t i o n a l n e e d s t o b e m e t b y
their c h i l d r e n , a n d their c h i l d r e n m a y feel r e s p o n s i b l e for m e e t i n g
t h e m . P a r e n t s t h e n take like children, a n d c h i l d r e n give as if t h e y
w e r e p a r e n t s . I n s t e a d of flowing from o l d e r to y o u n g e r , t h e giving
a n d taking r u n against t h e f l o w o f gravity a n d t i m e . S u c h giving
c a n ' t r e a c h its p r o p e r goal any m o r e t h a n a m o u n t a i n s t r e a m c a n
f l o w from t h e valley u p t o t h e p e a k s .

When Father Acts Like a Child


A young couple came to therapy with their six-year-old son seeking
help in dealing with him, as he was very difficult. During an emo-
tional outburst, the father held his son firmly, close to his body, and
talked to him. T h e father spoke as if he were a child himself, talking
Parents and Children 103

about his own needs and feelings as if his son should understand him
like a father, and the boy found no resolution.
T h e therapist sat behind the father and said, "Imagine that I'm
your father. Lean against me and speak to your son as a father
speaks." He did so, and a resolution established itself at once. In the
end he sat with his son, holding hands, and his wife sat with their two
daughters, facing them. Father and son were at peace together, as
were the mother and daughters. It was a beautiful picture.
At the next session, the man lay on the floor playing with his son.
They wrestled happily. Suddenly, the boy became angry and ran out
of the room. T h e therapist, overhearing their conversation, noticed
that the child had become angry when the father reverted to speak-
ing as a child, and the order was disturbed again.

W h e n p a r e n t s have u n m e t e m o t i o n a l n e e d s , it's a p p r o p r i a t e for


t h e m t o t u r n t o e a c h o t h e r o r t o their o w n p a r e n t s . W h e n t h e y t u r n
t o their c h i l d r e n w i t h d e m a n d s t o b e c o m f o r t e d o r r e a s s u r e d , t h e
roles a n d functions in t h e family are reversed. T h a t ' s parentifi-
cation—children a s s u m i n g t h e position of a p a r e n t t o w a r d their o w n
p a r e n t s . C h i l d r e n c a n ' t p r o t e c t themselves against this p r o c e s s .
E v e r y o n e suffers w h e n families are c a u g h t in t h e p a t t e r n of c h i l d r e n
feeling r e s p o n s i b l e for their p a r e n t s a n d p a r e n t s e x p e c t i n g their
c h i l d r e n t o b e h a v e a s a d u l t p a r t n e r s . T h e c h i l d r e n take o n a n exag-
gerated a n d i n a p p r o p r i a t e i m p o r t a n c e in t h e family, and they're
d o o m e d to fail, for no child c a n satisfy his or h e r p a r e n t s ' e m o t i o n a l
n e e d s a n d e m p t i n e s s . A n d t h e p a r e n t s c a n ' t p r o t e c t themselves from
d o i n g t o their c h i l d r e n w h a t t h e y d o n ' t wish t o d o . M o r a l a r g u m e n t s
a n d logical justifications d o n ' t c o u n t at all, only t h e a c t u a l e x p e r i -
e n c e of love. T h e flow of love c a n be felt, b u t n o t legislated: C h i l -
d r e n k n o w w h e t h e r o r n o t t h e y are o p e n w i t h t h e i r p a r e n t s .

Questions and Answers from Seminars

Q u e s t i o n : Is it parentification w h e n a d a u g h t e r feels as t h o u g h
she's t h e m o t h e r o f h e r m o t h e r o r t h e m o t h e r o f h e r father?

Hellinger: M y definition was m o r e precise: Parentification i s


w h e n a child a s s u m e s the p o s i t i o n of the p a r e n t . T h a t h a s m o r e
scope b e c a u s e w e ' r e n o t just looking a t a n individual child a n d w h a t
that child m a y feel, b u t at t h e d y n a m i c s of t h e family system as a
104 Love's Hidden Symmetry

w h o l e , w h e r e y o u c a n see p a t t e r n s across several g e n e r a t i o n s . F o r


e x a m p l e , o n e m o t h e r h a d s t r o n g irrational feelings o f r e s e n t m e n t
t o w a r d h e r d a u g h t e r . L o o k i n g i n t o t h e family system, she r e m e m -
b e r e d h o w she h a d r e s e n t e d h e r o w n m o t h e r , a n d she discovered
that t h e r e s e n t m e n t she h a d for h e r d a u g h t e r felt exactly t h e s a m e .
T h e e n t a n g l e d love for h e r m o t h e r e n t a n g l e d t h e love w i t h h e r
d a u g h t e r . T h a t ' s parentification as a family d y n a m i c . It's m o r e t h a n
just an individual's feelings, so you've got to try to see w h a t ' s going
on in t h e w h o l e family.
D o t h e c h i l d r e n h o l d t h e m s e l v e s r e s p o n s i b l e for a p a r e n t ' s i n n e r
c o n d i t i o n ? D o t h e y t r y t o give w h a t a p a r e n t o r p a r t n e r m a y give,
b u t w h a t a child m a y n o t give? F o r e x a m p l e , d o t h e y t h i n k o r feel,
" I f I do t h i s , my m o t h e r will get ill," or, "If I d o n ' t do t h a t , my
father will leave u s " ? Parentification is i m m e d i a t e l y clear in t h e
family c o n s t e l l a t i o n s . O f t e n t h e p e r s o n r e p r e s e n t i n g s u c h a child
will s t a r t t o feel n e r v o u s a n d fidgety. I f t h e p e r s o n w i t h w h o m t h a t
p e r s o n is identified is b r o u g h t i n t o t h e s y s t e m — f o r i n s t a n c e , t h e
m i s s i n g g r a n d m o t h e r o r p a r t n e r — t h e child i m m e d i a t e l y b e c o m e s
calm.

Question: You said t h a t children separate from their p a r e n t s b y


taking t h e m . I t s e e m s t o m e t h a t c h i l d r e n s e p a r a t e from their p a r -
ents b y d r a w i n g a clear b o u n d a r y b e t w e e n t h e m . W o u l d y o u c o m -
m e n t o n that?

Hellinger: W h e n a child c o m p l a i n s t o his o r h e r p a r e n t s , " W h a t


you gave m e w a s n ' t e n o u g h o r i t was the w r o n g t h i n g , a n d you still
owe m e a lot," t h e n t h e child c a n ' t s e p a r a t e from t h e m . T h e s e
d e m a n d s b i n d c h i l d r e n to their p a r e n t s in s u c h a w a y t h a t t h e y c a n ' t
take a n y t h i n g . If t h e y w e r e to take their p a r e n t s as t h e y are, a n d also
t h e g o o d things t h a t t h e y gave, t h e n their taking w o u l d dissolve their
d e m a n d a n d m a k e it s e e m foolish. As it is, they r e m a i n b o u n d to
their p a r e n t s , a n d c a n n e i t h e r take n o r s e p a r a t e .
T a k i n g o n e ' s p a r e n t s h a s a strange effect—it s e p a r a t e s . It's n o t
s o m e t h i n g d o n e against t h e p a r e n t s , b u t s o m e t h i n g t h a t c o m p l e t e s
a n d r o u n d s o u t the relationship with t h e m . T a k i n g y o u r p a r e n t s
m e a n s , "I take w h a t e v e r y o u ' v e given m e . It's a lot a n d it's e n o u g h .
W h a t e v e r else I n e e d , I'll take care of myself or get from s o m e o n e
else, a n d n o w I'll leave y o u in p e a c e . " It m e a n s , "I take w h a t I've
b e e n given, a n d a l t h o u g h I m a y t h e n leave my p a r e n t s , I have my
p a r e n t s a n d m y p a r e n t s have m e . "
Parents and Children 105

In a g r o u p , a very successful d o c t o r asked, " W h a t shall I do? My


p a r e n t s m e d d l e in my business all t h e t i m e . " I t o l d h i m , " Y o u r p a r -
ents h a v e t h e right t o b u t t into y o u r life w h e n e v e r t h e y w a n t to! A n d
you have t h e right to go a h e a d a n d do w h a t e v e r you t h i n k is right for
yourself anyway."
C h i l d r e n w h o d o n ' t t a k e their p a r e n t s m u s t try t o c o m p e n s a t e for
t h e deficit. Often the search for self-realization a n d e n l i g h t e n m e n t
is, in reality, t h e search for the n o t - y e t - t a k e n father a n d t h e n o t - y e t -
t a k e n m o t h e r . T h e s e a r c h for G o d often stops o r b e c o m e s different
w h e n t h e father a n d m o t h e r are t a k e n . M a n y p e o p l e have discov-
ered t h a t their so-called "midlife crisis" was resolved as s o o n as t h e y
successfully t o o k a previously rejected p a r e n t .

Q u e s t i o n : As I u n d e r s t a n d w h a t y o u ' v e said, it's i m p o r t a n t for


m e t o p o s i t i o n myself n e x t t o m y m o t h e r , t o take h e r . T o b e h o n e s t ,
I have to a d m i t t h a t I h a v e n ' t d o n e t h a t , n o t as a child, as an a d o -
lescent, or as a g r o w n w o m a n . Is there a n y t h i n g I c a n do n o w ?

H e l l i n g e r : Yes, t h e r e is. S t a n d n e x t to h e r a n d look at h e r w i t h a


d a u g h t e r ' s love. T a k i n g y o u r m o t h e r is really an i n n e r p r o c e s s .

Question: W h a t i f t h e r e ' s n o c u r r e n t i n p u t from her? M y m o t h e r


h a s n e v e r m a n a g e d to feel that she's w o r t h y of b e i n g an e q u a l p a r t -
n e r to a m a n , so she's lived all h e r m a r r i e d life in my father's
shadow. She's t h e perfect e x a m p l e of a w o m a n w h o ' s always
believed t h a t a wife s h o u l d be s u b s e r v i e n t to h e r h u s b a n d . If I m o v e
i n t o h e r s p h e r e of influence, w h a t then?

Hellinger: O u r p a r e n t s give u s life, a n d t h e y ' r e t h e only o n e s w h o


c a n do that. O t h e r s c a n give us w h a t else we n e e d in a d d i t i o n to
that. Strictly s p e a k i n g , we d o n ' t get life from o u r p a r e n t s — i t c o m e s
t o u s t h r o u g h t h e m from far away. T h e y ' r e o u r c o n n e c t i o n with t h e
s o u r c e of life, w i t h w h a t is b e y o n d w h a t e v e r s h o r t c o m i n g s t h e y m a y
have. W h e n w e c o n n e c t t o t h e m , w e access t h a t d e e p e r s o u r c e , a n d
i t h o l d s m a n y surprises a n d mysteries. S o m e t h i n g beautiful h a p p e n s
w h e n p e o p l e look at their p a r e n t s a n d recognize t h e s o u r c e of life.
Love d e m a n d s t h a t t h e receiver h o n o r b o t h t h e gift a n d t h e giver.
W h o e v e r loves a n d h o n o r s life implicitly loves a n d h o n o r s t h e givers
of life. W h o e v e r disdains or devalues life, a n d d o e s n ' t r e s p e c t it, dis-
h o n o r s t h e givers o f life. W h e n p e o p l e take a n d h o n o r b o t h gift a n d
giver, t h e y h o l d the gift up to t h e light u n t i l it s h i n e s , a n d a l t h o u g h
106 Love's Hidden Symmetry

t h e gift f l o w s t h r o u g h t h e m t o t h o s e w h o follow, t h e g i v e r i s i l l u m i -
n a t e d b y its glow.

Additional Considerations

W h e n we have the feeling that we're missing s o m e t h i n g from o u r


m o t h e r or father, we have an image of w h a t should have b e e n .
T h a t ' s the image of the good p a r e n t . Taking o u r p a r e n t s is a q u e s -
tion of giving those good images a place in o u r h e a r t s a n d letting
t h e m d o s o m e g o o d work there. T h a t ' s a n o p t i o n that remains o p e n
to m o s t people even w h e n they were h u r t by their p a r e n t s . Taking
one's p a r e n t s d o e s n ' t d e m a n d denying what was negative, b u t it
p e r m i t s children to t o u c h the d e p t h s of all p a r e n t s ' h e a r t s w h e r e
they suffer bitterly w h e n they see their children caught in the s a m e
p a t t e r n in which they were caught. W h e n people succeed in seeing
their p a r e n t s in that d e p t h , they're c h a n g e d — a n d so are their
parents.
Hellinger describes a possibility of looking at o u r parents so that
we see t h e m in the context of their fate. We see their failures, we see
their suffering a n d disappointments, we trust t h e m to deal with their
fate as best they can, a n d we r e m e m b e r our own position as children
in the family hierarchy. Beyond that, we see past t h e m to the larger
mystery of life that flows to us through t h e m .
Obviously, it's easier if our actual father a n d m o t h e r displayed
some of this goodness, and almost every parent does at times. In o u r
therapy g r o u p s , participants are sometimes invited to do an experi-
m e n t . T h e y imagine that their own son or d a u g h t e r has grown up
a n d is suffering from family problems that have been passed on. T h i s
is invariably a painful image for people, even for persons who have no
children. T h e n they're invited to imagine that their children m a n a g e
to accept a n d to rise above the problem. T h e y imagine that they s u c -
ceeded in taking what was good and in leaving b e h i n d what was b u r -
d e n s o m e . T h a t ' s a great relief for parents.
Hellinger is describing an actual m o v e m e n t , an action that real
people do with o t h e r real people. T h i s m e a n s taking the actual
father a n d m o t h e r a n d seeing t h e m t h r o u g h t h e eyes of an a d u l t
s t a n d i n g in the O r d e r of Love, n o t t h r o u g h a distressed child's eyes.
M a n y p e o p l e have b e e n able to p u t their relationships with their
p a r e n t s in o r d e r so that love r e t u r n s to their family system in spite
of terrible things that have h a p p e n e d to t h e m . W h e n they succeed,
everyone in the system feels it—the p a r e n t s , themselves, their chil-
d r e n . [H.B.]
Parents and Children 107

THE HIERARCHY
BETWEEN PARENTS AND CHILDREN

Healthy, h a p p y children a n d loving p a r e n t s can be found in all cul-


tures, religions, a n d social classes. T h i s m e a n s that there are m a n y
successful ways to rear children, a n d that they differ from, a n d m a y
even contradict, o n e another. Nevertheless, love d e m a n d s b o n d i n g ,
a balance of giving and taking, a n d appropriate social orders in all
cultures, b u t it leaves us great latitude in h o w we achieve t h e m .
Love flows smoothly w h e n all m e m b e r s of a family system follow
the hierarchy. As we've seen earlier, the family hierarchy m u s t m e e t
three criteria: time, weight, a n d function.
W i t h respect to t i m e , the family hierarchy flows d o w n from above
and from earlier to later. Like t i m e , it can't be s t o p p e d or reversed
in its direction—children always c o m e after their p a r e n t s , a n d t h e
younger always follow the older. K o n r a d F e r d i n a n d M e y e r
describes this m o v e m e n t from above to below in his p o e m " T h e
Roman Fountain."

A gush of water rises,


falling fills a marble bowl
which veils itself in overflow
into a second bowl below.

The second floods its wealth


into yet a third
and each takes and gives,
is still and lives.

T h e relationship between father and m o t h e r exists before they


b e c o m e p a r e n t s ; there are adults w i t h o u t children, b u t no children
without biological parents. Love succeeds w h e n p a r e n t s care well
for their y o u n g children, b u t n o t t h e other way a r o u n d . T h u s , t h e
relationship between h u s b a n d and wife takes priority in a family.
T h e priority according to time also applies to siblings. T h o s e w h o
are closest to the b e g i n n i n g of life take from those w h o have lived
longer. T h e older give to the younger, and t h e younger take from
the older. T h e first child gives to t h e second a n d the third, the sec-
ond takes from the first a n d gives to the third, a n d babies take from
all of t h e others. T h e eldest child gives m o r e , a n d the youngest child
108 Love's Hidden Symmetry

takes m o r e . F o r this reason, t h e eldest often has c o m p e n s a t i n g privi-


leges a n d the youngest child often takes m o r e responsibility for car-
ing for their p a r e n t s in their old age.
N e w relationship systems also have a systemic priority over older
systems. T h i s is the opposite of t h e dynamic of p r e c e d e n c e within a
system w h e r e t h e older m e m b e r s have p r e c e d e n c e over those w h o
c o m e later. T h e couple's relationship takes priority over the rela-
tionship with t h e family of origin in the same way that a second
m a r r i a g e has p r e c e d e n c e over the first. Relationships suffer w h e n
this principle isn't h o n o r e d — w h e n parents r e m a i n m o r e i m p o r t a n t
t h a n p a r t n e r s a n d children, a n d first p a r t n e r s m o r e i m p o r t a n t t h a n
n e w ones.
W i t h respect to weight, t h e m o s t i m p o r t a n t relationship in the
family is that between the father and the m o t h e r ; t h e n c o m e the
p a r e n t - c h i l d relationships, the relationships with the e x t e n d e d fam-
ily, a n d , finally, those with other, freely chosen g r o u p s . C e r t a i n indi-
viduals w h o carry an unusually heavy fate m a y have e n o u g h
systemic weight so that the n o r m a l sequence according to time
m u s t b e adjusted.

Putting Children Before Partners: Examples from


Seminars

L o u i s : M y m o t h e r once told m e that she h a d stayed with m y


father because of m e . I d o n ' t t h m k I've h o n o r e d that e n o u g h .

H e l l i n g e r : N o r should you, at least n o t in that sense. W h e n your


m o t h e r says that you're the reason she stayed with your father, she's
n o t telling you the whole the t r u t h . If you think t h a t she stayed with
h i m b e c a u s e of you, you m a k e yourself too i m p o r t a n t . S h e stayed
with y o u r father because she accepted the c o n s e q u e n c e s of her
actions. She did it for herself a n d for h i m . T h a t ' s s o m e t h i n g c o m -
pletely different. You d i d n ' t participate in their decisions a n d agree-
m e n t s , so you can h o n o r h e r for being willing to accept the
c o n s e q u e n c e s of her o w n actions, b u t n o t because she did it for you.
If you look at it as being s o m e t h i n g she did for you, you distort
the t r u t h . On t h e other h a n d , if you see that she willingly accepted
the c o n s e q u e n c e s of her actions, you h o n o r b o t h your m o t h e r and
your father. By formulating it that way, you focus on t h e intimacy
Parents and Children 109

b e t w e e n y o u r father a n d y o u r m o t h e r . By saying it t h e o t h e r way,


you focus o n t h e i n t i m a c y b e t w e e n y o u r m o t h e r a n d y o u .
T h e dynamic is the same when the parents marry because of a
p r e g n a n c y . T h e y d o n ' t get m a r r i e d for t h e child, b u t r a t h e r b e c a u s e
they a c c e p t t h e c o n s e q u e n c e s o f their actions. T h e child h a d n o
active p a r t i n t h e a g r e e m e n t b e t w e e n t h e p a r e n t s , b u t h e o r s h e
often feels r e s p o n s i b l e , especially if t h e m a r r i a g e is u n h a p p y . S u c h
children are c o m p l e t e l y w i t h o u t b l a m e a n d there's n o n e e d for t h e m
t o feel r e s p o n s i b l e . N e v e r t h e l e s s , m a n y c h i l d r e n d o s o anyway a n d
they t h e n feel t o o i m p o r t a n t .
H o w was y o u r p a r e n t s ' marriage?

Louis: Partly, very close. I often saw my m o t h e r sitting on my


father's lap, b u t a p p a r e n t l y t h e r e were sexual difficulties. S h e
refused h i m o n c e , a n d t h e n she c o m p l a i n e d t o m e later t h a t h e
d i d n ' t w a n t h e r sexually a n y m o r e .

Hellinger: I w a n t to tell you s o m e t h i n g a b o u t b e i n g d r a w n i n t o


confidences b e t w e e n y o u r m o t h e r a n d father. W h a t e v e r h a p p e n e d
b e t w e e n y o u r p a r e n t s i s n o n e o f y o u r business! T h e c o r r e c t t h e r a -
p e u t i c p r o c e d u r e is to forget w h a t e v e r she told y o u as quickly as y o u
can! C l e a n s e y o u r h e a r t a n d soul o f t h e m a t t e r . M a s t e r i n g t h e skill
of forgetting is a h e a l i n g r e s o u r c e . T h a t kind of forgetting is a spiri-
tual discipline. (Louis immediately nods confirmation.) T h a t was t o o
quick. A " t o o - q u i c k " n o d is a s u b s t i t u t e for a real a g r e e m e n t .

Question: Is t h a t t r u e for a child of any age?

H e l l i n g e r : Yes, it's possible to get e n t a n g l e d in things t h a t are


n o n e of y o u r b u s i n e s s at any age. A m o t h e r , for e x a m p l e , s h o u l d n ' t
tell a child t h e i n t i m a t e details of h e r sexual life w i t h t h e child's
father. It's injurious w h e n o n e p a r e n t speaks disparagingly a b o u t
s u c h i n t i m a c y t o t h e c h i l d r e n — o r t o o t h e r s . O u r sexual i n t i m a c y i s
a p o i n t on w h i c h w e ' r e all very v u l n e r a b l e , a n d if t h a t isn't r e s p e c t e d
b e t w e e n p a r t n e r s , t h a t ' s t h e e n d o f t h e i r relationship. T h e p a r e n t s '
i n t i m a t e life is n o n e of t h e children's b u s i n e s s , a n d t h e y s h o u l d n ' t
b e d r a w n i n t o it. T h e y c a n ' t p r o t e c t themselves against getting
s u c k e d in, b u t later o n , they c a n forget w h a t t h e y ' v e h e a r d ! T h e n i t
causes n o h a r m . I f they forget w i t h g o o d i n n e r j u d g m e n t a n d love, i t
can b e truly forgotten.
110 Love's Hidden Symmetry

Question: W h a t a b o u t w h e n m y m o t h e r tells m e i n t i m a t e things


a b o u t h e r relationship w i t h h e r f i r s t h u s b a n d ?

H e l l i n g e r : It's exactly t h e s a m e . You c a n tell h e r , "I only care


about Papa. I don't want to know what happened between you and
your first husband, and I don't want to know what happens between
y o u a n d P a p a either."

Question: W h a t a b o u t telling a n e w p a r t n e r a b o u t intimacies


from a p r e v i o u s relationship?

H e l l i n g e r : T h a t ' s also a violation of t r u s t . W h a t w a s private


between you and your former partner should be protected a n d kept
as a secret. If you expose t h e i n t i m a t e details of y o u r earlier relation-
s h i p , y o u r n e w p a r t n e r will have difficulty t r u s t i n g y o u .

Question: W h e n p a r e n t s have affairs, i s t h a t also n o n e o f t h e chil-


d r e n ' s business?

Hellinger: T h a t ' s right, n o n e of their b u s i n e s s at all!

Question: W h a t if t h e r e are children from t h e s e c o n d relation-


ship?

H e l l i n g e r : In t h a t case, it's n o t a secret, a n d it t o u c h e s t h e m


directly. T h e y ' r e entitled to k n o w a b o u t it.

Question: I k n o w of p a r e n t s w h o have allowed their c h i l d r e n to


r e a d their old love letters.

Hellinger: I f t h e y were m y p a r e n t s , I w o u l d n ' t r e a d t h e m .

Question: I w o r k e d w i t h a family in w h i c h t h e father b r o u g h t


his m i s t r e s s h o m e , a n d t h e m o t h e r w a s t o o w e a k t o s t o p h i m .
C o u l d t h e s o n s i n t e r v e n e a n d tell h i m t o leave his w o m e n o u t s i d e
their h o m e ?

Hellinger: I ' m very c a u t i o u s a b o u t a n s w e r i n g s p e c u l a t i v e q u e s -


tions or making generalizations. Nevertheless, they probably
w o u l d b e well advised t o a s s u m e t h a t their m o t h e r i s i n a g r e e m e n t
w i t h t h e s i t u a t i o n — a t least, t h a t she's c h o o s i n g t h e least b a d o f t h e
n o t - t o o - g o o d options open to her. It would be reasonable and
a p p r o p r i a t e for t h e s o n s t o leave h o m e a s s o o n a s p o s s i b l e . It's
always difficult w h e n c h i l d r e n b e c o m e involved i n t h e i r p a r e n t s '
relationship.
Parents and Children 111

Question: M y ex-wife c o n s t a n t l y p u t s m e d o w n i n front o f o u r


d a u g h t e r s . It's clear t o m e that I c a n ' t d o a n y t h i n g a b o u t m y
ex-wife's b e h a v i o r , b u t is t h e r e s o m e t h i n g I c a n do for my
daughters?

H e l l i n g e r : N o t h i n g , absolutely n o t h i n g . P e r h a p s s o m e d a y y o u
c a n tell t h e m a story a b o u t h o w p e o p l e l e a r n to forget.

Systemic Entanglements

W h e n e v e r p a r e n t s o u t w a r d l y act against t h e b e s t interests of their


c h i l d r e n , o n e m a y a s s u m e t h a t t h e y ' r e c a u g h t i n s o m e earlier sys-
t e m i c violation of t h e O r d e r s of L o v e . P a r e n t s n a t u r a l l y desire t h a t
their c h i l d r e n b e s p a r e d whatever they themselves have suffered,
a n d t h e y suffer w h e n their children suffer; they k n o w d i s c o u r a g e -
m e n t a n d defeat w h e n their children k n o w t h e m . W h e n p a r e n t s ' suf-
fering is b a l a n c e d o u t blindly by their c h i l d r e n ' s suffering, it passes
from p e r s o n t o p e r s o n , from g e n e r a t i o n t o g e n e r a t i o n , a n d k n o w s
n o e n d . T h e w o r k w i t h family constellations frequently reveals
r e p e a t i n g p a t t e r n s o f h a r m a n d suffering crossing g e n e r a t i o n s
within families.
C h i l d r e n are b o u n d l e s s in love b u t limited in life e x p e r i e n c e , so
it's a great t e m p t a t i o n for t h e m to u n i t e w i t h their p a r e n t s in suffer-
ing. If a m o t h e r is d e p r e s s e d , h e r children feel t e m p t e d to be
d e p r e s s e d as well. If a father d r i n k s too m u c h , his c h i l d r e n c o m e
u n d e r p r e s s u r e t o find s o m e way t o e m u l a t e his suffering, p e r h a p s
by failing to be successful in life. B u t m a t u r i n g love d e m a n d s t h a t
children g r a d u a l l y give up the b l i n d love of c h i l d h o o d a n d l e a r n to
love as a d u l t s . I n s t e a d of r e p e a t i n g w h a t is h a r m f u l , m a t u r e love
d e m a n d s t h a t t h e y free themselves from t h e family e n t a n g l e m e n t s .
T h e n t h e y fulfill their p a r e n t s ' d e e p e r e x p e c t a t i o n s a n d h o p e s
for their c h i l d r e n . T h e b e t t e r t h e c h i l d r e n a r e , t h e b e t t e r are t h e
parents.
C h i l d r e n d i s e n t a n g l e themselves from t h e negative effects of t h e
blind love b y recognizing a n d obeying their p a r e n t s ' t r u e w i s h e s —
that t h e c h i l d r e n be h a p p y a n d fulfilled. It takes g r e a t c o u r a g e for
children to see their p a r e n t s suffer a n d yet still o b e y t h e g r e a t e r love,
to see to it t h a t t h e y themselves s u c c e e d in life a n d fulfill t h e desires
of their p a r e n t s ' h e a r t s .
112 Love's Hidden Symmetry

E v e n t h o u g h c h i l d r e n w a n t to be like their p a r e n t s , t h e y also fear


their fate. F o r this r e a s o n , c h i l d r e n m a y o u t w a r d l y reject their par-
ents a n d strive to be different from t h e m even while t h e y secretly
e m u l a t e t h e m . S u c h c h i l d r e n , a l t h o u g h they m a k e a great s h o w of
b e i n g different from their p a r e n t s , still u n c o n s c i o u s l y do as their
p a r e n t s have d o n e , a n d a t t r a c t — o r react to—life situations i n which
they e x p e r i e n c e a p p r o x i m a t e l y w h a t their p a r e n t s have e x p e r i e n c e d .
W h e n c h i l d r e n say to their p a r e n t s , " U n d e r no c i r c u m s t a n c e s will I
ever be like y o u , " they still love their p a r e n t s blindly a n d are b o u n d
tightly to t h e m . In spite of t h e m s e l v e s , they c o m m i t themselves to
following their p a r e n t s ' e x a m p l e , a n d t h e y b e c o m e exactly like
t h e m . W h e n c h i l d r e n fear b e c o m i n g like their p a r e n t s , they c o n -
stantly w a t c h their p a r e n t s , b e c a u s e w h a t e v e r t h e y d o n ' t wish t o b e
like they m u s t continually o b s e r v e . It's n o w o n d e r t h e n t h a t they
b e c o m e exactly like their p a r e n t s .
A m a n b r i n g s t h e values a n d t r a d i t i o n s of his family i n t o a p a r t -
n e r s h i p , a n d a w o m a n d o e s t h e s a m e . Yet their values a n d traditions
are often q u i t e different. C h i l d r e n o u t w a r d l y follow t h e m o r e d o m i -
n a n t p a r e n t , b u t i n w a r d l y they follow t h e o t h e r p a r e n t . F o r e x a m p l e ,
if t h e father's values d o m i n a t e , t h e n t h e c o u p l e ' s c h i l d r e n t e n d to
follow his values o u t w a r d l y while inwardly they a d h e r e to t h e m o t h -
er's values. It's m o r e c o m m o n for t h e m o t h e r ' s values t o d o m i n a t e
a n d t o b e o u t w a r d l y followed b y the c h i l d r e n , w i t h t h e result t h a t ,
a l t h o u g h they o u t w a r d l y reject their father, t h e y secretly e m u l a t e
h i m — u s u a l l y w i t h o u t noticing w h a t t h e y ' r e d o i n g .
In deviating from o n e p a r e n t ' s values, a child is generally follow-
ing t h e value s y s t e m of the o t h e r p a r e n t . F o r this r e a s o n , disobedi-
e n c e to o n e p a r e n t is often a kind of loyalty a n d o b e d i e n c e to the
other. If c h i l d r e n get t h e direct or indirect m e s s a g e from o n e p a r e n t ,
" D o n ' t b e c o m e like y o u r f a t h e r / m o t h e r , " t h e n their loyalty d e m a n d s
o f t h e m t h a t t h e y b e c o m e like t h e f o r b i d d e n p a r e n t .

I'll Consent If You Become Like Your Father


A woman divorced her alcoholic husband and was awarded custody
of their son. She was worried that he would become like her former
husband. H e r therapist told her that her son had the freedom to
choose to follow his father, and that, if she wanted to relieve him of
the systemic necessity to become like his father, she could say to her
son, "You may take all that I give to you, and you may take all that
your father gives you. You may become like me and you may become
Parents and Children 113

like your father." She objected, "But what if he b e c o m e s an alco-


holic?" T h e therapist answered, "Exactly, even then! T h e n tell him. 'I
will consent if y o u b e c o m e like your father.' That's the test."

T h e effect of this kind of permission a n d respect for t h e d i m i n -


ished p a r e n t is that the son can t h e n h o n o r his love for his father by
taking h i m as he is w i t h o u t also having to take his e n t a n g l e m e n t s . If
the m o t h e r h a d said, " D o n ' t you dare b e c o m e like your father,"
t h e n t h e son would have c o m e u n d e r systemic pressure to do so to
h o n o r his b o n d to his father, and he would have b e e n u n a b l e to p r o -
tect himself.
By m a i n t a i n i n g loyalty to one p a r e n t outwardly and loyalty to the
other p a r e n t inwardly, children are able to hold t h e family together,
b u t the system d o e s n ' t achieve the kind of balance that m e m b e r s
experience as natural a n d effortless love. F o r this reason, o n e p a r e n t
can never really t r i u m p h over t h e other. F o r example, children
secretly e m u l a t e the p a r e n t w h o comes out worse in a divorce,
s o m e t i m e s with destructive c o n s e q u e n c e s .
In adoptions that d o n ' t t u r n o u t well, a n d w h e n stepparents have
difficulties with their stepchildren, it's frequently the case that the
adoptive parents or stepparents wish to replace t h e n a t u r a l p a r e n t s
rather t h a n c o m p l e m e n t t h e m . T h e n the loyalty t o t h e natural p a r -
ent p u t s the child u n d e r pressure to u n d e r m i n e the n e w family.

DIFFICULT ISSUES
IN PARENT-CHILD RELATIONSHIPS

Child Custody
Question: I d o a lot of work for the c o u r t s , trying to d e t e r m i n e
w h o should get custody of the children. S o m e t i m e s the divorces get
very ugly, a n d it's very difficult to m a k e a r e c o m m e n d a t i o n . C a n
you say s o m e t h i n g a b o u t this problem?

Hellinger: T h e question of w h o gets custody of the children after


a divorce is actually n o t as difficult to resolve as you m i g h t think.
T h e r e are two systemic principles that can guide you in m a k i n g t h e
decision: (1) T h e children should go to t h e p a r e n t w h o m o s t values
the o t h e r p a r e n t in t h e m , and (2) W h o e v e r a b a n d o n s t h e relation-
ship s h o u l d n ' t be rewarded with custody of the children.
114 Love's Hidden Symmetry

I n a c t u a l e x p e r i e n c e , m o s t often it's t h e father w h o values the


m o t h e r m o r e i n their c h i l d r e n t h a n t h e o t h e r way a r o u n d . E v e n
w h e n t h a t ' s t h e case, i f t h e w o m a n w a n t s c u s t o d y , she e a r n s t h e
right to have their c h i l d r e n by l e a r n i n g to value t h e qualities of h e r
f o r m e r h u s b a n d i n t h e m . O t h e r w i s e , she h a r m s t h e c h i l d r e n b y
w a n t i n g a n d valuing only half o f t h e m .

Question: H o w d o y o u tell w h i c h p a r e n t values t h e o t h e r m o s t i n


t h e children?

Hellinger: You see it immediately, a n d t h e y also k n o w it, if they


are h o n e s t w i t h themselves. You only have to look at t h e p a r e n t s a n d
you k n o w right away w h i c h o n e it is.

Question: B u t c o u l d n ' t i t h a p p e n t h a t they value e a c h o t h e r


equally?

H e l l i n g e r : T h a t ' s a h y p o t h e t i c a l objection. If they valued e a c h


o t h e r equally, t h e y w o u l d n ' t n e e d t o d i v o r c e — o r a t least they
w o u l d n ' t b e fighting a b o u t child custody.

Question: T h e r e are t w o principles: " T h e p a r e n t w h o m o s t val-


u e s t h e o t h e r i n t h e c h i l d r e n s h o u l d get c u s t o d y " a n d " W h o e v e r
a b a n d o n s t h e relationship s h o u l d n ' t b e r e w a r d e d w i t h c u s t o d y o f
t h e c h i l d r e n . " A r e t h e y t h e same?

H e l l i n g e r : W h a t ' s i m p o r t a n t is to look closely at the actual


p e o p l e w i t h w h o m y o u ' r e working. T h e r a p e u t i c principles have a
h e a l i n g effect w h e n t h e y serve t h e n e e d s of y o u r clients, b u t you
m u s t n ' t r e s h a p e t h e p e o p l e t o fit t h e principles. T h e complexity o f
t h e issues c a n ' t be c a p t u r e d in two s e n t e n c e s ; t h e y ' r e just helpful
guidelines.
Ultimately, t h e p a r e n t s m u s t d e c i d e w h o gets c u s t o d y o f t h e chil-
d r e n , n o t t h e t h e r a p i s t . P a r e n t s also d e c i d e w h e t h e r t o r e m a r r y o r
stay single. F o r e x a m p l e , if a divorced m a n h a s c u s t o d y of his chil-
d r e n a n d h e w a n t s t o r e m a r r y , it's n o t a p p r o p r i a t e for h i m t o m a k e
his decision d e p e n d e n t o n his children's a g r e e m e n t . H e h a s t o d o
w h a t ' s r i g h t for h i m , a n d t h e children have t o a c c e p t that. C h i l d r e n
a r e n ' t e q u a l p a r t n e r s a n d s h o u l d n ' t be c o n s u l t e d in s u c h things as if
they w e r e . H o w e v e r , t h e y ' r e certainly n o t obliged t o love t h e n e w
partner.

Question: B u t t h e c o u r t s ask the c h i l d r e n a b o u t custody.


Parents and Children 115

H e l l i n g e r : I know. Legal thinking a n d systemic thinking are


s o m e t i m e s different. I ' m speaking here a b o u t psychological d y n a m -
ics, a b o u t what's best for the children.
W h e n the p a r e n t s decide a b o u t custody amicably b e t w e e n t h e m -
selves, t h e n the children are spared the difficult decision of choosing
o n e or t h e other. Parents often have the idea that t h e o n e w h o was
given custody is taking the children away from t h e other. B u t that's
impossible. Even if the children are living with only o n e p a r e n t , they
will always r e m a i n the children of b o t h parents. However the par-
ents p r o c e e d , it m u s t remain clear to the children t h a t b o t h p a r e n t s
remain their p a r e n t s , even t h o u g h they're no longer a couple.

Adoption

Question: I ' m a social worker in an a d o p t i o n agency. We're often


called on to m a k e r e c o m m e n d a t i o n s a b o u t w h e t h e r children should
be a d o p t e d or placed in a foster h o m e . A n d we're also confronted
with a d o p t i o n s that go w r o n g . Are there any systemic guidelines
that might be of help to us?

H e l l i n g e r : W h e n children can't be raised by their own p a r e n t s ,


t h e n t h e best alternative is probably the g r a n d p a r e n t s . T h e y usually
have the closest c o n n e c t i o n to the children. If they c a n take t h e chil-
dren, t h e children are generally well taken care of—and t h e way
back to t h e p a r e n t s is easier if the situation should change. If there
a r e n ' t any living g r a n d p a r e n t s , or if the g r a n d p a r e n t s c a n ' t take t h e
children, t h e n t h e next best choice is usually an a u n t or an uncle.
A d o p t i o n is a last resort a n d should be considered only if no o n e in
the family is available.
J u d g i n g from my experience in working with families, the crucial
factor is t h e adoptive p a r e n t s ' intentions. If they're truly acting in
the best interests of the child, t h e n the adoption has a good chance
of t u r n i n g o u t well. Adoptive parents often d o n ' t really consider the
child's interests, b u t rather their own. Typically, they c a n ' t have a
child a n d are rebelling against t h e limits n a t u r e h a s set for t h e m .
T h e y ' r e implicitly asking the child to protect t h e m from their disap-
p o i n t m e n t . W h e n that's the case, t h e n the f u n d a m e n t a l flow of giv-
ing a n d taking a n d t h e order of the relationships are disturbed
before they start, a n d the parents can expect to suffer the conse-
quences of their actions, or that t h e child will suffer.
116 Love's Hidden Symmetry

W h e n p a r t n e r s a d o p t a child out of their o w n n e e d s a n d n o t out


of c o n c e r n for t h e well-being of the child, they effectively take a
child from his or h e r natural parents in o r d e r to m e e t their personal
n e e d s . It's the systemic equivalent of t h e theft of a child, so it has
serious negative c o n s e q u e n c e s within a family system. It doesn't
really m a t t e r what motivated the natural p a r e n t s to p u t t h e b a b y up
for a d o p t i o n ; the adoptive parents very often pay with s o m e t h i n g of
equal value. F o r example, it frequently h a p p e n s that couples divorce
after a d o p t i n g a child for t h e w r o n g reasons. Sacrificing a p a r t n e r is
the c o m p e n s a t i o n for r o b b i n g the natural p a r e n t s of their child. In
families with which I've worked, the c o n s e q u e n c e s of a d o p t i n g chil-
d r e n for inappropriate reasons have included divorce, illness, abor-
tion, and d e a t h . In its m o s t destructive form, this d y n a m i c has
expressed itself in the illness or suicide of o n e of t h e couple's n a t u -
ral children.
It's also n o t u n c o m m o n for a d o p t e d children to resent their
adoptive p a r e n t s a n d n o t to appreciate what's b e e n given to t h e m .
In such families, it's often the case that the adoptive p a r e n t s secretly
consider themselves superior to the biological p a r e n t s , a n d the
child, p e r h a p s unconsciously, d e m o n s t r a t e s a solidarity with his or
her natural parents.
S o m e t i m e s t h e biological p a r e n t s have given their child up for
a d o p t i o n w h e n it w a s n ' t absolutely necessary. T h e n t h e child feels
legitimate r e s e n t m e n t t o w a r d t h e p a r e n t s , b u t it's t h e adoptive
p a r e n t s w h o b e c o m e t h e targets. It's w o r s e for t h e m if they've
a s s u m e d t h e position of t h e n a t u r a l p a r e n t s . If t h e adoptive par-
ents are clear t h a t t h e y ' r e only acting in loco parentis for t h e n a t u r a l
p a r e n t s , t h e n t h e negative feelings r e m a i n t a r g e t e d o n t h e n a t u r a l
p a r e n t s , a n d t h e adoptive p a r e n t s get t h e a p p r e c i a t i o n they
deserve. T h a t ' s a great relief for adoptive p a r e n t s , a n d also for
a d o p t e d children.
W h e n adoptive p a r e n t s or foster p a r e n t s are acting in t h e inter-
ests of t h e child, t h e n they have t h e i n n e r sense t h a t they're s u b -
stitutes for or representatives of the biological p a r e n t s a n d n o t
their r e p l a c e m e n t s — t h a t t h e y ' r e h e l p i n g t h e real p a r e n t s b y c o m -
pleting w h a t t h o s e p a r e n t s c o u l d n ' t d o . T h e y have a n i m p o r t a n t
function, b u t as adoptive p a r e n t s , they c o m e after t h e biological
p a r e n t s , n o m a t t e r w h o they are a n d w h a t they have d o n e . I f this
o r d e r is r e s p e c t e d , t h e n t h e child can a c c e p t a n d respect adoptive
parents.
Parents and Children 117

A m a n in a g r o u p h a d s e p a r a t e d from his wife a n d w a s c o n c e r n e d


a b o u t t h e c u s t o d y of their a d o p t e d child. In t h e family constellation,
he p l a c e d t h e child b e t w e e n himself a n d his wife. I asked " W h o
w a n t e d the a d o p t i o n ? " He said t h a t his wife h a d . I told h i m , "Yes,
a n d she sacrificed h e r h u s b a n d for it." T h e m a n r e p r e s e n t i n g t h e
b o y in t h e constellation s u d d e n l y felt weak a n d said t h a t he felt like
falling to his knees. I told h i m to do so, a n d he knelt while his n a t u -
ral m o t h e r was p o s i t i o n e d b e h i n d h i m . A s h e t h e n t u r n e d t o w a r d
h e r , he said t h a t he felt a great relief. I p l a c e d t h e representatives of
t h e adoptive p a r e n t s b e h i n d h i m s o t h a t t h e y c o u l d look o n a s h e
knelt before his n a t u r a l m o t h e r . As they w a t c h e d , they felt t h e m -
selves b e c o m i n g a c o u p l e .
W h e n c h i l d r e n are a d o p t e d , it's helpful t o m a k e clear distinctions
b e t w e e n the n a m e s of t h e p a r e n t s . It's clearer for an a d o p t e d child
to u s e different n a m e s for the n a t u r a l a n d t h e a d o p t i v e p a r e n t s , for
example, "Father and M o t h e r " and " D a d and M o m . " Adoptive par-
ents s h o u l d n ' t identify a n a d o p t e d child a s " m y s o n " o r " m y d a u g h -
ter." T h e m e s s a g e t h e y c o m m u n i c a t e t o t h e child s h o u l d b e m o r e
like, " T h i s is t h e child we've b e e n given to care for as r e p r e s e n t a -
tives of t h e n a t u r a l p a r e n t s . " T h i s m e s s a g e h a s a very different
quality.
T h e r e ' s n o set solution for every situation. T h e m a i n p o i n t i s t h a t
t h e adoptive p a r e n t s retain a d e e p r e s p e c t for t h e n a t u r a l p a r e n t s ,
a n d t h a t they m a k e this respect clear t o t h e c h i l d r e n . I n m a n y cases,
it's b e t t e r for t h e a d o p t e d child to k e e p his or h e r original n a m e so
t h a t it r e m a i n s clear t h a t this is an a d o p t i o n .

Question: W h a t i f t h e child w a n t s - t o take t h e n a m e o f t h e s t e p -


father or of t h e a d o p t i v e p a r e n t s ?

H e l l i n g e r : I advise c a u t i o n . C h i l d r e n feel intuitively w h a t t h e


adoptive p a r e n t s w a n t , a n d act as if t h e y w a n t it too. T h e a d o p t i v e
p a r e n t s m u s t look very carefully to see w h a t ' s g o o d for t h e child a n d
t h e n d o it, a n d n o t let themselves b e d i s t r a c t e d b y their o w n n e e d s .
T h e y also m u s t n ' t allow t h e child to be t h e voice of their n e e d s , as if
their n e e d s were t h e child's o w n . W h e n p a r e n t s discover w h a t ' s truly
g o o d for their child, t h e n t h e child will naturally w a n t t h a t as well.
T h e issue w i t h a stepfather in a s e c o n d m a r r i a g e is clear: If t h e
m o t h e r respects a n d h o n o r s t h e n a t u r a l father, t h e r e will b e n o
p r o b l e m for t h e child. T h e s a m e h o l d s t r u e for a s t e p m o t h e r .
118 Love's Hidden Symmetry

Question: W h e n o n e p a r t n e r brings a child from a previous m a r -


riage i n t o a n e w m a r r i a g e , s h o u l d the n e w p a r t n e r a d o p t t h e child?

Hellinger: Generally, I advise against it. It isn't g o o d b e c a u s e t h e


child t h e n h a s to d e n y his or h e r o w n father or m o t h e r . B u t look at
t h e child, a n d you'll k n o w w h a t ' s best. It's very difficult for a child
to have to d e n y a p a r e n t . I'll give you a n o t h e r e x a m p l e ,
A w o m a n called me in despair. H e r adoptive father w a s dying
a n d s h e was u n a b l e t o resolve h e r a m b i v a l e n c e t o w a r d h i m . S h e
w a n t e d t o b e n e a r h i m a t his d e a t h , b u t she c o u l d n ' t b r i n g herself t o
a p p r o a c h h i m . S h e explained that h e r m o t h e r h a d divorced h e r
father m a n y years ago t o m a r r y this m a n , a n d t h a t h e h a d a d o p t e d
her.
I s u g g e s t e d t h a t she rescind t h e a d o p t i o n . S h e h e s i t a t e d , t h a n k e d
m e , a n d h u n g u p . S o m e t i m e later, she called again t o say t h a t she
h a d d o n e it. T h e situation h a d c h a n g e d i m m e d i a t e l y , a n d s h e h a d
b e e n able t o b e with h e r adoptive father i n his dying process. H e
h a d d i e d shortly before t h e s e c o n d p h o n e call, a n d she w a s feeling
a t p e a c e with h i m a n d t h e situation. I t h a d b e c o m e very clear t o h e r ,
she said, t h a t she h a d b r o u g h t s o m e t h i n g b a c k i n t o o r d e r , a n d h a d
r e g a i n e d h e r p r o p e r p l a c e in her family.

Question: I k n o w of t w o children w h o s e p a r e n t s a n d g r a n d p a r -
ents w e r e killed i n a n a u t o m o b i l e accident. A n u n c l e a n d a n a u n t
each is willing to care for o n e of the c h i l d r e n . Is it m o r e i m p o r t a n t
t h a t t h e c h i l d r e n stay w i t h relatives, w h i c h m e a n s b e i n g s e p a r a t e d ,
or t h a t t h e y stay t o g e t h e r in a foster h o m e ?

Hellinger: T h a t ' s difficult t o say w i t h o u t k n o w i n g t h e c h i l d r e n


a n d t h e a u n t a n d t h e u n c l e . W e d o n ' t k n o w w h y the a u n t a n d t h e
u n c l e e a c h is p r e p a r e d to care for only o n e of t h e c h i l d r e n , b u t it
suggests t o m e t h a t t h e y ' r e n o t primarily i n t e r e s t e d i n t h e c h i l d r e n ' s
well-being. M a y b e t h e y feel obligated. O t h e r w i s e , o n e o r t h e o t h e r
w o u l d do w h a t is n e c e s s a r y to care for b o t h of t h e c h i l d r e n . U n l e s s
there are clearly e x t e n u a t i n g c i r c u m s t a n c e s , I s u s p e c t t h a t t h e chil-
d r e n m i g h t feel h a p p i e r in a foster family w h e r e they c a n live
together.
I've often o b s e r v e d t h a t p e o p l e w h o , as c h i l d r e n , lived in a foster
h o m e (or w h o were a d o p t e d ) have a desire to care for foster chil-
d r e n or to a d o p t c h i l d r e n . C h i l d r e n in n e e d are well t a k e n care of by
Parents and Children 119

s u c h foster p a r e n t s , b e c a u s e t h e foster p a r e n t s are p a s s i n g o n w h a t


they t h e m s e l v e s received. T h a t ' s a n excellent d y n a m i c .

T h o m a s : A c o u p l e in t h e t o w n w h e r e I live have no c h i l d r e n of
their o w n . T h e y flew to a developing n a t i o n several t i m e s a n d p a i d
h u g e a m o u n t s of m o n e y to a d o p t a child. As s o o n as they got t h e
child h o m e , t h e m a n h a d a n e r v o u s b r e a k d o w n a n d w a s h o s p i t a l -
ized for t h r e e m o n t h s . As s o o n as he was released, they a d o p t e d a
s e c o n d child. I t h i n k w h a t ' s h a p p e n i n g t h e r e is really terrible.

Hellinger: W h o knows? L o o k a t t h e children a n d think, " T h e y ' l l


m a k e it s o m e h o w . "

Thomas: I have a n o t h e r q u e s t i o n . F r i e n d s of m i n e . . .

H e l l i n g e r (Interrupting): N o , n o , n o ! W h a t d i d I just say?

Thomas: T h e c h i l d r e n will m a k e i t s o m e h o w .

H e l l i n g e r : Yes, b u t before t h a t , I said, " L o o k at t h e c h i l d r e n . "


W h o were y o u looking at?

Thomas: Y o u ' r e right. I was looking at t h e p a r e n t s .

Hellinger: T h e y d o n ' t deserve any b e t t e r t h a n w h a t t h e y ' r e get-


ting. T h e y ' r e aware o f their actions. It's a m a z i n g w h a t p e o p l e d o .
E i g h t e e n years or so ago, I w o r k e d w i t h a m a n n a m e d Peter.
W h e n h e w a s t w o years old, his m o t h e r h a d h a d a s c h i z o p h r e n i c
e p i s o d e a n d h a d t h r o w n h i m against a wall. H i s father t o o k t h e m t o
a d o c t o r . After they d e t e r m i n e d t h a t Peter's injuries w e r e n ' t s e r i o u s ,
t h e p a r e n t s a n d t h e d o c t o r d i s a p p e a r e d i n t o t h e n e x t r o o m a n d left
h i m a l o n e in t h e waiting r o o m . After a while, t h e d o o r o p e n e d , a n d
t h e d o c t o r l o o k e d in. P e t e r said t h a t h e still r e m e m b e r e d t h a t d o c -
tor's look. It w a s as if t h e look h a d said, "You'll m a k e it." T h a t w a s
all. T h a t w a s t h e a n c h o r t h a t h e h a d u s e d t o h o l d himself s t e a d y
t h r o u g h o u t his life. You see, t h e d o c t o r did just t h e right t h i n g . H e
looked at t h e child.

Question: M y n e p h e w , m y b r o t h e r ' s s o n , w a s a d o p t e d b y his


stepfather. H e n o w h a s his stepfather's n a m e , a n d t h e n e w family
has b r o k e n off all c o n t a c t with my b r o t h e r a n d o u r family. Is t h e r e is
a n y t h i n g I c a n do for t h e boy?

Hellinger: N o t really. W h e n you c o n s i d e r w h a t y o u c a n d o for


h i m , there's love in y o u r h e a r t . If y o u allow t h a t feeling to w o r k in
120 Love's Hidden Symmetry

y o u r h e a r t , a n d a t t h e s a m e t i m e resist t h e t e m p t a t i o n t o d o s o m e -
t h i n g until a g o o d o p p o r t u n i t y arises, t h e n y o u ' r e d o i n g s o m e t h i n g
g o o d for the boy. It m a y take years for a g o o d o p p o r t u n i t y to
p r e s e n t itself.

Raising Children

Question: I n o u r clinic, w e w o r k with m a n y families t h a t are hav-


ing t r o u b l e w i t h their children. E a c h of t h e p a r e n t s tells t h e children
s o m e t h i n g different, a n d t h e c h i l d r e n are really c o n f u s e d a b o u t t h e
right t h i n g t o d o .

H e l l i n g e r : W h e n p a r e n t s are h a v i n g t r o u b l e raising their chil-


d r e n , it's often t h e case t h a t they d o n ' t have a h a r m o n i z e d system of
values, goals, a n d priorities. T h e solution in s u c h cases is for t h e m
to agree on a c o m m o n system in w h i c h t h e values of b o t h of their
families of origin are r e p r e s e n t e d fairly. T h i s m u t u a l system is m o r e
inclusive t h a n either of t h e original systems, a n d , in a c e r t a i n sense,
b o t h p a r t n e r s have to relinquish their f o r m e r family values. T h i s is
difficult to do b e c a u s e b o t h t h e n feel guilty r e g a r d i n g their o w n
families. T h e belief t h a t o n e value system is r i g h t a n d t h e o t h e r
w r o n g m a k e s t h e p r o c e s s m u c h m o r e difficult. W h e n p a r e n t s are
u n i t e d in o n e value system, they have a sense of solidarity w i t h e a c h
o t h e r w h e n t h e y face their children, a n d t h e c h i l d r e n feel secure in
their c o m m o n value system a n d follow i t willingly. W h e n p a r e n t s
a r e n ' t u n i t e d , their c h i l d r e n m u s t live in two different belief systems
o r value systems a t t h e s a m e t i m e a n d i n t h e s a m e h o u s e . T h a t ' s
confusing.
A father a n d a m o t h e r asked me w h a t they s h o u l d do a b o u t their
d a u g h t e r ' s behavior. T h e m o t h e r felt responsible for setting limits
for t h e girl, b u t d i d n ' t feel s u p p o r t e d in this by h e r h u s b a n d .
I suggested t h r e e principles to c o n s i d e r w h e n raising children:

1. A father a n d a m o t h e r have different ideas a b o u t w h a t ' s g o o d


for their c h i l d r e n a c c o r d i n g to whatever t h e y e x p e r i e n c e d as
i m p o r t a n t or missing in their o w n families.

2. A child a c c e p t s as right a n d follows w h a t e v e r both p a r e n t s


believe is either i m p o r t a n t or missing.
Parents and Children 121

3. W h e n o n e p a r e n t overrules the values of the other in raising


t h e children, the children automatically ally themselves with
t h e o n e w h o was overruled.

I t h e n asked t h e m to notice where a n d h o w their d a u g h t e r loved


t h e m . T h e y looked at each other, and their faces lit u p . I suggested
to the father that he m i g h t occasionally let his d a u g h t e r k n o w h o w
good it m a d e h i m feel w h e n she was good to h e r m o t h e r .

Illegitimacy

Q u e s t i o n : You said that parents should n o t tell their children


a b o u t intimate details of their lives. I work with several p a r e n t s w h o
haven't told their children that they were conceived out of wedlock,
or that they are illegitimate. I c a n ' t believe that's really g o o d for t h e
children.

H e l l i n g e r : T h e r e ' s a tendency in society to m a k e moral j u d g m e n t s


about such things, and w h e n there's a negative judgment, the reluc-
tance to speak a b o u t it is also understandable. W h e n you look at such
a situation without moral judgment, as we do here, you often see that
things t u r n out fine just the way they are. Quite often, something very
good comes out of our sins, and that's beyond the grasp of the m o r -
alists. You can't talk about deep issues in the presence of s o m e o n e
w h o judges you a n d looks to see if what you do is right or wrong.

Thomas: I ' m an illegitimate child and I grew up with my m o t h e r .


Five years ago, I found my father, b u t I d o n ' t k n o w his o t h e r s o n s ,
and my father is reluctant to tell t h e m a b o u t m e .

H e l l i n g e r : A w o m a n in a previous w o r k s h o p was in a similar situ-


ation. S h e was illegitimate, and h e r father h a d also m a r r i e d a n d h a d
sons, a n d was reluctant to show h e r to t h e m . I c o u l d n ' t see any rea-
son why she s h o u l d n ' t look the sons up a n d i n t r o d u c e herself as
their sister.
Later, she called to tell me h o w things h a d worked out. S h e said
that she h a d b e e n invited to a party and that h e r father was t h e r e , as
well as h e r half b r o t h e r s . At the end of t h e party, it h a p p e n e d t h a t
everyone h a d left except for her, her father, a n d t h e boys, and they
were able to talk.
If I were you, T h o m a s , I'd look t h e m u p . But if you do it, there's
a d a n g e r that you'll give up your profession as a pastor.
122 Love's Hidden Symmetry

Thomas: W h y i s that?

Hellinger: A c o m m o n m o t i v a t i o n for t h e search for G o d is t h a t


t h e s e a r c h e r d o e s n ' t have a father a n d is looking for h i m . If the
father is f o u n d , t h e search for G o d isn't so i m p o r t a n t a n y m o r e — o r
it's different. T h e w h o l e t h i n g s t a r t e d with Jesus. As far as we know,
h e , t o o , g r e w up w i t h o u t a father.
I'll share a p o e m with y o u .

The Way

A son went to his aged father and asked,


"Father, bless me before you go."
His father answered:
"My blessing is that
I will accompany you a while
along the path to knowledge."

They met at sunrise


at the appointed place,
climbed the mountain
up out of the shadows
of their narrow valley.

As they reached the top,


although it was the end of day,
they could see in all directions
stretching to the sky
—the land bathed in light.

The sun sank,


taking with it
its radiant glow.
It was night,
yet in the darkness of the night
they saw, revealed,
a multitude of
—twinkling, distant stars.
Parents and Children 123

C a r i n g for Elderly P a r e n t s

Q u e s t i o n : M y p a r e n t s are getting older, and m o r e a n d m o r e


they'll be n e e d i n g me to take care of t h e m . I've also got a family a n d
a job. H o w do I balance the responsibility to give to my wife a n d
children a n d my responsibility to them?

Hellinger: C h i l d r e n have a responsibility to care for their elderly


parents. Nevertheless, m a n y children fear w h a t awaits t h e m as their
parents grow old. T h a t ' s because they imagine that they m u s t care
for their parents in whatever way their parents wish. W h e n they feel
so compelled, their worry is justified. T h e solution is for children to
tell their p a r e n t s , "We will do what's right by you." T h a t ' s a c o m -
pletely different situation, b u t what's truly right m a y be different
from w h a t either t h e p a r e n t s or children first imagine.
T h e r e ' s a specific d y n a m i c behind this p r o b l e m : C h i l d r e n c a n ' t
see their parents as they are. Regardless of their actual age, as soon
as they m e e t their p a r e n t s , children have a strong t e n d e n c y to feel
a n d act like five- or six-year-olds. A n d parents see their children as
five- or six-year-olds, regardless of their children's actual ages, and
treat t h e m accordingly.
T h e only exception to this general rule I've ever c o m e across was
a psychiatrist in a seminar w h o insisted that she a n d h e r d a u g h t e r
were truly equals. Later, over coffee, she kept talking a b o u t her
"little Snookie," until s o m e o n e asked her w h o Snookie was. She
answered, " M y d a u g h t e r ! " Snookie was a b o u t 35 years old. (Laugh-
ter) So that's the only exception I've found.
Whatever is truly n e e d e d can usually be arranged.
D u r i n g a w o r k s h o p , a very successful b u s i n e s s w o m a n said she
n e e d e d to call her m o t h e r , w h o was hospitalized. T h e m o t h e r very
m u c h w a n t e d h e r d a u g h t e r to take her into h e r h o m e a n d care for
her. T h e w o m a n felt she c o u l d n ' t do it because of h e r business obli-
gations. I said to her, "Your m o t h e r has priority. First care for your
m o t h e r a n d t h e n for your business." She p r o t e s t e d that it was
impossible. I told her, "Just sit with it a while. You k n o w it has pri-
ority and you know what's i m p o r t a n t . Just let it w o r k in you."
As is so often the case w h e n s o m e o n e is p r e p a r e d to do the right
thing, the solution was u n e x p e c t e d . She got a call from a highly
skilled practical n u r s e w h o was looking for a job caring for an older
p e r s o n . T h e n u r s e was expensive, b u t the w o m a n h a d a d e q u a t e
m o n e y a n d was m o r e t h a n h a p p y to pay. T h a t was t h e solution.
124 Love's Hidden Symmetry

W h e n children freely accept this responsibility right from the


beginning, p a r e n t s find it easier to let t h e m go b e c a u s e they know
they will be there for t h e m w h e n they n e e d t h e m — a n d children feel
freer to separate w h e n they know they're n o t a b a n d o n i n g their par-
ents. C h i l d r e n feel relief w h e n at last it's appropriate for t h e m to
give s o m e t h i n g to their elderly parents.

Incest

Q u e s t i o n : You've said that p r o b l e m s in families are usually


a t t e m p t s to love that have gone wrong. Is that t r u e of incest as well?
C a n you say s o m e t h i n g a b o u t h o w you view incest?

H e l l i n g e r : Incest is complex, a n d it comes in m a n y different


forms, so we n e e d to be careful about generalizations. S o m e t i m e s
the violence a n d abuse are so d a m a g i n g that the sexual aspect
b e c o m e s secondary. T h e n it's altogether different from incest that's
primarily sexual. B u t yes, I've seen that incest is often an a t t e m p t to
love that's g o n e w r o n g .
In t h e usual way of looking at incest, therapists d o n ' t see t h e fam-
ily as a whole. Rather, they see two individuals: the perpetrator, w h o
is usually a m a n , a n d the victim, usually his d a u g h t e r or s t e p d a u g h -
ter. S o m e therapists t e n d to see the p e r p e t r a t o r as an i n h u m a n beast
w h o forced t h e victim to m e e t his or her uncontrollable sexual
desires or e m o t i o n a l needs. T h e y d o n ' t see the larger context of the
family system. I ask, " D o e s the v i c t i m - p e r p e t r a t o r m o d e l of looking
at incest really help the child?" T h a t ' s t h e crucial question. In the
vast majority of cases with which I've worked, it d o e s n ' t seem to
help at all.
T h e f u n d a m e n t a l principle of systemic psychotherapy is that we
always look at the children a n d listen to t h e m in the context of the
whole family relationship system. We ask: W h a t ' s going on in this
family, a n d what's best for the child? W h a t does she or he n e e d to
find peace? If we're n o t careful, o u r images of p e r p e t r a t o r a n d vic-
tim prevent us from seeing the individuals involved, a n d they also
m a y prevent us from seeing the whole family context. T h e solution
for each child is different, so therapists n e e d to stay alert. It's always
better to sacrifice a preconceived belief t h a n a child.
If you look at the family as a whole, you usually see that t h e p a r -
ents have a p r o b l e m , and that the child was recruited to h e l p t h e m
Parents and Children 125

solve it. Incest, m o r e often t h a n n o t , is a family p r o b l e m , a n d is p o s -


sible only w h e n t h e p a r e n t s collaborate. I'll say it in t h a t provocative
way; t h a t is, b o t h p a r e n t s p a r t i c i p a t e — t h e m a n i n t h e f o r e g r o u n d
a n d t h e m o t h e r i n t h e b a c k g r o u n d — a n d they s h a r e t h e r e s p o n s i b i l -
ity. W h e n incest is a family p r o b l e m , r e s o l u t i o n b e c o m e s possible
only w h e n t h e c o m p l e x i t y of t h e family situation as a w h o l e is
clearly seen. I n t h o s e situations, children n e e d t o have t h e c o u r a g e
to hold both parents responsible.
I n o n e c o m m o n f o r m , incest i s a n a t t e m p t t o c o m p e n s a t e a n
i m b a l a n c e o f giving a n d t a k i n g i n t h e family—usually, b u t n o t
always, b e t w e e n t h e p a r e n t s . W h e n t h a t ' s t h e c a s e , t h e p e r p e t r a t o r
h a s b e e n d e n i e d s o m e t h i n g ; for e x a m p l e , w h a t t h e p e r s o n d o e s for
t h e family i s n ' t sufficiently a p p r e c i a t e d . In this f o r m , t h e i n c e s t is
a n a t t e m p t t o c o r r e c t t h e i m b a l a n c e o f giving a n d t a k i n g i n t h e
family. O f c o u r s e , t h e r e are m a n y o t h e r f o r m s o f i n c e s t , b u t o n e
c o m m o n p a t t e r n is t h a t a m o t h e r w i t h a d a u g h t e r m a r r i e s a m a n
w h o h a s n o c h i l d r e n . A l t h o u g h h e r n e w h u s b a n d p r o v i d e s for h e r
a n d h e r d a u g h t e r a n d c o n c e r n s h i m s e l f w i t h t h e i r welfare, his
efforts a n d n e e d s a r e d i s c o u n t e d , u n a p p r e c i a t e d , i g n o r e d , a n d
s o m e t i m e s even b e l i t t l e d o r r i d i c u l e d . A n i m b a l a n c e o f giving a n d
t a k i n g d e v e l o p s b e t w e e n t h e p a r t n e r s i n w h i c h t h e m a n gives m o r e
a n d t h e w o m a n takes m o r e . A w o m a n i n t h a t s i t u a t i o n m i g h t still
b e able t o b a l a n c e t h e giving a n d t a k i n g i f she w e r e t o c o m m u n i -
cate g e n u i n e g r a t i t u d e t o h e r n e w h u s b a n d , "Yes, it's t r u e t h a t y o u
give a n d I t a k e , a n d I d e e p l y a p p r e c i a t e w h a t y o u d o . " T h e n c o r -
r e c t i n g t h e i m b a l a n c e m i g h t n o t have t o d e s c e n d t o s u c h a
d e s t r u c t i v e level.
H o w e v e r , w h e n t h e r e ' s an additional deficit in t h e e x c h a n g e
b e t w e e n the p a r t n e r s — f o r e x a m p l e , i n their sexuality o r their e m o -
tional n e e d s — a n i m b a l a n c e develops i n t h e w h o l e s y s t e m . T h e
w o m a n a t t e m p t s t o b a l a n c e t h e sexual deficit i n t h o s e situations b y
offering h e r d a u g h t e r to the m a n (I've w o r k e d with families in
w h i c h t h e m o t h e r even d i d s o consciously), o r b y a b a n d o n i n g h e r
d a u g h t e r to h i m in s u c h a way t h a t he is actually d r a w n i n t o a c o m -
p e n s a t o r y relationship w i t h her. I've even w o r k e d with a few f a m i -
lies in w h i c h t h e d a u g h t e r offered herself to h e r father or stepfather
in o r d e r to h e l p h e r m o t h e r a n d to k e e p h i m from leaving. A less
c o m m o n f o r m o f incest involves the b o y w h o h e l p s t o redress a n
i m b a l a n c e in t h e family.
126 Love's Hidden Symmetry

Q u e s t i o n : E v e r y t h i n g i n m e resists t h e idea t h a t t h e m o t h e r
s h o u l d take t h e b l a m e .

H e l l i n g e r : T h a t ' s especially t r u e a s l o n g a s y o u ' r e m o r e inter-


ested in y o u r ideals t h a n in t h e p e o p l e involved. You're looking for
t h e o n e t o b l a m e . I ' m n o t i n t e r e s t e d i n b l a m i n g a n y o n e . I ' m looking
for a solution. In o r d e r to find a solution, I n e e d to see t h e p e o p l e in
their s i t u a t i o n , a n d I n e e d to u n d e r s t a n d t h e d y n a m i c s of t h e family.
My goals are always very specific: I look for a s o l u t i o n for t h e p e r -
s o n w h o ' s c o m e t o m e , a n d I resist t h e t e m p t a t i o n t o g o b e y o n d
that. T h e solutions are different for every m e m b e r of t h e family.
E v e r y o n e i n t h e family—the m a n , t h e w o m a n , a n d the child—
k n o w s , at least u n c o n s c i o u s l y , that t h e family h a s a p r o b l e m , so we
n e e d to look for a solution that allows e v e r y o n e in t h e system to
a c c e p t his o r h e r s h a r e o f t h e responsibility a n d t o m a i n t a i n dignity.
F o r a child w h o has b e e n i n d u c e d to help w i t h an i m b a l a n c e of
giving a n d t a k i n g , a n d s o m e o t h e r f o r m s of incest as well, the solu-
tion is to get to t h e p l a c e w h e r e she h o n e s t l y c a n say, " M a m a , I c o n -
sent to do this for y o u , " a n d to h e r father, " D a d d y , I did it for
M a m a . " S o m e t i m e s , w h e n t h e m a n i s actually p r e s e n t , I've h a d t h e
child say, " I ' m d o i n g it for M a m a , a n d I a g r e e to do it for her."
S o m e p e o p l e object t o t h e w o r d " a g r e e , " b u t t h e victims confirm
t h a t it's i m p o r t a n t .
T h e s e s e n t e n c e s n a m e t h e d y n a m i c already operating in t h e f a m -
ily, and they bring the child's love to light. A child w h o a u t h e n t i c a l l y
speaks t h e s e s e n t e n c e s gives voice t o t h e a r c h a i c b e a u t y a n d p o w e r
of h e r i n n o c e n t love for h e r p a r e n t s . S h e reveals a d e p t h of t h e soul
w h e r e c h i l d r e n willingly, a l t h o u g h often u n c o n s c i o u s l y , m a k e t h e
m o s t painful a n d d e s t r u c t i v e sacrifices for their p a r e n t s . S y s t e m i -
cally viewed, the child is sacrificed to r e d r e s s an i m b a l a n c e in the
family, a n d , at least unconsciously, she agrees o u t of love. T h e solu-
tion for h e r i s t o speak t h e t r u t h , t o n a m e t h e system d y n a m i c a n d
to declare h e r love openly. By openly n a m i n g the m o t h e r ' s p a r t in
t h e incest d y n a m i c , t h e child extracts herself from h e r u n c o n s c i o u s
a g r e e m e n t t o h e l p solve h e r p a r e n t s ' p r o b l e m . T h e s e n t e n c e n a m e s
h e r m o t h e r ' s complicity i n w h a t h a p p e n e d , b u t i t d o e s n ' t release h e r
father from his guilt.
T h e effect of h a v i n g this i n t i m a t e love seen a n d a c k n o w l e d g e d is
healing. T h e s e n t e n c e s r e m i n d c h i l d r e n t h a t they w e r e trying t o d o
s o m e t h i n g g o o d , even if it w e n t w r o n g . W h e n t h e y consciously feel
Parents and Children 127

their love a n d we confirm it, they know t h a t t h e y ' r e g o o d . T h a t ' s a


great relief. W h e n victims m a n a g e to say t h e w o r d s authentically,
they're released from their e n t a n g l e m e n t i n their p a r e n t s ' p r o b l e m .
T h e y d o n ' t have t o wait for their p a r e n t s t o c h a n g e before they c a n
do this. T h e y ' r e free to go on their way regardless of w h a t their p a r -
ents d o , w h e t h e r o r n o t they a d m i t responsibility a n d feel r e m o r s e .

Q u e s t i o n : B u t t h a t ' s n o t t h e way t h e girl feels. S h e feels as


t h o u g h she's d o i n g it unwillingly, like she's t h e victim, a n d s h e ' d
resist saying t h o s e s e n t e n c e s .

Hellinger: A victim by definition is a p e r s o n w h o c o u l d n ' t p r e -


vent w h a t h a p p e n e d . I f victims w a n t t o c h a n g e a n y t h i n g , t h e y ' v e got
to get in t o u c h with their a u t h e n t i c power. C h i l d r e n ' s p o w e r is t h e i r
love. T h a t ' s w h a t t h e s e n t e n c e s d o : T h e y reveal t h e child's love.
T h e y m a k e clear t o everyone i n the system w h a t t h e child h a s d o n e
to t r y to solve t h e family's p r o b l e m .
W h e n y o u offer s e n t e n c e s like t h e s e , y o u m u s t listen very sensi-
tively to h e a r t h e s e n t e n c e s t h e child's soul is already speaking. W h e n
y o u ' v e f o u n d t h e m , you cautiously offer h e r a gift, w o r d s t h a t
express w h a t she's secretly b e e n feeling b u t c o u l d n ' t a r t i c u l a t e . I f
you listen d e e p l y e n o u g h a n d f i n d t h e w o r d s t h a t are just right, h e r
soul u n d e r s t a n d s t h e m e s s a g e : "You a c t e d o u t of love. You d i d t h e
b e s t y o u c o u l d , b u t n o w it's okay t o give t h e p r o b l e m b a c k t o t h e
a d u l t s . It's their p r o b l e m , a n d they c a n h a n d l e it." T h e m e s s a g e i s
usually s o m e t h i n g like that. I t requires c o u r a g e , b u t m a n y girls have
f o u n d release by saying a l o u d w h a t they've secretly b e e n feeling all
along.
T h e p r o o f a s t o w h e t h e r o r n o t y o u ' v e f o u n d t h e right s e n t e n c e s
is their effectiveness. If you've found t h e right f o r m u l a t i o n , a girl, or
a n a d u l t w o m a n , e x p e r i m e n t s with t h e s e n t e n c e s , a n d all a t o n c e
she feels a c h a n g e in h e r b o d y a n d k n o w s herself to be g o o d . It's
really a d r a m a t i c a n d beautiful p r o c e s s to see. S h e feels relieved
b e c a u s e t h e s e n t e n c e s d e m o n s t r a t e h e r love a n d h e r d e p e n d e n c e ,
a n d t h e r e f o r e , h e r i n n o c e n c e . It's o f a b s o l u t e i m p o r t a n c e t h a t t h e
child be h e l p e d to find a way b a c k to self-worth a n d dignity, a n d
that h e r love b e a c k n o w l e d g e d a n d affirmed.

Question: B u t w h a t h a p p e n s if y o u ' r e w o r k i n g with a 15-year-old


girl, for e x a m p l e , w h o ' s still in t h e situation?
128 Love's Hidden Symmetry

Hellinger: T h e s e n t e n c e s are m o s t effective t h e n . A child is in the


weakest p o s i t i o n in a family, so she's limited as to w h a t she c a n do
to get t h e incest to stop. H e r best c h a n c e of g e t t i n g it to s t o p is
w h e n w e n a m e t h e h i d d e n d y n a m i c o p e r a t i n g i n t h e family a n d
b r i n g everyone's responsibility into t h e o p e n .

Question: W h a t d o the s e n t e n c e s d o t o t h e father? I n this f o r m u -


lation, h e ' s r e d u c e d to a passive p a r t i c i p a n t . H e ' s also a p e r s o n w h o
a c t e d , w h o violated his f a t h e r h o o d a n d m i s u s e d his o w n child. W h a t
c a n h e do?

Hellinger: If he's seriously i n t e r e s t e d in d o i n g s o m e t h i n g to


r e s t o r e s o m e o r d e r t o the system, t h e r e are s o m e general principles
he m u s t follow, b u t t h e details will vary.
First, h e ' s g o t to a c c e p t fully the c o n s e q u e n c e s of his actions. If
h e w a s c h a r g e d a n d convicted, h e m u s t feel a g r e e m e n t with t h e ver-
dict a n d t h e penalty. T h e n h e has t o face his d a u g h t e r a n d really see
h e r , see t h e c o n s e q u e n c e s for h e r o f w h a t h e has d o n e . H e m u s t
genuinely tell h e r t h a t he carries the full responsibility a n d b e a r s t h e
full c o n s e q u e n c e s for his a c t i o n s , a n d t h a t he'll w i t h d r a w from h e r
a n d leave h e r in p e a c e .
S i n c e t h e r e ' s n o way t o u n d o w h a t ' s b e e n d o n e , h e m u s t see t o i t
t h a t s o m e t h i n g g o o d c o m e s o u t of it. G u i l t gradually fades away
w h e n it a c c o m p l i s h e s its p u r p o s e — c h a n g e for the b e t t e r . O n e s t e p -
father u n d e r w e n t intensive p e r s o n a l p s y c h o t h e r a p y , a n d t h e n did
t r a i n i n g a n d b e c a m e a therapist w o r k i n g w i t h o t h e r m e n . H i s rela-
t i o n s h i p w i t h his s t e p d a u g h t e r is distant, b u t cordial. S h e can
r e s p e c t h i m , a n d it's easier for h e r to r e s p e c t herself.

Question: I've always w o n d e r e d w h y c o u r t decisions against t h e


p e r p e t r a t o r in t h e s e cases so s e l d o m b r i n g a s o l u t i o n for the child.

Hellinger: P u n i s h i n g the p e r p e t r a t o r isn't e n o u g h t o b r i n g r e s o -


l u t i o n for t h e child. T h e r e ' s an i m p o r t a n t law of systemic b e h a v i o r
t h a t n e e d s to be r e s p e c t e d : A system is d i s r u p t e d w h e n o n e of its
m e m b e r s is rejected or e x c l u d e d from t h e system. R e s o l u t i o n
requires t h a t t h e w h o l e n e s s o f t h e system b e r e s p e c t e d , t h a t t h e
e x c l u d e d p e r s o n b e taken b a c k into t h e system, a n d t h a t everyone
a c c e p t his or h e r a p p r o p r i a t e share of the responsibility.
W h e n y o u w o r k systemically, even t h o u g h y o u ' r e w o r k i n g t o find
a r e s o l u t i o n for t h e client, y o u m u s t serve a n d p r o t e c t t h e w h o l e n e s s
o f t h e system. T h e r e f o r e , y o u have t o c o n n e c t yourself t o t h o s e w h o
Parents and Children 129

are e x c l u d e d . U n l e s s y o u are able to give t h e p e r p e t r a t o r s a p l a c e in


y o u r h e a r t , y o u c a n ' t w o r k with t h e w h o l e system. You gradually
c o m e to view w h a t h a p p e n s in the c o n t e x t of larger systemic
d y n a m i c s , a n d t h a t larger perspective o p e n s m o r e o p t i o n s for h e a l -
ing. T h a t ' s w h y I regularly ally myself w i t h t h e e x c l u d e d a n d t h e
hated.

Question: A r e you saying that everyone i n t h e system p a r t i c i p a t e s


i n w h a t h a p p e n s — t h e m o t h e r , t h e stepfather, a n d t h e child? T h a t
t h e y ' r e all a c t i n g u n d e r t h e p r e s s u r e o f systemic d y n a m i c s , a n d t h a t
a t h e r a p i s t w h o polarizes the victim a n d t h e p e r p e t r a t o r actually
contributes to the problem?

H e l l i n g e r : E v e r y o n e is involved w h e n t h e incest is an a t t e m p t to
solve a systemic p r o b l e m . It's a c o m m o n pitfall for the t h e r a p i s t to
join t h e m o t h e r i n a b a t t l e against the father; t h e w r o n g h e h a s d o n e
is easy to see. T h e r a p i s t s s o m e t i m e s get p r e t t y e m o t i o n a l a b o u t his
perversity, b u t t h a t only splits t h e family m o r e . I w o n d e r w h e r e all
this affect in therapists c o m e s from. W h y n o t stay c a l m a n d s t u d y
the p h e n o m e n o l o g y until we find a g o o d r e s o l u t i o n for t h e child?
S u c h intensity of affect in therapists m a k e s me wary. S o m e t h i n g ' s
going on or else t h e therapist's feelings w o u l d n ' t be so s t r o n g .
S o m e t h i n g ' s b e i n g given t o o m u c h i m p o r t a n c e . T h e r a p i s t s w h o ally
themselves w i t h the victim h e l p t o e x c l u d e t h e p e r p e t r a t o r from t h e
system, overlook the m o t h e r ' s s h a r e o f t h e responsibility, a n d d o n ' t
a c k n o w l e d g e t h e d e p t h of t h e child's love for a n d loyalty to both p a r -
ents. T h a t m a k e s t h e situation w o r s e for t h e victim.
I'll tell you h o w I c a m e to u n d e r s t a n d this.

Standing by the Villain


In a group, a psychiatrist told about a client who'd been raped by her
own father. T h e psychiatrist was horrified by the wrong done to her
client and emphasized what a base creature the father was. I invited
her to do a constellation of the situation and then to take her place in
the family as therapist. She stood next to her client. Everyone in the
constellation was immediately angry with her, including the repre-
sentative of her client. The whole system was restless, and nobody
trusted her. T h e n I moved her to a position next to the father, and
everyone immediately became calm and trusting. Since then I've
often observed that standing next to the villain is a very good posi-
tion for a therapist.
130 Love's Hidden Symmetry

Victim a n d p e r p e t r a t o r are systemically c o n n e c t e d , b u t often you


d o n ' t k n o w i n w h a t way. W h e n the c o n n e c t i o n b e c o m e s clear, t h e n
you c a n u n d e r s t a n d w h a t n e e d s t o h a p p e n t o b r i n g t h e system back
i n t o b a l a n c e . W h e n I w o r k with a p e r p e t r a t o r , I c o n f r o n t h i m with
his guilt. T h a t goes w i t h o u t saying. B u t p e o p l e often m a k e the
a s s u m p t i o n that s o m e t h i n g will c h a n g e for t h e victim if t h e p e r p e -
t r a t o r a c c e p t s his guilt or is p u n i s h e d . In actual p r a c t i c e , n o t h i n g
c h a n g e s . O n c e t h e y ' r e o u t o f the situation, incest victims c a n act o n
their o w n to free themselves of t h e e n t a n g l e m e n t s i n d e p e n d e n t l y of
t h e a c t i o n s o f t h e p e r p e t r a t o r s , b u t they d o n e e d t o b e willing t o
give up t h e idea of revenge.

Question: D o e s t h a t m e a n that incest victims s h o u l d b e e n c o u r -


a g e d to forgive their p a r e n t s ?

Hellinger: I've seen t h a t it's i n a p p r o p r i a t e a n d i m p o s s i b l e for a


child to forgive h e r p a r e n t s for incest. S h e c a n say, " W h a t you did
w a s b a d for me a n d I ' m leaving you w i t h the c o n s e q u e n c e s . I'll
m a k e s o m e t h i n g o u t of my life in spite of w h a t h a p p e n e d . " Or she
c a n say, "You've d o n e me a great w r o n g a n d I m u s t n o t forgive it. I
have n o right t o d o t h a t . " S h e c a n confront b o t h o f h e r p a r e n t s a t
t h e s a m e t i m e a n d tell t h e m , "You're at fault, n o t I. A n d you m u s t
take t h e c o n s e q u e n c e s , n o t I." I n d o i n g this, she shifts t h e guilt b a c k
to h e r p a r e n t s w h e r e it belongs a n d distances herself from their
responsibility. It i s n ' t necessary for t h e child to m a k e massive accu-
sations against h e r p a r e n t s . It's e n o u g h if there's a clarity b e t w e e n
t h e m t h a t sets h e r free.
Similarly, a father c a n ' t ask his d a u g h t e r for forgiveness after he's
c o m m i t t e d incest w i t h h e r . If he d o e s , he asks h e r for s o m e t h i n g
t h a t goes b e y o n d h e r right a n d d u t y to give. By asking her to limit
t h e c o n s e q u e n c e s of his a c t i o n s , he effectively m i s u s e s h e r again. He
c a n say s o m e t h i n g like "I regret w h a t I d i d " or "I a c k n o w l e d g e t h a t
I've w r o n g e d y o u . " B u t he still m u s t k e e p the full responsibility for
his a c t i o n s , a n d suffer t h e full c o n s e q u e n c e s . H o w e v e r , h e m u s t n o t
g o b e y o n d that, o r h e i m p o s e s a n a d d i t i o n a l b u r d e n o n t h e child.

Question: T h a t m e a n s t h a t w h e n c h i l d r e n are b r o u g h t t o u s a n d
we discover that sexual a b u s e is going o n , we c a n p r o t e c t t h e chil-
d r e n , p e r h a p s h e l p t h e m get away from t h e p a r e n t s , b u t w e
s h o u l d n ' t initiate p r o c e e d i n g s against the p a r e n t s .
Parents and Children 131

Hellinger: As far as t h e solution for the child is c o n c e r n e d , t h a t ' s


m y e x p e r i e n c e . You s h o u l d n ' t even talk disparagingly a b o u t t h e p a r -
ents in front of t h e child, a l t h o u g h y o u m u s t h e l p t h e child to see
the p a r e n t s ' responsibility a n d to feel i n n o c e n t of a n y w r o n g d o i n g .
T h e r e m a y be cases in w h i c h it's n e c e s s a r y to initiate p r o c e e d i n g s
against the p a r e n t s ; nevertheless, m y e x p e r i e n c e h a s b e e n t h a t
c h i l d r e n ' s suffering increases w h e n they m u s t testify against their
parents.

Q u e s t i o n : In a systemic p r o b l e m , there's a circle of c a u s e a n d


effect, yet y o u often c h o o s e t h e w o m a n a s t h e s t a r t i n g p o i n t . W h a t -
ever t h e m a n did t o c a u s e the w o m a n t o act as,she d i d d o e s n ' t s e e m
t o interest y o u m u c h .

H e l l i n g e r : Yes, I often do that. T h e r e are several r e a s o n s . O n e


r e a s o n is to redress a bias right at t h e b e g i n n i n g . R e m e m b e r , in sys-
t e m i c w o r k , w e ' r e n o t making moral judgements a b o u t people. W e ' r e
looking for ways to h e l p t h e family c o m e b a c k i n t o b a l a n c e so t h a t
t h e v i c t i m s — t h e c h i l d r e n — a r e free to live healthy, fulfilling lives,
a n d so are freed of the systemic p r e s s u r e to do u n t o o t h e r s w h a t w a s
d o n e u n t o t h e m . Systemic b a l a n c e c a n only b e achieved w h e n w e
c a n identify everyone's p a r t in t h e d y n a m i c . Since t h e p e r p e t r a t o r is
generally a m a n , his responsibility is usually already clear. W h a t ' s
usually n o t so clear is t h e w o m a n ' s p a r t in t h e w h o l e t h i n g . So I
often s t a r t b y looking for that. I ' m n o t b l a m i n g t h e w o m a n , b u t t o
u n d e r s t a n d t h e family as a w h o l e , I n e e d to find o u t w h a t was g o i n g
on in the background.

Question: B u t t h e child, especially a very y o u n g child, is left w i t h


a d e e p w o u n d . At least I c a n ' t i m a g i n e any o t h e r possibility.

Hellinger: You n e e d t o g u a r d against o v e r d r a m a t i z a t i o n . W h e n


we really see t h e victims, t h e y d e s c r i b e a variety of e x p e r i e n c e s .
S o m e t i m e s t h e e x p e r i e n c e was violent a n d h u m i l i a t i n g a n d s o m e -
t i m e s it was a m o r e t e n d e r , p e r h a p s even loving, relationship. In
s o m e cases, it w a s t h e k i n d of incest in w h i c h sexual c o n t a c t never
actually o c c u r s , b u t w h i c h causes s t u b b o r n difficulties in later rela-
t i o n s h i p s . T h a t kind of incest i s n ' t even r e c o g n i z e d by law.
It is often t h e case t h a t incest victims feel guilty for w h a t h a p -
p e n e d . I'll give you an e x a m p l e .
132 Love's Hidden Symmetry

A Guilty Victim

A w o m a n in a workshop h a d been abused by her father a n d her


uncle. She'd been seriously disturbed for m a n y years, was filled with
self-hatred, a n d h a d m a d e multiple suicide attempts. She h a d the
delusion that w h e n she was in a g r o u p , everyone could see that she
was evil, and that they w a n t e d to kill her.
I asked her to explore the feeling of being evil, which she did. She
sat in the g r o u p , looking d o w n , feeling evil. She suddenly r e m e m -
bered her uncle, a n d imagined him lying at her feet. She r e m e m b e r e d
that he h a d c o m m i t t e d suicide. As she continued to look at him in
her imagination, her face b e c a m e hard and old. It took on an expres-
sion that wasn't her own, so I asked her, " W h o looks d o w n at h i m so
hatefully a n d t r i u m p h a n t ? " She answered that it was her m o t h e r . As
the work continued, she gradually pieced together her m e m o r i e s , a n d
it emerged that her m o t h e r h a d b e c o m e p r e g n a n t d u r i n g an affair
with her h u s b a n d ' s brother. So the m a n she had t h o u g h t was h e r
uncle was in fact her father, a n d the m a n she h a d t h o u g h t was her
father was her uncle.
H e r m o t h e r h a d felt relieved w h e n the child's biological father
c o m m i t t e d suicide, b u t the child felt responsible for his death, as if
he h a d killed himself because of her, as if she were his m u r d e r e r . H e r
self-hatred and suicide attempts were expressions of her feelings of
guilt.

B e c a u s e o f s u c h g u i l t y feelings, m a n y s e x u a l l y a b u s e d girls s u b s e -
quently take up a victim profession. M a n y prostitutes were abused
as children, continuing as adults what they experienced as children.
I've m e t n u n s w h o were victims of incest a n d a b u s e , apparently
e n t e r i n g t h e c l o i s t e r s a s a n a t t e m p t t o a t o n e for t h e w r o n g t h e y felt
t h e y h a d d o n e . O t h e r v i c t i m s b e c o m e m e n t a l l y ill, p a y i n g for w h a t
t h e y a l r e a d y suffered w i t h m o r e s y m p t o m s a n d s u f f e r i n g . S o m e
c o m m i t suicide. S o m e defend the perpetrators to the e n d , continu-
i n g t o a l l o w t h e m s e l v e s t o b e a b u s e d i n v a r i o u s w a y s , a s i f t o say,
" Y o u d o n ' t n e e d t o h a v e a g u i l t y c o n s c i e n c e for w h a t h a p p e n e d ,
b e c a u s e I really am a worthless p e r s o n . " S o m e b e c o m e p e r p e t r a t o r s
themselves.
T h e r e ' s a n a d d i t i o n a l p r o b l e m for t h e c h i l d : T h e first s e x u a l
experience, even an incestuous one, normally establishes an espe-
cially i n t e n s i v e b o n d i n g . C h i l d r e n w h o h a v e b o n d e d t o s o m e o n e
t h r o u g h a n e a r l y s e x u a l e n c o u n t e r h a v e difficulty i n l a t e r s e x u a l
Parents and Children 133

relationships unless they b e c o m e aware of the b o n d i n g a n d deal


w i t h i t b y a c k n o w l e d g i n g t h e love i n v o l v e d .

Paying My Mother's Debt

A w o m a n in a workshop told of her sexual difficulty. She h a d b e e n


m a r r i e d for almost 30 years, had adult children, a n d was still in love
with her h u s b a n d . T r y as she might, she was u n a b l e to s u r r e n d e r to
sexual passion with h i m as she wanted to.
As she explored her experience, she r e m e m b e r e d h e r early sexual
experiences with an adult friend of the family. In a family constella-
tion, she r e m e m b e r e d that he h a d entered the army at the age of 17
in order to impress her m o t h e r , to w h o m he was engaged; h a d sur-
vived seven years of heavy c o m b a t ; and h a d spent an additional six
years in a prisoner-of-war c a m p u n d e r terrible conditions. While he
was in prison, her m o t h e r h a d a b a n d o n e d h i m to m a r r y her father.
H e r m o t h e r later sent her to live with the m a n d u r i n g s u m m e r
vacations.
As she stood before his representative in the constellation, she was
critical and hateful toward him. She r e m e m b e r e d that her m o t h e r
later charged the m a n with child abuse and that he h a d gone to jail.
T h e n she suddenly b u r s t , i n t o tears and threw her a r m s a r o u n d his
representative, weeping freely. She was flooded with m e m o r i e s of
h o w m u c h she h a d loved h i m ; h o w he was t h e only p e r s o n w h o h a d
u n d e r s t o o d her, talking to her for h o u r s ; a n d h o w deeply she h a d
b e e n t o u c h e d by his loneliness and pain.
She recognized that she h a d willingly given her b o d y to h i m even
t h o u g h she was very young; that she had enjoyed his gentleness a n d
was p r o u d of h e r ability to soothe his pain. She felt in her b o d y a
d e e p connection to h i m , a n d n e e d e d assurance from the g r o u p that
her feelings were n o r m a l . She radiated freshness a n d joy as she
r e m e m b e r e d this first love, a n d still she was able to tell h i m lovingly
that she h a d b e e n too young for such an experience.
After several m o n t h s , she wrote a letter to the therapist telling h o w
she felt released to give her h u s b a n d and herself the passion a n d the
pleasure they b o t h had waited for so patiently.

Question: C a n c h i l d r e n really e x p e r i e n c e p l e a s u r e i n i n c e s t ?

Hellinger: I know that m a n y people think that's terrible, b u t


s o m e children have found their incest experiences pleasurable, even
beautiful. Children in such situations m u s t be allowed to a d m i t that
t h e y a l s o e x p e r i e n c e d p l e a s u r e . P e o p l e o f t e n tell t h e m t h a t s o m e -
thing b a d h a p p e n e d , and they need assurance that they're inno-
134 Love's Hidden Symmetry

cent—especially if t h e e x p e r i e n c e was p l e a s u r a b l e . In s u c h cases,


c h i l d r e n m u s t b e allowed t o a c k n o w l e d g e their e x p e r i e n c e — t h a t
sexuality c a n be fascinating—in spite of w h a t o t h e r s m a y t h i n k .
It's c o m p l e t e l y a p p r o p r i a t e for a child to be c u r i o u s a b o u t sex
a n d to w a n t to experience s o m e t h i n g s h e finds fascinating. If the
child's curiosity isn't recognized a s b e i n g n o r m a l a n d healthy, h e r
sexuality is p u t in a terrible light. At t h e risk of saying s o m e t h i n g
else t h a t ' s controversial, sexuality isn't evil or d i r t y — e v e n w h e n it's
incest. W h e n t h e child c a n h e a r t h a t , she feels relieved.

Question: I've u n d e r s t o o d you t o say t h a t p e r h a p s the child was


b e i n g s e d u c t i v e , a n d that it's very i m p o r t a n t for h e r t o u n d e r s t a n d
t h a t t h a t d o e s n ' t m a k e h e r guilty.

H e l l i n g e r : It's perfectly n o r m a l for a child to be seductive at


t i m e s . T h a t m u s t n ' t b e a criticism o f h e r . W h y s h o u l d n ' t she b e
allowed to be seductive? If she's b e i n g seductive w i t h h e r father, it
d o e s n ' t m e a n t h a t she w a n t s sex like an a d u l t ; she's just p r a c t i c i n g
a n d l e a r n i n g a b o u t b e i n g a w o m a n . It's his responsibility t o u n d e r -
s t a n d t h a t difference a n d to keep t h e b o u n d a r i e s clear. It's his job to
provide h e r with p r o t e c t i o n . It's n o t h e r s t o m e e t his n e e d s .

Question: I feel very a m b i v a l e n t a b o u t y o u r s t a t e m e n t t h a t chil-


d r e n enjoy incest. We saw a film last w e e k in t h e clinic w h e r e I w o r k
a n d t h e girls in t h e film d e s c r i b e d it very differently.

Hellinger: I f we're going t o c o m m u n i c a t e with o n e a n o t h e r , y o u


m u s t resist t h e t e m p t a t i o n to c h a n g e w h a t I said into w h a t you
t h i n k I said. I did n o t say t h a t " c h i l d r e n enjoy i n c e s t " — a n d n e i t h e r
do you get t h e objective t r u t h a b o u t w h a t goes on in a family from a
film. E v e r y film h a s a p o i n t to m a k e . You m u s t n ' t a s s u m e t h a t y o u r
client e x p e r i e n c e d the s a m e t h i n g as the girls in t h e film d i d .

Question: I k n o w t h a t , b u t it's n o t a g o o d idea to m a k e a s s u m p -


tions a b o u t t h e child's enjoying it.

H e l l i n g e r : T h a t ' s exactly m y p o i n t . L o o k carefully a t t h e child,


a n d listen t o her! T h e n you'll know. D o n ' t d e c i d e a b o u t y o u r client
on t h e basis of w h a t you saw in a film or r e a d in a b o o k . E v e r y child
is different. T h e child m u s t be allowed to a c k n o w l e d g e t h a t it was
p l e a s u r a b l e , if it was pleasurable. A n d if it was, y o u ' v e got to be will-
ing t o see that, too. T h e n you c a n r e a s s u r e h e r t h a t she's i n n o c e n t ,
even if s h e was fascinated by t h e sex or c u r i o u s a b o u t it. If it w a s
Parents and Children 135

painful or h u m i l i a t i n g , she m u s t be allowed to a c k n o w l e d g e t h a t as


well. It's absolutely clear that t h e responsibility for incest lies c o m -
pletely w i t h t h e a d u l t s , b u t it's t h e child w h o pays t h e p r i c e . T h a t ' s
h o w family systems work.

Question: D o e s it m a k e a difference if t h e p e r p e t r a t o r w a s
violent?

Hellinger: V i o l e n c e dramatically increases t h e c o n s e q u e n c e s for


b o t h t h e child a n d the p e r p e t r a t o r . Still, I g u a r d against a n y t h i n g
t h a t inhibits m y ability t o help t h e victim a n d t h e p e r p e t r a t o r . T h e
p o w e r of t h e soul to affirm life after t r a g e d y is m i r a c u l o u s , so even
in cases of g r e a t d a m a g e , there's still h o p e .
Transcript
LESLIE: A CHILD GIVEN UP FOR A D O P T I O N

Leslie w a s a p a r t i c i p a n t in a large w o r k s h o p for a d o p t e d c h i l d r e n ,


a d o p t i v e p a r e n t s , a n d p a r e n t s w h o h a d given a child u p for a d o p -
t i o n . H e r w o r k m a k e s clear s o m e o f t h e u n e x p e c t e d complexities
t h a t a d o p t i o n p r e s e n t s a n d p o i n t s t h e way t o w a r d g o o d r e s o l u t i o n s
for difficult situations.

Hellinger: H o w m a y w e b e o f h e l p t o you?

L e s l i e : I have difficulties in relationships a n d I get sick all t h e


t i m e . I have t h e feeling that's c o n n e c t e d to my c o n s t a n t l o n g i n g to
feel like I ' m at h o m e s o m e w h e r e . I was p i c k e d up from t h e hospital
by my a d o p t i v e p a r e n t s w h e n I was 14 days old. I guess I ' m still try-
ing to find that original c o n t a c t .

Hellinger: W h a t kind o f illnesses d o you have?

L e s l i e : As a child, I c o n s t a n t l y h a d tonsillitis. N o w I've got vari-


o u s p s y c h o s o m a t i c illnesses t h a t I call "losing myself".

Hellinger: W h a t w o u l d y o u like m e t o do?

Leslie: I r e a d y o u r b o o k , a n d as I p u t it d o w n , I t h o u g h t , " T h a t ' s


it! T h a t ' s w h a t I w a n t to d o . " So n o w I ' m sitting h e r e w i t h h i g h
h o p e s t h a t I c a n get clear a b o u t this, or at least get a n e w p e r s p e c -
tive.

Hellinger: Are you married?

Leslie: Yes, b u t I ' m s e p a r a t e d from m y h u s b a n d .

Hellinger: D o y o u have children?

Leslie: We have a 13-year-old s o n .

Hellinger: W h o i s h e living with?

Leslie: H a l f a n d half. I t d e p e n d s .
136
Parents and Children 137

Hellinger: W h a t do you know about your biological parents?

L e s l i e : Absolutely nothing. I know their n a m e s . It probably


would have b e e n possible for me to have found o u t their addresses,
b u t I d i d n ' t w a n t to do that.

Hellinger: W h a t were you told a b o u t the adoption? W h o p u t you


up for adoption?

L e s l i e : As far as my adoptive parents know, it was my m o t h e r


w h o did, because of her poverty.

Hellinger: A n d your father?

Leslie: I d o n ' t know. T h a t ' s just what I've b e e n told.

H e l l i n g e r : We'll just go ahead a n d set up this system: your father,


your m o t h e r , you, and your adoptive parents. H a v e you seen h o w
it's done?

Leslie: Sort of. I ' m pretty confused just now.

H e l l i n g e r : You choose people—anyone you w a n t — t o represent


your father, your m o t h e r , yourself, and your adoptive p a r e n t s . By
the way, did your adoptive parents have their own children?

Leslie: N o , they c o u l d n ' t have any. (She chooses representatives.)

H e l l i n g e r (to Leslie): Okay, n o w take the representatives by the


shoulders and p u t t h e m in their places in relation to o n e a n o t h e r .
Collect yourself and do it with the feeling of being completely col-
lected. T h e constellation will emerge all by itself as you begin to
move the representatives. (To representatives): A n d you stay collected
in yourselves as well, a n d pay attention to h o w y o u r feelings a n d
sensations change as she moves you a r o u n d .

H e l l i n g e r (to representatives): N o w , I'll ask you what's h a p p e n i n g


for you, a n d you tell me as exactly as you can w h a t your experience
is. W h a t ' s h a p p e n i n g for the m o t h e r ?

Mother: I feel the father moving out of the constellation a n d I ' m


being pulled to follow. I first t h o u g h t the d a u g h t e r w o u l d c o m e
closer, b u t she stopped.

Hellinger: A n d the father?


138 Love's Hidden Symmetry

Father: I feel e x t r e m e l y sad. I've got a h u g e k n o t in my s t o m a c h .


I feel lost h e r e a n d very sad.

Hellinger (to Leslie's representative): What's h a p p e n i n g for t h e


child?

Leslie's Representative: I feel m u c h b e t t e r since t h e a d o p t i v e


p a r e n t s c a m e in. I ' m still very confused.

Hellinger: W h a t ' s h a p p e n i n g for the adoptive m o t h e r ?

Adoptive Mother: M y h e a r t was t h u m p i n g before I w a s p l a c e d


h e r e . I feel s e c u r e h e r e a n d t h a t I c a n see t h e child. I also feel t h e
d i s t a n c e b e t w e e n u s . I ' m u n e a s y t h a t t h e a d o p t i v e father i s also
h e r e , a l t h o u g h I c a n ' t see h i m . I c a n ' t see h i m at all just now.

Hellinger: You m e a n y o u r h u s b a n d ?

Adoptive Mother: Yes.

Hellinger: W h a t ' s h a p p e n i n g for t h e a d o p t i v e father?

Adoptive Father: I feel a bit alone h e r e , a n d a little sad as well. I


d o n ' t have m u c h c o n t a c t with my family. I ' m in a c o r n e r , w h i c h
gives me a little sense of security, b u t I ' m a l o n e . (Hellinger moves the
adoptive mother next to her husband.)

* Legend: Fa—natural father; Mo—natural mother; AdFa—adoptive father;


AdMo—adoptive mother; AdC—adopted child
Parents and Children 139

Hellinger: H o w ' s that?

Adoptive Mother: T h a t ' s better.

Adoptive Father: T h e u n p l e a s a n t feeling o f isolation a n d l o n e -


liness is g o n e . It's b e t t e r now. I feel s o m e t h i n g like h e l p or
support.

H e l l i n g e r (to Leslie's representative): W h a t ' s c h a n g e d for you?

Leslie's R e p r e s e n t a t i v e : It's m o r e difficult now. T h e r e was so


m u c h emptiness to my left a n d to my right. T h a t was better after the
adoptive p a r e n t s c a m e , b u t n o w it's e m p t y again. (Hellinger turns her
to face everyone)

Hellinger: H o w ' s that now?


140 Love's Hidden Symmetry

L e s l i e ' s R e p r e s e n t a t i v e : T h a t ' s better. I d i d n ' t feel anything at


all for my p a r e n t s , b u t n o w I can see t h e m at least.

H e l l i n g e r (to mother): W h a t changed for the m o t h e r ?

M o t h e r : T h e longer I stand here, the m o r e I notice that I want to


t u r n to face t h e child, a n d look at her. She's m o r e in view now, b u t
farther away. I w a n t to move closer to her, a n d I w a n t to t u r n
around.

Hellinger: T u r n a r o u n d so that it feels right for you.


(To father): H o w ' s that for the father?

Father: I feel a h u g e heaviness and I feel like everyone has left


me.

Hellinger: T u r n a r o u n d a n d stand next t o the m o t h e r .

H e l l i n g e r (to Leslie's representative): H o w ' s that?

L e s l i e ' s R e p r e s e n t a t i v e (deeply moved): I w a n t to go to her.

Hellinger: Go a h e a d . (Leslie's representative goes to the mother,


embraces her, and sobs deeply.)

H e l l i n g e r (waits for them to finish embrace): I'll p u t Leslie in her


place now. (To Leslie): Go to y o u r m o t h e r . (Leslie quickly goes to the
mother and holds her tightly.) (To the father as the mother and Leslie
embrace): W h a t ' s h a p p e n i n g for you?
Parents and Children 141

Father: I still feel alone a n d lost. T h e best would be for me to go.


I d o n ' t feel as if I b e l o n g here.

Hellinger: T h e n t u r n away and move a step away.

H e l l i n g e r (to the father): H o w ' s that?

Father: I feel lighter here.

H e l l i n g e r (to Leslie as she slowly moves back from the mother): Look
your m o t h e r in t h e eyes a n d call her " M a m a " .

L e s l i e (choking back tears): Mama.

Hellinger: " M a m a , please."

Leslie: M a m a , please.
142 Love's Hidden Symmetry

Hellinger: W h a t ' s h a p p e n i n g for t h e m o t h e r ?

M o t h e r : I d o n ' t u n d e r s t a n d anything. It's all h a p p e n i n g so fast,


b u t I c a n let h e r in. I ' m o v e r w h e l m e d .

Hellinger: Tell her, " I ' m sorry."

Mother: I ' m sorry.

H e l l i n g e r (to Leslie): Say to her, " P l e a s e look on me as your


daughter."

Leslie: Please look o n m e a s y o u r d a u g h t e r .

Hellinger: "Please, M a m a . "

Leslie: Please, M a m a . (Mother and daughter embrace tightly. Leslie


sobs loudly.)

Hellinger: " P l e a s e , M a m a , please."

Leslie: Please.

H e l l i n g e r (to Leslie as she becomes calmer): B r e a t h e deeply. It's like


taking y o u r m o t h e r i n t o y o u r h e a r t . D e e p l y a n d calmly. (To adoptive
mother): H o w ' s t h a t for t h e adoptive m o t h e r ?

Adoptive Mother: At first I felt as t h o u g h I w a n t e d to take my


adoptive d a u g h t e r in my a r m s a n d h o l d her. I felt so p u l l e d t o w a r d
h e r , b u t I c o u l d n ' t m o v e b e c a u s e she was s t a n d i n g at a n o t h e r place.
At t h e s a m e t i m e , I felt my h u s b a n d ' s light t o u c h . T h a t was very
r e a s s u r i n g . T h e n I realized t h a t my a d o p t i v e d a u g h t e r h a d really
f o u n d h e r n a t u r a l m o t h e r a n d I saw h o w h a p p y t h a t m a d e her. T h a t
m a d e m e very h a p p y t o o .

Hellinger: A n d t h e adoptive father?

Adoptive Father: It's gratifying to see that s o m e t h i n g ' s slipped


i n t o p l a c e . T h a t t o u c h e s m e deeply. I ' m also feeling s o m e t h i n g
t o w a r d h e r father t h a t ' s n o t clear. I feel as if I ' m c a r r y i n g s o m e -
t h i n g , s o m e responsibility, that's n o t m i n e .

Hellinger: How's the mother doing now?

Mother: I ' m d o i n g great.

H e l l i n g e r (to Leslie as she releases her mother): L o o k at h e r a n d tell


h e r , " I take y o u a s m y m o t h e r . "
Parents and Children 143

Leslie: I take you as my m o t h e r . (Mother and daughter embrace


again, naturally and simply.)

H e l l i n g e r (to mother): N o w you can take h e r by the h a n d a n d


lead h e r to t h e adoptive parents. Bow d o w n in front of t h e m , h o w -
ever you feel is right for you, a n d tell t h e m , " T h a n k you."

M o t h e r (bowing deeply): T h a n k you.

Hellinger: " T h a n k you for taking care of my d a u g h t e r . "

Mother: T h a n k you for taking in my d a u g h t e r .

Hellinger: " A n d for giving h e r what she n e e d e d . "

Mother: A n d for giving her what she n e e d e d .

Hellinger: "I hold you in high regard for d o i n g that."

Mother: I hold you in high regard for that.

H e l l i n g e r (to Leslie): H o w ' s that for you?

Leslie: Wonderful. T h e y really gave me a lot.

Hellinger: L o o k a t t h e m , a n d tell t h e m " t h a n k s " too.

L e s l i e (spontaneously bowing deeply before her adoptive parents):


T h a n k you.

H e l l i n g e r (to adoptive mother): H o w ' s that for you?

A d o p t i v e M o t h e r : G o o d . B u t I still w a n t to take my adoptive


d a u g h t e r in my a r m s a n d h u g her.
144 Love's Hidden Symmetry

H e l l i n g e r : I c a n ' t think of anyuiiii^ *"'s s t a n d i n g in t h e way.


(Leslie and the adoptive mother hold one a her tenderly. Leslie then
also embraces the adoptive father.)

H e l l i n g e r (to father as Leslie embraces the adoptive father): H o w are


you doing?

Father: I ' m n o t doing so good. I still feel a t r e m e n d o u s weight on


my shoulders, a n d that knot in my s t o m a c h . I d o n ' t have any con-
nection to t h e others.

Hellinger: T u r n a r o u n d a n d face t h e m . (Hellinger places Leslie


next to her adoptive mother and places her mother at a distance to the
left.)

H e l l i n g e r (to Leslie): L o o k at your father and try telling him, "I


take you as my father."

Leslie: T h a t d o e s n ' t feel right.

H e l l i n g e r : It's a first step. Give it a try. L o o k at h i m , and tell him,


"I take you as my father." (The adoptive mother strokes her back to
show encouragement.)

L e s l i e (choking back tears, as the father bows his head): I take you as
my father.

Hellinger: "Please give me your blessing as your daughter."

Leslie: Please give me your blessing.

Hellinger: H o w is that for the father?


Parents and Children 145

Father: I wanf to r u n away. I c a n ' t s t a n d it.

H e l l i n g e r (to Leslie): T r y r e p e a t i n g it o n e m o r e t i m e , "I take y o u


as my father."

Leslie: I take you as my father.

Hellinger: " A n d I h o l d in h o n o r w h a t I have from y o u . "

Leslie: A n d I h o l d in h o n o r w h a t I have from you.

Hellinger: " A n d I let you go y o u r way with love."

Leslie: A n d I let y o u go y o u r way w i t h love.


(Leslie begins to weep; the father hangs his head and cries as well.)

Hellinger: Go to him.
(Leslie goes to her father, and they hold one another. The father sobs.)

H e l l i n g e r (To father): B r e a t h e deeply a n d t h e p a i n c a n flow away.


B r e a t h e in a n d o u t , deeply.
(To Leslie): H o w do y o u feel w i t h y o u r father?

Leslie: I feel as if I have to be t h e stronger o n e h e r e .

Hellinger: Yes. T h a t ' s t h e way i t is. G o b a c k t o y o u r p l a c e b y y o u r


a d o p t i v e m o t h e r . (She moves beside the adoptive mother and they hold
hands.)

H e l l i n g e r (to father): Take Leslie's m o t h e r by t h e h a n d , t h e n go


w i t h h e r to t h e a d o p t i v e p a r e n t s a n d s t a n d facing t h e m . (To biologi-
146 Love's Hidden Symmetry

cal parents): Bow d o w n before t h e m , a n d t h a n k t h e m . (Both bow


with respect, and then look at adoptive parents.)

Mother: T h a n k you.

Father: T h a n k you.

Hellinger: H o w is that for the adoptive parents?

Adoptive Father: T h a t ' s better for m e . I can accept their grati-


tude.

Adoptive Mother: It's good for m e too. I ' m glad that m y a d o p -


tive d a u g h t e r is close to m e .

H e l l i n g e r (to Leslie): H o w are you doing now?

Leslie: I ' m looking for my brothers and sisters.

Hellinger: T h a t ' s the next step. You can look for t h e m , a n d all the
others w h o belong to y o u r family—your g r a n d p a r e n t s , for instance.
Do you think that your adoptive m o t h e r would s u p p o r t you if you
did that?

Leslie: N o t completely, b u t she'd try.

H e l l i n g e r (to adoptive mother): Tell her, "You're allowed to do it."

Adoptive Mother: You're allowed to do it.

Hellinger: " A n d I'll help you."

Adoptive Mother: A n d I'll help you do it.


Parents and Children 147

H e l l i n g e r (to group): A child can't do s o m e t h i n g like that w i t h o u t


permission. T h e child n e e d s the permission a n d s u p p o r t of the
adoptive parents. (Leslie and representatives take seats.)

Hellinger: In that constellation, we could clearly see t h e power of


the love operating in families, and h o w h i d d e n it s o m e t i m e s is. You
could see w h a t kind of resolutions are possible a n d what healing
energy is set free w h e n that love is b r o u g h t to light—and h o w easy it
can be is to b r i n g that love to light.
If we look at a family like this o n e , w h o shall we blame? W h o
would dare to b l a m e any of the five? T h e y ' r e all entangled in s o m e
way. In listening to t h e feedback from the representatives, it seems
that the initiative for p u t t i n g the child up for a d o p t i o n c a m e from
the father. He was the o n e w h o felt m o s t guilty, a n d w h o m o s t
w a n t e d to leave as c o m p e n s a t i o n . T h a t ' s why it was easier for t h e
child to move toward h e r m o t h e r . We saw that clearly.
W h e n s o m e o n e sets up a constellation with such concentration as
Leslie did, it seems safe to me to a s s u m e that the representatives'
reactions are giving us information a b o u t the actual situation in t h e
family. T h e representatives seem actually to feel w h a t the people
felt. Obviously, that's n o t something that can be verified scientifi-
cally, b u t we could clearly see h o w the representatives' reactions led
the way toward a good resolution. Leslie n o w has a very different
image of her natural p a r e n t s that she carries with her, as well as of
her adoptive parents a n d of herself. Because she n o w has that n e w
image of t h e m in h e r h e a r t , she is a changed p e r s o n . A n d there's a
very strange thing: If she meets any of those p e o p l e , she will see t h a t
her adoptive p a r e n t s , a n d h e r natural parents (if she finds t h e m ) ,
will be c h a n g e d as well. It's a family system, a n d w h e n we change
one p a r t t o b e c o m e m o r e loving, the whole t h i n g changes. O t h e r
m e m b e r s of the system are affected.

Question: C o u l d you explain the role of the biological father? I


c o u l d n ' t hear all that was said, a n d things h a p p e n e d so fast anyway.
I didn't understand.

Hellinger: In watching t h e reaction of the father's representative


in the constellation, I h a d the impression that he d i d n ' t want to be
involved at all; I suppose it was because he felt guilty. T h a t ' s why he
kept w a n t i n g to get away. Wanting to have n o t h i n g to do with t h e
child h a d serious c o n s e q u e n c e s for his position in t h e constellation.
148 Love's Hidden Symmetry

To be h o n e s t , I h a d already given up on h i m , as if he h a d t h r o w n
away his rights as a father.
W h e n a p e r s o n gives a child away, t h e p e r s o n usually also gives
up any rights as a father or a m o t h e r . B u t even t h e n , t h e r e ' s s o m e -
t i m e s a r e s o l u t i o n . E v e n t h e m o t h e r h a d difficulty in facing the
child, b e c a u s e she felt guilty as well.

Participant: T h a t w e n t s o fast.

H e l l i n g e r : In situations like this, it c a n ' t go fast e n o u g h . It was


only w h e n t h e child said, " I take you a s m y m o t h e r , " t h a t the
m o t h e r felt a c k n o w l e d g e d as a m o t h e r a n d c o u l d o v e r c o m e h e r
guilty feelings to face h e r d a u g h t e r .
I d i d n ' t t h i n k it was going to w o r k with t h e father, b u t w h e n she
asked for his blessing, his h e a r t m e l t e d a n d the c o n t a c t w a s p o s -
sible. W h e n e v e r love flows, t h e destructive p o w e r of guilt is dis-
solved. T h e n she c o u l d g o t o h i m , a n d h e c o u l d m o v e t o w a r d her.
T h a t ' s t h e d y n a m i c b e h i n d w h a t w e saw.

Question: I have a n o t h e r q u e s t i o n c o n c e r n i n g t h e father. You said


t h a t he m a y have t u r n e d away b e c a u s e of his guilty feelings a b o u t
h a v i n g given t h e child up for a d o p t i o n . B u t isn't it also possible that
h e t u r n e d away b e c a u s e h e felt b o n d e d t o his family o f origin, a n d
t h a t t h e child m u s t a c c e p t that fact? I s n ' t it m o r e nearly t h e reality
o f t h e situation, t h a t i n t h e e n d h e w o u l d t u r n away? D o e s n ' t t h e
child actually d e n y t h e reality w h e n h e s t a n d s b y h e r r a t h e r t h a n
seeing t h a t he is involved in o t h e r things a n d w a n t s to leave?

Hellinger: I only look at w h a t ' s in the f o r e g r o u n d . Regardless of


w h a t e v e r e n t a n g l e m e n t s a n d involvements h e m i g h t have h a d , h e
m u s t c a r r y t h e c o n s e q u e n c e s o f his actions. E n t a n g l e m e n t s d o n o t
release his actions from their c o n s e q u e n c e s . H i s o t h e r involvement
m a y help u s t o u n d e r s t a n d his a c t i o n s , b u t they c a n n o t r e m o v e the
results of w h a t he did. In a situation like this, we m u s t n ' t act as if he
c o u l d n ' t face t h e c o n s e q u e n c e s o f his actions. T h a t w o u l d d e m e a n
h i m . He already w a s a c t i n g e n o u g h like a child, even t h o u g h he h a d
m a n a g e d t o i m p r e g n a t e t h e w o m a n . H i s feelings w e r e the feelings o f
a child. N e v e r t h e l e s s , he is t h e child's father a n d reality is n o t served
if we p r e t e n d o t h e r w i s e in o r d e r to go easy on h i m .
If he were t h e client, t h e n , of c o u r s e , we c o u l d explore his
e n t a n g l e m e n t , b u t i f we'd d o n e t h a t today, w e w o u l d have b e e n dis-
t r a c t e d from Leslie, w h o w a s the m a i n p e r s o n . H e w o u l d have taken
Parents and Children 149

c e n t e r stage, a n d t h e child w h o was looking for a r e s o l u t i o n w o u l d


have b e e n p u s h e d t o t h e sidelines. W e have t o b e clear a b o u t w h o ' s
w o r k i n g , a n d m a i n t a i n that hierarchy.

Participant: I d i d n ' t m e a n t o suggest that w e w o r k w i t h his f a m -


ily of origin h e r e , b e c a u s e he obviously w a s n ' t t h e client. It just
s e e m s m o r e realistic t o accept t h e fact that h e t u r n e d away b e c a u s e
he c o u l d n ' t fulfill his role a n d carry his responsibility as father. T h a t
s e e m s m o r e realistic t h a n b r i n g i n g h i m into t h e p i c t u r e as a g o o d
force, as you d i d .

Hellinger: L e t m e ask you a q u e s t i o n i n r e t u r n . W h o h a s t h e b e t -


ter p l a c e i n y o u r h e a r t — t h e father o r t h e d a u g h t e r ? T h a t ' s a n
i m p o r t a n t q u e s t i o n . It's i m p o r t a n t for t h e t h e r a p y t h a t p e r s o n s w h o
are m o s t affected by a situation have a g o o d place in my h e a r t . A n d
t h a t ' s usually t h e c h i l d r e n . I give t h e c h i l d r e n a p l a c e in my h e a r t ,
a n d I h o l d t h e a d u l t s a c c o u n t a b l e for their a c t i o n s . I t r u s t t h e father
to act as a father in spite of his e n t a n g l e m e n t , a n d I t r u s t t h e m o t h e r
to act as a m o t h e r in spite of h e r e n t a n g l e m e n t .
T h e r a p i s t s a n d social workers s o m e t i m e s are very c o n c e r n e d
a b o u t t h e a d u l t s . T h e y ask, " W h o i s t h e p o o r m o t h e r ? H o w c a n w e
help her? T h e p o o r m o t h e r , h o w c a n she possibly raise t h e c h i l d ? "
T h e n they t r e a t t h e m o t h e r as if she w e r e a child, a n d t h e child as if
he or she were an object to be d i s p o s e d of.
I go a b o u t it differently. I s t a n d by t h e child a n d h o l d e v e r y o n e
else a c c o u n t a b l e for t h e responsibility he or she h a s as a result of his
or h e r a c t i o n s . I ' m looking for a s o l u t i o n t h a t p u t s t h e responsibility
b a c k o n t h e a d u l t s a n d relieves t h e child. T o o often, it's t h e c h i l d r e n
w h o have t o c a r r y t h e consequences of w h a t a d u l t s have d o n e .

P a r t i c i p a n t : T h e p o i n t y o u ' r e m a k i n g is clear. P e r h a p s I d i d n ' t


express myself clearly. I ' m also c o n c e r n e d a b o u t t h e child. T o r e -
f o r m u l a t e my q u e s t i o n : W o u l d n ' t it be b e t t e r for t h e child to see t h e
reality t h a t h e r father t u r n e d away from h e r a n d t o a c c e p t t h a t a s
fact? T h a t ' s t h e reality with w h i c h she has to live.

Hellinger: N o . T h a t t u r n s t h e child i n t o a p a r e n t . T h e n t h e child


m u s t u n d e r s t a n d a n d m u s t act like the bigger p e r s o n , a n d t h e father
gets to act like a child, as if his actions h a d no c o n s e q u e n c e s . We all
saw w h a t c a n h a p p e n w h e n w e t r u s t p a r e n t s t o act like p a r e n t s .
C H A P T E R F O U R

The Conscience of the


Family Group

In addition to being children, partners, and perhaps parents, we


also share a c o m m o n destiny w i t h o u r m o r e distant relations—
w h a t e v e r is d o n e by or h a p p e n s to a m e m b e r of o u r family g r o u p ,
w h e t h e r for g o o d o r for ill, t o u c h e s u s , a n d a l s o all t h e o t h e r s .
T o g e t h e r w i t h o u r family, w e f o r m a f e l l o w s h i p s h a r i n g a c o m m o n
fate.

The Wind of Fate

In a g r o u p , a m a n told how, as a boy, he h a d sat on a high hill and


watched his village being attacked and destroyed by neighbors who
belonged to a n o t h e r religion. He described his h a t r e d toward those
m e n , s o m e of w h o m he h a d known and liked. He told h o w a thought
had c o m e u n b i d d e n as he watched: W h a t would I feel if I h a d b e e n
b o r n into one of those families? W h a t if a wind h a d blown my soul a
few h u n d r e d m e t e r s off course, a n d I had entered the belly of one of
those m o t h e r s , instead of my own mother? T h e n I would feel victory
and p r i d e , as they do, a n d not grief and rage, as I d o — a n d I would
hate us a n d love t h e m .

T h e c o u r s e o f t h i s b o y ' s life w a s i n f l u e n c e d b y t h e w i n d s o f f a t e ,
n o t b e c a u s e o f a n y t h i n g h e h a d d o n e o r failed t o d o , b u t m e r e l y b y
virtue of his b e l o n g i n g to o n e family a n d n o t to a n o t h e r .

150
The Conscience of the Family Group 151

T h e b o n d s c o n n e c t i n g the m e m b e r s of a family g r o u p also


extend t h r o u g h time a n d across distances, so that m e m b e r s of the
f a m i l y a r e l i n k e d t o o t h e r m e m b e r s l o n g d e c e a s e d o r far away.

Release My Grandmother

A 42-year-old w o m a n told h o w she h a d been a b a n d o n e d by her


m o t h e r a n d raised by her grandparents. As a result of her work in the
g r o u p , she felt a deep inner connection to her m o t h e r for the first
time in her life. T h a t night after the g r o u p m e t , her m o t h e r called to
tell her that her g r a n d m o t h e r h a d died unexpectedly at a b o u t the
same time as she h a d worked in the g r o u p . T h e w o m a n was con-
vinced that establishing an inner connection to her own m o t h e r
released her g r a n d m o t h e r to die peacefully.

Systemic psychotherapy a b o u n d s with similar anecdotes of


events related in time—even w h e n the m e c h a n i s m s connecting
t h e m elude our explanation.

I'm Your Son

A young father lost his wife and child in a tragic accident. S o m e


years later, a second w o m a n b e c a m e p r e g n a n t by h i m , and in a panic
that s o m e t h i n g similar might h a p p e n to her and the child, he a b a n -
d o n e d t h e m . Eleven years later, working in a g r o u p , he said that he
felt d e e p r e m o r s e a n d the desire to contact his child. T h e g r o u p
leader counseled patience, and he took no overt action.
A week later, the m a n received a letter: " D e a r Ray, My n a m e is
Daniel. I ' m your son. I ' m 11 years old. I like skateboarding a n d foot-
ball. I'd like to m e e t you soon."

T h e s y s t e m i c o r d e r s t h a t a l l o w love t o t h r i v e i n f a m i l i e s a r e v e r y
difficult t o d e f i n e p r e c i s e l y . T h e y h a v e far g r e a t e r flexibility t h a n
social o r m o r a l l a w s t h a t h a v e b e e n i n v e n t e d b y s o c i e t i e s o r i n d i -
viduals a n d t h a t m u s t be obeyed to the letter. T h e y are also different
from the rules of a g a m e that can be modified to suit t h e c i r c u m -
stances or a c c o r d i n g to w h i m . T h e o r d e r s are simply there. Love
r e q u i r e s w h a t i t r e q u i r e s , a n d it's i m m u n e t o i n d i v i d u a l s ' w i s h i n g
t h a t its r e q u i r e m e n t s w e r e different. Y o u c a n ' t b r e a k t h e o r d e r a s
y o u b r e a k a law, b u t t h e O r d e r s o f L o v e c a n , a n d d o , b r e a k i n d i -
v i d u a l s w h o i n s i s t o n i g n o r i n g t h e m . I f y o u d o n ' t a c t a s love
requires, it simply withers a n d dies, b u t it often d e m a n d s restitution
for s u c h n e g l e c t .
152 Love's Hidden Symmetry

It is an act of h u m i l i t y to s u b m i t to t h e O r d e r s of L o v e in a rela-
t i o n s h i p . C o n t r a r y to b e i n g a limitation, this s u b m i s s i o n s u p p o r t s
f r e e d o m a n d life. It's like s w i m m i n g in a river t h a t carries you along:
If y o u swim w i t h t h e c u r r e n t , y o u ' r e free to m a n e u v e r from side to
side.
Regardless of w h e t h e r or n o t they are still alive, t h e following
b e l o n g to a family system.

• the children

• t h e p a r e n t s a n d their siblings

• t h e g r a n d p a r e n t s , a n d s o m e t i m e s o n e or m o r e of t h e great-
grandparents

• any o t h e r s w h o have m o v e d aside to m a k e a p l a c e for s o m e -


o n e in t h e system; for e x a m p l e , a f o r m e r p a r t n e r or lover
of a p a r e n t or g r a n d p a r e n t — e v e n if s e p a r a t e d , d i v o r c e d , or
d e c e a s e d — o r s o m e o n e from w h o m a family m e m b e r gained
s o m e a d v a n t a g e b y loss, m i s f o r t u n e , d e p a r t u r e , o r d e a t h

The Grocery Store


A woman was having difficulties getting her life in order. In the fam-
ily constellation, it emerged that her parents had bought a small gro-
cery store from an older couple. The older couple had wanted to give
the store to their son, but he had been killed. Even though he was
unrelated to the woman, he belonged to her family system since she
indirectly gained from his death. Although she had never met him,
she was beholden to him. When he was included in the constellation,
she became calm. Acknowledging the importance of his death had a
positive effect on her, and she soon began to make some of the
changes in her life she had long desired.

THE ORGANIZATION OF FAMILY GROUPS

As we have seen, love s u c c e e d s in o u r relationships w h e n b e l o n g i n g ,


a b a l a n c e of giving a n d taking, a n d a g o o d o r d e r c a n be m a i n t a i n e d .
T h i s is also t r u e for t h e e x t e n d e d family, b u t five a d d i t i o n a l d y n a m -
ics c o n s t r a i n t h e success of love in family systems: (1) h o n o r i n g t h e
right to m e m b e r s h i p , (2) m a i n t a i n i n g the c o m p l e t e n e s s of t h e sys-
t e m , (3) p r o t e c t i n g t h e hierarchy a c c o r d i n g to t i m e , (4) following
The Conscience of the Family Group 153

the order of precedence between systems, and (5) accepting the


limitations of time.

Honoring the Right to Membership

Individuals m a y c o n t i n u e to affect t h e o t h e r m e m b e r s even w h e n


they are s h u n n e d by their family, excluded from participation, a n d
p e r h a p s even forgotten. As long as they have an influence on any
other m e m b e r of the g r o u p , even unconsciously, they are m e m b e r s
of the family system, a n d anyone w h o has no visible or h i d d e n effect
on any o t h e r m e m b e r is no longer a m e m b e r of t h e system. M e m -
bership d o e s n ' t d e p e n d on the family's decisions or beliefs, only on
effect.
Everyone in the system has an equal right to belong, a n d no
m e m b e r can deny a n o t h e r his or her place. A family system is dis-
r u p t e d w h e n one m e m b e r c o m m u n i c a t e s t o a n o t h e r , " I have t h e
right to belong, b u t you d o n ' t . " T h i s h a p p e n s , for example, w h e n
m e m b e r s shut out of m e m o r y s o m e o n e w h o suffered, or was sacri-
ficed, or did s o m e w r o n g — p e r h a p s a sister w h o died in childhood
or an uncle w h o b e c a m e insane. M e m b e r s of a family are naturally
t e m p t e d to exclude those w h o have c o m m i t t e d a c r i m e , b r o u g h t
s h a m e on the family, or violated the family values, b u t the exclusion
of any m e m b e r is destructive for those w h o c o m e later in the sys-
t e m , no m a t t e r what t h e original justification was.
T h e family constellations of people with serious psychological
a n d physical illnesses often reveal such acts of exclusion. A l t h o u g h
those suffering such illnesses are u n a w a r e of t h e c o n n e c t i o n s , they
reenact in their own lives the fate of t h e excluded or forgotten p e r -
son. M e m b e r s m a y forget those w h o have b e e n excluded, b u t t h e
system " r e - m e m b e r s " its own. Exclusion of persons w h o have a
right to m e m b e r s h i p is the m o s t c o m m o n d y n a m i c disrupting a
family system.

Maintaining Completeness

M e m b e r s of an extended family experience themselves as whole


a n d c o m p l e t e w h e n everyone belonging to the family circle has an
h o n o r e d and respected place in their hearts. Persons w h o are c o n -
c e r n e d only with themselves and with their personal h a p p i n e s s
154 Love's Hidden Symmetry

d o n ' t feel w h o l e . W h e n e v e r a m e m b e r of t h e family s u c c e e d s in " r e -


m e m b e r i n g " a n e x c l u d e d m e m b e r i n his o r h e r h e a r t , t h e difference
is i m m e d i a t e l y felt. T h e i n t e r n a l images of family a n d self b e c o m e
m o r e c o m p l e t e , a n d he or she actually feels m o r e w h o l e .

My Mother's Lover
All of the representatives reported discomfort and irritation when a
woman set up the constellation of her family. Her mother's first
lover, who had died very young, then was added to the constella-
tion, as well as her father's first wife, whom he had left when he
began an affair with the woman's mother. With the addition of these
two persons, the representatives immediately became calm. As the
woman took her place in the constellation, she described a sensa-
tion of "opening" in her chest and a deep and profound sense of
"rightness." In the days that followed, she described a shift in her
experience of herself, as if she were becoming larger and more at
peace.

H e r s e n s a t i o n of " o p e n i n g " in t h e b o d y is typical of p e o p l e w h o


are " r e - m e m b e r i n g " p e r s o n s previously e x c l u d e d from t h e family
circle. O u r sense-of-self c h a n g e s w h e n e x c l u d e d m e m b e r s o f t h e
system are b r o u g h t b a c k i n t o awareness. S y s t e m s are w h o l e s , a n d
individuals in a relationship system only feel w h o l e w h e n t h e w h o l e
system is r e p r e s e n t e d in t h e m .

Protecting the Hierarchy Within a System

T h e self-evident a n d n a t u r a l laws o f b e i n g a n d t i m e also a p p l y t o


family systems. Being is qualified by t i m e : Earlier o c c u r s before
later. T i m e gives b e i n g s e q u e n c e a n d s t r u c t u r e . I n relationship sys-
t e m s , this m e a n s that w h o e v e r e n t e r s t h e system first h a s a c e r t a i n
p r e c e d e n c e over t h o s e w h o c o m e later. P a r e n t s e n t e r t h e family
before their c h i l d r e n , t h e firstborn before the s e c o n d , a n d s o o n .
T i m e establishes a n a t u r a l h i e r a r c h y w i t h i n t h e family t h a t m u s t b e
respected.
In dysfunctional families, a y o u n g e r p e r s o n often d i s r u p t s t h e
h i e r a r c h y of t h e family by a s s u m i n g t h e responsibility, function,
privilege, or guilt that b e l o n g s to an o l d e r p e r s o n . An e x a m p l e is a
son w h o is suffering for his father's w r o n g d o i n g s , or is t r y i n g to be a
b e t t e r h u s b a n d for his m o t h e r t h a n his father is. Y o u n g e r p e r s o n s
The Conscience of the Family Group 155

w h o injure t h e h i e r a r c h y o f t i m e b y a s s u m i n g t h e f u n c t i o n s a n d
r e s p o n s i b i l i t i e s of earlier p e r s o n s often u n c o n s c i o u s l y r e a c t w i t h a
t e n d e n c y t o s e l f - d e s t r u c t i o n a n d failure. B e c a u s e v i o l a t i o n s o f t h e
o r d e r o f p r e c e d e n c e a r e m o t i v a t e d b y love, t h o s e c a u g h t i n this
d y n a m i c d o n ' t r e c o g n i z e t h e i r guilt. S u c h v i o l a t i o n s a r e often
i m p o r t a n t c o n t r i b u t i n g factors w h e n e v e n t s i n a family t u r n o u t
tragically—for e x a m p l e , i n cases o f s u i c i d e o r p s y c h o g e n i c m e n t a l
illness, o r w h e n a later p e r s o n t u r n s t o c r i m e .
T h e o r d e r s o f p r e c e d e n c e a c c o r d i n g t o t i m e t h a t s u p p o r t love i n
a family a r e m o r e c o m p l i c a t e d w h e n t w o existing families a r e c o m -
bined. W h e n partners bring children from their previous marriages
i n t o a n e w r e l a t i o n s h i p , t h e i r love for e a c h o t h e r d o e s n ' t p r e c e d e
t h e i r love for t h e i r c h i l d r e n . I n t h e s e families, successful love u s u a l l y
r e q u i r e s t h a t t h e earlier b o n d i n g b e t w e e n t h e p a r t n e r s a n d t h e i r
c h i l d r e n t a k e p r e c e d e n c e over t h e i r y o u n g e r love for e a c h o t h e r ;
next comes their togetherness as m a n a n d w o m a n in a partnership
o f e q u a l s ; a n d , finally, t h e b o n d i n g t o a n y c h i l d r e n t h e y h a v e
together.
O n e m u s t n o t a p p l y this a s rigid d o g m a , b u t m a n y p r o b l e m s i n
s e c o n d m a r r i a g e s o c c u r w h e n o n e o f t h e n e w p a r t n e r s feels j e a l o u s
o f t h e o t h e r p a r t n e r ' s earlier c h i l d r e n ; t h a t is, w h e n h e o r s h e w i s h e s
t h a t t h e n e w love w o u l d h a v e p r i o r i t y o v e r t h e earlier love b e t w e e n
the children a n d their parent.

Love You for Being Faithful to Your Daughter


A couple decided to divorce and their daughter stayed with her
mother. T h e m a n didn't want any more children, and subsequently
married a woman who also did not want children. After some years,
the man's first wife died suddenly, and the child came to live with her
father and stepmother.
T h e child and her stepmother were not fond of one another. Both
felt a claim on the man's love and constantly competed for prece-
dence. T h e m a n felt t o r n between his love for his child and that for
his wife.
One day, after a quarrel in which the couple considered separa-
tion, the w o m a n visited a friend who helped her to understand the
systemic implications of the situation. T h a t evening, she said to her
husband, " W h e n I see your love for your daughter and your first wife,
I see how faithful you are. I love you more for that."
156 Love's Hidden Symmetry

A w o m a n w i t h a child said a b o u t b e g i n n i n g a s e c o n d r e l a t i o n -
ship, "I c o u l d n ' t love a m a n w h o d i d n ' t r e s p e c t my love for my
child."

Maintaining Precedence Between Different Systems

T h e o r d e r of p r e c e d e n c e b e t w e e n two relationship systems is differ-


e n t from t h e o r d e r of p r e c e d e n c e w i t h i n a relationship system. H e r e
t h e n e w system h a s priority over t h e old system. F o r e x a m p l e , w h e n
a c o u p l e starts a family, t h e n e w family system takes p r e c e d e n c e
over their families of origin, just as a s e c o n d m a r r i a g e a s s u m e s p r e -
c e d e n c e over a first.
E x p e r i e n c e shows t h a t w h e n families d o n ' t follow t h e o r d e r o f
p r e c e d e n c e b e t w e e n systems, they e n c o u n t e r difficulties. F o r
e x a m p l e , if a y o u n g c o u p l e ' s love for their p a r e n t s c o n t i n u e s to take
p r i o r i t y over their love for e a c h o t h e r , t h e r e ' s a d i s t u r b a n c e in t h e
o r d e r of p r e c e d e n c e t h a t m u s t be dealt with if their r e l a t i o n s h i p is to
succeed.
S e c o n d p a r t n e r s h i p s p r e s e n t special c o m p l i c a t i o n s . T h e n e w sys-
t e m m u s t have p r e c e d e n c e over t h e f i r s t i n o r d e r for t h e n e w family
to s u c c e e d , b u t if o n e of t h e n e w p a r t n e r s b r i n g s a child from a p r e -
vious relationship i n t o t h e n e w o n e , t h e n t h e b o n d i n g t o a n d love
for t h e child m u s t m a i n t a i n p r e c e d e n c e over t h e b o n d i n g t o a n d
love for t h e n e w p a r t n e r . C o u p l e s have p r o b l e m s w h e n t h e n e w
p a r t n e r d e m a n d s p r e c e d e n c e over a child from a p r e v i o u s p a r t n e r -
ship, o r w h e n t h e n e w p a r t n e r d e m a n d s from t h e child t h e love t h a t
b e l o n g s t o t h e child's n a t u r a l p a r e n t .
W h e n a p e r s o n h a s a child d u r i n g a p a r t n e r s h i p w i t h s o m e o n e
o t h e r t h a n his o r h e r p a r t n e r , t h e p a r t n e r s h i p i s usually over. T h a t
m e a n s t h a t if a w o m a n h a s a child w i t h a n o t h e r m a n d u r i n g h e r
m a r r i a g e , she forms a n e w system w i t h h i m . As a r u l e , she m u s t
leave h e r first family a n d go to h e r n e w p a r t n e r . If she c h o o s e s to
stay w i t h h e r h u s b a n d , t h e only safe place for t h e child is w i t h t h e
n a t u r a l father.
T h e p r e c e d e n c e of a n e w system over a p r e v i o u s o n e also
r e q u i r e s t h a t a m a n w h o has a child with a n o t h e r w o m a n d u r i n g his
m a r r i a g e leave his family a n d g o t o t h e n e w w o m a n a n d child. N e v -
ertheless, h e m u s t c o n t i n u e t o s u p p o r t his f i r s t wife a n d child. I n
situations like this, t h e f o r m e r p a r t n e r s a n d c h i l d r e n p a y a very
The Conscience of the Family Group 157

h e a v y p r i c e , b u t e x p e r i e n c e s h o w s t h a t all o t h e r s o l u t i o n s r e s u l t i n
g r e a t e r p a i n for all c o n c e r n e d .
Family systems react profoundly to the birth of a child.

A c c e p t i n g the L i m i t a t i o n s o f T i m e

A l t h o u g h it's n e c e s s a r y for all m e m b e r s o f a f a m i l y t o h a v e t h e i r


p l a c e s a n d t o b e " r e - m e m b e r e d , " families m u s t b e a l l o w e d t o f o r g e t
w h a t i s p a s t after a n a p p r o p r i a t e t i m e .

The Polar Bear

A polar bear lived in a circus. He lived in a very small cage and


c o u l d n ' t even t u r n a r o u n d — h e could only walk two steps forward,
a n d t h e n two steps back.
T h e owner of the circus gave h i m to a zoo, where the polar bear
h a d an o p e n space in which to roam. Still, he walked two steps for-
ward a n d t h e n two steps back.
O n e of the other bears asked him, " W h y do you do that?"
He answered, "Because I had to live in a cage for so long."

D e a t h a n d life a r e i n s e p a r a b l e , a s a r e r e m e m b e r i n g a n d f o r g e t t i n g
a n d p a s t a n d f u t u r e . T h e r e c o g n i t i o n t h a t all life s o o n e r o r l a t e r
c o m e s to an e n d helps m e m b e r s of a family to recognize w h a t m u s t
a n d m u s t n o t b e d o n e i n every situation.
T h e r e i s a s t r o n g t e n d e n c y i n families t o t r y t o h o l d o n t o t h i n g s
that are p a s t — m e m o r i e s of b o t h good a n d hurtful experiences.
W h e n m e m b e r s of a family g r o u p hold on to s o m e t h i n g t h a t s h o u l d
b e over, t h e p a s t h o l d s t h e m captive a n d c o n t i n u e s t o w o r k i n a p p r o -
priately in t h e p r e s e n t . B e c a u s e the old t h e n c a n n o t fade away, t h e
n e w h a s difficulty i n e s t a b l i s h i n g itself. I t r e q u i r e s g r e a t d i s c i p l i n e t o
extract yourself from such systemic e n t a n g l e m e n t s , a n d to release
e v e r y t h i n g t h a t d e s e r v e s t o b e f i n i s h e d . All m e m b e r s o f a f a m i l y
g r o u p m u s t let g o o f t h i n g s , b o t h p o s i t i v e a n d n e g a t i v e , a s s o o n a s
t h e i r effect for g o o d i s p a s t .

How a Widow Made Her Children Curious

A w o m a n was widowed while she was still young. She had loved her
h u s b a n d a n d could n o t allow h i m to rest in peace. She decided n o t to
seek a n e w partnership, b u t did not enjoy life after h e r h u s b a n d died.
158 Love's Hidden Symmetry

She lived with her children until they left h o m e , and t h e n withdrew
into the h o u s e she h a d shared with her h u s b a n d a n d t h o u g h t a b o u t
h i m day a n d night. She b e c a m e bitter and depressed.
A p a r t from her children, she h a d no life of her own. H e r children
found no joy w h e n visiting her, b u t they felt guilty w h e n they d i d n ' t .
C a u g h t b e t w e e n the joylessness of visiting her a n d the guilt of leaving
her alone, they c a m e to resent her and began to stay away. H e r lone-
liness and bitterness increased.
W i t h t h e help of a friend, she came to u n d e r s t a n d that her holding
on to the past was d a m a g i n g the love between herself a n d her chil-
dren. She entered a retirement community, found n e w friends a n d
interests, a n d increasingly allowed her past to b e c o m e past. F o r a
while, she almost forgot a b o u t her adult children.
T h e y grew curious a b o u t her life, and soon were u n a b l e to resist
their curiosity a n d the pull to visit.

T h e r e is grace in letting bygones be bygones a n d allowing the


f u t u r e t o c o m e a s i t will. All t h e l e a v e s o n a t r e e a r e s h a p e d
a c c o r d i n g t o t h e s a m e p a t t e r n , b u t e a c h leaf i s different. E v e r y
a u t u m n , t h e y t u r n y e l l o w , r e d , o r g o l d , a n d t h e n fall. E v e r y s p r i n g ,
different leaves s h a p e d w i t h the s a m e basic p a t t e r n e m e r g e in
vibrant, t e n d e r shades of green. T h a t ' s the secret of this systemic
d y n a m i c . C h a n g e is c o n s t a n t ; individual leaves w i t h e r a n d d i e , yet
t h e tree r e m a i n s . T h e tree also dies, yet t h e forest r e m a i n s . H o l d -
ing tight to w i t h e r e d leaves m a y s o o t h e m e m o r y , b u t it d o e s n ' t
h e l p the tree. S o , too, m e m b e r s o f families are b o r n a n d die, a n d
holding on to w h a t was once good or b a d inhibits the natural flow
of life.

The Man Who Didn't Realize the War Was Over

In t h e terrible years after t h e T h i r t y Y e a r s ' W a r , p e o p l e slowly c a m e


o u t of t h e forests w h e r e they h a d h i d d e n , a n d b e g a n to rebuild their
farms a n d h o m e s . T h e y p l a n t e d their fields again a n d cared for t h e
few animals t h a t h a d survived. A year later, they h a d their first
harvest in p e a c e — t h e animals h a d multiplied, a n d t h e p e o p l e
celebrated.
At the edge of the village, there was a house that was b o a r d e d u p .
S o m e t i m e s , w h e n the people passed by, they t h o u g h t that they h e a r d
something inside, b u t they h a d so m u c h to do that they d i d n ' t care to
look into it.
The Conscience of the Family Group 159

O n e night, a little injured dog sat w h i m p e r i n g by the front d o o r of


the closed-up h o u s e . A piece of the m o r t a r fell away and a stone fell
out. A h a n d reached through the small hole, picked up the little d o g ,
a n d lifted it inside. T h e r e really was s o m e o n e inside w h o h a d not yet
realized that peace h a d r e t u r n e d to the outside world. T h e p e r s o n
held the little d o g a n d felt flooded by its soothing w a r m t h . T h e little
d o g fell asleep. T h e person peeked out at the world t h r o u g h t h e small
o p e n i n g , saw t h e distant stars in the heavens, and b r e a t h e d t h e fresh
night air.
S o o n the first light of day began to glow on the eastern horizon, a
rooster crowed, and the little d o g awoke. T h e p e r s o n saw that the
little dog belonged with its c o m p a n i o n s , let it crawl out t h r o u g h the
opening in t h e wall, a n d watched it r u n h o m e .
As the s u n rose in the sky, some children came by, one of t h e m
holding a juicy red apple. T h e y saw the opening a n d , peering in, saw
the m a n sleeping peacefully.
F o r h i m , o n e glimpse of freedom had b e e n enough.

Just as h o l d i n g on to the past can limit freedom, so, too, can try-
ing to control the future. We c a n intuitively sense h o w the larger sys-
temic orders function, b u t the resolutions are often surprising a n d
different from w h a t w e contrive o r wish. F o r this r e a s o n , a s m e m -
bers of families, we delude ourselves w h e n we think t h a t we can
d e t e r m i n e t h e c o u r s e o f fate. N o m a t t e r w h a t w e m a y b e l i e v e t o t h e
c o n t r a r y , w e m u s t s u b m i t t o t h e f u t u r e a s i t c o m e s , for a l t h o u g h w e
s o m e t i m e s c a n i n f l u e n c e it, w e c a n n o t d e t e r m i n e it.

The Verdict

A wealthy m a n died a n d knocked on the pearly gates. Saint Peter


o p e n e d the d o o r a n d asked h i m what he desired. T h e rich m a n said,
"I would like a first-class room with a g o o d view of the earth, my
favorite foods every day, and also the daily paper."
Saint Peter hesitated, but the rich m a n was a d a m a n t . Saint Peter
shrugged his shoulders and gave h i m a first-class r o o m with a g o o d
view of the e a r t h , a n d brought h i m his favorite foods a n d the daily
paper. He said, "Well, here's what you w a n t e d . I'll be back in a t h o u -
sand years." T h e n he left and locked the door.
After the t h o u s a n d years h a d passed, he r e t u r n e d a n d looked into
the r o o m t h r o u g h the peephole. " T h e r e you are at last," cried the
rich m a n . " T h i s heaven is terrible."
Saint Peter shook his h e a d sadly. "You're mistaken," he said.
"You've chosen hell."
160 Love's Hidden Symmetry

E N T A N G L E M E N T S I N FAMILY G R O U P S

F a m i l y m e m b e r s d o n ' t experience injuries t o the h i d d e n o r d e r s o f


t h e f a m i l y g r o u p a s g u i l t y feelings i n t h e i r p e r s o n a l c o n s c i e n c e .
Injuries b e c o m e o b v i o u s only in t h e suffering they b r i n g , especially
t o c h i l d r e n , w h o o f t e n suffer t h e c o n s e q u e n c e s o f t h i n g s t h e y t h e m -
selves d i d n ' t d o . T h e d y n a m i c s o f a f a m i l y b i n d all m e m b e r s i n full
p a r t i c i p a t i o n . O n e b i r d i n flight m a y t u r n i n m a n y d i r e c t i o n s , y e t w e
w a t c h t h e flock t u r n a s a w h o l e . E v e r y b i r d s u b m i t s t o t h e g r e a t e r
w h o l e o f t h e flock, a n d t h r o u g h t h i s s u b m i s s i o n , m a i n t a i n s its m e m -
bership in the group.
In a similar way, t h e family w h o l e b i n d s e a c h m e m b e r so firmly
t h a t t h e o b l i g a t i o n s a n d sufferings o f o n e m e m b e r a r e e x p e r i e n c e d
by o t h e r m e m b e r s as d e b t s a n d obligations. In this way, any family
m e m b e r can b e c o m e blindly entangled in other m e m b e r s ' debts
a n d privileges; in their t h o u g h t s , cares, a n d feelings; a n d in their
conflicts or goals. Individual h a p p i n e s s a n d suffering are limited in
t h e i n t e r e s t s o f t h e family, j u s t a s a w h o l e c o n s t r a i n s its p a r t s .

How Can We Know Peace?

In a television d o c u m e n t a r y , a young m a n was filmed beside a cave.


M a n y t h o u s a n d s of bodies h a d been found in the cave, lying in three
layers. T h e bodies in the first layer were those of adherents to a p a r -
ticular political persuasion w h o h a d b e e n m u r d e r e d by a d h e r e n t s to
a n o t h e r group in retribution for injustices d o n e . T h e bodies in t h e
second layer were those of m e m b e r s of the second party m u r d e r e d in
retribution some years later by m e m b e r s of the first. T h e tide of
power in that c o u n t r y h a d shifted again, and the third layer again
contained bodies of m e m b e r s of the first party m u r d e r e d , in retribu-
tion, by their enemies.
T h e young man, whose relatives were a m o n g the bodies in the
middle layer killed almost 50 years previously, was asked if there
would be an end to the killing. He replied, " W h e n we hear the cries
of our m o t h e r s , a n d see their tears for their m u r d e r e d sons, h o w can
we know peace? We m u s t avenge their loss."

T h e m a n i n t h i s d o c u m e n t a r y b e l i e v e d h e w a s a c t i n g freely, b u t
he was n o t . B e c a u s e he loved blindly, he was c a u g h t in a w e b of
tragedy that h a d b e g u n long before he was b o r n , d e m a n d e d his o b e -
d i e n c e , a n d , tragically, will n o t e n d u n t i l l o n g after h i s d e a t h .
The Conscience of the Family Group 161

W h e n t h e love that binds together the individual m e m b e r s of a


family operates blindly, it d e m a n d s blind o b e d i e n c e , a n d unless
individual m e m b e r s gain insight into its d y n a m i c a n d transform it,
they unknowingly s u b m i t to the laws of b l i n d systemic justice—an
eye for eye a n d a tooth for a tooth. T h e n the d a m a g e is passed from
o n e generation to the next, and the e x t e n d e d family finds no p e a c e .
T h e systemic laws operating within the family d o n ' t r e s p o n d to a
child's love. T h e drive for balance working in t h e family g r o u p is
m o r e f u n d a m e n t a l t h a n love, and it readily sacrifices individual love
and h a p p i n e s s to maintain the larger family equilibrium. T h e
struggle of love against the dynamics of family systems is t h e b e g i n -
n i n g a n d the end of the greatest tragedies. Extracting oneself from
this battlefield requires insight into the O r d e r s of Love, a n d a will-
ingness to follow t h e m with love. Insight into Love's H i d d e n S y m -
m e t r y is w i s d o m ; following it with love is humility. T h a t requires
giving up an inflated sense of self-importance a n d r e t u r n i n g to one's
designated place in the family order, while those w h o have c o m e
before regain their higher place in the hierarchy.
T h e y o u n g m a n standing at the m o u t h of t h e cave loves, b u t his
love is a child's love, a n d it seduces h i m into a s s u m i n g a responsi-
bility i n a p p r o p r i a t e to his position. His child love seeks balance in
revenge blindly, as if m o r e deaths could heal t h e emptiness left by
past deaths. Peace will n o t r e t u r n to his family clan until he m a n -
ages to listen to t h e "cries of o u r m o t h e r s , " to see their tears, a n d to
say to t h e m with love, "Yours is a great loss. I pay h o m a g e to your
suffering. Because I love you, I will n o t take up this sword, a n d I do
you t h e greatest h o n o r by entrusting your suffering to you. W i t h
you, your suffering is in better h a n d s t h a n with m e . " In h e r h e a r t ,
every g r a n d m o t h e r prefers that h e r g r a n d c h i l d r e n live in p e a c e .
T h e n t h e deaths of those w h o have gone before have a g o o d effect
on those w h o c o m e after. T h a t is t h e greater love.

Recognizing Entanglement
Question: H o w do you recognize w h e n systemic e n t a n g l e m e n t is
operating? Are there characteristic signs or signals, anything we c a n
get a grip on?

H e l l i n g e r : Unfinished situations from t h e past express t h e m -


selves in later relationships in the form of impulsive inappropriate
162 Love's Hidden Symmetry

a c t i o n s a n d i n a p p r o p r i a t e l y i n t e n s e feelings. A n i d e n t i f i c a t i o n w i t h
a n o t h e r p e r s o n h a s t h e feeling q u a l i t y o f " n o t b e i n g q u i t e myself,"
or " s o m e t h i n g just got into m e . " W h e n e v e r a p e r s o n displays u n u s u -
ally i n t e n s e e m o t i o n s o r b e h a v i o r s t h a t a r e n ' t u n d e r s t a n d a b l e i n
t e r m s o f t h e c u r r e n t s i t u a t i o n , y o u c a n s u s p e c t t h a t t h e r e ' s a sys-
t e m i c e n t a n g l e m e n t o f s o m e kind. T h i s also i s t r u e w h e n o n e p e r s o n
h a s u n e x p l a i n e d difficulty i n t a l k i n g w i t h a n o t h e r , o r r e a c t s i n a n
inexplicable w a y — a s if he or she w e r e influenced by invisible c o n -
flicts a n d anxieties. People w h o are fanatic a b o u t b e i n g right are
often entangled. W h e n they "fight" with exaggerated bitterness a n d
v e h e m e n c e , t h e y m a y well b e r e p r e s e n t i n g s o m e o n e else i n t h e s y s -
t e m . I f t h e r e ' s a s c a p e g o a t i n t h e p r e s e n t family, it's o f t e n t h e c a s e
t h a t t h e r e w a s a s c a p e g o a t i n a p r e v i o u s g e n e r a t i o n , a n d it's u s e f u l
t o l o o k for i t carefully. A n y r e a c t i o n o r e m o t i o n t h a t s e e m s e x a g g e r -
ated, or i n a p p r o p r i a t e , or amplified m a y be an identification.
Y o u d e v e l o p a s e n s e for t h e c u e s t h a t h i n t a t e n t a n g l e m e n t s . Y o u r
s e n s e will i m p r o v e w i t h p r a c t i c e , j u s t a s y o u r e a r for m u s i c d e v e l o p s
w i t h p r a c t i c e . A s a b e g i n n e r , y o u o n l y h e a r t h e m o s t b l a t a n t differ-
ences, b u t with experience, the subtle nuances begin to be detect-
a b l e . L e t m e give y o u a n e x a m p l e .

Hitting the Wrong Target in the Family

A y o u n g m a n had strong suicidal compulsions that he c o u l d n ' t


u n d e r s t a n d . In other respects, his life seemed to h i m to be okay.
Exploring these urges, he told a g r o u p that, as a little child, he h a d
said to his m o t h e r ' s father, " W h e n will you die and go?" His g r a n d -
father h a d laughed, b u t the question c o n t i n u e d to b o t h e r the little
boy. T h i s sentence was loose in the system. I said, " T h i s sentence
belongs to s o m e o n e else in the system, b u t it c o m e s o u t of the m o u t h
of the weakest m e m b e r of the system and it hit the w r o n g target. We
need to find the real sender and the real target."
We t h e n found out that the little boy's other grandfather h a d h a d a
long affair with his secretary, a n d that during this t i m e , his wife h a d
contracted tuberculosis. T h e sentence belonged to the paternal
grandfather. It was easy to imagine h o w he m u s t have felt toward his
wife: " W h y d o n ' t you die and make room for somebody else?" T h e
grandfather's wish was fulfilled and his wife died.
But t h e n the next generations innocently took u p o n themselves
the task of atoning for his guilt. First, one of his sons prevented the
grandfather from enjoying the benefits of his wife's d e a t h — h e eloped
with t h e secretary. T h e n the g r a n d s o n (the client) took up that o m i -
The Conscience of the Family Group 163

nous sentence, but spoke it to his other grandfather, and then turned
it against himself. T h a t was his suicidal compulsion.

Question: A r e t h e r e indicators in a constellation as to w h e n e m o -


tions have b e e n t a k e n o n from s o m e o n e else a n d w h e n t h e y actually
b e l o n g to t h e individuals themselves?

H e l l i n g e r : N o , n o t always. S o m e t i m e s they e m e r g e d u r i n g t h e
constellation. P e r h a p s s o m e o n e feels s o m e t h i n g at t h e b e g i n n i n g
that d o e s n ' t m a k e sense i n t h e situation. I t m i g h t b e possible t h a t
it's a transferred feeling. T h e n I s e n d up a test b a l l o o n to test t h e
h y p o t h e s i s . T h e reactions of t h e representatives are usually a reliable
i n d i c a t i o n as to w h e t h e r there's s o m e identification.

Identification.

O n e i m p o r t a n t aspect of resolving e n t a n g l e m e n t s is to find o u t


w h o ' s m i s s i n g from t h e family, w h o has b e e n e x c l u d e d , a n d t h e n t o
b r i n g t h a t p e r s o n into awareness a n d s o c o m p l e t e t h e family u n i t .
As a r u l e , an e x c l u d e d p e r s o n is s o m e o n e w h o h a s suffered or h a s
b e e n t h e victim of s o m e injustice. In the eyes of the o t h e r family
m e m b e r s , t h a t p e r s o n was often seen a s b a d , a n d w a s e x c l u d e d
from t h e family system with m o r a l justification or r i g h t e o u s n e s s .
T h o s e r e m a i n i n g t h e n feel morally superior. T h e central d y n a m i c i s
that s o m e o n e in t h e system uses a m o r a l justification to claim a sys-
temically unjustified privilege, to say, "I have m o r e right to b e l o n g
than you do."
T h e p r e s s u r e of a g r o u p to " r e - m e m b e r " all of its m e m b e r s , to
m a i n t a i n its w h o l e n e s s , d e m a n d s t h a t a later p e r s o n t h e n r e p r e s e n t
the e x c l u d e d p e r s o n . T h e w h o l e n e s s o f t h e g r o u p i s frequently
m a i n t a i n e d by identification—a y o u n g e r p e r s o n u n c o n s c i o u s l y
a s s u m e s t h e roles, t h e functions, a n d often t h e feelings of an earlier,
excluded person.

Question: A b o u t a year ago, I f o u n d o u t t h a t I have a half sister.


T h e n e w s c a m e o u t after my father died. It h a d b e e n a family secret
b e t w e e n my p a r e n t s . I was s h o c k e d at t h e r e a c t i o n s of t h e o t h e r s in
the family. I w a s t h e only o n e w h o called her. I d i d n ' t m e e t h e r
t h o u g h , a n d n o w I've lost c o n t a c t w i t h her.
164 Love's Hidden Symmetry

Hellinger: You s e e m t o b e identified w i t h h e r . Y o u ' v e got h e r feel-


ings—for e x a m p l e , t h e feeling of n o t b e i n g entitled to b e l o n g . (The
questioner suddenly begins to cry bitterly.) Yes, t h a t ' s h e r feeling.

Question: D o you m e a n that t h e feeling isn't m i n e ?

H e l l i n g e r : Well, it's y o u r s w h e n y o u feel it, b u t it s e e m s as


t h o u g h y o u ' r e feeling s o m e t h i n g t h a t ' s c o n n e c t e d t o w h a t y o u r sis-
ter m u s t have felt. You c a n c h a n g e it by i m a g i n i n g yourself sitting
n e x t t o h e r a n d telling h e r : " Y o u ' r e m y sister, a n d I ' m y o u r sister."
Your grief h o n o r s her. (Her mood shifts immediately. She beams
through her tears.)
T h e family g r o u p " r e - m e m b e r s " the e x c l u d e d , t h e i g n o r e d , t h e
f o r g o t t e n , the u n r e c o g n i z e d , t h e d e a d . W h e n a legitimate m e m b e r of
t h e g r o u p is s h u t o u t , s o m e o n e in a later g e n e r a t i o n m u s t c o m p e n -
sate for this injustice by suffering a similar injustice. T h e p e r s o n s
drafted, for this service d o n ' t c h o o s e their fate. In fact, they usually
d o n ' t even n o t i c e w h a t ' s h a p p e n i n g a n d c a n ' t d e f e n d themselves
against it. T h e y relive t h e fate of t h e e x c l u d e d p e r s o n , a n d r e c r e a t e
t h a t p e r s o n ' s e x p e r i e n c e , c o m p l e t e with t h e guilt, t h e i n n o c e n c e ,
a n d all of t h e o t h e r feelings that b e l o n g to t h a t e x p e r i e n c e .

Cross-Gender Identification with a Missing Person


Carla came into the group with the complaint that she felt unable to
make use of her knowledge and life experience. She had the belief
that she was forbidden to know or understand what was going on in
her family. This excerpt from the work begins during a constellation.
Here, a possible identification with a missing person is sought.

Hellinger: W a s s o m e o n e e x c l u d e d from y o u r family system?

Carla: My mother had a fiance.

Hellinger: H e m a y b e a n e x c l u d e d p e r s o n . L e t ' s p u t h i m in.


(When a representative for the mother's fiance is placed in the constella-
tion, the improvement for the others is seen immediately.)

Carla: I just r e m e m b e r e d — m y m o t h e r gave me all of t h e p a i n t -


ings he h a d p a i n t e d for her. I've k e p t t h e m all. I h a v e n ' t t h o u g h t
a b o u t t h e m for a while, b u t I've always loved t h e m . T h e y ' r e special
for m e .
The Conscience of the Family Group 165

Hellinger: C a r l a , you s e e m t o b e identified w i t h y o u r m o t h e r ' s


f o r m e r fiance. If t h a t ' s t r u e , t h e n it w o u l d have b e e n difficult for you
to have a g o o d relationship with y o u r father, since y o u w e r e r e p r e -
senting his rival. T h e b o n d i n g t o y o u r m o t h e r w o u l d also have b e e n
difficult since y o u n o t only were t h e d a u g h t e r , b u t also r e p r e s e n t e d
h e r lover for her. In a d d i t i o n , it w o u l d have b e e n difficult for y o u to
develop a clear s e n s e of yourself as a w o m a n , since you w e r e i d e n -
tified w i t h a m a n . T h e solution w o u l d be for y o u to say to y o u r
m o t h e r ' s ex-fiance while p o i n t i n g to y o u r father, " H e is t h e right
o n e for m e . " A n d t h e n t o say t o y o u r father, "You are t h e right o n e
for m e , a n d I'll have n o t h i n g m o r e t o d o w i t h t h a t o t h e r m a n . " T h e n
you c o u l d r e t u r n to t h e position of a child w i t h t w o p a r e n t s , a n d
you c o u l d s e p a r a t e from t h e fiance, a n d t h e n the p r e s s u r e to relive
his fate c o u l d dissolve. (This was then done in the constellation.)

C a r l a (after the constellation): B u t w h a t c a n I do to be able to


learn? T h a t was m y q u e s t i o n .

Hellinger: Give yourself a little t i m e . It c a n take as long as a year


o r t w o for i n t e r n a l i m a g e s t o c o m p l e t e their t r a n s f o r m a t i o n a n d
fully take effect. T h e r e ' s also a loss to be dealt w i t h in giving up y o u r
identification with a m a n your m o t h e r s e e m s to have loved very
m u c h . It's a very decisive step to r e t u r n to t h e m o r e a p p r o p r i a t e ,
b u t less i m p o r t a n t , p o s i t i o n in t h e system.

C a r l a (relieved): Yes, I am the child!

Hellinger: Exactly! T h a t ' s t h e first n e w l e a r n i n g .


Identification is a s t r a n g e , a l m o s t u n c a n n y p h e n o m e n o n . T h e sys-
t e m i c d y n a m i c of c o m p l e t e n e s s in the family g r o u p d e f e n d s t h e
rights o f a n y earlier p e r s o n w h o h a s b e e n e x c l u d e d , a n d i t i s n ' t c o n -
c e r n e d w i t h t h e rights of t h o s e w h o c o m e later. T h e r e ' s a c r u d e j u s -
rice for t h e earlier p e r s o n at t h e price of injustice for t h e o t h e r s , a n d
the injustice is p a s s e d on from g e n e r a t i o n to g e n e r a t i o n .

Unquenchable Yearning
A young woman suffered from an unquenchable yearning that she
couldn't explain. In exploring this strange feeling in a family constel-
lation, it became clear to her that what she was feeling wasn't her
own longing, but something that seemed to belong to her older half
sister. Her father had divorced his first wife and remarried, but his
daughter from his first marriage wasn't allowed to see him again. T h e
166 Love's Hidden Symmetry

client traced the half sister to Australia, m a d e contact with her, and
sent her a ticket to visit the client in Germany. But destiny wasn't to
be changed. On her way to the airport, the half sister disappeared
and couldn't be traced again.

I d e n t i f i c a t i o n is like a s y s t e m i c r e p e t i t i o n c o m p u l s i o n . It a t t e m p t s
t o r e c r e a t e a n d r e p r o d u c e t h e p a s t i n o r d e r t o b r i n g justice t o a n
e x c l u d e d p e r s o n . B u t s u c h justice i s p r i m i t i v e a n d b l i n d , a n d i t
b r i n g s n o r e s o l u t i o n . I n this d y n a m i c , later p e r s o n s b e c o m e
e n t a n g l e d i n t h e d e s t i n y o f a n earlier p e r s o n . E v e n i f t h e i r a c t i o n s
a r e m o t i v a t e d b y love, t h e y t a k e u p o n t h e m s e l v e s a n i n a p p r o p r i a t e
responsibility. A later p e r s o n c a n ' t set s o m e t h i n g in o r d e r for an e a r -
lier p e r s o n after t h e fact. S u c h a r e t r o a c t i v e justice o n l y c o n t i n u e s
t h e s y s t e m i c i m b a l a n c e indefinitely.

Whom Is She Trying to Wash?


A therapist told her supervision group about a woman with a h a n d -
washing compulsion. T h e supervisor asked her, "Which woman in
her system is she trying to wash?" T h a t became clear when the thera-
pist asked her client. After the war, her father's sister had turned to
prostitution to earn money to feed the family, and she contracted
syphilis. Although she had acted to help the family and had signifi-
cantly contributed to their well-being, she was rejected by them and
died alone.

A n o t h e r ' s guilt a n d t r a g e d y often a p p e a r easier t o m a s t e r t h a n


o n e ' s o w n , b u t t a k i n g o n s o m e o n e else's t r a g e d y c r e a t e s n o life-
affirming energy. If m i s f o r t u n e is to be useful in d e v e l o p i n g
strength, it m u s t be returned to the person to w h o m it belongs, and
h e o r s h e m u s t b e t r u s t e d t o e n d u r e it.

Question: H o w d o t h e p e o p l e w h o are identified w i t h e x c l u d e d


p e r s o n s get their information? W h a t are the channels?

Hellinger: I d o n ' t k n o w h o w i t w o r k s . It's just a p h e n o m e n o n


t h a t c a n b e o b s e r v e d i n t h e family c o n s t e l l a t i o n s a n d i n families. I
d o n ' t u n d e r s t a n d it, b u t , f o r t u n a t e l y , i t i s n ' t n e c e s s a r y t o k n o w h o w
it w o r k s to find a s o l u t i o n . I t r y to avoid t h e o r e t i c a l e x p l a n a t i o n s .
T h e t h i n g s I say are w h a t I've o b s e r v e d , a n d I ' m n o t m a k i n g a n y
o t h e r c l a i m . I like to k e e p t h i n g s s m a l l .

Question: W h e n s o m e o n e i n t h e s y s t e m i s identified w i t h a n
e x c l u d e d p e r s o n , will t h a t c o n t i n u e i n t o l a t e r g e n e r a t i o n s ?
The Conscience of the Family Group 167

Hellinger: T h e r e s e e m s to be a t i m e limit. T h e effect of t h e i d e n -


tifications d i m i n i s h e s as t i m e goes o n , a n d after a while, they no
longer have any effect. F o r e x a m p l e , if a g r a n d c h i l d is identified
with the grandfather—for whatever reason—and that grandchild
h a s c h i l d r e n of his or h e r o w n , the c h i l d r e n a r e n ' t likely to have an
identification w i t h t h e g r e a t - g r a n d f a t h e r . At least, I've rarely seen it.

Question: C a n t h e r e be an identification w i t h t h e siblings of a


grandparent?

H e l l i n g e r : T h a t ' s r a r e , a n d it s e e m s to o c c u r only in cases of


e x t r e m e tragedy. I've seen it p e r h a p s t w o or t h r e e t i m e s .

Question: I n systemic t h e r a p y a n d h y p n o t h e r a p y , t h e here a n d


now are very i m p o r t a n t . H o w d o y o u u n d e r s t a n d t h e i m p o r t a n c e o f
t h e p a s t i n y o u r work?

Hellinger: It. s e e m s t o m e t h a t t h e p r e s e n t a n d t h e p a s t f o r m a
polarity that c a n ' t be s e p a r a t e d , so I w o r k with b o t h .

Question: W o u l d you explain w h a t y o u m e a n w h e n y o u u s e t h e


t e r m " d o u b l e shift"?

H e l l i n g e r : W h a t e v e r has b e e n r e p r e s s e d in a family t e n d s to
r e a p p e a r in t h o s e w h o possess t h e least ability to defend themselves.
In a family, t h a t ' s the children a n d g r a n d c h i l d r e n . T h e double shift is
a s u b t y p e of identification. T h e first shift o c c u r s w h e n a later p e r s o n
takes o n t h e feelings o f a n earlier p e r s o n via identification. T h e s e c -
o n d shift o c c u r s w h e n the feelings from the e x c l u d e d p e r s o n are
expressed, n o t to a guilty p a r t y , b u t , t h r o u g h a further shift, to an
i n n o c e n t p e r s o n . A great m a n y p r o b l e m s in relationships exhibit
this d y n a m i c , i n c l u d i n g situations in w h i c h t h e victim was so w e a k
t h a t h e o r she c o u l d n ' t take a p p r o p r i a t e action. P r o b l e m s like t h a t
d o n ' t b e l o n g t o t h e individuals a l o n e , b u t t o t h e w h o l e family, a n d
a n y o n e in t h e family c a n be called on to c o m p e n s a t e for t h e w r o n g -
d o i n g of s o m e o n e else in t h e family.

The Murderer in My Family


A 40-year-old man came to psychotherapy because he was afraid that
he might become violent and strangle someone, or that he himself
could be strangled. No explanation could be found in the analysis of
his character or behavior. He was asked: "Is there a murderer in your
family?"
168 Love's Hidden Symmetry

F u r t h e r exploration revealed that his uncle, his m o t h e r ' s brother,


was a m u r d e r e r . He h a d had an employee w h o was also his lover.
O n e day, he showed her a picture of a w o m a n and told her to get her
hair cut and dyed to look exactly like the w o m a n in the picture. After
his lover h a d w o r n her hair that way for a while, the m a n traveled
abroad with her, m u r d e r e d her, and r e t u r n e d with the w o m a n in the
picture, who b e c a m e his n e w employee and lover. He was caught,
however, a n d is still serving a life sentence in prison.
T h e therapist asked for additional information a b o u t the uncle's
family, especially the g r a n d p a r e n t s , and questioned where the drive
for such an act might have come from. T h e patient knew nothing
a b o u t the grandfather, b u t the g r a n d m o t h e r was said to be a pious
a n d respected w o m a n . He later inquired into the family history a n d
discovered the following. D u r i n g the T h i r d Reich, this pious w o m a n ,
acting with the help of her brother, had accused her h u s b a n d of
being a homosexual. As a result, he h a d b e e n arrested and p u t into a
concentration c a m p , where he was m u r d e r e d .

T h e p i o u s g r a n d m o t h e r w a s t h e real m u r d e r e r , a n d t h e i m p u l s e
t o w a r d v i o l e n c e s t e m m e d f r o m h e r — a t l e a s t a s far a s w e c o u l d t r a c e
it. T h e c l i e n t ' s u n c l e w a s r e c r u i t e d b y t h e c o n s c i e n c e o f t h e f a m i l y
system to act on his d e c e a s e d father's behalf. T h e u n c l e s p a r e d his
m o t h e r a n d u n c o n s c i o u s l y c o m p e n s a t e d for t h e i n j u s t i c e d o n e t o
his father by m u r d e r i n g a w o m a n he loved. He r e p e a t e d w h a t b o t h
his p a r e n t s h a d d o n e a n d d e m o n s t r a t e d his solidarity w i t h b o t h o f
t h e m : with his m o t h e r t h r o u g h the m u r d e r a n d with his father
t h r o u g h t h e i m p r i s o n m e n t . T h e c l i e n t h i m s e l f felt t h e s y s t e m i c t u r -
b u l e n c e o f t h i s c h a i n o f i n j u s t i c e a s a fear o f c o m m i t t i n g v i o l e n c e .
T h e d o u b l e shift a l s o w o r k s i n t h e p o s i t i v e . H e r e i s a n e x a m p l e .

Strange Love

A m o n g the attendees at a workshop were a m a n a n d a w o m a n who


h a d three children, the youngest of w h o m was a three-year-old
daughter. T h e m a n h a d such a deep feeling for his d a u g h t e r that it
d i d n ' t seem like a f a t h e r - d a u g h t e r connection. T h e r e was something
so intimate a n d sweet between t h e m that it was touching to see, b u t
their intimacy s o m e h o w wasn't appropriate. It wasn't incestuous, b u t
it just d i d n ' t seem like the n o r m a l feeling between a father a n d
daughter. S o m e t h i n g wasn't right.
W h a t emerged was that the man's father—the child's grandfather—
h a d a twin sister w h o h a d died very young. T h e m a n ' s feelings for his
The Conscience of the Family Group 169

daughter reflected those of his father toward his twin sister. T h e feel-
ings had been transferred.
T h e man wrote a letter about a month after the workshop ended.
He said that they were all very happy. He had the clear feeling that he
was exactly the right father for his daughter. He said that it had sud-
denly dawned on him that although his daughter's name was Clau-
dia, they had always called her Deedee. Deedee was the name of the
deceased twin, but no one had noticed.

T h a t was a n e n t a n g l e m e n t , b u t n o t a s destructive a s many. I t w a s


also a s o l u t i o n .

Question: If I ' m identified with s o m e o n e , h o w do I get out?

Hellinger: A n identification c a n b e resolved w h e n y o u n g e r p e r -


sons w h o are r e p e a t i n g the fate of earlier p e r s o n s realize w h a t t h e
p r o b l e m is. T h e n they can look a t t h e s h u t - o u t p e r s o n , o r s t a n d b y
that p e r s o n a n d give h i m or h e r a loving place in their h e a r t s . T h i s
love creates a relationship a n d t h e n the e x c l u d e d p e r s o n b e c o m e s a
friend, a g u a r d i a n angel, a s o u r c e of s u p p o r t . An identification is,
after all, the o p p o s i t e of a relationship. W h e n I ' m identified w i t h
s o m e o n e , I feel a n d act as t h a t p e r s o n d o e s , b u t I c a n ' t love t h e p e r -
son b e c a u s e I d o n ' t e x p e r i e n c e h i m or h e r as different from m e . I
can only love s o m e o n e I e x p e r i e n c e as separate from m e . W h e n
I love a p e r s o n as separate from m e , my love dissolves a n y identifi-
cation I m i g h t have. T h e identified p e r s o n c a n t h e n r e t u r n t o his o r
h e r a p p r o p r i a t e place in t h e family, a n d t h e e q u i l i b r i u m of t h e sys-
t e m is reestablished.
^ B e c a u s e identifications a r e n ' t e x p e r i e n c e d consciously, following
feelings d o e s n ' t provide helpful guidelines for their r e s o l u t i o n , a n d
l e a r n i n g to express feelings d o e s n ' t resolve the identification either.
T h a t m e a n s t h a t w h e n t h e p r o b l e m i s related t o a n identification o r
i m b a l a n c e i n t h e family, t h e t h e r a p i s t c a n ' t e x p e c t t h e client t o b e
able to find a resolution on his or h e r o w n ; s u c h r e s o l u t i o n s c a n
only b e f o u n d t h r o u g h c o n s c i o u s insight into t h e g r o u p d y n a m i c s .
T h e r e is a parallel p h e n o m e n o n in t h e physical body. T h e r e are
m a n y d a n g e r o u s c o n d i t i o n s o f w h i c h w e ' r e n o t a w a r e , b u t they still
do d a m a g e o u t s i d e of a w a r e n e s s — a t o m i c r a d i a t i o n , for e x a m p l e . In
spite of t h e m i s l e a d i n g feeling t h a t everything is going well, tragic
things often h a p p e n i n relationship systems. It's u p t o t h e t h e r a p i s t
t o u n d e r s t a n d t h e systemic processes t h a t m i g h t h e l p t h e client f i n d
a solution. A solution brings w i t h it a feeling of b e i n g u n b u r d e n e d ,
170 Love's Hidden Symmetry

o f p e a c e a n d c o n t e n t m e n t . I n a family c o n s t e l l a t i o n , o n e c a n a c t u -
ally see a family s y s t e m c h a n g e a n d t h e family find t r a n q u i l l i t y w h e n
a n e x c l u d e d m e m b e r i s r e t u r n e d t o a r e s p e c t e d p l a c e i n t h e family,
a n d o r d e r a n d full m e m b e r s h i p a r e a c h i e v e d .
H o w e v e r , y o u m u s t also b e w a r y o f relying o n t h e o r e t i c a l k n o w l -
e d g e a b o u t family s y s t e m s , b e c a u s e t h e r e a r e always n e w a n d novel
v a r i a t i o n s o n t h e c o m m o n t h e m e s , a n d e a c h family i s different. T h e
w o r k i s always trial a n d e r r o r ; y o u ' v e g o t t o e x p e r i m e n t w i t h v a r i o u s
possibilities u n t i l y o u find o n e t h a t w o r k s . I f t h e r e ' s n o relief, y o u
h a v e n ' t f o u n d t h e s o l u t i o n , r e g a r d l e s s o f w h a t y o u r t h e o r y tells y o u .
T h e t e n d e n c y o f a family t o b a l a n c e itself b y m a t c h i n g t r a g e d y a t
one point with tragedy at another can be avoided w h e n m e m b e r s
a r e willing t o s e e k b a l a n c e a t a h i g h e r level—for e x a m p l e , b y h o n o r -
ing the excluded m e m b e r s instead of repeating their mistakes. T h i s
i s p o s s i b l e i f t h e y o u n g e r m e m b e r s take from earlier m e m b e r s w h a t
t h e y give, a n d i f t h e y r e s p e c t t h e earlier m e m b e r s , r e g a r d l e s s o f t h e i r
actions. At some point, the past, whether good or tragic, m u s t be
allowed t o b e p a s t i n o r d e r for t h e s y s t e m t o find p e a c e . E x c l u d e d
m e m b e r s b e c o m e a source of blessing rather t h a n intimidation
w h e n they're reinstated as guests in the soul. W h e n everyone w h o
belongs to the system has a proper place in the hearts of the other
m e m b e r s , all o f t h o s e i n t h e s y s t e m feel w h o l e a n d a t p e a c e .
H e r e ' s a s t o r y t h a t c r e a t e s w h a t it d e s c r i b e s — i f y o u let it.

The Return
Here is an invitation to go on a journey into the past, to visit a place
where things happened many years ago, like old soldiers years after
the truce walking across the battlefields on which they were tested.
N o w all danger is past and all difficulties overcome. T h e scars of the
earth are hidden. Grass has long since grown again, meadow flowers
1
bloom, raspberry bushes are heavy and their fruit scents the air. It
may even be difficult to recognize this place; it looks so different from
what we remember, and we need help to find our way.
It's curious as to the many different ways in which we cope with
danger. A child freezes in terror at the sight of a large dog. M o t h e r
comes, picks the child up, and holds him or her in her arms. T h e ten-
sion goes, sobs break loose. And soon, from the safety of that lofty
perch, the child looks back calmly at the dog. Sometimes we can't
stand the sight of our own blood, but if we look away, we scarcely feel
the pain. What a relief to look away—each sense working indepen-
dently of the others, no longer all focused on that one event. T h e n we
The Conscience of the Family Group 171

no longer feel overwhelmed and we can see what is, a n d hear what is,
and feel what is, and know what is i n d e p e n d e n t of o u r fears.
T h i s journey allows each of u s , according to individual desire, to
see all, b u t not all at once; to experience all, b u t not without p r o t e c -
tion. T h a t way, what's i m p o r t a n t can be distinguished from what is
not. A n d whoever prefers may send another in his or her stead, like a
d r e a m e r sitting comfortably at h o m e in a favorite chair, watching
with closed eyes. T h e d r e a m e r makes the journey, a n d can m e e t all
that needs to be resolved, and still be safe at h o m e asleep.
T h e journey takes us to a city that was once rich a n d famous and
is now a ghost t o w n filled with emptiness. T h e shafts where gold was
m i n e d are in ruins, e m p t y houses are standing still intact, the opera
house in good repair, waiting for the audience. But everything has
b e e n a b a n d o n e d a n d there's nothing left b u t m e m o r i e s .
W h o e v e r travels there seeks a n d finds a guide, a n d following this
lead, reaches the place where m e m o r i e s awaken. T h i s is the place
where, long ago, painful things occurred. But n o w t h e s u n is shining,
w a r m i n g the a b a n d o n e d town. T h e streets, which o n c e buzzed with
life, are calm.
T h e traveler wanders up and down the streets a n d finds the re-
m e m b e r e d h o u s e , but hesitates to enter. T h e guide enters the h o u s e
alone to see if it's safe, and to d e t e r m i n e what has b e e n left from
what was there before.
Waiting outside, the traveler looks a r o u n d the e m p t y street, re-
m e m b e r i n g neighbors and old friends, r e m e m b e r i n g the times of
laughter, the lighthearted mischief of a child bursting with the joy of
life, curious to try n e w things, pushing toward adventure into the
great u n k n o w n , toward t h e thrill of fear defied. T h u s time passes.
T h e guide waves. T h e traveler goes into the entry of the house and
knows which people could have helped that child to overcome the
difficulties of that past time—people who were strong, a n d loving,
and knowing. It's as if those people were now present, as if their
voices could be heard, their supporting strength felt. T h e guide takes
the traveler by the h a n d , and together they move on.
H o l d i n g tightly to t h e guiding h a n d , the traveler looks calmly at
the r o o m , seeing first o n e thing, t h e n another, a n d finally everything
exactly as it h a p p e n e d . Strange how different it all seems w h e n
looked at from a centered place, in the c o m p a n y of the guide. M e m o -
ries long shut out r e t u r n safely, a n d many fragments find their place
within the whole. T h e traveler waits patiently until he u n d e r s t a n d s .
W i t h the m e m o r i e s , old emotions well up, a n d with the pain, one
feels one's love. It's like returning h o m e , knowing what e n d u r e s
beyond revenge a n d right or w r o n g , trusting destiny to take its
172 Love's Hidden Symmetry

c o u r s e , humility t o heal, a n d gentleness o f spirit t o b r i n g p e a c e . T h e


traveler b r e a t h e s deeply, releasing tensions long h e l d t h a t n o w flow
away like w a t e r into t h e desert s a n d .
T h e g u i d e t h e n t u r n s a n d says, " P e r h a p s you c a r r i e d s o m e t h i n g
away from h e r e t h a t d i d n ' t b e l o n g to you. P e r h a p s a guilt from s o m e -
o n e , or an illness, or a belief, or a feeling t h a t isn't y o u r s . P e r h a p s it's
a decision you t h e n m a d e t h a t c a u s e d you h a r m . All these y o u m u s t
leave h e r e w h e r e they b e l o n g . "
T h e w o r d s take effect. L e t t i n g o u t a great sigh, t h e traveler feels
relief, at last laying d o w n a heavy b u r d e n . T h e g u i d e speaks o n c e
again: " M a y b e t h e n you a b a n d o n e d s o m e t h i n g t h a t you s h o u l d have
t a k e n with you. It m a y have b e e n s o m e ability or desire, s o m e guilt or
i n n o c e n c e , p e r h a p s s o m e m e m o r y o r h o p e , o r the c o u r a g e t o engage
life fully. G a t h e r up w h a t you lost, or left, a n d take it with you into
your future."
T h e s e w o r d s , t o o , take their effect. Reviewing w h a t was given away
a n d reclaiming w h a t longs to be r e c l a i m e d , t h e traveler feels the e a r t h
u n d e r f o o t a n d t h e swelling weight of p e r s o n a l s u b s t a n c e .
T h e g u i d e leads the traveler still further, until they r e a c h a h i d d e n
d o o r . T h e y o p e n it, a n d at last find w h a t reconciles.
N o w there is n o t h i n g m o r e to be resolved in this old place. Feeling
ready, t h e traveler t h a n k s t h e g u i d e , t u r n s , a n d b e g i n s the j o u r n e y
b a c k . A t h o m e again, h e takes the t i m e h e n e e d s t o c o m e t o t e r m s
w i t h this newly f o u n d freedom a n d s t r e n g t h . B u t secretly h e already
p l a n s t h e n e x t j o u r n e y — t h i s time into s o m e n e w a n d u n k n o w n land.
Transcript
BONDING IN THE FAMILY OF ORIGIN I

T h e following case is transcribed from a video of a training work-


shop for professional systemic therapists. M o r e t h a n 20 people with
life-threatening illnesses, together with their physicians or p s y c h o -
therapists, were invited to participate in the inner circle, while a
larger g r o u p of m e n t a l health professionals observed t h e work. T h e
presence of each patient's physician or psychotherapist provided
continuity to the t r e a t m e n t . T h e following family constellation was
the first of the two-day seminar. A brief i n t r o d u c t i o n a n d four s h o r t
conversations with "mini-interventions' have b e e n o m i t t e d from this
transcript. Irene is in her m i d - 3 0 s .

Hellinger: Hello. W h a t ' s your n a m e , and w h a t brings you here?

Irene: I ' m Irene. I have cancer.

Hellinger: W h a t kind of cancer?

Irene: C a n c e r of the lymph glands.

Hellinger: H o w long have you h a d it?

I r e n e : A b o u t a year. Before that, I h a d b l a d d e r cancer. I h a d to


have my b l a d d e r removed, and n o w I've got metastases to t h e
lymph glands.

H e l l i n g e r : C o m e over h e r e a n d sit next to m e . I'll ask you a


couple of questions a b o u t your family, a n d t h e n we'll set up your
family constellation. Are you married?

Irene: Yes.

Hellinger: D o you have children?

Irene: Yes, two boys.

Hellinger: Have either you or your h u s b a n d b e e n in a n o t h e r sig-


nificant relationship?
173
174 Love's Hidden Symmetry

Irene: No.

Hellinger: H a s a child in either of your families died?

Irene: Yes, in my family.

Hellinger: Who?

Irene: M y b r o t h e r . H e was 1 4 m o n t h s old.

Hellinger: O f w h a t d i d h e die?

Irene: H e h a d t h r e e - d a y measles a n d d i d n ' t survive.

Hellinger: Was y o u r b r o t h e r o l d e r o r y o u n g e r t h a n you?

Irene: He was a year y o u n g e r t h a n I.

Hellinger: We'll set up y o u r family of origin first. T h a t i n c l u d e s


y o u r father, y o u r m o t h e r , y o u , a n d your b r o t h e r . I s t h e r e a n y o n e
else w h o b e l o n g s there?

Irene: I have two o t h e r b r o t h e r s . T h e y ' r e still living.

Hellinger: H a v e you ever d o n e a family constellation before? Do


you k n o w h o w it works?

Irene: Yes.

Hellinger: Okay, g o a h e a d . C h o o s e s o m e o n e t o r e p r e s e n t y o u r
father. (Irene hesitates) Go a h e a d , it i s n ' t t o o i m p o r t a n t w h o m y o u
c h o o s e . T h e n c h o o s e representatives for the o t h e r m e m b e r s o f t h e
family. We'll leave y o u r d e c e a s e d b r o t h e r o u t at first. J u s t get t h e m
collected h e r e in t h e m i d d l e of t h e circle. (Irene assembles the repre-
sentatives in the center of the circle.) Okay, n o w p o s i t i o n t h e m in rela-
tion t o o n e a n o t h e r — w i t h o u t talking. Take t h e m b y t h e h a n d , o n e a t
a t i m e , a n d lead t h e m to their places. Do it t h e way y o u feel it.
T h i n k i n g a b o u t it d o e s n ' t help. (To representatives): A n d you n e e d n ' t
talk either. J u s t stay c e n t e r e d a n d pay a t t e n t i o n t o h o w y o u r s e n s a -
tions c h a n g e as she g u i d e s you to y o u r places. (To Irene, after she is
f i n i s h e d ) : N o w , g o a r o u n d the o u t s i d e . Stay very c e n t e r e d a n d col-
lected a n d c h e c k t h a t y o u r constellation i s right, a n d c h a n g e a n y -
t h i n g t h a t n e e d s t o b e c h a n g e d . Slowly. N o w c h o o s e s o m e o n e t o
The Conscience of the Family Group 175

r e p r e s e n t y o u r d e c e a s e d b r o t h e r a n d place h i m i n t h e constellation.
T h e n take a seat w h e r e y o u can see.

Hellinger: H o w is t h e father feeling?

Father: G o o d , very relaxed.

Hellinger: S t r a n g e , you d o n ' t look it. (To Mother): H o w do y o u


feel?

Mother: M y h e a r t ' s p o u n d i n g . T h e children are s o far a p a r t . I


d o n ' t feel g o o d .

H e l l i n g e r (to Irene's representative): H o w are you feeling?

Irene's Representative: I ' m very d i s t a n t from m y m o t h e r a n d I


feel g o o d n e x t to my b r o t h e r .

Third Child: T h a t goes for m e too. I ' m glad t h a t m y sister i s


t h e r e . I've n o idea w h a t m y o t h e r b r o t h e r i s d o i n g .

H e l l i n g e r (to fourth child): H o w do y o u feel?

Fourth Child: I d o n ' t have a n y c o n n e c t i o n t o m y family. T h e


only o n e I c a n even see is my d e a d b r o t h e r , a n d I w a n t to get o u t of
h e r e . I've got a h e a d a c h e .

H e l l i n g e r (to deceased brother): A n d h o w are you feeling?

*Legend: Fa—Father; Mo—Mother; 1—Irene's representative; +2—2nd child,


boy, died at 14 months; 3—third child, a boy; 4—fourth child, a boy.
176 Love's Hidden Symmetry

Deceased Brother: I've no idea w h o these other people are. I ' m


facing in the opposite direction. I d o n ' t feel particularly good
(laughs).

Hellinger: I can well imagine. (To Irene): W h a t h a p p e n e d in your


father's family that might be significant?

I r e n e : His father died early, w h e n my father was in t h e fourth


grade. He really suffered from his father's death. He w a s n ' t able to
learn a profession as he h a d w a n t e d to because his m o t h e r was a
very weak person a n d never m a n a g e d to get it together again.

H e l l i n g e r : T h a t d o e s n ' t help u s . It's a description of s o m e o n e ' s


character. W h a t ' s useful are things that actually h a p p e n e d . For
example, it's useful to know that his father died early. C h o o s e s o m e -
one to represent your father's father and p u t h i m into the constel-
lation. (To Irene as she places paternal grandfather): I r e n e , be careful!
You weren't respectful e n o u g h w h e n you first set up the constella-
tion. I almost h a d to break off the work because you w e r e n ' t taking
it seriously e n o u g h . You weren't gathered in yourself. You know, that
h a p p e n s quite often with people w h o have cancer; they a r e n ' t col-
lected within themselves. S o m e t i m e s they actually try to avoid find-
ing a resolution. T h e y unconsciously believe it's easier for t h e m to
die. I let you c o n t i n u e even t h o u g h you weren't placing t h e repre-
sentatives with the appropriate respect because I k n o w p e o p l e with
cancer have that difficulty. So where does your father's father
belong? G o o n a n d p u t h i m in.

Irene: T h e p r o b l e m is that I c a n ' t feel where I should p u t him.

Hellinger: Yes, you're cut off from your own soul—that's t h e part
of you that senses what's right for you. (To father's representative):
W h e n you imagine w h e r e your father would s t a n d , w h e r e would
that be? (To group): D i d you notice? He immediately showed me
with his gaze w h e r e his father should stand. He would stand here
(moves the grandfather).

H e l l i n g e r (to deceased brother): H o w do you feel with your g r a n d -


father standing there?

Deceased Brother: A bit better t h a n before.

H e l l i n g e r : Yes, I can see it in your face. (To group): T h e therapist


always watches t h e effect that any moves have on t h e constellation.
The Conscience of the Family Group 177

T h e representatives' s p o n t a n e o u s reactions give the m o s t useful


information. (To youngest brother): H o w are you doing?

Fourth Child: M u c h better.

H e l l i n g e r (to father): A n d you?

Father: Better.

H e l l i n g e r (to group): I have a hypothesis a b o u t the d y n a m i c in


this family. My suspicion is that t h e father in this family wants to
follow his o w n father . . . I'll show you. (Places the father behind the
grandfather.) (To Irene's brothers 2 and 4, deceased brother and youngest
brother): N o w you two, t u r n a r o u n d and face your family.

* Legend addition: +PGFa—paternal grandfather, died when Irene's father was 10


years old
178 Love's Hidden Symmetry

H e l l i n g e r (to group): A h , did you notice the m o t h e r ' s i m m e d i a t e


reaction? (To mother): H o w are you feeling now?

Mother: I feel better (deep sigh of relief).

H e l l i n g e r (to youngest brother, whose face has begun to shine): Yes,


that's clear. (To deceased brother, whose face also is beaming): You too!
(To Irene's representative): So, h o w are you feeling now?

Irene's Representative: A bit funny w h e n I look at my d e a d


brother.

Hellinger: H o w ' s the relationship with y o u r father?

Irene's Representative: I t d o e s n ' t b o t h e r m e w h e n he's there.

H e l l i n g e r (to Irene): So what shall we do with this family?

Irene: Bring t h e m together so that everyone isn't facing in differ-


ent directions.

H e l l i n g e r : Do you really believe it's as simple as that? T h a t we


c a n just p u s h t h e m a r o u n d however w e w a n t a n d expect i t t o have
a positive effect? C o m e h e r e a n d take y o u r place in the constella-
tion so t h a t I c a n work with you directly. (To Irene's representative):
You c a n sit d o w n now. T h a n k you very m u c h . (Irene assumes the
position).

Hellinger: H o w ' s the grandfather feeling?

P a t e r n a l G r a n d f a t h e r : N o t very well. I d o n ' t know w h a t h a p -


p e n e d to the p e o p l e behind me after I died.

H e l l i n g e r (to father): H o w are you feeling, better or worse?

Father: S o m e w h a t better, b u t I c a n ' t see my father's face.

Hellinger: I'll t u r n h i m a r o u n d n o w a n d p u t you beside h i m .

H e l l i n g e r (to father's father): H o w ' s that for you?

P a t e r n a l G r a n d f a t h e r : Finally, I've got an overview of t h e


whole situation. It's a mess!
The Conscience of the Family Group 179

Father: I ' m feeling better t h a n before. My angle of vision is


larger.

H e l l i n g e r (to mother): N o w you can see y o u r h u s b a n d again.


H o w ' s that for you?

Mother: It's good.

Hellinger: G o and stand next t o him.

Mother: T h a t ' s better!

H e l l i n g e r (to group): T h a t ' s essentially t h e s a m e position as


before (she's again standing next to her husband), b u t n o w t h e
deceased grandfather is present. You can see w h a t a difference it
makes w h e n s o m e o n e w h o died early is r e t u r n e d to t h e system. (To
Irene): H o w are you doing now?
180 Love's Hidden Symmetry

I r e n e : Before I h a d the feeling that everyone was just watching out


for themselves, b u t now it's a little better. I feel a special togetherness.
H e l l i n g e r : H o w was it with your deceased brother? Was he
r e m e m b e r e d in the family, or forgotten?
I r e n e : N o , h e was r e m e m b e r e d . N o t too often, b u t w e t h o u g h t
a b o u t h i m every n o w and again.
(Hellinger places the grandfather a little to one side and the children
across from the parents, in birth order.)

H e l l i n g e r (to Irene): H o w ' s that for you here?


Irene: Quite g o o d . I can't really feel m u c h . My feelings are a bit
c u t off.
H e l l i n g e r : T r y t u r n i n g a r o u n d . (Hellinger turns her away from
family and a little to one side.)
The Conscience of the Family Group 181

H e l l i n g e r (to father): W h a t changes for you with her standing


there? Is it better or worse?

Father: N o t a s good.

Mother: Worse.

H e l l i n g e r (to deceased brother): F o r you?

Deceased Brother: Also worse.

Third Child: F o r m e too.

Fourth Child: Worse.

H e l l i n g e r (to Irene): H o w ' s that for you?

Irene: I feel g o o d here by myself. (Surprised murmur in group.)

H e l l i n g e r (to deceased brother): I want to do a little e x p e r i m e n t


with you. C o m e over here a n d stand in front of your sister a n d look
at her.

Diagram 8

H e l l i n g e r (to Irene after a long pause): W h a t ' s happening?

Irene: I almost have to cry. I d o n ' t u n d e r s t a n d why.

H e l l i n g e r (to deceased brother): H o w do you feel?

Deceased Brother: I d o n ' t know exactly. I can feel h o w moved


she is.
182 Love's Hidden Symmetry

Hellinger: H o w d o you feel w h e n she's s o m o v e d , b e t t e r o r


worse?

Deceased Brother: B e t t e r o r worse? Better, I s u p p o s e .

Hellinger: W h a t ' s really h a p p e n i n g ?

D e c e a s e d B r o t h e r (laughing): Actually, I ' m also very m o v e d ,


b u t I c a n ' t a n s w e r " b e t t e r " or " w o r s e . "

H e l l i n g e r (to Irene): Go b a c k to y o u r p r e v i o u s p l a c e now. (To


deceased brother): A n d y o u can take a place in front of y o u r p a r e n t s
w i t h y o u r b a c k l e a n i n g against t h e m . (To parents): L a y a h a n d on his
s h o u l d e r , very tenderly.

H e l l i n g e r (to group): T h i s child is s h u t o u t of t h e family. C a n you


see that? D o y o u see h o w deeply t o u c h e d h e i s w h e n he's p e r m i t t e d
to m o v e to his p a r e n t s ? H i s p a r e n t s m u s t have s h u t h i m o u t . (To
Irene): W h a t ' s h a p p e n i n g w i t h you now?

Irene: My feelings are c u t off again, so c u t off t h a t I c a n ' t even


tell w h a t ' s h a p p e n i n g . I c a n ' t even think. It's like I ' m in an e m p t y
room.

H e l l i n g e r (to group): T h o s e are, in a m a n n e r of s p e a k i n g , t h e


feelings of a d e a d p e r s o n . A n d w h o ' s d e a d in t h e family? T h e
brother.

Deceased Brother: I was really e m o t i o n a l before.


The Conscience of the Family Group 183

H e l l i n g e r (to group): I d o n ' t k n o w what's appropriate to do with


t h e m . F r o m t h e last constellation a n d from w h a t we've experi-
m e n t e d with, I a s s u m e that Irene is unconsciously trying to follow
her b r o t h e r into d e a t h , and that's o n e of the factors in h e r illness—
she wants to follow h i m , to be with him. (Long pause) I d o n ' t
believe there's anything I can do to stop her. (To Irene): W h o could
stop you?

Irene: Myself?

Hellinger: Do you really think its possible to lift yourself by pull-


ing on your o w n hair?

Irene: I d o n ' t know. Who?

Hellinger: I know s o m e o n e .

Irene: Yes? (Begins to sob.)

Hellinger: Breathe, o p e n your eyes. (Very gently) C o m e with m e .


(Takes her by the arm and leads her in front of her deceased brother.)

H e l l i n g e r (to Irene): P u t your a r m s a r o u n d h i m . (Brother's repre-


sentative hesitates.) Go ahead a n d hold her, it's okay. (To Irene, who is
still sobbing deeply): Breathe deeply, keep your m o u t h o p e n . W h a t
was your brother's n a m e ?

Irene: Peter.

Hellinger: Say to h i m , " D e a r Peter."

Irene: D e a r Peter.
184 Love's Hidden Symmetry

Hellinger: Tell h i m , " I ' m c o m i n g t o o . " (Irene hesitates. To her, gen-


tly) It's okay to tell h i m that.

Irene: I'm coming too.

Hellinger: B r e a t h e . M o u t h o p e n . Say, " I ' m c o m i n g t o o . "

I r e n e (Breathes deeply, and then between sobs): I'm coming too. I'm
coming too.

Hellinger: B r e a t h e deeply a n d allow it to flow freely: " I ' m c o m -


ing t o o . "

Irene: I ' m c o m i n g t o o . (Sobs for a long time, gradually becoming


calm. Brother's representative is tenderly holding her.)

H e l l i n g e r (to deceased brother): H o w do you feel w h e n s h e says


that?

Deceased Brother: I w a n t t o c o m f o r t her.

Hellinger: O f c o u r s e . Tell h e r , " I r e n e , stay."

Deceased Brother: I r e n e , stay.

Hellinger: Tell her, " I t ' s e n o u g h if y o u c o m e later."

Deceased Brother: It's e n o u g h if you c o m e later. (Irene begins to


weep again.)

H e l l i n g e r (After a long pause, Irene is calm.): Irene, I think that's


e n o u g h for now. Is t h a t okay? (She nods confirmation.) G o o d . (To
representatives):Thank y o u for y o u r help. You can sit d o w n now. (To
group): S e r i o u s illnesses, suicides or suicide a t t e m p t s , or a c c i d e n t s
are s o m e of t h e things we often see in p s y c h o t h e r a p y t h a t are m o t i -
v a t e d by l o v e — t h e love of a small child. Small children love a c c o r d -
ing to a m a g i c a l belief system. F o r t h e small child, love m e a n s :
" W h e r e v e r y o u lead, I will follow. W h a t e v e r you d o , I'll d o , " or "I
love y o u so m u c h t h a t I w a n t to be with you always." T h a t is: "I'll
follow y o u in y o u r illness" a n d "I'll follow you in y o u r d e a t h . "
W h e n e v e r s o m e o n e loves in this way, he or she naturally is v u l n e r -
able to b e c o m i n g seriously ill.
B u t h o w m u s t the p e r s o n feel w h o ' s loved in this way? H o w m u s t
he or she feel u p o n seeing that his or h e r illness or d e a t h is causing a
child to b e c o m e ill? (To representative of deceased brother): H o w m u s t
The Conscience of the Family Group 185

they feel? B a d , right? Exactly! You showed that clearly in your r e a c -


tions. (To group): In t h e constellations, we invariably observe that t h e
deceased, the ill, a n d t h o s e w h o have suffered a difficult fate wish t h e
survivors well. O n e d e a t h or misfortune is sufficient. T h e d e a d are
well disposed toward the living. It's n o t only t h e child w h o loves, b u t
also those w h o ' v e suffered or died. In o r d e r for t h e systemic healing
to succeed, Irene m u s t recognize h e r deceased b r o t h e r ' s love a n d
h o n o r his fate. (To Irene): Your b r o t h e r ' s g o o d wishes for you could
heal you. T h a t w o u l d be a resolution. Is that okay w i t h you?

Irene: M o r e t h a n okay.

Hellinger: G o o d . You've d o n e very well. T a k e h i m i n t o y o u r


s o u l — t h e p o w e r of his love. Okay?

Irene: Yes.

Hellinger: G o o d ! (To group): Well, that w a s o u r first constella-


tion. You c o u l d see h o w it's s o m e t i m e s possible to b r i n g a h i d d e n
family d y n a m i c t o light—a d y n a m i c t h a t m a y b e t h e c a u s e , o r a t
least a c o n t r i b u t i n g c a u s e , of an illness. B u t y o u c o u l d also see h o w
the family d y n a m i c suggests a direction in w h i c h to look for r e s o l u -
tions t h a t have a g o o d effect. A r e t h e r e q u e s t i o n s ?

Irene: I ' m n o t clear w h a t you m e a n w h e n y o u say, " r e c o g n i z e his


love a n d h o n o r his fate."

Hellinger: W h e n a child dies, the o t h e r m e m b e r s of t h e family


t e n d t o b e c o m e afraid—in p a r t b e c a u s e they also, p e r h a p s u n c o n -
sciously, feel t h e k i n d of love that m a k e s t h e m w a n t to follow t h e
child. I n o r d e r t o c o n t a i n their fear, they d e a d e n their feelings. T h e y
effectively s h u t the child o u t o f their h e a r t s a n d souls. T h e y m a y talk
a b o u t t h e child, b u t they've c u t off their feelings. T h e n , even t h o u g h
t h e child is d e a d , he or she is still h a v i n g a d e a d e n i n g effect on t h e
family system, a d e a d e n i n g of feeling. F o r love to s u c c e e d , t h e child
m u s t have a place in t h e family, just as if he or she w e r e living. T h e
surviving m e m b e r s of t h e family m u s t live their feelings for t h e child
a n d their grief. T h e y m i g h t p u t up a p i c t u r e of t h e child, or p l a n t a
tree i n t h e child's m e m o r y . B u t t h e m o s t i m p o r t a n t t h i n g i s t h a t t h e
survivors take t h e d e c e a s e d w i t h t h e m i n t o life, a n d allow their love
for t h e child to live. (To Irene): You c o u l d s h o w y o u r c h i l d r e n to
y o u r d e c e a s e d b r o t h e r , for e x a m p l e . (To group): A lot of p e o p l e act
as if t h e d e a d were g o n e . B u t w h e r e c a n t h e y go? Obviously, t h e y ' r e
186 Love's Hidden Symmetry

physically a b s e n t , b u t t h e y ' r e also p r e s e n t in their c o n t i n u i n g effect


on t h e living. W h e n they have their a p p r o p r i a t e p l a c e in t h e family,
d e c e a s e d p e r s o n s have a friendly effect. O t h e r w i s e , t h e y c a u s e a n x i -
ety. W h e n t h e y get their p r o p e r p l a c e , t h e y s u p p o r t t h e living in liv-
ing i n s t e a d of s u p p o r t i n g t h e m in t h e illusion t h a t t h e y s h o u l d die.

Related Questions
Question: W h e n I was in the role, I felt feelings a n d h a d t h o u g h t s
t h a t really were foreign to m e . It was as if I w e r e s o m e o n e else, as if
I really h a d b e c o m e t h e p e r s o n I was r e p r e s e n t i n g . W h y d o e s t h a t
h a p p e n ? C a n y o u say s o m e t h i n g a b o u t this p h e n o m e n o n ?

Hellinger: D r a m a t i c isn't it? I d o n ' t k n o w why it h a p p e n s . I just


see t h a t it is so, a n d I u s e it. O b s e r v e r s s o m e t i m e s c a n ' t believe t h e
p o w e r of t h e p h e n o m e n o n until they actually have h a d a c h a n c e to
b e representatives themselves. W h e n t h e representatives are e s p e -
cially willing to s u r r e n d e r themselves to t h e role, t h e i n f o r m a t i o n
t h a t b e c o m e s available c a n b o r d e r o n t h e u n c a n n y .
O n c e a w o m a n , a d o c t o r , was r e p r e s e n t i n g a m o t h e r in a c o n s t e l -
lation, a n d she s u d d e n l y felt a s h a r p p a i n in h e r chest a n d left a r m
a n d b r o k e o u t in a cold sweat. S h e briefly b e c a m e c o n c e r n e d t h a t
she m i g h t b e h a v i n g a h e a r t attack. I t t u r n e d o u t t h a t t h e m o t h e r
she was r e p r e s e n t i n g h a d suffered a massive h e a r t attack six weeks
previously. A n o t h e r representative b e g a n t o have t h e s y m p t o m s o f
a n epileptic seizure a n d w e f o u n d o u t t h a t t h e m a n h e w a s r e p r e -
s e n t i n g w a s an epileptic. T h i n g s like t h a t h a p p e n all t h e t i m e . I c a n ' t
explain t h e m , a n d I d o n ' t even try. I like to stick to w h a t I actually
c a n see, so I avoid s p e c u l a t i o n , b u t I've l e a r n e d t h r o u g h e x p e r i e n c e
t o t r u s t w h a t e v e r e m e r g e s i n t h e constellations. T h e r e p r e s e n t a t i v e s '
s p o n t a n e o u s b o d y r e a c t i o n s p r o v i d e useful i n f o r m a t i o n a b o u t t h e
effect t h e system is having on its m e m b e r s .

Question: B u t d o n ' t t h e representatives project their o w n m a t e -


rial into t h e role? H o w d o you k n o w t h a t w h a t t h e y say h a s t o d o
w i t h t h e role?

H e l l i n g e r : Yes, s o m e t i m e s it b e c o m e s clear that representatives


are b r i n g i n g their o w n m a t e r i a l into t h e constellation, a n d t h e n t h e
t h e r a p i s t m u s t take t h e m o u t a n d p u t i n s o m e o n e else. S o m e t i m e s
t h e roles are so b a d t h a t t h e representatives c a n ' t be left in t h e m
The Conscience of the Family Group 187

very long, as w h e n they represent a m u r d e r e r or a child abuser or


s o m e o n e like that. T h e n the negative effect of the role can be t o o
strong. But with these exceptions, I always treat what c o m e s as
being a function of the role, and of the role alone. T h i s orientation
m a i n t a i n s hygiene in t h e work. If working on your personal material
is mixed with your experience in the role, you can b e c o m e very c o n -
fused, a n d therapists lose their overview.
I s o m e t i m e s have h a d the feeling that people were projecting
their own material into a role a n d I've taken t h e m out, only to have
the r e p l a c e m e n t p e r s o n react in exactly the s a m e way. My experi-
ence is that it's almost always safe to trust the representatives, to
trust that they're providing useful information a b o u t the system.

Question: S o m e t i m e s w h e n you moved people just t h e slightest


a m o u n t , I felt a dramatic change in my body. T h e n , at the e n d , there
was a feeling in my b o d y of complete relaxation, a physical sense of
" n o w it's right." C a n you say s o m e t h i n g a b o u t that feeling of right-
ness a n d relaxation?

Hellinger: W h e n that relaxation occurs for everyone in a constel-


lation, I a s s u m e that the system is a p p r o a c h i n g b a l a n c e , a n d that
everyone in t h e system has his or her a p p r o p r i a t e place a n d func-
tion. I call t h e systemic laws operating in those constellations that
s u p p o r t the bodily sensation of relaxation and rightness "Love's
H i d d e n Symmetry."
Love's H i d d e n S y m m e t r y is whatever is required to allow t h e
bodily feeling of " r i g h t n e s s " you describe. It s u p p o r t s healing a n d
c o m m u n i c a t i o n in a family. L e a r n i n g h o w to help families find it is
the whole task of this workshop. You could see h o w easily a n d h o w
profoundly love flows as a system approaches its order. Even t h e
representatives feel touched by what they experience. T h e physical
sense of " t h a t ' s r i g h t " is what makes this a p p r o a c h p h e n o m e n o l o g i -
cal a n d n o t merely a n o t h e r theory a b o u t h o w families function. We
experiment a n d observe carefully until we see t h a t reaction. In this
work, we're always looking for resolutions, for t h e systemic c o n t i n -
gencies that s u p p o r t the free flow of love and m e a n i n g .

Q u e s t i o n : You say h e r brother's love could heal her, b u t he was


an infant w h e n he died. W h a t was set up here isn't h o w it really was
for h e r in her family. H o w do we know a baby really loves his sister
at all?
188 Love's Hidden Symmetry

H e l l i n g e r (to group): I only deal with w h a t I can actually see h a p -


p e n i n g . At t h e e n d of this constellation, everyone p r e s e n t felt a n d
saw s o m e t h i n g very powerful h a p p e n as I r e n e c o n f r o n t e d h e r
b r o t h e r . We all felt t h e g o o d n e s s a n d love. W h a t we saw a n d felt was
t h e effect of h e r b r o t h e r ' s love. T h a t ' s a descriptive m e t a p h o r for
w h a t she felt s t a n d i n g in front of h e r b r o t h e r ' s representative—for
w h a t we all felt. It's a n a m e for t h e g o o d d y n a m i c we all w i t n e s s e d .
T h a t g o o d d y n a m i c is w h a t ' s real at this m o m e n t . It b r i n g s h o p e .
W h a t e v e r t h e o u t c o m e for her, it will be b e t t e r for h e r if she has
m o r e of this g o o d d y n a m i c a n d less of whatever was o p e r a t i n g in
h e r family before.

Question: We c o u l d all see t h a t t h e r e was an a m a z i n g m o v e m e n t ,


a n d I t h i n k everyone h e r e was p r o f o u n d l y t o u c h e d , b u t w h a t d o e s
t h e w o r k m e a n i n t e r m s o f the o u t c o m e t h a t I r e n e c a n expect? I s
h e r c a n c e r c u r e d ? Is t h e r e any research a b o u t t h e l o n g - t e r m effects
of s u c h work?

Hellinger: I w o n ' t answer y o u r q u e s t i o n directly. It's i n a p p r o p r i -


ate at this t i m e . I'll explain. As you said, we all felt a powerful
d y n a m i c u n f o l d i n g , a n d t h e final o u t c o m e i s n o t u n d e r o u r c o n t r o l .
A n y benefit t h a t c o m e s will c o m e from w h a t I called " h e r b r o t h e r ' s
love." T h a t ' s a n e w d y n a m i c in h e r system, a n d we m u s t resist every
t e m p t a t i o n that distracts h e r (or us) from feeling t h a t d y n a m i c . If
y o u ' r e p a y i n g close a t t e n t i o n to t h e d y n a m i c of love w o r k i n g in you,
y o u ' r e in a different state of m i n d t h a n w h e n you t h i n k a b o u t o u t -
c o m e . I f y o u start t h i n k i n g a b o u t o u t c o m e , you'll quickly distract
yourself a n d s t o p t h e g o o d effect of t h e love.
T h a t ' s t h e r e a s o n why, w h e n I ' m w o r k i n g as t h e r a p i s t , I never
t h i n k a b o u t o u t c o m e . I d o n ' t even w a n t to know. If I s t a r t to t h i n k
a b o u t t h e o u t c o m e , I c a n ' t see w h a t ' s h a p p e n i n g w i t h t h e p e o p l e
s t a n d i n g in front of m e . My a t t e n t i o n w a n d e r s into t h e future, a n d I
t r y t o m a k e things h a p p e n t h a t are i n m y interest, b u t n o t n e c e s s a r -
ily in t h e client's. T h e n t h e kind of love we saw a n d felt just n o w
c a n ' t h a p p e n . In a situation like this, any h e a l i n g t h a t o c c u r s d o e s so
exclusively t h r o u g h t h e love within t h e family system, a n d t h e o u t -
c o m e is n o n e of my b u s i n e s s . I m a y be p e r m i t t e d to h e l p t h e family
find a resolution t h a t allows m e m b e r s ' love to b e c o m e visible a n d to
flow, b u t t h e n my service is finished, a n d I m u s t w i t h d r a w a n d t r u s t
t h e g o o d effect of t h e i r love.
The Conscience of the Family Group 189

After w o r k like t h i s , I forget t h e p e o p l e i n v o l v e d , s o t h a t t h e y a r e


left i n p e a c e t o finish t h e i r w o r k i n w h a t e v e r w a y t h e y find a p p r o p r i -
a t e . I t r u s t t o t h e g o o d p o w e r o f t h e i r love, a n d b e c a u s e o f t h a t t r u s t ,
I m u s t leave t h e i r f r e e d o m i n t a c t — I l e a v e t h e m i n t h e f r e e d o m
either to change or not to change. M o r e c a n n o t be d o n e w i t h o u t
v i o l a t i n g o r d i s r e s p e c t i n g love.
I m a k e no claims that these experiences are any m o r e t h a n what
you saw h a p p e n here, a n d I ' m certainly n o t claiming to cure cancer.
I ' m doing a smaller thing—simpler and m o r e modest: I ' m just try-
i n g t o h e l p p e o p l e find g o o d d y n a m i c s i n t h e i r f a m i l y s y s t e m s , " t o
h e l p t h e m o n t h e i r w a y . " I f t h e r e ' s a s u r p r i s i n g c u r e , I'll b e v e r y
h a p p y f o r t h e m , b u t I d o n ' t w a n t t o k n o w a b o u t it. F o r m e , t h e l o v e
w e all c o u l d feel w o r k i n g i s e n o u g h .

Additional Considerations

Irene's therapist reported that she was free of s y m p t o m s for seven


m o n t h s following this constellation. H e r life with her family was
serene a n d filled with joy. She then entered t h e hospital because she
wasn't feeling well. H e r doctors found no further metastases, a n d she
was released after a few days without further treatment. She spent
the next three m o n t h s peacefully at h o m e with her family a n d died a
few days after entering the hospital one final time [H.B.].
C H A P T E R F I V E

Love and
the Greater Soul

In addition to o u r personal relationships and t h e social systems to


which we b e l o n g , we are also m e m b e r s of larger relationship sys-
tems. T h e various O r d e r s of Love that s u p p o r t us in o u r intimate
relationships are n o t applicable to other relationship systems. If we
are dealing with larger wholes a n d meta-systems, for e x a m p l e , with
G o d — o r whatever we n a m e the mystery b e h i n d t h e w o r l d — o r fate,
or with the wholeness of the world, t h e n those s a m e orders and
principles no longer apply. A t t e m p t s to apply t h e m lead to a b s u r d
consequences.
R e m e m b e r i n g o u r experiences a s children, w e m a y r e a c h o u t t o
G o d , o r t h e m y s t e r y b e h i n d t h e world, like children r e a c h i n g o u t
to their p a r e n t s , a n d seek a g o o d father or a g o o d m o t h e r . T h e n
we believe like children, h o p e like children, t r u s t like children,
love like c h i l d r e n — a n d , like children, we m a y fear w h a t is b e y o n d
our experience.
O r r e m e m b e r i n g o u r experiences a s m e m b e r s o f o u r e x t e n d e d
family, we m a y relate to fate or the mystery b e h i n d t h e w o r l d as
we do to m e m b e r s of o u r families, as if we were b l o o d b r o t h e r s in
a c o m p a n y of saints. B u t t h e n , as in a family, we m a y be selected
or rejected a c c o r d i n g to a rigid law we n e i t h e r can k n o w n o r
influence.
190
Love and the Greater Soul 191

O r r e m e m b e r i n g o u r e x p e r i e n c e a s m e m b e r s o f freely c h o s e n
g r o u p s , we m a y relate to t h e m y s t e r y of t h e world as if we were its
business associates, b e h a v i n g like its representatives or s p o k e s p e r -
s o n s , m a k i n g c o v e n a n t s a n d a g r e e m e n t s , as if life w o u l d allow us to
regulate m u t u a l giving a n d taking a n d t o c o n t r o l o u r m u t u a l b e n -
efits a n d loss.
Or we m a y a p p r o a c h t h e m y s t e r y b e h i n d t h e w o r l d as if we were
e n t e r i n g an i n t i m a t e relationship in w h i c h t h e r e are a lover a n d a
beloved, a b r i d e a n d a b r i d e g r o o m .
Or we m a y relate to the m y s t e r y like p a r e n t s to their c h i l d r e n ,
d a r i n g t o tell i t w h a t w e c o n s i d e r w r o n g w i t h its w o r l d a n d d e m a n d -
ing i m p r o v e m e n t s . A n d n o t b e i n g satisfied with this world as it is,
we a t t e m p t to save ourselves a n d o t h e r s from it.
B u t t h e r e is a n o t h e r way. W h e n we relate to t h e m y s t e r y of t h e
world, we c a n forget w h a t applied to the relationships we know, just
as w h e n we are s w i m m i n g in t h e o c e a n , we forget t h e rivers flowing
i n t o it, a n d w h e n w e are a t o u r goal, w e forget t h e p a t h .

Absence and Presence

A monk, out seeking the Absolute,


approached a merchant in the marketplace
and asked for sustenance.

The merchant glanced at him and paused.


As he handed him what he could spare,
he addressed him with a question.

"What can it mean that you request of me


what you require for your sustenance
and yet feel free to think of me and of my trade
as something low
compared with you and yours?"

The monk replied:


"Matched with the Absolute that I pursue,
the rest seems low indeed."

The merchant was not satisfied


and tried him with a second question.
192 Love's Hidden Symmetry

"If such an Absolute exists,


it extends beyond our reach.
So how can anyone presume to seek it
as if it could be found
lying at the end of some long road?
How can anyone take possession of it
or claim a greater share of it than others?
And how, conversely, if this Absolute exists,
can anyone stray far from it
and be excluded from its will and care?"

The monk replied:


"Only those prepared to leave
all that is closest to them now
and willingly forego what is chained
to Here and Now
will ever reach the Absolute."

Still unconvinced,
the merchant tested him with yet another thought.

"Assuming that an Absolute exists,


it must be close to everyone,
although concealed in the apparent and enduring,
just as Absence is concealed in Presence,
and Past and Future in the Here and Now.

"Compared with what is Present


and appears to us as limited and fleeting,
the Absent seems unlimited in space and time,
as do the Past and Future
compared with the Here and Now.

"Yet what is Absent is revealed to us only in the Present


just as the Past and Future are revealed
only in the Here and Now.

Like night and death


the Absent holds, unknown to us,
something that is yet to come.
Love and the Greater Soul 193

But there are moments when,


in the twinkling of an eye,
the Absloute suddenly illuminates the Present,
as a flash of lightning illuminates the night.

"Thus, too, the Absolute draws close to us


at present Here
and illuminates the Now."

The monk then addressed the merchant


with a question of his own.

"If what you say is true,


what, then, remains
for me
and you?"

The merchant said:


"To us there still remains,
but for a little while,
the Earth."

LEAVING A LESSER FAITH FOR A GREATER ONE

T h e father of a g r o u p participant was a former priest w h o h a d left


t h e religious order, started a family, and h a d several children with
his wife. In t h e constellation, he w o u n d up standing b e t w e e n t h e
religious o r d e r a n d his family.

H e l l i n g e r : W h e n you look at this constellation, you can see that


it would have b e e n easier for the father to have stayed in t h e m o n -
astery. T h a t ' s often the case, a n d that's why I m e n t i o n it. W h e n
s o m e o n e has once belonged to G o d , or should have, a n d t h e n leaves
the c h u r c h or religious order, it's very c o m m o n for h i m or h e r to
live an even m o r e restricted life t h a n if he or she h a d stayed. T h a t ' s
m o r e p r o n o u n c e d with Catholics t h a n with Protestants b e c a u s e t h e
restrictions are greater (celibacy). T h e y succeed in leaving t h e
c h u r c h only w h e n they go t h e whole way; that m e a n s leaving b e h i n d
a lesser faith, a n d stretching o u t toward a greater o n e .
194 Love's Hidden Symmetry

Faith is destructive w h e n it teaches that you can belong to G o d


in a special way, and that G o d is angry and vengeful w h e n you act
in a way that's in h a r m o n y with creation. Belief and disbelief, like
guilt a n d i n n o c e n c e , are inextricably b o u n d together in t h e soul,
and just as we continually swing between guilt and i n n o c e n c e , so do
we swing b e t w e e n belief and disbelief.
T h e r e ' s a kind of religious belief that teaches us that t h e world is
evil. If I follow that belief, I m u s t divorce myself from creation as it
is a n d , implicitly, from its Creator. In o r d e r to do that, I m u s t t u r n
away from everything I see a n d experience, and I m u s t t u r n toward
a n o t h e r god a b o u t w h o m I've only heard what others r e p o r t they
believe he revealed to t h e m . T h a t ' s all I k n o w a b o u t that god. I have
no personal experience of h i m , only what others have said. So the
belief in that god, actually, is a belief in s o m e other p e r s o n ' s r e p o r t ,
whose witness t h e n is binding for m e . If I wish to worship a n d to
follow that god, I m u s t forsake a n d deny what I experience a n d see,
a n d I m u s t believe what others claim has b e e n revealed to t h e m .
T h a t kind of religion is passed on by culture and family tradition.
People follow that kind of religion primarily because their family
follows it. F o r t h e m , r e n o u n c i n g such a faith m e a n s r e n o u n c i n g
their family. T h i s explains why everyone w h o t u r n s away from reli-
gions of this kind have identical feelings of guilt, w h e t h e r M u s l i m ,
Catholic, Jew, P r o t e s t a n t , or B u d d h i s t . T h i s kind of faith, therefore,
is quite i n d e p e n d e n t of the c o n t e n t of the Catholic faith, t h e P r o t -
estant faith, Islam, or B u d d h i s m . It's a m a t t e r of loyalty or disloyalty
to their families—not actual experience of G o d or of the G r e a t e r
Soul.
Religion a n d faith based on consenting to the world as it is unites
h u m a n k i n d , whereas the faith of a particular confession or g r o u p
builds walls b e t w e e n people. T h e religious experience that e n c o m -
passes a n d loves t h e world as it is recognizes no b o r d e r s .
T h o s e w h o accept and love the earth as it is can't r e m a i n within
t h e confines of a single group. T h e y go beyond the limits of their
particular g r o u p a n d e m b r a c e the wholeness of the world as it is.
T h i s love of the e a r t h a n d the m o v e m e n t such lovers m a k e — r e a c h -
ing b e y o n d their g r o u p toward the larger wholeness of t h e world—
have a quality that is very different from the belief that fears a n d
hates a n d divides. T h i s love e m b r a c e s , holds, a n d cherishes the
diversity in the unity of life.
Love and the Greater Soul 195

The Disciples

A m a n is b o r n into his country, into his culture, into his family. Even
as a child, stories enchant him a b o u t the one who was their p r o p h e t
and lord, and he deeply longs to b e c o m e like his ideal. He enters a
long period of training until he is fully identified with his ideal, until
he thinks and speaks and acts like him.
B u t o n e last thing, he thinks, is missing. A n d so he sets out on a
long journey into the most secluded loneliness where he h o p e s to
cross the final barrier. On his way, he passes old gardens, long a b a n -
d o n e d . Wild roses still b l o o m u n s e e n , and the fruit that tall trees bear
each year falls unnoticed to the earth. No one is there to gather it.
He walks on.
He reaches the edge of the desert.
S o o n he is s u r r o u n d e d by an u n k n o w n emptiness. He realizes t h a t
in this desert he could choose any direction he might wish—the e m p -
tiness remains the same. He sees that the great loneliness of this
place has emptied all illusions in his mind's eye that would have led
h i m o n t o any particular p a t h .
A n d so he wanders on just where chance takes h i m , until o n e day,
long after he has stopped trusting his senses, he is surprised to see
water bubbling out of the earth in front of him. He watches the
desert sands quietly soak it up again, but as far as the water reaches,
the desert blooms like Paradise.
Still deep in wonder, he looks a r o u n d and sees afar two strangers
drawing near. T h e y too have d o n e what he has d o n e . E a c h of t h e m
h a d followed his prophet a n d lord until he h a d b e c o m e almost iden-
tical with him. T h e y too set out as he h a d d o n e into the desert
wastes, h o p i n g to cross t h e final barrier. A n d they, too, at last h a d
reached that spring.
T h e n the three of t h e m b e n d d o w n together to drink the same
water, and each feels his goal to be within his reach. T h e n they reveal
their n a m e s : "I have b e c o m e one with my L o r d , G a u t a m a , t h e B u d -
dha." "I have b e c o m e one with my L o r d , Jesus, the Christ." "I have
b e c o m e one with my Lord, M o h a m m e d , the P r o p h e t . "
At last, the night d e s c e n d s u p o n t h e m . T h e y see t h e heavens fill
with shining stars u n m o v i n g , silent, a n d utterly r e m o t e . T h e y fall
into awe-filled silence b e n e a t h t h e vastness of this eternity, a n d o n e
of t h e m senses for a m o m e n t h o w his lord m u s t have felt as he c a m e
to k n o w this s a m e i m p o t e n c e , to k n o w the ultimate irrelevance of
h u m a n design a n d t o s u b m i t t o t h a t i m m e n s i t y — a n d h e senses,
t o o , h o w he m u s t have felt as he u n d e r s t o o d the inescapability of
guilt.
196 Love's Hidden Symmetry

H e k n o w s t h a t h e h a s g o n e too far. S o h e waits for d a w n , t u r n s


h o m e w a r d , a n d at last escapes the desert. O n c e again, he passes the
a b a n d o n e d g a r d e n s , until at last he stops before t h e g a r d e n that he
k n o w s to be his own. An old m a n is s t a n d i n g by t h e gate, as if await-
ing h i m . He says, "If s o m e o n e has f o u n d his way h o m e from as far
away as you have d o n e , he loves t h e moist a n d fertile e a r t h . He
k n o w s t h a t all that grows will die, a n d in dying n o u r i s h w h a t lives"
T h e w a n d e r e r replies, " N o w I s u b m i t t o e a r t h . " T h e n h e b e g i n s t o
h u s b a n d his g a r d e n with t e n d e r care.
Transcript
GRACE: "IN MY HEART YOU ARE ALIVE"
Grace: I am a child of H o l o c a u s t survivors a n d I think this
marks my life. T h e second thing that marks my life is that I grew up
in G e r m a n y after the war.

Hellinger: You grew up in G e r m a n y after the war?

G r a c e : Yes. T h e way I see it working in my life is in the total


absence of relationships.

Hellinger: H o w did your parents survive?

G r a c e : My p a r e n t s were Polish Jews w h o escaped to Asia. I was


b o r n at the e n d of t h e war. After the war, they just got stuck as dis-
placed persons in G e r m a n y , and I e n d e d up b e c o m i n g a G e r m a n by
chance.

Hellinger: Any relatives w h o died?

G r a c e : All of t h e m practically, except my parents a n d a sister of


my father's.

Hellinger: N o w just n a m e those w h o died.

Grace: I should n a m e them? I c o u l d n ' t . I d o n ' t know their


names.

Hellinger: I m e a n your grandfather, g r a n d p a r e n t s .

Grace: All the g r a n d p a r e n t s .

Hellinger: T h e four g r a n d p a r e n t s died?

Grace: Yes.

Hellinger: W h o else?

Grace: Everyone. My m o t h e r h a d four sisters a n d a brother, a n d


they all perished. My father was one of seven children, a n d he saved
his sister b u t everyone else perished. Both of my p a r e n t s were t h e
197
198 Love's Hidden Symmetry

y o u n g e s t i n t h e i r families, w h i c h m e a n s t h a t t h e r e s t o f t h e i r family
m e m b e r s already h a d children. My parents weren't married w h e n
t h e w a r b r o k e o u t . It's j u s t h u g e . I c a n ' t d i s t i n g u i s h a n y m o r e .

Hellinger: I will select t h e r e p r e s e n t a t i v e s .

Grace: M a y b e I s h o u l d say o n e m o r e t h i n g . M y f a t h e r always t o l d


m e , b o t h o f m y p a r e n t s t o l d m e , t h a t I look like o n e o f his sisters.

Hellinger: You s h o u l d , actually. We'll c h o o s e r e p r e s e n t a t i v e s for


y o u r g r a n d p a r e n t s a n d for all y o u r u n c l e s a n d a u n t s w h o p e r i s h e d .
H a v e y o u b r o t h e r s a n d sisters?

Grace: I h a v e a sister a n d t w o b r o t h e r s , b u t o n e b r o t h e r d i e d
w h e n h e w a s j u s t a d a y o l d . I ' m t h e first, b u t I s h o u l d n ' t b e t h e first
o n e . Actually, I ' m the second one.

Hellinger: T h e first o n e d i e d ?

Grace: Yes.

Hellinger: W e n e e d h i m t o o . C h o o s e r e p r e s e n t a t i v e s for all t h o s e


w h o p e r i s h e d , y o u r father's family a n d y o u r m o t h e r ' s family.
(Grace chooses representatives.)

*Legend: f 1—First child, a son, deceased; 2—Second child (Grace's representa-


tive); Mo—Mother; Fa—Father; MGFa—maternal grandfather; PGMo—paternal
grandmother; MGMo—maternal grandmother; PGFa—paternal grandfather;
M o S l — m o t h e r ' s first sister; FaBrl—father's first brother; MoS2—mother's sec-
ond sister; FaBr2—father's second brother; MoS3—mother's third sister; FaBr3—
father's third brother; MoS4—mother's fourth sister; FaS4—father's first sister;
MoBr5—mother's brother; FaS5—father's second sister.
Love and the Greater Soul 199

H e l l i n g e r (to Grace): N o w look at t h e m , at each o n e of t h e m . (To


father): N o w you take h e r by the h a n d and go with h e r to everybody
in your family, and b o w in respect to each.
(Grace and father bow deeply in front of paternal grandfather.)

H e l l i n g e r (to Grace): T h e r e ' s no hurry, take the necessary time.


(Long silence) L o o k at h i m and say, " D e a r G r a n d p a . . ." (Grace
begins to weep.)

Grace: Dear Grandpa . . .

Hellinger: " L o o k at me . . ."

G r a c e (Still weeping): L o o k at m e . . .

Hellinger: "Friendly."

Grace: Friendly.

Hellinger: " I ' m still alive."

Grace: I ' m still alive.

Hellinger: A n d tell h i m , "I take my life as a special gift."

Grace: I take my life as a special gift.

Hellinger: " I n my h e a r t , you are alive."

Grace: In my h e a r t , you are alive. (Grace and paternal grandfather


embrace.)
H e l l i n g e r (to Grace): Breathe deeply, (long pause) (to father):
T h e n take h e r t o h e r g r a n d m o t h e r a n d d o the same.
(Grace and father bow deeply in front of paternal grandmother.)

Hellinger: Say, " D e a r G r a n d m o t h e r . . ."

Grace: D e a r G r a n d m o t h e r . . . (weeping)

Hellinger: " I h o n o r you."

Grace: I h o n o r you.

Hellinger: "Please be friendly while I ' m alive a n d you are d e a d . "

Grace: Please be friendly while I ' m alive and you are d e a d .

Hellinger: Go to her. (Grace and paternal grandmother embrace.)


T h e n b o w in front of each of t h e m with respect a n d love. (Grace
200 Love's Hidden Symmetry

and her father bow deeply in front of each paternal uncle and aunt.) (To
mother): N o w y o u take h e r b y t h e h a n d a n d g o t o y o u r p a r e n t s a n d
b r o t h e r s a n d sisters. J u s t b o w deeply.
(Grace and her mother bow deeply in front of the maternal grandfather.
Grace and her grandfather embrace.)
(To Grace): Ask h i m for his blessing.

G r a c e (Sobbing quietly): Please bless m e .

Hellinger: Say, " I n my h e a r t y o u have a p l a c e . "

Grace: In my h e a r t y o u have a place.

Hellinger: " I n m e you are still alive."

Grace: I n m e y o u are still alive.

H e l l i n g e r (to Grace): N o w m o v e on to y o u r g r a n d m o t h e r .
(Grace and her maternal grandmother embrace, then Grace and the
mother bow in front of, and embrace, each maternal aunt and uncle.)
N o w embrace your brother.
(She embraces her deceased brother.)
N o w I'll p l a c e y o u b e t w e e n y o u r p a r e n t s .

Hellinger: L o o k a t y o u r father a n d look a t y o u r m o t h e r . H o w are


y o u feeling?

Grace: I feel s e c u r e now. I feel safe. I w a n t e d to say s o m e t h i n g to


my brother.

Hellinger: Yes, do.


Love and the Greater Soul 201

G r a c e (to brother): You took the easy way out.

H e l l i n g e r (to Grace): Tell h i m , "I missed you."

G r a c e (Tearfully): I missed you.

Hellinger: "You are my big brother."

Grace: You are my big brother.

Hellinger: " I ' m your small sister."

Grace: I ' m your small sister.

H e l l i n g e r (to representatives): I just w a n t to ask you w h a t your


experience was.
Paternal Grandfather: Very sad a n d moved a n d yet very h a p p y
a n d glad that she is alive.
P a t e r n a l G r a n d m o t h e r : I was very h a p p y a n d felt, "You silly
girl, go a n d live your life a n d d o n ' t worry a b o u t u s . "
F a t h e r ' s E l d e s t B r o t h e r : I felt very sad a n d m o v e d a n d very
w a r m toward her and wish her well.

Father's S e c o n d Brother: I felt very sad a n d I felt my h e a r t


o p e n to you.
Father's T h i r d Brother: I felt very sad a n d a lot of shivering all
over, an engine moving. (Pause) T h e r e was a p o i n t w h e r e it felt like
standing in front of a firing s q u a d as well.

Father's Eldest Sister: I felt deeply moved and very glad to have
the o p p o r t u n i t y to m e e t you, a n d to know that you are alive.

Father's S e c o n d Sister: I felt very sad a n d w a n t e d you to live.

Maternal Grandfather: Very moved, joy and sorrow simulta-


neously, and p r o u d .

M a t e r n a l G r a n d m o t h e r : I felt very sad a n d t h e n very p r o u d ,


a n d t h e n very h o t w h e n we h u g g e d .

Mother's Eldest Sister: I felt very shivery, tingly, full of excite-


m e n t at m e e t i n g you. "

Mother's S e c o n d Sister: My h e a r t really h u r t , a n d t h e n I was


very glad to e m b r a c e you.
202 Love's Hidden Symmetry

Mother's Third Sister: I felt very full-hearted a n d full of love


a n d of h o p e for y o u to be truly alive.

Mother's Fourth Sister: I felt sad a n d I w a n t e d to h o l d y o u .

Mother's Brother: I felt very sad n o t k n o w i n g w h e t h e r y o u k n e w


w h e r e a n d w h e n exactly I d i e d , b u t very glad t h a t I c o u l d c o m e
b a c k a n d see y o u a n d for you to see m e .

Hellinger: H o w d o e s t h e father feel?

Father: I felt very full of love for my d a u g h t e r a n d g r a t i t u d e that


she was able t o m e e t m y p a r e n t s , m y b r o t h e r s a n d sisters, a n d t h a t I
c o u l d i n t r o d u c e h e r to t h e m p r o p e r l y for t h e first t i m e . It m e a n t a
lot to m e .

Hellinger: A n d the mother?

Mother: I felt, m o s t especially in t h e s e last few m i n u t e s , t h e light


i n m y d a u g h t e r , a n d m y h e a r t h a s b e e n a c h i n g t o e m b r a c e t h a t light
b e c a u s e I lost so m a n y p e o p l e a n d I t h o u g h t she w a s alive, this o n e .

Hellinger: H e r brother?

Deceased Brother: At first I felt very d e t a c h e d , a n d t h e n I felt


a c k n o w l e d g e d a n d n e e d e d , a n d t h e n I felt very b r o t h e r l y a n d p r o -
tective.

Hellinger: All t h e best to you a n d p e a c e . T h a n k y o u all. (To audi-


ence, after a long silence): In G e r m a n y , we are told by m a n y p e o p l e
t h a t w e s h o u l d n ' t forget—we s h o u l d r e m e m b e r w h a t h a p p e n e d .
Very often, we are told accusingly, by p e o p l e who,feel s u p e r i o r , a n d
t h a t has a b a d effect in t h e soul. T h e p r o p e r way of r e m e m b e r i n g is
w h a t w e d i d h e r e , m o u r n i n g with t h e d e a d t o g e t h e r — j u s t b e i n g o n e
w i t h t h e m . T h a t h a s a h e a l i n g effect on t h e soul; a n y t h i n g else h a s
t h e o p p o s i t e effect. (Long silence.) I n e e d a little t i m e just to recol-
lect myself. I h o p e you u n d e r s t a n d (long silence).
PART TWO

Psychotherapeutic
Considerations
The Therapeutic Posture

T h e m o s t i m p o r t a n t e l e m e n t i n successful w o r k w i t h systems i s t h e
therapist's p o s t u r e . M o r e i m p o r t a n t t h a n l e a r n i n g t e c h n i q u e s a n d
p r o c e d u r e s , t h o s e w i s h i n g t o w o r k systemically m u s t u n d e r s t a n d t h e
basic o r i e n t a t i o n a n d t h e values that g u i d e t h e work. T h e r a p i s t s
w o r k i n g in this way prefer to w o r k w i t h r e s o u r c e s r a t h e r t h a n w i t h
w e a k n e s s e s , w i t h solutions r a t h e r t h a n w i t h p r o b l e m s , a n d w i t h t h e
smallest i n t e r v e n t i o n s n e c e s s a r y for c h a n g e . Above all, t h e y look at
w h a t e v e r is actually visible, r a t h e r t h a n allow t h e m s e l v e s to be
g u i d e d by t h e o r y , belief, or ideology.

SEEING

Question: You often talk a b o u t seeing a p e r s o n . C a n you say m o r e


about what you mean?

H e l l i n g e r : I m a k e a distinction b e t w e e n " o b s e r v i n g " a n d " s e e -


ing." T h e w o r d " o b s e r v i n g " m e a n s o b s e r v i n g individual details a t
t h e cost of t h e p e r c e p t i o n of t h e w h o l e . W h e n I observe s o m e o n e ' s
b e h a v i o r , I o b s e r v e w h a t he or she d o e s , b u t the p e r s o n as a w h o l e
escapes m e . W h e n I see p e r s o n s , I take t h e m in as a w h o l e . T h e n ,
a l t h o u g h m a n y of t h e details of w h a t t h e y do e s c a p e m e , I g r a s p
with i m m e d i a c y ( a p p r e h e n d ) w h a t ' s essential a b o u t t h e m , a n d I d o
this in service of t h a t p e r s o n as " O t h e r . "

205
206 Love's Hidden Symmetry

S e e i n g a n o t h e r p e r s o n in this way is only possible w h e n I t u r n


t o w a r d h i m or h e r w i t h o u t ulterior motives. S e e i n g a p e r s o n in this
way creates relationship. It calls a specific i n t i m a c y i n t o b e i n g that
nevertheless requires p r o f o u n d respect for individual differences,
a n d t h a t r e q u i r e s m a i n t a i n i n g a certain d i s t a n c e . In seeing, each
p e r s o n is t r e a t e d as u n i q u e a n d no n o r m s are established t h a t later
m u s t b e o v e r c o m e . J u d g i n g right o r w r o n g has n o p l a c e i n seeing,
b u t only serving love a n d t h e q u e s t for resolutions.
S e e i n g a n o t h e r p e r s o n also places m e u n d e r a n i m p e r a t i v e t o
serve. I m a y i m a g i n e t h a t I ' m free to do w h a t e v e r I w a n t , b u t as
s o o n as I see s o m e o n e in his or h e r situation a n d see w h a t he or she
n e e d s , I ' m c o m p e l l e d to a d a p t myself to be as the s i t u a t i o n d e m a n d s
of m e .
In a t h e r a p e u t i c c o n t e x t , only seeing c a n serve t h e q u e s t for r e s o -
lution, a n d seeing is useful only t o w a r d t h a t e n d . Seeing d o e s n ' t h e l p
to m a k e a diagnosis, or to m a k e empirical o b s e r v a t i o n s , unless t h e
diagnosis a n d the observations themselves serve s o m e r e s o l u t i o n .
Seeing finds r e s o l u t i o n a n d c o m p l e t i o n , n o t objective t r u t h . I t
always h a s t o d o with t h e q u e s t i o n s : " W h a t d o e s t h e client's situa-
tion d e m a n d o f m e n o w ? " a n d " W h a t d o e s i t p e r m i t m e ? " A s a
t h e r a p i s t , I ask myself these q u e s t i o n s a n d I offer myself in service
of t h e o t h e r p e r s o n . W h e n a p e r s o n tells me s o m e t h i n g , I ask myself,
" W h a t is a p p r o p r i a t e for him or her" If I s u c c e e d in t r u l y seeing t h e
client, t h e n I ' m i n c o n t a c t with s o m e t h i n g g r e a t e r t h a n either o f u s
alone. M y i m m e d i a t e goal c a n ' t even b e t o h e l p , b u t only t o see t h e
client in t h e c o n t e x t of a larger o r d e r . T h a t ' s h o w seeing w o r k s , a n d
i t allows t h e r a p e u t i c i n t e r v e n t i o n s t o r e m a i n respectful a n d loving,
while at t h e s a m e t i m e b e i n g a force for healing.
It's s t r a n g e h o w p e o p l e c h a n g e w h e n I tell t h e m w h a t I see. S e e -
ing is a creative p r o c e s s t h a t h a s an effect on t h o s e w h o are seen as
well as on t h e o n e w h o sees. T h e r e , are secrets to seeing t h a t I d o n ' t
u n d e r s t a n d , b u t they t o o c a n b e seen a n d u s e d .
W h e n y o u have a n idea a b o u t w h a t ' s going o n w i t h a client a n d
are w o n d e r i n g if you s h o u l d say it or n o t , try to see t h e p e r s o n . If
you s u c c e e d , you'll see w h e t h e r your idea will h e l p or will w e a k e n .
Seeing i s n ' t s o m e t h i n g t h a t y o u c a n m a k e h a p p e n . W h e n I o p e n
myself to s o m e o n e , I ' m often totally s u r p r i s e d by w h a t I see. Often
I see t h i n g s t h a t I never could have t h o u g h t u p . I often have a sense
of fear a n d t r e m b l i n g a b o u t seeing, b u t if I shy away from w h a t I
The Therapeutic Posture 207

see, if I h o l d b a c k — e v e n o u t of t h e fear of h u r t i n g s o m e o n e — s o m e -
t h i n g closes d o w n in my soul, as if I'd a b u s e d s o m e t h i n g p r e c i o u s .

Question: I s n ' t seeing t h e s a m e a s intuition?

Hellinger: I e x p e r i e n c e intuition differently, a n d seeing is m o r e


t h a n i n t u i t i o n . I e x p e r i e n c e intuition as a flash of u n d e r s t a n d i n g
t h a t shows m e w h e r e t o go, t h a t orients m e t o w a r d t h e future. I n t u -
ition c o m e s w i t h o u t my d o i n g a n y t h i n g , instantly. S e e i n g is differ-
ent. Seeing m e a n s t h a t I o p e n myself c o m p l e t e l y to c o m p l e x
c o n n e c t i o n s a n d allow t h e m t o work i n m e , t o affect m e .
T h a t ' s h o w I c a m e to u n d e r s t a n d conscience. F o r a long t i m e , I
c o u l d n ' t u n d e r s t a n d w h a t h a p p e n s w h e n people claim t o b e acting
a c c o r d i n g to their conscience, or acting conscientiously. T h a t ' s a h u g e
p h e n o m e n o n , a n d I still d o n ' t u n d e r s t a n d it completely. B u t b e c a u s e
I c o u l d n ' t u n d e r s t a n d it, I tried to see w h a t was h a p p e n i n g . I just let
it w o r k on m e , h o l d i n g it in my attention, o p e n i n g myself to it, b u t
n o t actively trying to u n d e r s t a n d it. It took years, b u t all at o n c e , I
saw w h a t conscience really is a n d h o w it works. C o n s c i e n c e is a p e r -
ceptual organ for systemic balance that helps us to know w h e t h e r or
n o t we're in h a r m o n y with o u r reference system. It w a r n s us if w h a t
we're a b o u t to do carries the c o n s e q u e n c e of b e i n g e x c l u d e d from t h e
system or assures o u r c o n t i n u e d belonging to the system. I saw that a
clear conscience only m e a n s that I feel entitled to c o n t i n u e to b e l o n g
to my g r o u p . A n d a guilty conscience m e a n s only that I n e e d to w o r r y
a b o u t w h e t h e r I'll still be allowed to c o n t i n u e to b e l o n g .
S u d d e n l y , o u t of a complexity of p h e n o m e n a , t h e e s s e n c e of t h e
t h i n g w a s clear. T h a t clarity h a d an e n o r m o u s effect on e v e r y t h i n g I
did. I call this p r o c e s s t h e p h e n o m e n o l o g i c a l m e t h o d . It works only
w h e n I ' m n o t i n t e n d i n g to achieve s o m e t h i n g — t o c o n f i r m a belief,
for e x a m p l e , or to glorify a t r a d i t i o n . It's a very h u m b l e , s i m p l e ,
basic m e t h o d of k n o w i n g .
Here is a p o e m t h a t p r e s e n t s w h a t I ' m d e s c r i b i n g . It d o e s so i n d i -
rectly, b u t it p o i n t s t h e way. T h e p o e m is an o u t l i n e of a p s y c h o -
t h e r a p e u t i c epistemology.

A Double Measure

An observer of detail asked a Seer:


"How does a part
208 Love's Hidden Symmetry

recognize its place


within the whole?

"And how is knowledge of the part


different from knowing the
fullness of the Greater Whole?"

The Seer answered:


"The scattered parts become a whole
by yielding
to their center's pull,
by allowing it
to gather them.

"Their wholeness makes them


beautiful and real.
Yet, for us, their wholeness
is so obvious,
a gentle nothing,
an urge
to join together
hidden within enduring.

"To know the whole,


its many parts need not
be known,
or spoken,
or grasped,
or done,
or shown.

"I reach all that is in the city,


by entering a single gate.
I strike the gong,
its one tone reverberates and
sets the lesser bells achime.
I pick one apple.
I hold it in my hand.
Though I know no details
of its origin, I eat."
The Therapeutic Posture 209

The Scholar objected:


"Whoever desires the whole Truth
must know all its parts as well."

The Wise Man answered:


"Only from what is past
can all the parts be known.
Truth springs out of the Void
into Being.
It is always new,
concealing its goal within itself,
as the seed conceals the tree.

"Therefore, whoever hesitates to act,


waiting to know more,
misses what works,
as if Becoming condoned temerity.
He mistakes the coin
for merchandise
and manages only firewood
from living trees."

The Scholar thought:


"There must be more
to the answer of the Whole,"
and asked
for what he thought
still failed.

The Seer said,


"The Whole is like a keg of fresh cider,
sweet and cloudy.
It needs time to ferment
and to clear.
Then those foolish enough to drink,
not sip,
get drunk."
210 Love's Hidden Symmetry

PARTNERS IN DIALOG
Q u e s t i o n : T h e r e ' s a particular a t m o s p h e r e in your g r o u p s , a mix
ture of o p e n n e s s , critical alertness, a n d trust. T h e r e ' s a strong sense
of c o m m u n i t y , and yet everyone is here for himself or herself. I ' m
also surprised at h o w frankly people sometimes r e s p o n d with their
criticisms and d o u b t s .

H e l l i n g e r : T h e r e ' s m u c h that can be said only in an a t m o s p h e r e


in which people are alert, critical, a n d respectful. W h e n p e o p l e h a n g
on my every word, I m u s t be very careful of what I say. On t h e o t h e r
h a n d , w h e n I ' m certain that t h e participants will carefully check
everything I say against their o w n inner experience a n d n o t just
swallow it uncritically, t h e n I can risk a lot. W h e n the other is my
p a r t n e r in investigating experience, a dialog b e t w e e n equals can
emerge. My freedom to take risks is a function of my t r u s t in t h e
other, a n d it brings us b o t h great rewards.

C o m m u n i t y in groups occurs only w h e n the individual m e m b e r s are collected in themselves a n


aren't c e n t e r e d in themselves, their unconscious m i n d s are defense
less against g r o u p dynamics that can alienate t h e m from themselves.

T h e psychological m e c h a n i s m s that allow individual m e m b e r s to


center in themselves and the g r o u p dynamics that c o n n e c t t h e m to
the larger g r o u p are largely unconscious. T h e p r o c e s s of gathering
or collecting in yourself a n d centering allows all of the individuals in
a g r o u p to b e c o m e p a r t s of the larger whole w i t h o u t losing their
individuality. G a t h e r i n g a n d centering are the foundation of a c o m -
m u n i t y of individuals.
W h e n e v e r therapy takes place in a g r o u p of p e o p l e w h o are cen-
tered in themselves a n d c o n n e c t e d to one a n o t h e r at the s a m e t i m e ,
b o t h t h e client a n d the therapist feel the s u p p o r t of t h e larger g r o u p ,
a n d they feel safe to allow the work to reach an intensity that would
be frightening in individual therapy.

HOLISTIC THINKING BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL


Q u e s t i o n : We've b e e n hearing a b o u t people's experiences, a n d
s o m e of w h a t has h a p p e n e d to t h e m seems to me to be just plain
evil. I m e a n w h e n people abuse their children a n d things like that,
yet you d o n ' t seem to judge at all.
The Therapeutic Posture 211

H e l l i n g e r : W h e n I see people, I see t h e m in the contexts in which


they live, in t h e context of larger wholes, in the g r o u p s a n d subcul-
tures to which they belong. All relationship systems are such wholes.
W h e n you see people in their larger contexts, y o u r perceptions of
freedom of choice, personal responsibility, a n d good a n d evil
change. You see that m o s t , perhaps all, evil isn't d o n e b e c a u s e
people are personally evil, b u t because they're c a u g h t in s o m e t h i n g
on a larger scale. Evil is mostly a function of systemic entangle-
m e n t s ; it's n o t really personal.
G o o d and evil are systemically b o u n d to one another. If you w a n t
to work with p e o p l e systemically, you m u s t find a position b e y o n d
moral j u d g m e n t , a position that allows you to see larger systemic
p h e n o m e n a and their effect on individuals.
F o r instance, w h e n o n e m e m b e r of a system a s s u m e s a position
of m o r a l superiority, he or she claims m o r e right to b e l o n g to t h e
system t h a n the o n e judged a n d challenges t h e other's right to
belong to the system. T h a t always has disastrous results. It makes no
sense philosophically or theologically to think that p e o p l e no longer
belong to the larger o r d e r of the universe because of their behavior.
Individuals d o n ' t choose the roles fate gives t h e m to play, b u t their
roles do have c o n s e q u e n c e s for t h e greater whole.
F o r example, the students w h o were p a r t of t h e W h i t e R o s e *
belonged to a very tightly knit g r o u p that was different from t h e
m a i n s t r e a m g r o u p , a n d they were able to do w h a t they did b e c a u s e
of their b o n d i n g to their group. T h e i r m e m b e r s h i p in their g r o u p
helped t h e m to overcome the intimidation of the fear of d e a t h , a n d
it m a d e it possible for t h e m to do what they did. If we c o m p a r e t h e
students of t h e W h i t e Rose with the Nazis, it's clear that the two
g r o u p s valued different things, and that w h a t they d e m a n d e d from
their m e m b e r s a n d considered good behavior was very different.
Nevertheless, t h e systemic dynamics constraining m e m b e r s h i p in
the two g r o u p s are similar: If you do as the others d o , you can
belong, and if you d o n ' t , you're out. T h e g r o u p s to w h i c h we b e l o n g
d e t e r m i n e h o w we act, and, in m o s t cases, we d o n ' t choose those
groups.

*The White Rose was a group of students in Munich, Germany, who actively
opposed the Nazi regime. Most of them were arrested and executed for their activi-
ties.
212 Love's Hidden Symmetry

Systemically viewed, t h e major difference in individual beliefs


a b o u t g o o d a n d evil i s arbitrary. N o g r o u p k n o w s w h a t ' s g o o d for
o t h e r , larger g r o u p s . I f t h e N a z i s h a d w o n , w e w o u l d p r o b a b l y c o n -
sider t h e m e m b e r s o f t h e W h i t e R o s e t o b e c r i m i n a l s , b u t w e ' r e free
t o view t h e m a s h e r o e s b e c a u s e t h e N a z i s w e r e defeated. M o s t p e o -
ple's beliefs a b o u t g o o d a n d evil are d e t e r m i n e d solely b y t h e n o r m s
of t h e g r o u p s to w h i c h t h e y b e l o n g , a n d it's very difficult for a n y o n e
t o g o b e y o n d t h a t limitation. G o i n g b e y o n d the limitations o f o n e
g r o u p ' s m o r a l i t y r e q u i r e s identifying with a larger systemic o r d e r .
T h a t ' s a truly m o r a l m o v e m e n t , a n d you n e e d t o b e willing a n d able
t o e n d u r e the feeling o f guilt a n d alienation t h a t c o m e s w h e n you
violate w h a t y o u r friends a n d family h o l d t o b e g o o d .
In systemic p s y c h o t h e r a p y , it's simpler a n d m o r e useful to avoid
moralistic j u d g m e n t s altogether, t o take t h e p o s i t i o n t h a t everyone
i s basically g o o d , a n d t h a t they d o b a d things w h e n t h e y ' r e
e n t a n g l e d . T h a t way, y o u r e m a i n free t o see t h e m a n d t o t r y t o
u n d e r s t a n d h o w t h e y ' r e e n t a n g l e d , a n d w h a t n e e d s t o h a p p e n for
t h e m t o get u n t a n g l e d . B e c a u s e y o u ' r e n o t c a u g h t u p i n feeling
m o r a l l y s u p e r i o r t o t h e m , you c a n also p a y a t t e n t i o n t o h o w t h e y
affect y o u a s y o u w o r k w i t h t h e m . T h u s , everyone m a i n t a i n s e q u a l -
ity a n d h u m a n dignity. It's g o o d i n any p s y c h o t h e r a p y t o k e e p y o u r
d i s t a n c e from t h e idea of p e r s o n a l evil.
N e v e r t h e l e s s , w h a t w e d o h a s c o n s e q u e n c e s , a n d w e all c a r r y t h e
guilt a n d pay t h e c o n s e q u e n c e s for w h a t e v e r h a r m w e d o t o o t h e r s ,
even w h e n w e act b e c a u s e o f a n e n t a n g l e m e n t , o r b e c a u s e o f w h a t
o u r g r o u p believes.

Question: T h a t ' s s o m e t h i n g I like very m u c h a b o u t y o u r work,


y o u r r e s p e c t . You r e s p e c t individual differences t h a t we usually t h i n k
of as b e i n g g o o d or b a d .

H e l l i n g e r : I'll tell y o u h o w I do it: I ' m always t h i n k i n g a b o u t


w h a t a g o o d r e s o l u t i o n c o u l d b e . T h e r e ' s a saying in t h e Bible t h a t
y o u k n o w the tree b y its fruit a n d t h e day b y its e n d . T h e i m p o r t a n t
t h i n g is h o w it t u r n s o u t . If you really see, t h e n y o u see t h a t t h o s e
w h o claim i n n o c e n c e d o n ' t really a c c o m p l i s h m u c h g o o d .
Reality c o n t r a d i c t s o u r expectations constantly. T h e r e ' s a rule of
t h u m b i n systemic t h e r a p y with respect t o g o o d a n d evil: It's usually
t h e o p p o s i t e of w h a t p e o p l e tell y o u . I've s e l d o m seen an e x c e p t i o n .
In t h e constellations in w h i c h t h e father is p r e s e n t e d as t h e b a d o n e ,
y o u a u t o m a t i c a l l y look for the m o t h e r ' s destructivity a n d e n t a n g l e -
The Therapeutic Posture 213

merit. W h e n the m o t h e r is presented as being t h e b a d o n e , you


immediately begin to look at the father.

Question: In G e r m a n y , during the N a z i period, the p e o p l e were


completely without critical j u d g m e n t and suspicion. T h e y just w e n t
along like sheep. I ' m n o t saying that I would have d o n e any b e t t e r
u n d e r t h e same circumstances, b u t that's just w h a t makes it so h a r d
for m e : H o w do I decide w h e n to trust s o m e authority a n d to go
along, a n d w h e n to d o u b t and resist?

H e l l i n g e r : I think there's a basic error in Western thinking. We


think that individuals have the power to choose and shape their
fates, b u t there are m a n y powerful forces influencing us that we
c a n ' t control, forces that impinge on o u r individual freedom of
choice—-historical forces, for example. T h i n k a b o u t the changes in
the E a s t e r n bloc countries. N o single individual m a d e that h a p p e n ,
n o t even Gorbachev. It was a powerful historical process that swept
up millions of people, and it changed their lives regardless of
w h e t h e r they s u p p o r t e d it or opposed it.
W h a t we u n d e r s t a n d to be destructive or evil is also such a force,
catching people up and sweeping t h e m along. Evil serves s o m e t h i n g
b e y o n d o u r grasp and control.

Question: But what a b o u t personal responsibility? D o e s the force


of destiny remove our personal responsibility?

Hellinger: Are you asking psychotherapeutically or morally? W h e n


you judge someone to be personally responsible, you imply that t h e
p e r s o n should or could have d o n e s o m e t h i n g different, a n d that if
he or she h a d , things would have t u r n e d out better. You imply t h a t
you k n o w w h a t the p e r s o n should have d o n e . T h a t ' s a morally s u p e -
rior stance that has no therapeutic value. If you ask t h e q u e s t i o n
therapeutically, t h e n it's better to help people find a resolution t h a t
heals, or to p u t right what's gone wrong. If you ask the moralistic
question, you focus your attention on the past, where there's no
freedom of choice at all. T h e therapeutic question focuses attention
on t h e present, where s o m e corrective action m a y still be possible.

Question: So that m e a n s that we're controlled by fate a n d have


no free choice a n d no responsibility at all.

Hellinger: You argue a very extreme position. H a s that b e e n y o u r


actual experience, or are you raising a hypothetical red herring?
214 Love's Hidden Symmetry

Obviously, we c a n influence h o w things t u r n o u t , a n d we are


r e s p o n s i b l e for w h a t w e d o , even w h e n w e ' r e c a u g h t u p i n s o m e -
t h i n g we c a n ' t c o n t r o l . Still, we have f r e e d o m of choice only in t h e
smaller t h i n g s . T h e c o n s e q u e n c e s o f o u r actions for o u r r e l a t i o n s h i p
systems a n d t h e larger w h o l e r e m a i n o u r responsibility. T h a t ' s t h e
responsibility t h a t really m a t t e r s . T h o s e c o n s e q u e n c e s r e m a i n
w h e t h e r o r n o t w e feel p e r s o n a l guilt. T h e q u e s t i o n i s only w h e t h e r
o r n o t w e have t h e c o u r a g e t o look h o n e s t l y a t w h a t w e d o a n d a t
w h a t t h e c o n s e q u e n c e s really are.

Q u e s t i o n : I t h i n k t h a t responsibility c a n only be p e r s o n a l l y
defined, t h a t o n l y a n individual c a n b e r e s p o n s i b l e . You c a n ' t m a k e
h i s t o r y or societies responsible for w h a t individuals d o .

Hellinger: Yes, an individual is personally responsible w h e n he or


she is free. B u t w h e n individuals are c a u g h t up in a great flow of
events, t h e y a r e n ' t free. Individuals are personally r e s p o n s i b l e in t h e
sense t h a t w h a t t h e y d o has c o n s e q u e n c e s — p e r h a p s m o r e for o t h e r s
t h a n for t h e m s e l v e s — b u t free choice is often very limited. You c a r r y
t h e systemic responsibility for t h e c o n s e q u e n c e s of w h a t y o u do
even if y o u d i d n ' t freely c h o o s e y o u r actions.

ACTIONS HAVE CONSEQUENCES


Question: S o you w o u l d n ' t c o n d e m n t h e c o n c e n t r a t i o n c a m p
g u a r d s — o r officers, for t h a t m a t t e r — w h o sent t h o u s a n d s of Jews to
t h e gas c h a m b e r s ?

Hellinger: O n the contrary! I d o c o n d e m n t h e m . T h e y c o m m i t -


t e d terrible c r i m e s against h u m a n i t y , a n d they m u s t a c c e p t t h e c o n -
s e q u e n c e s of t h e i r actions. N e v e r t h e l e s s , they w e r e e n t a n g l e d ,
c a u g h t u p i n s o m e t h i n g larger t h a n they w e r e . H o l d i n g t h e m
r e s p o n s i b l e for their a c t i o n s , a n d , at the s a m e t i m e , seeing t h a t they
were c a u g h t up in a far greater evil, is different from m o r a l l y j u d g -
ing t h e m t o b e evil p e r s o n s — a n d feeling morally s u p e r i o r t o t h e m .
You m u s t d e c i d e w h e t h e r you are t h i n k i n g morally, legally, or sys-
temically. All d e e d s of great evil are d o n e by p e o p l e w h o t h i n k t h a t
they're b e t t e r t h a n t h e o t h e r s i n s o m e w a y — a n d b e c a u s e t h o s e w h o
j u d g e t h e m also t h i n k t h a t they themselves are b e t t e r , they, t o o , are
in d a n g e r of d o i n g evil. F o r e x a m p l e , t h e secret police in t h e f o r m e r
E a s t G e r m a n y d i d terrible things. N o w t h e y ' r e b e i n g j u d g e d b y
The Therapeutic Posture 215

their victims, b u t t h e p e o p l e w h o are d e n o u n c i n g t h e m are i n great


d a n g e r o f b e c o m i n g like t h e m . T h e spying c o n t i n u e s , a n d t h e
s n o o p i n g a n d fear. It's just that o t h e r p e o p l e are d o i n g i t now. T h e
p r e v i o u s victims are n o w t h e p e r p e t r a t o r s , a n d t h e y n o w t h i n k they
k n o w better-—just like the secret police did earlier. T h e evil c o n t i n -
ues unabated.
A s s u m i n g any position of m o r a l r i g h t e o u s n e s s a n d a c t i n g as if we
k n o w w h a t ' s right for o t h e r s always causes injury to t h e larger sys-
temic orders.

Question: W h e n you w o r k e d w i t h B e n o , you said t h a t his father


was a m u r d e r e r b e c a u s e he sent B e n o ' s r e t a r d e d b r o t h e r to an insti-
t u t i o n d u r i n g t h e T h i r d R e i c h . If we follow w h a t y o u ' r e saying, it
s e e m s t o m e t h a t B e n o ' s father w a s n ' t a m u r d e r e r . H e d i d n ' t kill t h e
boy, the N a z i s d i d . He was a victim of c i r c u m s t a n c e — j u s t like t h e
child. W h a t I m e a n is, in a certain historical s i t u a t i o n , he was c a u g h t
up in a n d w e n t a l o n g with the cultural m o r a l s a n d p u t his s o n in a
h o m e . T h a t ' s different from the way you d e s c r i b e d it—as m u r d e r . I t
s e e m s i n c o n s i s t e n t to call it m u r d e r .

H e l l i n g e r (to the group): Pay a t t e n t i o n to h o w this q u e s t i o n af-


fects y o u . It's a w e a k e n i n g i n t e r v e n t i o n , b e c a u s e it r o b s t h e s i t u a t i o n
of its s e r i o u s n e s s . H e ' s inviting us to d e b a t e ethical issues. W h e n I
d e s c r i b e d t h e m a n as a m u r d e r e r , I was d e s c r i b i n g t h e effect his
actions h a d on his family system. I w a s n ' t j u d g i n g h i m to be p e r s o n -
ally evil. Obviously, he was c a u g h t up in t h e t i m e s , b u t it m a k e s no
difference for o u r w o r k w h a t his m o t i v a t i o n was. T h e child is d e a d .
T h a t ' s w h a t w e ' r e c o n c e r n e d with, t h e effect o f his d e a t h o n B e n o .
It's a m a t t e r of life a n d d e a t h . It h a s weight. T h e b o y w a s asked to
give up his life in the interests of t h e family. T h a t ' s a great sacrifice.
W h e n an injustice of that m a g n i t u d e h a p p e n s , t h e r e ' s a p r e s s u r e in
the family for s o m e o n e else t o c o m p e n s a t e . T h a t ' s w h a t B e n o w a s
d o i n g w i t h o u t k n o w i n g it.
W h e n a father kills o n e of his c h i l d r e n , even if t h e r e are e x t e n u -
ating c i r c u m s t a n c e s , t h e child i s still d e a d . B o t h h e a n d t h e o t h e r
m e m b e r s of t h e family have to live with t h a t fact a n d with its c o n -
s e q u e n c e s . R e c o g n i z i n g t h e father's e n t a n g l e m e n t s d o e s n ' t c h a n g e
t h e c o n s e q u e n c e s . If that were t h e case, t h e victim w o u l d have to
c a r r y all o f t h e c o n s e q u e n c e s o f t h e e n t a n g l e m e n t a n d t h e p e r p e t r a -
tor n o n e . T h a t ' s crazy! H o l d i n g p e o p l e r e s p o n s i b l e for their actions
is not the same as judging them to be good or b a d people.
216 Love's Hidden Symmetry

UNDERSTANDING THE PRINCIPLES OF HELPING


Q u e s t i o n : W h e n s o m e o n e raises a large issue, s o m e t i m e s you
answer with a single sentence and t h e n move on to s o m e o n e else.
A n d t h e n you m a y c o m e back to the same t h e m e a couple of days
later.

H e l l i n g e r : Giving up wanting to help or to rescue people is


essential if you sincerely respect t h e m . T h e r e ' s an i m p o r t a n t ancient
discovery that helps us in this: O n e can act t h r o u g h deliberate
" n o n a c t i n g . " Actively being present w i t h o u t intentionally acting cre-
ates a collected force acting t h r o u g h n o n a c t i o n . N o n a c t i o n isn't
withdrawal or holding yourself back. H o l d i n g b a c k d o e s n ' t b r i n g
anything good at all. Lao-tzu described the principle of n o n a c t i o n
beautifully in " T a o te C h i n g . "

The Teacher

Resting in action, not acting,


Teaching, not talking,
Before him, all beings are present.
Not withholding, he gives himself to those who come,
Not possessing them, he convinces,
Not holding them, he touches them.
Not remaining after his work is finished,
He leaves them free.
Not clinging to them,
He is not abandoned.

W h e n the therapist actively holds what he sees within himself


w i t h o u t saying it, t h e n what the therapist sees will often occur to the
client. S o m e t i m e s it's easier for a client to find resolution w h e n the
therapist actively does nothing. N o n a c t i o n is very difficult to carry
o u t actively, b u t it leaves the client free to discover. In any case,
therapists have no control over what clients do with their interven-
tions.
I once got to thinking about the story of the rich y o u n g m a n w h o
went away after talking to Jesus, a n d I c a m e to the conclusion that
it's a good m o d e l for therapy. T h e therapist m u s t respect the client's
freedom to leave w i t h o u t being c h a n g e d . It's a m a t t e r of having a
The Therapeutic Posture 217

f u n d a m e n t a l r e s p e c t for individual f r e e d o m — i n c l u d i n g t h e f r e e d o m
t o fail a n d t h e f r e e d o m t o stay stuck. G o o d t h e r a p y has t h e quality
o f b e i n g p r e s e n t i n relationships w i t h o u t i n t e n t i o n a n d w i t h o u t s p e -
cific goals. T h a t is, up to a certain p o i n t , we m u s t relinquish all o u r
a t t e m p t s t o influence t h e client. T h a t k i n d o f p r e s e n c e creates t h e
e m p t y s p a c e i n w h i c h healing c a n occur. E v e r y t h i n g b e y o n d t h e
m i n i m u m n e c e s s a r y t o get c h a n g e m o v i n g w e a k e n s t h e client. I n
therapy, less is usually m o r e .

Petra: S o m e t i m e s I feel like I c a n do t h e r a p y until I d r o p d e a d ,


a n d n o t h i n g really h a p p e n s .

Hellinger: . . . until y o u d r o p d e a d ?

Petra: Yes, a n d n o t h i n g really h a p p e n s . . .

H e l l i n g e r (Gently): You're stuck in y o u r s e l f - i m p o r t a n c e .

Petra: It's very i m p o r t a n t t o m e t o h e l p w h e n p e o p l e are i n p a i n .

H e l l i n g e r : I'll tell y o u a little story t h a t exposes w h a t ' s b e h i n d


your feeling. B u t I n e e d to w a r n y o u t h a t t h e s t o r y has very serious
c o n s e q u e n c e s if you really u n d e r s t a n d it.

Belief
A man told how he had overheard two people discussing how Jesus
would have reacted if, after he told the sick man, "Rise up, take
your bed and go home," the sick man had answered, "But I don't
want to."
One of the two then said, "Jesus probably would have been silent a
while, then he would have turned to his disciples and said to them,
' H e does God a greater honor than I d o . ' "

Question: M y b r o t h e r ' s children are all a d o p t e d . T h e y all c o m e


from different families a n d o n e of t h e c h i l d r e n is n o t d o i n g well at
all. H o w c a n I h e l p t h e m ?

H e l l i n g e r : A t t h e m o m e n t , y o u c a n h e l p m o s t i f y o u leave t h e
p r o b l e m w h e r e it is. T h e y ' l l find their o w n r e s o l u t i o n s w i t h o u t y o u r
b e c o m i n g involved.

Question: C a n ' t I m e d i a t e , I m e a n , if t h e t i m i n g ' s right?

Hellinger: A therapist in o n e of my w o r k s h o p s h a d a d a u g h t e r
w h o m a r r i e d a s c h i z o p h r e n i c m a n in spite of h e r family's o b j e c t i o n s ,
218 Love's Hidden Symmetry

and the couple now have a number of children. At one time, the
mother and her daughter were in constant conflict with each other,
which is an especially difficult situation for a therapist. I suggested
to her, "No contact for two years. Leave your daughter in peace for
two years." I received a letter from this therapist two years later. She
had just visited her daughter for the first time in two years, and they
got along very well.

Question: I haven't said anything to my brother about the chil-


dren yet.

H e l l i n g e r : Some people just can't be stopped from throwing the


torch of good deeds into the haystack of the world (laughter). A
man told me a story of two friends. One became ill, and his friend
kept watch the whole night long. In the morning, the one who was
ill had recovered, but one who was watching died.
If your brother's children need your help, they'll come to you, or
they'll let you know in some way what they need. In the meantime,
you can practice being present without acting. If you succeed, you'll
have a completely different understanding of help. T h e most com-
mon error that would-be helpers make is that they do more than the
others really want or can assimilate. Here's a story that may help
you understand how to help them.

The Healing

In the land of Aram—where Syria is today—there once lived an old


general who was known wide and far for his courage and strength in
battle. One day, this old man became ill and could not have contact
with any other people, not even his own wife. He had leprosy.
He heard from a slave that there was a man in her land who could
heal the illness. So the old general gathered a great column of his fol-
lowers, 10 talents of silver, 6,000 pieces of gold, 10 ceremonial robes,
and a letter of introduction personally written by the king, and set
out to find this great healer.
After a long journey and many adventures, he reached the house
in which the healer lived and he called out to be let in. He stood
there with all of his followers, with his treasures and with the letter of
introduction written by his king, and he waited. But no one noticed
him. He became impatient and somewhat nervous. A servant opened
a little side door, approached him, and said, "My master instructed
me to tell you to wash in the river Jordan and you will be healed."
The Therapeutic Posture 219

T h e general thought he was being made a fool of. "What?" he


exclaimed. "That's supposed to be a healer? T h e very least he could
have done was to come himself, call on his G o d , do a long and com-
plex ritual, and then touch every sore on my body with his hand. T h a t
might have helped me. But no, this quack tells me I'm supposed to
bathe in the river Jordan." He turned away in rage and went home.
N o w that's really the end of the story, but since it is a fairy tale, it
has to have a good ending. So, . . . .
As the old general was making his way h o m e , the slave came to
him again and spoke soothingly to him, "Dearest Master, if the
healer had required something extraordinary of you, you'd have done
it. If he had required that you sail in a ship to far lands, that you wor-
ship strange gods, that you give up your wealth and go into contem-
plation for many years, you would certainly have done it. But he only
asked of you that you do something ordinary." T h e general graciously
allowed himself to be convinced by her.
He m a d e his way to the river Jordan, still very cross indeed, and
bathed sullenly in its waters, quite against his better judgment.
Against his expectations, a miracle happened, and he was cured.
When he arrived home again, his wife was amazed to see him
healthy and wanted to know all about what had happened. " O h , " he
said, " I ' m feeling pretty good, but other than that, nothing special
happened."

WORKING WITH R E S O L U T I O N S
INSTEAD OF PROBLEMS
Q u e s t i o n : Quite often when I work in groups and have clients set
up the problem in a constellation, nothing happens.

H e l l i n g e r : I can tell you why. You're not seeing. When you look at
a problem as a problem, you've got a problem. Seeing only works
when you search for a solution. When you say you have a client "set
up a problem in a constellation," you're already caught in a defini-
tion of the problem, or in some diagnosis. Try asking yourself,
"What needs to happen? Where does the client want to get to, and
what does he or she need to do to get there?" Then you can start to
see the light at the end of the tunnel, and you can swim with the
current. You don't need a problem to find a resolution.
Of course, it's an honored tradition in psychotherapy to treat
problems as if understanding them could cause their solutions. But
it's very easy to get stuck with the problem and ignore the solution.
220 Love's Hidden Symmetry

F r o m a systemic p o i n t of view, p r o b l e m s are unsuccessful a t t e m p t s


t o love, a n d t h e love t h a t m a i n t a i n s t h e p r o b l e m c a n b e r e d i r e c t e d
to resolve it. T h e t h e r a p e u t i c task is, first of all, to find t h e p o i n t at
w h i c h t h e client loves. W h e n I've f o u n d t h a t p o i n t , t h e n I have
t h e r a p e u t i c leverage. By helping t h e client find an a p p r o p r i a t e a n d
m a t u r e way t o love, the p r o b l e m dissolves, a n d t h e s a m e love t h a t
m a i n t a i n e d t h e p r o b l e m solves it.

Question: I s i t jealousy w h e n a w o m a n c o m p l a i n s t h a t h e r h u s -
b a n d d o e s n ' t give himself c o m p l e t e l y i n t h e m a r r i a g e b e c a u s e h e
h a s n ' t s e p a r a t e d from his m o t h e r ?

H e l l i n g e r (long pause): W o u l d it h e l p if she said, 'I respect y o u r


love for y o u r m o t h e r " ? (To the group) T h a t ' s a g o o d e x a m p l e of a
switch of focus from a p r o b l e m to a r e s o l u t i o n . T h e creative force
d o e s n ' t w o r k in relation to p r o b l e m s , b u t only in relation to resolu-
tions. T h e m o v e m e n t t o w a r d a solution is love, a n d seeing only
serves g o o d i n t e n t i o n s a n d love. W h e n I c o n f r o n t a p e r s o n w i t h a
p r o b l e m or d e s c r i b e it to t h a t p e r s o n , I ' m in a o n e - u p position, b u t
we search for r e s o l u t i o n t o g e t h e r as e q u a l s .
A n o t h e r difficulty arises w h e n , after finding a solution, s o m e o n e
also w a n t s to have a t h e o r y a b o u t it. You t e n d to lose t h e solution
w h e n you t h e o r i z e a b o u t it. A t h e o r y is always less t h a n t h e e x p e r i -
e n c e it a t t e m p t s to explain, a n d it c a n ' t convey the w h o l e n e s s of the
e x p e r i e n c e . W h e n s o m e t h i n g h a p p e n s a n d I t r y to explain it w i t h a
theory, I w i n d up w i t h only t h e tip of the iceberg. T h a t ' s t h e r e a s o n
I've slowly m o v e d to t h e position of trying to avoid theory. I n s t e a d
of w o r k i n g w i t h a t h e o r y a b o u t h o w things are or s h o u l d b e , I have
a large collection of experiences w i t h real p e o p l e , a n d I w o r k h a r d
to d e s c r i b e accurately different k i n d s of a c t u a l situations a n d to
a d d t h e m t o m y collection. T h a t way, I ' m always o p e n t o n e w ex-
p e r i e n c e s . I d o n ' t n e e d t o w o r r y a b o u t seeing s o m e t h i n g t h a t c o n -
tradicts my t h e o r y , a n d I d o n ' t n e e d to limit my i n t e r v e n t i o n s
a c c o r d i n g t o w h a t m y t h e o r y allows, t o prove t o myself t h a t t h e y ' r e
right or w r o n g . I'm free to see w h e t h e r or n o t they help. If s o m e -
t h i n g n e w a n d u n e x p e c t e d h a p p e n s , t h e n I've got a n o t h e r e x p e r i -
e n c e for my collection.

Question: I ' m i m p r e s s e d b y t h e way y o u listen very closely t o


w h a t p e o p l e say, b u t you stop t h e m t h e m i n u t e y o u n o t i c e t h a t
The Therapeutic Posture 221

they're getting caught up in a description of their p r o b l e m . T h a t ' s


very i m p o r t a n t .

H e l l i n g e r : Yes. W h e n people describe a p r o b l e m , they w a n t to


convince you to accept their world view. T h e i r world view justifies
their p r o b l e m . T h a t ' s a powerful pull. T h a t ' s why you have to inter-
r u p t t h e description of p r o b l e m s quickly. If you d o n ' t , you get
sucked into their belief system. O n c e you're c a u g h t in their belief
system, it's difficult to see anything outside of it, a n d t h e n you c a n ' t
help t h e m to find a resolution.
A w o m a n once asked m e , " D o you work with hypnosis?" I
answered, " S o m e t i m e s . " She said, "I have a client h e r e w h o was
treated by a psychiatrist w h o gave h e r a posthypnotic suggestion
that is d a m a g i n g for her. S h e needs s o m e o n e to hypnotize h e r again
in o r d e r to find o u t exactly what the posthypnotic suggestion was,
and to give h e r a n o t h e r posthypnotic suggestion to i n t e r r u p t t h e
first o n e . " I said, " T h a t ' s crazy. It's a delusion. I d o n ' t work that
way."
S t o p p i n g is m o s t i m p o r t a n t in situations like that. You've got to
stop descriptions of p r o b l e m s at the p o i n t at which you feel a p r e s -
sure to accept a crazy picture of the world as if it were reality. If it
were a correct description, the p r o b l e m would be solved. W h e n t h e
p r o b l e m isn't resolved, t h e description is, by definition, w r o n g .
As a rule, p r o b l e m s are described in such a way as to avoid a
solution. T h a t ' s why I d o n ' t n e e d to hear all of the descriptions of
p r o b l e m s from people in a g r o u p ; they're certainly false. If they h a d
the correct description, they w o u l d n ' t be talking a b o u t their p r o b -
lems a n y m o r e . T h e correct description of a p r o b l e m contains t h e
resolution to t h e p r o b l e m .

Question: I often just d o n ' t trust myself to stop s o m e o n e .

H e l l i n g e r : W h e n you're working in a g r o u p , you can usually t r u s t


the g r o u p to know whether what's being said is relevant or not. If t h e
g r o u p gets restless, it's a sign that it's n o t relevant. T h e n I stop the
p e r s o n . If you're working with individuals, you m i g h t try gently tell-
ing t h e m that you notice that you're beginning to lose interest, a n d
ask t h e m if they also notice a change. See if they can get interested
in their process. T h a t ' s a way of stopping t h e m that is a little less
harsh.
222 Love's Hidden Symmetry

Question: I don't understand what you mean by "the correct


description of a problem." I think that there are many alternative
descriptions of a problem, different ways of understanding it, and
that many of them might be helpful.

Hellinger: What's fight isn't a matter of choice; it either works


or it doesn't. T h e "correct description" is the first one that offers a
solution. You only need one. But finding a g o o d solution doesn't
mean that the client will implement it. It's important to under-
stand that w h e n people go d o w n a certain path, for example, a
path of suffering, they go down this path with love, even if their
love is distorted or blind. You must not intervene without their
permission.

The Wise Crack


Somewhere far in the South Seas, as dawn was breaking, a little
monkey climbed to the top of a palm tree and, swinging a very heavy
coconut in his hand, began to shout just as loud as loud could be. A
camel, hearing the noise, came a little closer, looked up into the tree,
and asked, "What's the matter?"
"I'm waiting for the queen of the elephants. I'm going to crack
this coconut over her head so she won't be able to see or think." The
camel thought, "But what's really the matter?"
At midday, a lion came by, heard the noise the little monkey was
making, looked up at him, and asked, "Is there something you need?"
"Yes," yelled the little monkey, "I need the queen of the elephants.
I'm going to crack her on the head with this coconut and split her
skull right open." The lion thought, "But what does he really need?"
In the afternoon, a rhinoceros came by and became curious about
the little monkey, and looked up and asked, "So what's your
problem?"
"I'm waiting for the queen of the elephants. I'm going to crack her
on the head with this coconut until she can't see or hear." The rhino
thought, "He really does have a problem."
In the evening, the queen of the elephants herself came. She
scratched her back on the palm. She reached up into the branches to
pick a few leaves with her trunk. Above her, it was just as still as still
could be. When she looked up and saw the little monkey, she asked:
"Do you need anything?"
The monkey replied, "No, nothing at all. It's true, I was yelling a
little bit earlier today, but surely you didn't take that seriously, did
you?" And the queen of the elephants thought, "He really does
The Therapeutic Posture 223

n e e d s o m e t h i n g . " T h e n she saw her herd in the distance and


s t o m p e d off.
T h e little m o n k e y thought quietly. After a while, he c l i m b e d d o w n
with the c o c o n u t and cracked it on a rock until it broke o p e n . T h e n
he drank the c o c o n u t milk and ate the c o c o n u t meat.

UNDERSTANDING "RESISTANCE"
AS MISPLACED LOVE

Q u e s t i o n : You d o n ' t seem to interpret resistance at all. I was


trained to try to identify the resistance as quickly as possible, b u t
you d o n ' t seem to care.

H e l l i n g e r : It's gradually b e c o m e clear to me t h a t clients have a


s t r o n g t e n d e n c y to use their s t r e n g t h to h o l d on to their p r o b l e m s
a n d to avoid solutions. T h a t has to do with t h e fact t h a t p s y c h o -
logical p r o b l e m s , u n h a p p i n e s s , or s y m p t o m s give us an i n n e r
a s s u r a n c e t h a t we'll b e allowed t o c o n t i n u e t o b e l o n g t o o u r g r o u p .
Suffering is t h e p r o o f o u r child soul n e e d s that we're n o t guilty
with respect to o u r family. It secures a n d p r o t e c t s o u r right to
b e l o n g to o u r family. Every u n h a p p i n e s s that's c a u s e d by systemic
e n t a n g l e m e n t is a c c o m p a n i e d by the d e e p c o n t e n t m e n t of k n o w -
ing t h a t we b e l o n g .
T h e r e f o r e , finding solutions to o u r p r o b l e m s is t h r e a t e n i n g a n d
u n p l e a s a n t . It carries t h e i n h e r e n t fear of losing o u r belonging, of
feelings of guilt a n d betrayal, of falling o u t of favor, of breaking faith
with t h e g r o u p to which we belong. W h e n we strive for a solution, '
we imagine that we break the family rules that we've obeyed up
until n o w a n d we feel guilty. Resolution and h a p p i n e s s seem d a n -
gerous b e c a u s e we believe they'll m a k e us lonely. P r o b l e m s a n d
u n h a p p i n e s s , on the other h a n d , give a feeling of belonging. Often
this kind of belonging is m o r e i m p o r t a n t to people t h a n h a p p i n e s s .
Because of this dynamic, solutions are often a c c o m p a n i e d by
guilt, a n d change requires t h e courage to face that guilt. W h e n
therapists feel pity for that kind of suffering, they see only o n e side
of t h e situation. It's very i m p o r t a n t for helpers to u n d e r s t a n d that
systemically caused suffering is always a c c o m p a n i e d by feelings of
security a n d i n n o c e n c e . Asking people to change is asking t h e m to
give up i n n o c e n c e .
224 Love's Hidden Symmetry

DISTINGUISHING DIFFERENT KINDS


OF FEELINGS

Question: I've always w o r k e d to get p e o p l e into their feelings


m o r e , b u t y o u often stop p e o p l e from expressing w h a t t h e y ' r e feel-
ing. W h e n y o u do t h a t , it usually h a s a very powerful effect, a n d t h e
client m a k e s s o m e real m o v e m e n t . C a n y o u say s o m e t h i n g a b o u t
w h a t ' s g o i n g on?

Hellinger: I m a k e distinctions a m o n g four different kinds of feel-


ings: p r i m a r y feelings, s e c o n d a r y feelings, systemic feelings, a n d
meta-feelings.
T h e m a i n difference b e t w e e n p r i m a r y a n d s e c o n d a r y feelings i s
t h a t p r i m a r y feelings s u p p o r t c o n s t r u c t i v e action, while s e c o n d a r y
feelings c o n s u m e , e n e r g y t h a t c o u l d otherwise s u p p o r t c h a n g e . F e e l -
ings t h a t p r o d u c e effective action s t r e n g t h e n p e o p l e , while feelings
t h a t h i n d e r effective a c t i o n , or justify n o t acting, or s u b s t i t u t e for
effective a c t i o n all w e a k e n p e o p l e . I call t h o s e feelings t h a t s u p p o r t
c o n s t r u c t i v e a c t i o n primary feelings, while t h e o t h e r s are secondary
feelings.
P r i m a r y feelings are simple a n d d o n ' t r e q u i r e e l a b o r a t e d e s c r i p -
tions. T h e y ' r e i n t e n s e , w i t h o u t d r a m a , w i t h o u t exaggeration. F o r
this r e a s o n , a l t h o u g h t h e y ' r e exciting a n d i n t e n s e , they b r i n g a sense
o f a s s u r a n c e a n d c a l m . O f c o u r s e , t h e r e are really d r a m a t i c situa-
tions, a n d t h e n d r a m a t i c e m o t i o n s are a p p r o p r i a t e ; for e x a m p l e , t h e
difference b e t w e e n t h e fear soldiers feel in a c o m b a t z o n e , a n d t h e
fear we feel in a b a d d r e a m .
M o s t feelings t h a t are dealt w i t h in t h e r a p y are s e c o n d a r y feel-
ings. T h e i r p r i m a r y function i s t o convince o t h e r s t h a t o n e c a n ' t
take effective a c t i o n , so they n e e d to be d r a m a t i c a n d exaggerated.
W h e n y o u ' r e in t h e grip of s e c o n d a r y feelings, you feel weak, a n d
t h e o t h e r s p r e s e n t feel a n e e d to h e l p . If t h e e m o t i o n s are d r a m a t i c
e n o u g h , t h e w o u l d - b e h e l p e r s d o n ' t n o t i c e t h a t there's really n o t h -
ing t h a t c a n b e d o n e i n t h e situation.
W h e n p e o p l e are clinging t o s e c o n d a r y feelings, t h e y m u s t avoid
looking at reality. Reality interferes w i t h the i n n e r images n e c e s s a r y
t o m a i n t a i n t h e s e c o n d a r y feelings a n d t o avoid c h a n g e . W h e n
p e o p l e w h o are h o l d i n g o n t o s e c o n d a r y feelings ' w o r k ' i n t h e r a p y ,
t h e y often close their eyes a n d w i t h d r a w i n t o their private w o r l d s .
T h e y a n s w e r different q u e s t i o n s t h a n the o n e s you ask, b u t usually
The Therapeutic Posture 225

d o n ' t notice that they do. It helps to r e m i n d t h e m to o p e n their eyes


ami to look at the world. I tell t h e m , " L o o k h e r e . L o o k at m e . " If
they can o p e n their eyes a n d really see, and still stay with t h e feeling
they're having, t h e n it's usually a p r i m a r y feeling. B u t if they lose
the feeling as soon as they o p e n their eyes and look, t h e n you know
they were caught in secondary feelings.
W h e n p r i m a r y feelings do emerge in therapy or in life, everyone
p r e s e n t naturally feels compassion, b u t also feels free to r e s p o n d as
is appropriate. A p e r s o n with p r i m a r y feelings r e m a i n s strong a n d
capable of acting effectively. Because p r i m a r y feelings lead to a defi-
nite goal, they're n o t long lasting. T h e y c o m e , do their job, a n d t h e n
go again. T h e y take no d e t o u r s . T h e y ' r e resolved by a p p r o p r i a t e
expression and effective, appropriate action.
S e c o n d a r y feelings, on the other h a n d , last longer and get worse,
rather t h a n better, by being expressed. T h a t ' s the m a i n r e a s o n why
therapies that encourage the expression of secondary feelings take
so long.
T h e r e ' s also another c o m m o n misconception a b o u t t h e loss of
control that I want to correct. T h i s is something I learned from Pri-
mal T h e r a p y . M a n y people have the idea that, w h e n they give in to
their n e e d or to an u r g e n t feeling, they lose control. B u t that isn't
t r u e . W h e n you give in to a p r i m a r y feeling, for example, to t h e p r i -
m a r y p a i n of separation, justified rage, deep longing, or reaching
out, a n d w h e n you completely trust the feeling, t h e n there's a n a t u -
ral control in the feeling a n d in the need itself.
P r i m a r y feelings only go as far as is g o o d . You w o n ' t do anything
shameful if you're feeling a p r i m a r y feeling, b e c a u s e t h e feeling
itself has a very precise s h a m e b o u n d a r y . It's extremely rare that
anyone is m o c k e d or s c o r n e d for displaying a p r i m a r y feeling. On
t h e contrary, other people usually are profoundly m o v e d a n d e n t e r
into t h e experience.
T h a t ' s only t r u e of p r i m a r y feelings. S e c o n d a r y feelings d o n ' t
have t h e s a m e s h a m e b o u n d a r y , and it's quite possible to m a k e a
fool of yourself w h e n expressing secondary feelings. You c a n ' t trust
s e c o n d a r y feelings to take care of you.
S e c o n d a r y feelings do have a certain fascination. T h e y ' r e d r a -
m a t i c , exciting, and give an illusion of being alive. But t h e price of
such aliveness is that p e o p l e m u s t stay weak and helpless.
E x p l a n a t i o n s or i n t e r p r e t a t i o n s also distract a client. R a t h e r
t h a n effectively leading p e o p l e toward their p r i m a r y feelings, they
226 Love's Hidden Symmetry

tend to keep t h e m caught in images that maintain the secondary


feelings.
Grief, for e x a m p l e , c a n be p r i m a r y or s e c o n d a r y . P r i m a r y grief is
a powerful p a i n of s e p a r a t i o n . If we s u r r e n d e r to t h e p a i n , allowing
it to do its w o r k , t h e grief eventually finds its o w n c o m p l e t i o n , a n d
we are free to b e g i n anew. B u t often p e o p l e d o n ' t s u r r e n d e r to grief,
shifting it instead to s e c o n d a r y grief, self-pity, or a t t e m p t s to get
p i t y from o t h e r s . Such s e c o n d a r y grief c a n last an entire lifetime,
p r o h i b i t i n g a clean a n d loving s e p a r a t i o n a n d d e n y i n g t h e fact of
loss. It's a p o o r s u b s t i t u t e for p r i m a r y grief.
P r i m a r y guilt leads to ameliorative action. If we a c c e p t o u r guilt,
w e n a t u r a l l y d o w h a t ' s b o t h possible a n d n e c e s s a r y t o m a k e
a m e n d s , t o p u t t h e situation right, a n d w e live with w h a t e v e r c a n n o t
be c h a n g e d . S e c o n d a r y guilt feelings t r a n s f o r m a c t i o n into worry.
T h e y d o n ' t m o t i v a t e effective a c t i o n for c h a n g e ; in fact, t h e y p r e -
v e n t c h a n g e . P e o p l e can w o r r y a g o o d p r o b l e m for years, like a d o g
worries a b o n e , but nothing changes. T h e y t o r m e n t themselves and
o t h e r s , b u t t h e r e ' s n o p r o d u c t i v e c h a n g e . P e o p l e w h o n e e d t o avoid
positive c h a n g e for s o m e r e a s o n m u s t c o n v e r t their p r i m a r y guilt
i n t o s e c o n d a r y guilty feelings.
T h e desire for retaliation also c a n b e p r i m a r y o r s e c o n d a r y . P r i -
m a r y retaliation allows reconciliation, a n d it's a p p r o p r i a t e w h e n i t
frees b o t h t h e w o u n d e d p a r t y a n d t h e w o u n d e r . S e c o n d a r y retalia-
tion m a i n t a i n s t h e injury a n d systemic i m b a l a n c e a n d p r e v e n t s r e s o -
lution. A n e x a m p l e i s t h e clan feuds that have b e e n t a k e n o n from
p r e v i o u s g e n e r a t i o n s . T h e avengers feel t h e n e e d t o avenge w r o n g s
t h e y h a v e n ' t suffered themselves, a n d their actions often are a i m e d
a t p e r s o n s w h o have d o n e n o w r o n g .
A n g e r h a s p r i m a r y a n d s e c o n d a r y forms. P r i m a r y a n g e r cleanses
a r e l a t i o n s h i p , a n d passes w i t h o u t leaving scars. S e c o n d a r y a n g e r at
s o m e o n e often follows o u r having d o n e s o m e t h i n g t o t h a t p e r s o n ,
w h o t h e n h a s r e a s o n t o b e a n g r y w i t h us. B y b e i n g a n g r y a t h i m o r
h e r , we preempt t h e p e r s o n ' s anger. S e c o n d a r y a n g e r , like s e c o n d -
ary guilt feelings, is often an excuse for n o t acting. In r e l a t i o n s h i p s ,
s e c o n d a r y a n g e r is s o m e t i m e s u s e d to avoid asking for w h a t o n e
w a n t s , as in, "You never n o t i c e w h e n I n e e d s o m e t h i n g . " A n o t h e r
e x a m p l e is t h e m a n w h o felt that h e ' d e a r n e d a raise, b u t d i d n ' t get
o n e . I n s t e a d of going to t h e b o s s a n d n e g o t i a t i n g a raise, he w e n t
h o m e a n d b e c a m e e n r a g e d a t his wife a n d c h i l d r e n .
The Therapeutic Posture 227

W h e n suffering i s p r i m a r y , clients e n d u r e w h a t n e e d s t o b e
e n d u r e d , a n d t h e n they b e g i n t o p i c k u p t h e pieces o f their lives a n d
b e g i n again. W h e n suffering i s s e c o n d a r y , t h e y s t a r t a n o t h e r r o u n d
of suffering. C o m p l a i n i n g , a b o u t s o m e t h i n g is usually a s e c o n d a r y
d i s t o r t i o n of c o n s e n t i n g to w h a t is.
T h e d i s t i n c t i o n b e t w e e n w h a t s t r e n g t h e n s a n d w h a t w e a k e n s also
applies t o m a n y o t h e r areas, t o k n o w l e d g e a n d i n f o r m a t i o n , for
e x a m p l e . You c a n ask yourself, " D o e s this k n o w l e d g e lead to r e s o l u -
t i o n , or d o e s it p r e v e n t it? D o e s this i n f o r m a t i o n s u p p o r t a c t i o n , or
h i n d e r it? D o e s w h a t ' s going o n s t r e n g t h e n p e o p l e o r w e a k e n t h e m ,
s u p p o r t effective action for g o o d c h a n g e or h i n d e r it?" I ' m less
i n t e r e s t e d in h e l p i n g p e o p l e to " g e t their feelings o u t " t h a n I am in
c o n s t r u c t i v e c h a n g e . G e t t i n g feelings o u t s o m e t i m e s h e l p s , b u t i t
also often o b s t r u c t s c h a n g e .
My r e c o m m e n d a t i o n is for therapists to t r y to avoid w o r k i n g w i t h
s e c o n d a r y feelings entirely, to distract t h e client's a t t e n t i o n , p e r h a p s
by telling an a p p r o p r i a t e joke or by shifting t h e client's focus of
a t t e n t i o n . M y i n t e n t i o n i s n o t t o c h a n g e clients' e x p e r i e n c e s , b u t t o
g u i d e their a t t e n t i o n t o w a r d their p r i m a r y feelings, w h i c h are t h e
p r e r e q u i s i t e s for finding their o w n resolutions.

Question: T h e distinction b e t w e e n feelings t h a t w e a k e n a n d feel-


ings t h a t s t r e n g t h e n is n e w to m e , a n d it fascinates m e . It's so
simple. B u t I d o n ' t k n o w h o w t o tell w h e t h e r m y c r y i n g w e a k e n s m e
o r frees m e t o d o s o m e t h i n g else.

Hellinger: S t r e n g t h is recognized in a c e r t a i n e m o t i o n a l c o n t i -
n e n c e . D o y o u k n o w w h a t c o n t i n e n c e is?

Question: H o l d i n g tight.

Hellinger: N o t exactly. You k n o w w h a t incontinence is, so c o n t i -


n e n c e is w h e n y o u d o n ' t m e s s in y o u r p a n t s . It isn't exactly t h e
s a m e as h o l d i n g ; it h a s a quality of c o m p e t e n c e a n d s t r e n g t h . You
c a n w a t c h h o w I w o r k w i t h feelings t h a t w e a k e n . You c a n l e a r n to
recognize t h e m . T h e y have s o m e t h i n g m a n i p u l a t i v e ; t h e y ' r e
a t t e m p t s to get s o m e o n e to do s o m e t h i n g , as if o n e c o u l d n ' t do it
oneself. T h e y serve as justifications for n o t acting a n d as rationaliza-
tions for h o l d i n g o n t o the p r o b l e m . T h a t ' s the r e a s o n why y o u u s u -
ally c a n ' t do any effective work w i t h a client as l o n g as he or she is
stuck in a s e c o n d a r y feeling.
228 Love's Hidden Symmetry

T h e third category of feelings are feelings that have b e e n t a k e n


on from t h e system; t h a t is, w h e n w h a t o n e feels as o n e ' s o w n feel-
ing is actually s o m e o n e else's feeling. It's s t r a n g e for m o s t p e o p l e to
t h i n k that w h a t t h e y ' r e feeling isn't their o w n feeling, b u t s o m e b o d y
else's. N e v e r t h e l e s s , strange as it s e e m s , it h a p p e n s a lot in t h e c o n -
stellations, a n d it's usually very easy to recognize. O n c e y o u ' v e r e c -
ognized it t h e r e , y o u b e g i n to see it in o t h e r situations as well. I
W h e n e v e r you feel a feeling that belongs to s o m e o n e else, t h e n
you're caught up in something that's not of your own making.
T h a t ' s w h y y o u r a t t e m p t s to c h a n g e it usually fail.

Question: I ' m very interested in this idea of e m o t i o n s t h a t are


t a k e n o n from t h e system, b e c a u s e I've often h a d t h a t e x p e r i e n c e .
S o m e t i m e s I b e c o m e e n r a g e d . T h e r e ' s s o m e t h i n g a b o u t t h e feeling
t h a t ' s exaggerated a n d i n a p p r o p r i a t e . Afterwards, I always feel ter-
rible, as if it w a s n ' t me w h o was angry.

H e l l i n g e r : Yes, t h a t k i n d of a n g e r a n d rage is often associated


w i t h an exaggerated systemic n e e d for justice. T h e n e e d for revenge
is often t a k e n on from t h e system; trying to achieve justice for
s o m e o n e in t h e p a s t . Feelings like t h a t are usually m u c h less i n t e n s e
w h e n t h e injustices have b e e n d i r e c t e d at y o u . It's as if the identifi-
c a t i o n w i t h s o m e o n e o u t of your p a s t actually intensifies t h e feel-
ings, just as d r e a m s intensify certain feelings.

Question: T h o s e are t h e m o s t difficult feelings for m e t o deal


with.

Hellinger: T h a t ' s clear. I n o r d e r t o b e able t o deal a p p r o p r i a t e l y


w i t h feelings like t h a t , y o u n e e d to go t h r o u g h a p r o c e s s of i n n e r
clarification, or purification. You n e e d to purify yourself from t h e
systemic c o n t a m i n a t i o n t h a t d o e s n ' t a p p r o p r i a t e l y b e l o n g t o you.

Question: I often feel h u r t b y p e o p l e , especially b y m y h u s b a n d .


T h e h u r t c o m e s really fast, a n d I c a n ' t s e e m t o d o a n y t h i n g t o s t o p
it from h a p p e n i n g . I've b e e n t r y i n g to get it u n d e r c o n t r o l for
y e a r s , b u t I ' m still very easily h u r t . C o u l d t h a t b e a n a s s u m e d
emotion?

Hellinger: We'd have t o set u p t h e constellation t o b e c e r t a i n , b u t


j u d g i n g from t h e way in w h i c h you d e s c r i b e it, it c o u l d very well b e .
P e r h a p s y o u are identified with s o m e o n e w h o really was injured.
The Therapeutic Posture 229

T h e r e ' s also a f o u r t h c a t e g o r y of feelings I call meta-feelings.


T h e s e feelings have an entirely different quality. T h e y are feelings or
sensations w i t h o u t e m o t i o n s . T h e y ' r e p u r e , c o n c e n t r a t e d energy.
C o u r a g e , humility (the willingness to a c c e p t t h e world as it is),
serenity, r e m o r s e , w i s d o m , a n d d e e p satisfaction are e x a m p l e s of
meta-feelings. T h e r e ' s also meta-love a n d m e t a - a g g r e s s i o n .
An e x a m p l e of m e t a - a g g r e s s i o n m i g h t be w h a t a loving s u r g e o n
e x p e r i e n c e s while o p e r a t i n g , or w h a t a t h e r a p i s t occasionally feels.
T h e discipline n e c e s s a r y for m a k i n g n o n a b u s i v e , strategic i n t e r v e n -
tions is m e t a - a g g r e s s i o n . Strategic i n t e r v e n t i o n s d e m a n d a b s o l u t e
-self-discipline on t h e p a r t of the t h e r a p i s t if t h e y ' r e truly to serve t h e
n e e d s a n d interests of t h e client, a n d n o t to d e g e n e r a t e into abusive
m a n i p u l a t i o n s , a n d they cost e n o r m o u s energy.
A u t h e n t i c r e m o r s e is a meta-feeling. W h e n r e m o r s e is a u t h e n t i c ,
p e o p l e are c e n t e r e d i n themselves, a n d they k n o w w h a t ' s a p p r o p r i -
ate for t h e m . W h a t they t h e n do is i m m e d i a t e l y possible, a p p r o p r i -
ate, a n d effective.
W h e n p e o p l e feel b a d b e c a u s e they're a b o u t t o d o s o m e t h i n g
i n a p p r o p r i a t e for their souls, that's a meta-feeling. We m i g h t call it a
c o n s c i e n c e of a h i g h e r order. S o m e t i m e s it's t h e only t h i n g t h a t
keeps u s from g o i n g a l o n g w h e n o u r g r o u p i s c a u g h t u p i n s o m e -
t h i n g destructive.
Feeling w h a t ' s a p p r o p r i a t e for souls also keeps us from living o u t
a script t h a t we've i n h e r i t e d from o u r system. T h e script h a s an
effect; it influences w h a t we do a n d e x p e r i e n c e , w h a t we believe a n d
perceive, b u t it d o e s n ' t lead to t h e fulfillment of o u r o w n i n d i v i d u -
ality. O n t h e o t h e r h a n d , w h e n awareness o f m e t a - c o n s c i e n c e h a s
b e e n d e v e l o p e d , there's a criterion for j u d g i n g w h a t ' s truly a p p r o -
p r i a t e . T h e n the limitations i m p o s e d b y t h e systemic d y n a m i c s a n d
scripts gradually d i s a p p e a r .
T h e c r o w n of all of t h e meta-feelings is w i s d o m . W i s d o m is asso-
ciated with c o u r a g e , humility, a n d t h e energy of life. It's a m e t a -
feeling t h a t helps u s t o distinguish b e t w e e n w h a t really c o u n t s a n d
w h a t d o e s n ' t . W i s d o m d o e s n ' t m e a n t h a t I k n o w a lot, b u t r a t h e r
that I ' m able t o d e t e r m i n e w h a t ' s a p p r o p r i a t e t o t h e i m m e d i a t e
situation a n d w h a t ' s n o t . I t tells m e w h a t m y p e r s o n a l integrity
r e q u i r e s of me in every situation. W i s d o m is always related to
a c t i o n . T h e actions of a wise p e r s o n are n o t d e d u c e d from p r i n -
ciples, b u t w h a t is r e q u i r e d by t h e situation is perceived directly.
T h a t ' s w h y the b e h a v i o r of t h e truly wise is often a s u r p r i s e .
230 Love's Hidden Symmetry

W h e n meta-feelings a p p e a r , they're e x p e r i e n c e d as gifts. You


c a n ' t m a k e t h e m h a p p e n ; they c o m e o n their o w n a s blessings.
T h e y ' r e t h e r e w a r d for life experience—like r i p e n e d fruit.
M e t a - l o v e is a f u n d a m e n t a l p r o p e r t y of the b o u n t y o f life t h a t we
can feel in all areas of o u r lives, especially in relationships. M e t a -
love, in a d d i t i o n to p r i m a r y love, gives relationships s t r e n g t h a n d
security, a n d is t h e s o u r c e of t r u e responsibility, t r u s t w o r t h i n e s s ,
a n d faithfulness.

CHOSEN SUFFERING
A N D SUFFERING AT THE HANDS OF FATE
Q u e s t i o n : I b e l o n g to Alcoholics A n o n y m o u s a n d I feel very
deeply t o u c h e d b y t h e a t m o s p h e r e o f o p e n n e s s a n d t r u s t a t t h e
m e e t i n g s . All of the m e m b e r s have suffered a great d e a l . My q u e s -
tion is: C a n t h a t k i n d of b e i n g t o u c h e d h a p p e n in a healthy, h a p p y ,
joyful s e n s e , or d o e s it r e q u i r e s o m e kind of suffering in o r d e r to
create a sense of c o m m u n i t y a n d belonging?

H e l l i n g e r : Your q u e s t i o n s e e m s to c o n t a i n t h e answer, so I s u p -
p o s e y o u ' r e asking m e a b o u t s o m e t h i n g you already u n d e r s t a n d . I t
d o e s s e e m to me t h a t that kind of c o m m u n i t y is n o t possible w i t h -
o u t s o m e d e g r e e of suffering a n d guilt. Suffering a n d guilt are p o w -
erful forces that b i n d c o m m u n i t i e s together.

Question: B u t isn't t h e r e a t e m p t a t i o n to stay s t u c k in suffering


in o r d e r to k e e p the feeling of c o m m u n i t y ?

Hellinger: O f c o u r s e , b u t i n t e n t i o n a l suffering d o e s n ' t create


c o m m u n i t y . O n l y suffering at t h e h a n d s of fate has t h e effect of
g r a n t i n g s t r e n g t h a n d w i s d o m to those w h o go t h r o u g h it. Self-
i n d u c e d o r n e u r o t i c suffering b r i n g s n o g o o d . T h a t ' s a n i m p o r t a n t
p a r t o f t h e A A p r o g r a m , the nonintentionality. N o o n e t h e r e i s try-
ing to c h a n g e a n y o n e else.

WORKING WITH FACTS RATHER THAN OPINIONS


Question: I set up my family of origin in o n e of y o u r s e m i n a r s
a b o u t four years a g o , b u t this t i m e I o b s e r v e d h o w you w o r k w i t h
what's in the background. Something went wrong in my mother's
The Therapeutic Posture 231

family. S h e lost h e r p a r e n t s very early a n d w e n t to live w i t h a very


strict sister of h e r m o t h e r ' s .

H e l l i n g e r : I g u a r d against every disrespectful d e s c r i p t i o n ,


a g a i n s t every a t t r i b u t i o n o f negative q u a l i t i e s , s u c h a s y o u r w o r d
" s t r i c t . " C h a r a c t e r d e s c r i p t i o n s are i r r e l e v a n t . That_ level of infor-
mation is distracting and confusing. By omitting such descrip-
t i o n s , t h e a c t u a l events i n p e o p l e ' s lives regain t h e i r i m p o r t a n c e .
It's o n e of t h e negative influences of p s y c h o a n a l y s i s in o u r c u l t u r e
that we lend m o r e i m p o r t a n c e to the interpretation of the events
t h a n t o t h e e v e n t s t h e m s e l v e s . T h a t ' s a b s u r d ! I'll give y o u a n
e x a m p l e of w h a t I m e a n .

Forgetting Father's Death


In a workshop for therapists, I asked the participants to relate the
most important events from their childhood. One man described
how his grandfather had placed his hand on his head. That had been
very important for him. Then he described getting spanked, falling
down, and so on, and that when he was five, his father died. I asked
the group what the most important of these events was. They guessed
all of them, except the death of the father. That's the distortion from
psychoanalysis.

Your m o t h e r w e n t t o live w i t h h e r a u n t , a n d h e r a u n t w a s p r e -
p a r e d t o look after h e r — p e r i o d . T h a t s h o r t e n s t h e w h o l e p r o c e s s
e n o r m o u s l y . T h e descriptions o f p e o p l e ' s c h a r a c t e r m a k e n o differ-
e n c e i n t h e constellations. W h a t helps u s are t h e simple e v e n t s , a n d
the r e a c t i o n s of t h e p a r t i c i p a n t s in t h e constellation itself. S o , y o u
c a n lighten t h e l o a d in y o u r h e a d , okay?

Question: I feel a t t r a c t e d to the h u s b a n d of my m o t h e r ' s sister,


a l t h o u g h I rarely see h i m . I only k n o w t h a t he h e l p e d us a lot in t h e
refugee c a m p . O t h e r t h a n t h a t — a n d I p r o b a b l y s h o u l d n ' t say
t h i s — h e was c o m p l e t e l y n u t s .

H e l l i n g e r : (to the group): C a n you feel t h e effect of his f o r m u l a -


tion? B y e n d i n g his d e s c r i p t i o n o f w h a t h a p p e n e d b y saying " h e w a s
c o m p l e t e l y n u t s , " he r e d u c e d his c h a n c e of r e s o l u t i o n . R e s o l u t i o n is
always b o u n d u p with h o n o r a n d respect. H e said s o m e t h i n g t h a t
deserves to be h o n o r e d , " H e h e l p e d us a lot in t h e refugee c a m p , "
b u t h e followed i t w i t h s o m e t h i n g t h a t n e g a t e d t h e a p p r e c i a t i o n .
232 Love's Hidden Symmetry

C o v e r i n g g o o d things w i t h negative things i s n u t s . D o i n g n u t t y


things like t h a t distorts reality. A n y t h i n g else?

Question: O n the c o n t r a r y (laughing).

INTERPRETATIONS WORK
ONLY IF THEY TOUCH THE CLIENT'S LOVE
Q u e s t i o n : I t s e e m s t o m e t h a t w h a t you d o i s r e i n t e r p r e t o r
reframe in a positive way. Do you consciously u s e reframing?

H e l l i n g e r : An i n t e r p r e t a t i o n is effective only w h e n it fits, a n d it


also m u s t t o u c h t h e h e a r t . T h a t ' s the t h e r a p e u t i c p r i n c i p l e t h a t
applies h e r e . I n t e r v e n t i o n s are only effective w h e n t h e y t o u c h t h e
client's love, activate it, a n d affirm i t — a n d the client's r e a c t i o n is
t h e c r i t e r i o n we u s e to d e t e r m i n e t h e fit of t h e i n t e r p r e t a t i o n .
If y o u ' r e n o t careful, positively reframing a h a r m f u l situation c a n
be a c a p r i c i o u s i n t e r v e n t i o n that trivializes t h e s e r i o u s n e s s of t h e
s i t u a t i o n , a n d i t d o e s n ' t work. T h e k i n d o f i n t e r p r e t a t i o n a n d
r e f r a m i n g t h a t d o e s w o r k arises o u t of seeing w h a t is. W i t h s u c h an
i n t e r p r e t a t i o n , I offer w h a t I've seen to t h e client's a w a r e n e s s . I n t e r -
p r e t a t i o n s a n d reframing that are effective rest on t r u t h .
T h e r e ' s a lot o f discussion a b o u t the w o r d " t r u t h . " T h e c o n s t r u c -
tivists d o n ' t like to use it, b u t I've f o u n d a definition I like. T r u t h is
w h a t e v e r serves a n d e n h a n c e s life. If you p a y a t t e n t i o n , y o u c a n feel
right away w h e t h e r or n o t a s t a t e m e n t is t r u e in this w a y — y o u r
b o d y r e s p o n d s w i t h aliveness if it's t r u e , a n d w i t h a c o n t r a c t i o n ,
h a r d e n i n g , or a sense of going d e a d if it's n o t . W h e n an i n t e r p r e t a -
tion is t r u e , clients feel it i m m e d i a t e l y ; they feel a sense of relief in
their b o d y , a distinct feeling of " t h a t ' s right." It's difficult to define
t r u t h ^ b u t it's n o t difficult to feel it. I d o n ' t n e e d definitions a b o u t
w h a t life requires of m e . If I ' m awake, I feel it. P e o p l e usually define
c o n c e p t s a n d goals a c c o r d i n g t o w h a t they d o n ' t w a n t a n d t o w h a t
d o e s n ' t c o n f o r m to t h e imperatives of life.
W h e n therapists i n t e r p r e t events o r p e r s o n s , t h e y try t o take c o n -
trol of their clients' lives, a n d they act as if c o n t r o l w e r e possible.
That's an inflation. D e s c r i b i n g w h a t I see is n o t t h e s a m e as inter-
p r e t i n g it. W h e n I see t h a t an event has an a u t h e n t i c i m p o r t a n c e , I
t r y to get b e h i n d it a n d follow wherever it leads m e — i t s l e a d i n g me
r a t h e r t h a n me trying to c o n t r o l it. T h a t ' s a h u m b l e p o s t u r e , a n d it
also p r o t e c t s a t h e r a p i s t against an inflated sense of s e l f - i m p o r t a n c e .
The Therapeutic Posture 233

AVOIDING OVERINTERPRETATION A N D
INFLATED SELF-IMPORTANCE
Q u e s t i o n : About a year ago, my brother was diagnosed with epi-
lepsy, and several years ago, my sister contracted cancer. I would
like to set up my family of origin because I want to find out what's
going on in my family so that I can put it back in order.

H e l l i n g e r : That train of thought is very seductive. It seems to me


that your attempt to explain these events systemically goes too far,
and your implicit assumption that there's something that you can
do to put it "back in order" is inflated self-importance.
Whenever people ask, "What have I done wrong that caused me to
get cancer?" or "What's the psychological dynamic behind my fami-
ly's craziness?" so that they can "put it back in order," they're going
too far. When they start with the belief that if they only could under-
stand enough, they would be able to "put it back in order," they act
as if they could control their illness or their family's destiny by cor-
recting their behavior. They want to avoid confronting the fact that
some things happen to us that we can't control. When we're dealing
with things like that, we have to bend to fate and to bow down before
our destiny.Trying to control destiny often has a negative effect on
the soul because of its exaggerated self-importance
A systemic therapist recently called me. She had a seriously
infected toe and the infection was spreading to her knee. She
wanted to go into therapy so that it would heal. I told her to see a
doctor. There is such a thing as sickness. You simply can't connect
everything to family dynamics. If you try, you make yourself crazy.
You've got to look at a concrete person. Is she avoiding her fate and
her illness, or is she facing up to them and trying to live with them
as best she can?
A participant once asked to do a constellation in order to see
what false belief system his seriously ill sister had. I told him,
"Death isn't impressed by belief systems." People are very tempted
to deny the reality of their mortality.

Q u e s t i o n : My sister told me that my father had been engaged to


another woman before he married my mother. He was in a Russian
prison camp for many years after the war, and no one knew whether
or not he was alive, or whether he would come back. His fiancee
waited a few years, and then married someone else. My father died
234 Love's Hidden Symmetry

a year a n d a half ago of a h e a r t attack, a l t h o u g h he was healthy,


d i d n ' t s m o k e o r d r i n k , a n d regularly p a r t i c i p a t e d i n s p o r t s . T h e r e
m u s t b e s o m e c o n n e c t i o n b e t w e e n his h a v i n g b e e n rejected b y his
fiancee "and his s u d d e n d e a t h .

H e l l i n g e r : T h a t ' s a g o o d e x a m p l e of w h a t I ' m talking a b o u t .


T h e r e ' s a c o m m o n t e n d e n c y to look for psychological c o n n e c t i o n s
b e t w e e n things in o r d e r to create t h e sense of o r d e r a n d c o n t r o l , as
y o u ' r e d o i n g now. B u t the m o r e c o n n e c t i o n s you find, t h e crazier
you get. W h e n y o u find all t h e c o n n e c t i o n s , y o u ' r e c o m p l e t e l y crazy.
T h e b e s t p s y c h o t h e r a p y limits the c o n n e c t i o n s t h a t clients find a n d
r e d u c e s t h e m to a m i n i m u m .

Question: I ' m still w o n d e r i n g w h a t that all h a s t o d o w i t h m e .

Hellinger: W h a t you d e s c r i b e d has n o c o n n e c t i o n t o you a t all.


Your father d i e d of a h e a r t attack. It h a p p e n s every day. E v e r y t h i n g
else is m e a n i n g l e s s . W h a t d o e s it bring? H i s fiancee t h o u g h t he was
d e a d a n d f o u n d a n o t h e r m a n . T h a t m a k e s sense. It's easy t o u n d e r -
s t a n d . T h o s e were very difficult t i m e s , a n d life m u s t g o o n . T h a t ' s
just t h e way it is. You c o u l d find t h e c o m m o n s e n s e s o l u t i o n too.
\ M a n y p e o p l e try to find an excuse for their lack of a c t i o n a n d their
; u n h a p p i n e s s , b u t it's also possible to just go a h e a d a n d do w h a t you
t h i n k is b e s t .

Question: Okay, b u t I still have the idea t h a t my difficulty in


t r u s t i n g w o m e n c o u l d have s o m e t h i n g t o d o w i t h m y father's b e i n g
a b a n d o n e d by his fiancee. I'd like to u n d e r s t a n d t h a t .

Hellinger: T h e direct way i s best. D e a l directly w i t h t h e w o m a n .


If love is t h e r e , you'll find a way to t r u s t her. W h e n y o u t h i n k a b o u t
all t h e things t h a t c o u l d b e interfering, a n d a b o u t w h a t they m i g h t
have t o d o w i t h y o u r father, y o u ' r e looking a t y o u r p r o b l e m s a n d
you d o n ' t see t h e w o m a n . T h a t ' s y o u r p r o b l e m . I f y o u d o n ' t see her,
she'll have t o a b a n d o n y o u . I t w o u l d b e a p p r o p r i a t e .

Question: T h a t ' s clear.

AVOIDING OVERDRAMATIZATION
Question: I t b o t h e r s m e t h a t y o u s o often i n t e r r u p t p e o p l e before
they've finished relating w h a t h a p p e n e d to t h e m . It's as if y o u d o n ' t
respect what happened to them.
The Therapeutic Posture 235

H e l l i n g e r : M e m o r i e s are changeable a n d , therefore, suspect.


W h e n s o m e o n e r e m e m b e r s something, the m e m o r y d o e s n ' t neces-
sarily say anything a b o u t reality. T h e question is, " W h i c h m e m o r y
has the p e r s o n chosen, and to what p u r p o s e ? " M e m o r i e s are often
selected in the service of maintaining the victim position or a p r o b -
lem, and p s y c h o t h e r a p y often reinforces this tendency.
T h i n k a b o u t everything that average p a r e n t s do for their children
for 20 years or so. T h e n c o m p a r e t h e m with t h e m e m o r i e s that cli-
ents b r i n g into therapy. Mostly they choose the five or six really
negative experiences they have h a d , and forget the rest. W h e n there
was a t r a u m a , t h e m o s t i m p o r t a n t thing is usually forgotten—that
the individual survived. T h a t ' s often n o t considered at all.
O n e client r e m e m b e r e d that his m o t h e r w a n t e d to j u m p off a bal-
cony carrying h i m i n her a r m s . H e r e m e m b e r e d h e r sobbing and
wanting to j u m p , b u t he forgot that she t u r n e d b a c k and d i d n ' t do
it. O r s o m e o n e says, " M y m o t h e r w a n t e d t o a b o r t m e ! " T h e m o r e
i m p o r t a n t fact that she decided n o t to do it is forgotten, b u t that
she was t e m p t e d to do it is r e m e m b e r e d . M e m o r i e s are often a
m e n t a l a r m o r that help to maintain a certain position and to p r e -
vent change. We're m o r e interested in d i s a r m a m e n t here.

FALSE CURIOSITY DISTURBS SEEING

Q u e s t i o n (Immediately after a deeply moving family constellation, in a


challenging and doubting tone): D i d the constellation really change
anything? D i d it really change anything a b o u t your pain?

H e l l i n g e r (to questioner): Your question i n t r u d e s . You haven't


even let h i m have time to digest his experience. (To the group) T h e
question is a critique in disguise. If the client were to pay attention
to it, it w o u l d distract h i m from the experience he just h a d .
T h e question shows false curiosity and threatens the effectiveness
of the work. Curiosity is destructive w h e n we w a n t to k n o w m o r e
t h a n is necessary for effective action. W h a t he just experienced is
m o r e t h a n e n o u g h for h i m . If he were to answer t h e question, he'd
have to distance himself from his experience a n d switch into his
rational m i n d to formulate an answer, a n d t h e effect of t h e work
would be i n t e r r u p t e d . You can't even inquire a b o u t the l o n g - t e r m
results w i t h o u t diminishing t h e effect of t h e work. Even trying to
find o u t a b o u t t h e success or failure of an intervention in psycho-
236 Love's Hidden Symmetry

therapy spoils its potency, as in, "I'm curious about what happened
after our work last time."
Obviously, researching the effectiveness of certain approaches
scientifically is essential, but that's different from curiosity during
therapy. What I'm talking about is the inner attitude of the therapist.
Sometimes therapists are tempted to ask questions like that when
they're actually looking for an affirmation that they did good work.
That attitude leads to a distortion in the therapists' perceptions and
self-importance—if there was a positive change, the therapists think
they caused it, when in fact they may have played only a minor role.
If you're able to view the therapeutic situation as being part of a
larger movement in which you meet someone, perhaps give the per-
son something, and then go on with your life, then everyone is really
free. T h e meeting is important, but not the "therapeutic outcome."
That's very supportive for the work.

Q u e s t i o n : I keep vacillating between curiosity and skepticism


about your work.

H e l l i n g e r : Neither curiosity nor skepticism is helpful. There are


dynamics that lead to resolution, and dynamics that don't. We work
with those that do. I'll tell you a story about curiosity.

The Man Who Wanted to Know Everything


T h e r e once was a very p o o r m a n whose wife suddenly died, leaving
him alone with his many children and his m a n y worries—he h a d no
job a n d d i d n ' t know how to feed t h e m all. As he was worrying one
day, his friend told him about a h e r m i t w h o knew the secret of t u r n -
ing stones into gold. Perhaps he could help.
T h e m a n decided to visit the hermit, gathered what he n e e d e d ,
a n d set out.
W h e n he found the hermit, he asked, "Is it true that you know the
secret of t u r n i n g stones into gold?"
"Yes, I know it," answered the hermit.
"Would you teach it to m e ? "
"Yes, I will teach you. It isn't difficult. At the next full m o o n , go
into the next valley to the n o r t h of here, gather five stones from the
river there, a n d exactly one h o u r before midnight, lay t h e m in a ring
on a b e d of pine boughs. T h e n sprinkle these five h e r b s — u n f o r t u -
nately, I've forgotten their n a m e s — a n d set the pyre on fire. At exactly
midnight, your stones will be gold."
The Therapeutic Posture 237

T h e poor man was very happy. He set off on his way to do what
he'd been told. As he was starting down into the valley, he thought,
"That can't be all. He certainly forgot to tell me something very
important." He looked at the sun in the sky, and saw that there was
still time, and so he hurried back to the hermit.
"There's more to it than you told me," he said. "You left out
something important."
"Yes, there is more," the hermit said, "and it is very important, but
you don't want to know it."
" O h yes, oh yes," said the man. "I want to know everything."
"Very well," said the hermit. "There is one thing more. When you
do as I have told you, you must be sure that you do not think of polar
bears."

GIVING UP CONTROL
Question: I a m i m p r e s s e d w i t h t h e lightness w i t h w h i c h w e w o r k
h e r e . It h a s m a d e it clear to me h o w m u c h I t e n d to work in a h e a v y
a n d tragic m o o d .

Hellinger: T h e tragic inflates us. E a s e a n d lightness are qualities


o f t r u t h , a n d t h e y b r i n g u s further. W h e n s o m e t h i n g i s difficult a n d
r e q u i r e s great c o n s c i o u s effort, it's m o s t l y useless. It's like a d o n k e y
c a r r y i n g a heavy load d o w n a l o n g , d u s t y r o a d . He is tired a n d h u n -
gry a n d thirsty. T h e r e are g r e e n m e a d o w s w i t h s t r e a m s o f fresh
w a t e r t o t h e right a n d t o t h e left o f the p a t h , b u t h e keeps o n , telling
himself, " I ' m o n m y p a t h . " T h a t ' s effort.

Lars: I ' m s e a r c h i n g for s o m e t h i n g in myself, b u t I d o n ' t k n o w


exactly w h a t it is. M a y b e for s o m e t h i n g stable a n d t r u s t w o r t h y . I
have t h e feeling t h a t everything in me is so fleeting.

H e l l i n g e r (pauses a long while): What one holds onto becomes a


burden.

Lars: I've s u s p e c t e d a s m u c h .

H e l l i n g e r : Exactly! T h e r a p i s t s have to live w i t h the tragic fact


t h a t t h e y so often c o m e after t h e h e a l i n g h a s already h a p p e n e d .
T h e y often t h i n k t h e y ' r e saying s o m e t h i n g special, b u t w h e n t h e y
say it, t h e y discover t h a t t h e client already k n o w s it. S o m e t i m e s t h e y
even g o t it from the client w i t h o u t n o t i c i n g . T h e Spirit m o v e s like
t h e w i n d . A n y t h i n g else, Lars?
238 Love's Hidden Symmetry

L a r s (moved): Yes, I ' m getting in t o u c h w i t h a feeling of g r a t i t u d e


that I k n o w from before, b u t I always lose it. I w i s h I c o u l d h o l d on
to it longer.

H e l l i n g e r : G r a t i t u d e i s fleeting, a n d that's a p p r o p r i a t e . W h a t
w o u l d it be like to be r u n n i n g a r o u n d all the t i m e w i t h t h e feeling of
gratitude?

Lars: I've b e e n t h i n k i n g a b o u t m y n e e d t o k e e p things u n d e r c o n -


trol, a b o u t letting go a n d giving in to t h e flow of t h i n g s . I ' m going
b a c k a n d forth.

Hellinger: I'll tell y o u a story a b o u t c o n t r o l .

Don't Wait for Me


T h e r e o n c e w a s a w o m a n w h o c o m p l a i n e d to me a b o u t a horrible
ritual at h e r h o u s e . Every Sunday, her h u s b a n d got up early, dressed
the children, a n d m a d e breakfast, while she lay in b e d . W h e n break-
fast w a s ready, her h u s b a n d and the children w o u l d call to her,
"Breakfast is ready." She'd still be in b e d , or perhaps in the s h o w e r ,
and w o u l d call back, " D o n ' t wait for m e . Go a h e a d a n d start." B u t
they d i d wait, and every Sunday, breakfast w a s c o l d w h e n she finally
c a m e , and s h e got angry. Every S u n d a y w a s the s a m e . S h e said, " G o
a h e a d and start w i t h o u t m e , " they waited until she c a m e , a n d t h e n
she got angry.

T h a t was m a n y years ago, a n d I was still q u i t e n a i v e — I still,


t h o u g h t p e o p l e w a n t e d solutions to their p r o b l e m s , so I offered h e r
a simple solution. I told h e r to tell t h e m , " T h a n k s for waiting for
m e . I t m a k e s m e feel g o o d . " S h e was s o a n g r y w i t h m e t h a t she
d i d n ' t say a n y t h i n g to me for t h e n e x t t h r e e days.
On t h e last day of t h e w o r k s h o p , I asked h e r w h a t a g o o d solution
w o u l d be as far as she was c o n c e r n e d . S h e said t h a t w h e n she said,
" D o n ' t wait for m e ! G o a h e a d a n d start," t h e y s h o u l d g o a h e a d a n d
start. I tried to feel my way i n t o b o t h situations. If she said, " I ' m
p l e a s e d t h a t you waited for m e , " s o m e t h i n g c h a n g e s for t h e b e t t e r i n
h e r , i n h e r c h i l d r e n , a n d i n h e r husband—(but she gives u p c o n t r o l .
B u t w h e n she says, " G o a h e a d a n d s t a r t " a n d t h e y d o w h a t she
w a n t s , n o t h i n g c h a n g e s — b u t she keeps c o n t r o l . B u t c o n t r o l over
w h a t ? Perfect c o n t r o l always t u r n s i n t o c o n t r o l of n o t h i n g .

Sandra: T h i s a f t e r n o o n , I h a d a wonderfully t e n d e r feeling, b u t


it's g o n e now.
The Therapeutic Posture 239

Hellinger: Feelings c a n stay as long as you leave t h e m a l o n e . As


s o o n as y o u t r y to h o l d on to a feeling or m o o d , it d i s a p p e a r s . Life is
like t h a t ; it always m o v e s o n , m o v i n g on to t h e n e x t t h i n g a n d t h e
next. A n d w h e n you m o v e o n , i t m o v e s too. A s s o o n a s y o u s t a n d
still, it s t a n d s still. T h a t ' s an i m a g e for w h a t y o u e x p e r i e n c e d . P e r -
h a p s it will be useful.

S a n d r a : W h e n you asked m e t o e x p e r i m e n t w i t h i m a g i n i n g
myself t a k i n g m y p a r e n t s b y t h e h a n d a n d l e a d i n g t h e m i n t o m y
h e a r t , I felt resistance to d o i n g it w h o l e h e a r t e d l y . I w a n t e d t o , b u t I
just c o u l d n ' t m a k e myself do it.

Hellinger: M a n y p e o p l e have a d e e p fear of h a p p i n e s s , a fear of


taking t h e decisive step t o w h e r e they c a n e x p e r i e n c e t h e d e p t h o f
their love. D e e p love b r i n g s b o t h joy a n d p a i n . T h e y g o t o g e t h e r
very p r o f o u n d l y a n d inseparably. We shy away from this d e p t h of
love b e c a u s e w e fear t h e p a i n t h a t goes w i t h it. T h e h a p p i n e s s w e
feel in this k i n d of love isn't e x u b e r a n t l y joyful, b u t r a t h e r full, a n d
still, a n d d e e p . A l t h o u g h it's p r o f o u n d , s o m e t i m e s it crosses over
into lightness, t h e Lightness of Being. S o m e t i m e s I t r y to h e l p a little
bit, to give p e o p l e a little p u s h to cross t h e t h r e s h o l d of h a p p i n e s s .

Question: T h e n it's merely h u m a n , after things have b e e n i n t e n s e


for while, to w a n t to lighten u p , to tell a joke or s o m e t h i n g .

H e l l i n g e r : It's like i n tragedy, w h e n t h e king dies, t h e clowns


a p p e a r . K i n g s a n d fools g o together. It's p a r t o f t h e d r a m a t i c a r t .

T H E VALIDITY OF THERAPEUTIC STATEMENTS


Question: I really a p p r e c i a t e h o w efficiently y o u w o r k . You t o u c h
a p r o f o u n d d e p t h , existential issues, a n d it has a powerful effect. It
works. I n m y t h e r a p y , there's s o m u c h e x t r a n e o u s a n d u n n e c e s s a r y
talk. I t h o u g h t a b o u t it, a n d I discovered t h a t I avoid m a k i n g s t a t e -
m e n t s like y o u do b e c a u s e I ' m afraid of giving t h e i m p r e s s i o n of
knowing some absolute truth.

Hellinger: I'll tell y o u a story a b o u t t h e p o w e r of t h e r a p e u t i c


s t a t e m e n t s . T h e r e o n c e was a y o u n g w o m a n in a w o r k s h o p w h o w a s
really a beautiful p e r s o n , b u t she h a d a n e e d to h e l p m e n , w h i c h I
t h o u g h t w a s d a m a g i n g t o her. S h e ' d m o v e d i n w i t h a m a n w h o h a d
b e e n m a r r i e d t h r e e o r four t i m e s , h a d t w o c h i l d r e n , a n d w a s a l m o s t

mm
240 Love's Hidden Symmetry

4 0 years old w h e r e a s she was 2 3 o r 2 4 . S h e said t h a t she w a n t e d t o


h e l p h i m , b u t I w a s c o n c e r n e d a b o u t h e r n e e d to h e l p , a n d so I told
h e r t h a t she s h o u l d leave h i m .
I received a letter from h e r a c o u p l e of m o n t h s ago. S h e w r o t e
t h a t I'd b e e n c o r r e c t , t h a t h e w a s n ' t t h e right o n e for her! T h e rela-
t i o n s h i p h a d t u r n e d sour, a n d so she'd left h i m , as I s u g g e s t e d . T h e n
she realized t h a t she really loved h i m a n d m o v e d b a c k . N o w t h e y ' r e
h a p p i l y m a r r i e d . S o m u c h for the a b s o l u t e t r u t h o f t h e r a p e u t i c
s t a t e m e n t s . T h e y m a y s o u n d f i n a l , b u t w h a t p e o p l e d o with t h e m i s
a n o t h e r thing.
S o m e t i m e s p e o p l e say, " H o w d o you d a r e t o say s o m e t h i n g like
t h a t ? " F o r i n s t a n c e , w h e n I told E d i e that she'd r u i n e d h e r c h a n c e s
to have a g o o d relationship b e c a u s e she h a d h a d so m a n y a b o r t i o n s ,
t h a t s t a t e m e n t was c o m p l e t e l y o u t r a g e o u s . I c a n say things like t h a t
b e c a u s e I have no i n t e n t i o n of controlling or c h a n g i n g a n y o n e .
If I'd said s o m e t h i n g polite, she'd have g o n e a b o u t h e r b u s i n e s s as
u s u a l . S h e w o u l d n ' t have found h e r o w n o r i e n t a t i o n . T h i s way, she
m u s t t h i n k a b o u t w h e r e she s t a n d s , a b o u t w h a t ' s right for h e r . I
d o n ' t w a n t t o k n o w a n y t h i n g m o r e a b o u t w h a t she d o e s , b e c a u s e it's
n o n e of my b u s i n e s s . It's n o t even i m p o r t a n t . I p a i d h e r g r e a t
r e s p e c t b y b e i n g a n " o t h e r " for her. T h e willingness t o b e fully
" o t h e r " for s o m e o n e is a form of d e e p t r u s t a n d r e s p e c t .
I t h i n k w h a t I say is right w h e n I say it, but I don't believe it. T h a t ' s
a very i m p o r t a n t difference. It/s_ my m o m e n t a r y p e r c e p t i o n , to the
very b e s t of my ability, b u t I certainly w o u l d n ' t risk my life for it. I
say w h a t e v e r I see, a n d b e c a u s e I take it seriously, it c a n have an
effect. C a l l i n g y o u r avoidance of saying w h a t you see " r e s p e c t for
t h e o t h e r " is just a f o r m of cowardice.
A g o o d t h e r a p i s t is like a g o o d leader: A g o o d l e a d e r sees w h a t
t h e p e o p l e w a n t , a n d t h e n gives t h e m an o r d e r to do it. A g o o d
t h e r a p i s t sees w h e r e clients' energy is p o i n t i n g , a n d t h e n r e c o m -
m e n d s t h e y m o v e t o w a r d w h e r e t h e y are going anyway.

Q u e s t i o n : W h e n you give p e o p l e s e n t e n c e s t o say, y o u ' r e very


directive. It's a l m o s t as if y o u ' r e telling p e o p l e w h a t to do.

Hellinger: Yes, o n t h e surface, I ' m very directive. B u t t h e a c t u a l


p r o c e s s i s m o r e c o m p l i c a t e d . I ' m c o n s t a n t l y w a t c h i n g , t r y i n g t o see
w h e r e p e o p l e w a n t t o g o a n d w h e r e t h e y ' r e stuck. W h e n t h e r e ' s a
systemic e n t a n g l e m e n t involved, clients c a n ' t f i n d t h e liberating s e n -
l

t e n c e s by t h e m s e l v e s — t h a t requires a k n o w l e d g e of t h e d y n a m i c s of
The Therapeutic Posture 241

systems that they d o n ' t usually have. If I find a s e n t e n c e that m i g h t


be helpful, I send it up like a test balloon a n d w a t c h carefully to see
what h a p p e n s . I can quickly see if I've offered a sentence t h a t helps,
or if my offer was off target. If it's off target, t h e n I let the client lead
me to another. It's trial a n d error. It's very clear to everyone w h e n
we find the sentences that help. T h e client is directing m e , a n d I do
my best to follow faithfully.

Question: D i d you know that some p e o p l e think you're trying to


be a guru?

H e l l i n g e r : Yes, I've b e e n told that before, b u t I d o n ' t w o r r y


a b o u t it since I finally have found o u t w h a t a g u r u is. D u r i n g a
w o r k s h o p , the g r o u p climbed a m o u n t a i n to celebrate at a restau-
rant t h e r e . W h e n they got ready to walk h o m e , it was p i t c h black
outside, a n d they c o u l d n ' t find the p a t h d o w n . O n e of t h e m , w h o
c o u l d n ' t see either, took another's h a n d , they m a d e a chain, a n d
w h e n they got d o w n safely, they t h o u g h t he was a g u r u .

ACCEPTING RESPONSIBILITY
VERSUS ASSUMING RESPONSIBILITY

Q u e s t i o n : I've been thinking a lot a b o u t the process of s u r r e n -


dering to fate, a b o u t letting go a n d going along with whatever h a p -
pens. It's especially i m p o r t a n t to me in c o n n e c t i o n with my feeling
of responsibility to clients w h o c o m e to me for help. I feel a great
emptiness w h e n I think a b o u t really letting go a n d e n t r u s t i n g t h e m
to their own process. I practically panic. I ' m afraid that there'll be
n o t h i n g there at all to s u p p o r t m e .

Hellinger: W h e n you accept t h e responsibility that c o m e s from


the client's system, you're s u p p o r t e d by the systemic d y n a m i c . B u t
responsibilities that you take on yourself b e c a u s e of exaggerated
self-importance have a negative effect for b o t h you and t h e client.

Q u e s t i o n : B u t isn't the responsibility already given by t h e fact


that I b e l o n g to a helping profession? D o n ' t I have a responsibility
to help those in need? I d o n ' t grasp t h e distinction you're m a k i n g .
242 Love's Hidden Symmetry

H e l l i n g e r : Just s u r r e n d e r to t h e feeling sensation that differenti-


ates b e t w e e n a s s u m i n g a responsibility o u t of your n e e d to be i m p o r -
tant a n d accepting o n e that's given to you by the client's system.
W h e n e v e r I reject a responsibility t h a t is given to m e , I feel s o m e -
t h i n g close up in my soul. I ' m a p a r t of a larger systemic w h o l e , a n d
I c a n ' t act as if I ' m n o t . T h e only real f r e e d o m I have is to say,
"Yes." If I c o n s e n t to t h e responsibility, I feel my soul o p e n up even
more.
O n t h e o t h e r h a n d , i f I ' m inflated w i t h s e l f - i m p o r t a n c e a n d seek
o u t a responsibility t h a t h a s n ' t c o m e to m e , I ' m c u t off from t h e
forces r e g u l a t i n g the system.

Question: I've b e e n t h i n k i n g a lot a b o u t h u m i l i t y a n d a r r o g a n c e .

Hellinger: I w a n t to tell you a secret: You c a n be h u m b l y a r r o -


gant. T h a t ' s t h e e p i t o m e o f humility. O n e m u s t n ' t forget the c o u r -
age in humility. Every great decision m u s t be m a d e in fear and
trembling a n d in humility. N e v e r t h e l e s s , every great decision a p p e a r s
to be a r r o g a n t , b u t to avoid s u c h a decision w o u l d be c o w a r d i c e .
T r u e h u m i l i t y also requires t h e c o u r a g e to risk greatness.

USING LANGUAGE THAT FITS


Question: You often i n t e r r u p t p e o p l e w h e n t h e y u s e a w o r d t h a t
isn't right. S o m e t i m e s you seem a l m o s t rigid a b o u t it.

Hellinger: T h e relationship of a definition to t h e t h i n g is like t h e


relationship of t h e t a n g e n t to the circle—it t o u c h e s it, b u t it c a n ' t
c o n t a i n it. Still, a w o r d like " e a r t h " h a s weight. W i t h w o r d s like
" p a r e n t i f i c a t i o n " a n d "identification," o n t h e o t h e r h a n d , it's very
i m p o r t a n t to k e e p the clinical p h e n o m e n a in m i n d . If we get stuck
with the t a n g e n t , we d o n ' t g r a s p t h e circle. T h e circle is a m o v e -
m e n t . W h e n you s u r r e n d e r yourself t o w h a t ' s h a p p e n i n g , y o u d o n ' t
n e e d to rely on t h e definitions, a n d y o u u n d e r s t a n d b e t t e r w h a t ' s
going o n .
L a n g u a g e fits w h e n y o u h e a r a w o r d a n d t h e n test it against real-
ity: D o e s it fit exactly? By d o i n g this, y o u c o n t i n u a l l y expose y o u r -
self to reality until t h e w o r d c o m e s t h a t d o e s fit. You have to be
willing to forget y o u r previous w o r d s , y o u r previous e x p l a n a t i o n s
a n d i n t e n t i o n s , a n d b e c o m e a m i r r o r of reality. T h e n you reflect a
light t h a t leads y o u t o t h e w o r d t h a t d o e s f i t .
Transcript
BONDING IN THE FAMILY OF ORIGIN II

T h e following is a transcript from a workshop in H e i d e l b e r g , G e r -


many, in 1994. Bert Hellinger worked with an inner circle of
patients with serious illnesses, together with their physicians or psy-
chotherapists, while a larger g r o u p of m e n t a l health professionals
observed. He is working here with b o t h p a r e n t s of a child with a
serious kidney disease.
H e l l i n g e r (to parents): I invite you to c o m e over here, sit next to
m e , and tell me w h a t it is that brings you here.
F a t h e r : We're here because we found out, a b o u t n i n e m o n t h s
ago, that o u r eight-year-old son has kidney disease. T h e d o c t o r s
have told us there's n o t h i n g that they can do, b u t they said there's a
chance for a s p o n t a n e o u s remission. We b o t h h o p e that setting up a
family constellation m i g h t help us—at least a little.
H e l l i n g e r (to mother): Do you agree with that?
M o t h e r : I agree with what my h u s b a n d said, a n d I h o p e we can
find s o m e t h i n g that will help o u r son.
H e l l i n g e r : We'll work with your present family. H o w m a n y chil-
d r e n do you have?
F a t h e r : O u r eldest, the child w h o has kidney disease, is eight. O u r
second is a girl, almost five, and the youngest is a boy, not quite three.
Hellinger: H a v e either of you b e e n m a r r i e d before or in a signifi-
c a n t long-term relationship?
Mother: N e i t h e r of us has b e e n m a r r i e d before a n d neither of us
has b e e n in a long-term relationship with s o m e o n e else, b u t I just
n o w r e m e m b e r e d that we had a stillbirth a b o u t 15 years ago.
Hellinger: A stillbirth? W h a t was the child's r a n k in t h e family?
Mother: He was o u r first. He died on t h e day he was d u e , while
he was still inside, a n d t h e n he was b o r n dead.
243
244 Love's Hidden Symmetry

H e l l i n g e r : T h a t ' s very i m p o r t a n t . We'll i n c l u d e t h a t child i n t h e


constellation. Okay, let's set up y o u r p r e s e n t family. We'll let t h e
father set up t h e first constellation, a n d t h e n t h e wife c a n c o r r e c t it.
C h o o s e p e o p l e from this i n n e r circle to r e p r e s e n t t h e p e o p l e in
y o u r family---that is, you a n d y o u r wife a n d y o u r t h r e e living chil-
d r e n . L a t e r we'll a d d t h e stillborn child. (To group): W h e n I w o r k
w i t h c o u p l e s , I let b o t h t h e h u s b a n d a n d t h e wife set up t h e c o n s t e l -
lation, s o w e c a n c o m p a r e the two.

H e l l i n g e r (to representatives): N o w , w h e n I ask, tell me h o w you


felt in t h e first constellation, a n d t h e n h o w y o u felt in t h e s e c o n d .

(To father's representative): H o w w a s it for you?

* Legend: Husb—husband's representative; Wife—wife's representative; 2—second


child, an eight-year-old boy with kidney disease; 3—third child, a five-year-old girl;
4—fourth child, a three-year-old boy.
The Therapeutic Posture 245

Father: Right at t h e b e g i n n i n g , I felt a p r e s s u r e in my chest. It


felt really tight It was even w o r s e for me w h e n t h e eldest child w a s
a d d e d . I h a d t h e feeling t h a t I n e e d e d to h i d e , or get away. I
c o u l d n ' t b r e a t h e . N o w , in t h e s e c o n d constellation, I've still got a
tightness in my chest, b u t I feel better.

Hellinger: H o w was it for t h e sick child?

Ill C h i l d ' s R e p r e s e n t a t i v e : I felt very weird in t h e first c o n s t e l -


lation. I really w a n t e d to d i s a p p e a r . I felt t h e closeness to my father
very strongly, b u t it was too close a n d I g o t a h e a d a c h e .

Hellinger: H o w was i t for t h e d a u g h t e r ?

Third Child: I was very lonely in t h e first constellation, a n d I felt


a s t r o n g u r g e t o take m y oldest b r o t h e r a n d g o away. T h e o t h e r s
w e r e relatively distant. N o w , in the s e c o n d c o n s t e l l a t i o n , I feel
drawn to my mother.
\

Hellinger: A n d h o w was i t for t h e y o u n g e s t son?

Fourth Child: I was c o m p l e t e l y confused at first, c o m p l e t e


c h a o s . N o w I feel w o n d e r f u l .

H e l l i n g e r (to mother): N o w a d d the d e c e a s e d child to t h e c o n s t e l -


lation.

Diagram 3*

Hellinger: W h a t does t h a t c h a n g e for t h e ill child?

* Legend addition: +1—first child, a boy who died in utero.


246 Love's Hidden Symmetry

Ill C h i l d ' s R e p r e s e n t a t i v e : I i m m e d i a t e l y felt a p u l l i n g in my


neck that drew me backwards, a n d there was a pressure in my
head.

Hellinger: W h a t ' s c h a n g e d for t h e others?

Father: T h e r e ' s s o m e t h i n g eerie for m e , s o m e t h i n g t h r e a t e n i n g .

Hellinger: F o r you, Mother?

Mother: I feel tears c o m i n g , a n d there's a b u r n i n g in my chest.

Hellinger: W h a t about you, Daughter?

Third Child: S o m e t h i n g ' s p u s h i n g m e away t o w a r d t h e right. I'd


like to m o v e t o w a r d my ill b r o t h e r .

Hellinger: H o w a b o u t for t h e youngest?

Fourth Child: I'm curious about what's coming.

Hellinger: H o w is it for t h e stillborn child?

Stillborn Child: T h e r e ' s a p r e s s u r e forward, b u t also d o w n .

Hellinger: I'll p u t y o u n e x t t o y o u r m o t h e r .

H e l l i n g e r (to representative of stillborn): H o w ' s that?

Stillborn Child: Better. I w a n t t o t u r n t o w a r d her.

Mother: It's b e t t e r for me t o o . I feel very sad, b u t b e t t e r .

Father: T h a t ' s lovely t o see.


The Therapeutic Posture 247

Hellinger: Okay, I ' m going to m a k e a couple of changes now.

(Hellinger places the father next to the mother and asks the stillborn child
to sit at their feet, leaning back against them. The remaining children are
positioned opposite their parents. The representative of the father spontane-
ously places his hand on the head of the stillborn child.)

H e l l i n g e r (to father's representative): Ah! So how's this fellow feel-


ing now? (Father's representative laughs and looks lovingly at his wife.)

Mother: Yes, better. G o o d !

Stillborn Child: Tears are welling up in my eyes. I feel like cry-


ing.

H e l l i n g e r (to ill child): H o w are you now?

Ill C h i l d ' s R e p r e s e n t a t i v e : I ' m very h a p p y a n d I ' m all c h o k e d


up with tears too. I d o n ' t n e e d to have any anxiety a n y m o r e . It's like
a tightness is gone.

Third Child: I ' m protected a n d well cared for.

Fourth Child: Everything's in order.

H e l l i n g e r : It's amazing what changes w h e n an excluded child


w h o has b e e n forgotten is b r o u g h t back into play. W h a t a force! (To
the parents): N o w you can take your places in the constellation a n d
feel for yourselves h o w it is. (The parents exchange places with their
representatives. They place their hands tenderly on the head of the still-
born child and look at each other.)
248 Love's Hidden Symmetry

H e l l i n g e r (to the parents): D i d either of you b l a m e t h e o t h e r for


t h e d e a t h of t h e child?

Father: No.

Mother: No.

Hellinger: H o w did y o u deal w i t h it, t h e d e a t h o f the child?

Father: I felt s o r r o w a n d I was w o r r i e d a b o u t my wife, b u t to tell


t h e t r u t h , I w a s also a bit relieved; I h a d t h e feeling t h a t it w a s too
s o o n for us to have a child. We d i d n ' t even m a k e a grave for the
c h i l d — w e avoided (abruptly breaks into sobs) . . . giving . . . o u r son
. . . a place . . . a t least until now.

Mother: F o r m e , I grieved a lot at first after t h e b i r t h . T h e n I


d e c i d e d to treat t h e p r e g n a n c y as a beautiful, simple, a n d h a p p y
t i m e , only that it e n d e d w i t h o u t a child. After t h a t , I t o o k a lot of
t i m e for myself, h a d a lot of n e w e x p e r i e n c e s , tried o u t a lot of n e w
things. I h a d n ' t really t h o u g h t at all a b o u t t h a t child until o u r o t h e r
s o n b e c a m e ill a n d I r e a d y o u r b o o k .

Hellinger: It's difficult for b o t h p a r e n t s w h e n a child dies like


t h a t . B u t if you c a n a c c e p t y o u r child's d e a t h as b e i n g p a r t of y o u r
fate t o g e t h e r , t h e n his d e a t h has m e a n i n g a n d can give you s t r e n g t h .
L o o k at each o t h e r n o w w i t h t h e feeling of willingness to c a r r y
this b u r d e n t o g e t h e r — a n d give t h e child a place in y o u r h e a r t s . Your
firstborn b o n d s you t o g e t h e r , a n d h e m a y c o n t i n u e t o d o s o i n t h e
future as well. A n d with y o u r first s o n p r e s e n t in y o u r h e a r t s , look at
y o u r ill s o n — w i t h t h e s a m e feeling. H e c a n k n o w a b o u t his o l d e r
b r o t h e r , a n d you n e e d t o d o s o m e t h i n g for t h e d e c e a s e d child s o
t h a t he h a s a g o o d place in y o u r family. D o e s t h a t feel right?

Father: Yes.

Mother: Yes.

Hellinger: S o h o w d o t h e o t h e r children feel n o w ?

Ill C h i l d ' s R e p r e s e n t a t i v e : I ' m still really fighting b a c k t h e


t e a r s , b u t t h e y ' r e g r a d u a l l y easing off.

Third Child: I ' m sad.

Fourth Child: Content.


The Therapeutic Posture 249

H e l l i n g e r (to representatives): Okay, t h a t ' s all for now. You c a n sit


down. T h a n k you.

Questions

Question: I'd like to ask w h a t actually m a k e s this t h e r a p y work?


W h a t c a u s e s t h e c h a n g e i n t h e systemic d y n a m i c s a n d i n t h e i n d i -
viduals? I c a n see it h a p p e n , b u t w h y d o e s it work?

Hellinger: W h e n we "dis-cover" an order, the correct order—I'll


say it in t h a t provocative way—-then t h e o r d e r b r i n g s a b o u t s o m e -
t h i n g h e a l i n g or resolving in t h e system.
O r d e r is s o m e t h i n g h i d d e n . F o r e x a m p l e , a tree g r o w s a c c o r d i n g
to an o r d e r a n d c a n ' t deviate from it. If it did, it w o u l d n ' t be a t r e e
a n y m o r e . H u m a n s a n d h u m a n relationship systems develop a c c o r d -
ing t o c e r t a i n o r d e r s . T h e t r u e o r d e r s o f h u m a n life a n d h u m a n rela-
tionships are h i d d e n a n d e m b e d d e d i n t h e p h e n o m e n a o f living. W e
c a n ' t always find t h e m immediately, b u t it's m u c h w o r s e if we t r y to
invent t h e m t o suit o u r wishes.
I e x p e r i e n c e t h e p r o c e s s of finding an o r d e r as t u r n i n g i n w a r d
while, at the s a m e t i m e , k e e p i n g e v e r y t h i n g in v i e w — w i t h o u t i n t e n -
tion, w i t h o u t fear o f c o n s e q u e n c e s . W h e n I ' m c o m p l e t e l y g a t h e r e d
in myself in this way, I ' m in c o n t a c t with s o m e t h i n g I call t h e
G r e a t e r S o u l . It's s o m e t h i n g secret, b u t there's a force t h a t p o u r s
o u t of it. W h e n I ' m in c o n t a c t w i t h t h a t force, I c a n recognize t h e
s t r u c t u r e s t h a t h e l p p e o p l e a n d that h i n d e r t h e m .
You c a n l e a r n a b o u t these o r d e r s at a superficial level a n d t h e n
apply t h e m in y o u r w o r k , or y o u c a n l e a r n a b o u t t h e m at a d e e p e r
level. If s o m e o n e discovers an o r d e r a n d tells you a b o u t it, t h e n y o u
can w o r k w i t h it intellectually. You d o n ' t w o r k from an i m m e d i a t e ,
p e r s o n a l r e c o g n i t i o n o f t h e o r d e r s , b u t you c a n apply y o u r h e a r s a y
k n o w l e d g e mechanically.
If I w a n t to achieve s o m e t h i n g at a greater d e p t h , I m u s t g a t h e r
myself t o g e t h e r a r o u n d a m i d p o i n t of e m p t i n e s s . When I ' m c e n -
t e r e d i n t h a t e m p t i n e s s , I ' m i n c o n t a c t with s o m e t h i n g h e a l i n g t h a t
I c a n ' t explain, b u t you can see its effect on p e o p l e . I i m m e d i a t e l y
see in t h e p e r s o n ' s r e a c t i o n w h e t h e r or n o t I really was in c o n -
tact—if w h a t I say o p e n s a m o v e m e n t in h i m or her, or if it only
s t i m u l a t e s curiosity, objections, or q u e s t i o n s . T h a t ' s h o w you tell if
you w e r e in c o n t a c t w i t h an o r d e r .
250 Love's Hidden Symmetry

Q u e s t i o n : You've said that w h e n we lose love, o u r system comes


into disorder, and w h e n we find love again, the system can r e t u r n to
order. Have I u n d e r s t o o d that correctly?

Hellinger: We hold valuable and meaningful whatever serves the


unity a n d continuing growth of the systems in w h i c h we live. F o r
that reason, order always precedes culturally relative values a n d has
priority over t h e m . I c a n ' t change t h e natural orders with personal
preferences, saying, "I believe that this is the highest value of all, so
t h e natural orders of the world m u s t now change to c o n f o r m . " N o ,
it's t h e other way a r o u n d — p e r s o n a l values m u s t conform to the
natural orders. A n d love, too, follows the natural o r d e r s a n d serves
t h e m . T h e expression of love h a p p e n s w h e n I acknowledge that the
o t h e r has just as m u c h right to belong to the greater whole as I
have, a n d w h e n I treat h i m or her in the knowledge that I have as
m u c h right to belong as he or she does. A d e e p feeling of c o m m u -
nity develops o u t of this reciprocal affirmation. T h a t ' s the love that
reconciles.
T h e r e are also other forms of love. F o r example, there is t h e love
that c o m e s from b o n d i n g , as w h e n a child w h o d o e s n ' t yet u n d e r -
stand the greater connections of the world clings to t h e m o t h e r or
father at all costs—even w h e n the p a r e n t is dead. T h a t ' s the source
of the d y n a m i c , "I will follow you into death," or "I w a n t to be with
you even in death." T h a t is, however, a d y n a m i c that's d a m a g i n g for
a family system. It makes others want to follow s o m e o n e w h o has
died instead of staying with the living.
B u t , w h e n a child recognizes that the p a r e n t he or she w a n t e d to
follow into d e a t h is still p r e s e n t and lives on a n d has a place in the
child's soul, the p a r e n t is affirmed in his or her right of belonging
even w h e n dead. T h e n t h e child, too, can claim t h e right to full
m e m b e r s h i p with love. T h e child can say to the p a r e n t , " B e friendly
with me w h e n I stay a while."
T h a t ' s the difference b e t w e e n the smaller love a n d t h e greater
love.
C H A P T E R S E V E N

Some Helpful
Interventions

Family constellations are developed in three phases a n d create two


different images of the family system: an image of the destructive
dynamics and an image of resolution. T h e first p h a s e of t h e constel-
lation presents t h e client's m e m o r i e s a n d internal images, and is a
highly subjective a n d personal picture of the h i d d e n dynamics o p e r -
ating in the family. It furnishes a visual representation of the ways in
which the family system continues to influence w h a t the client feels
and does.
T h i s first phase generates a working hypothesis a b o u t the systemic
dynamics operating within the family. T h e representatives' reactions
provide information that's supplementary to what the client says. T h e
combination of their reactions with the visual images of the constel-
lations and the client's information is a better basis for the search for
resolutions than are the client's memories and internal images alone.
After the h i d d e n d y n a m i c has b e c o m e clear, it's possible to look
for a resolution. In t h e second p h a s e of t h e constellation, we begin a
step-by-step, trial-and-error search for an image of systemic balance
and resolution with love. T h i s n e w constellation allows t h e client to
see a n d feel a possible healing option.
T h e final p h a s e of the work is a constellation that's an image of
what can be, Love's H i d d e n S y m m e t r y in which every m e m b e r of
251
252 Love's Hidden Symmetry

the e x t e n d e d family has an appropriate place a n d function. It's heal-


ing w h e n clients succeed in allowing this n e w image to work in
t h e m , gradually modifying their old personal reality. S o m e t i m e s , the
resolution constellations even affect other m e m b e r s of the family
and t h e o t h e r g r o u p participants. Observers are often impressed by
h o w quickly g r o u p s , even large g r o u p s , develop an a t m o s p h e r e of
alert respect, lightness, a n d laughter. A n d conversely, the g r o u p
a t m o s p h e r e contributes to the representatives' ability to i m m e r s e
themselves in other people's fortunes a n d misfortunes so that each
constellation of resolution is u n i q u e . T h e resolving constellations
are frequently so powerful that they c o n t i n u e working change for
several years.

SETTING UP A CONSTELLATION

T h e first step in setting up a constellation is to get an overview of


t h e family. T h e task is to identify all of t h e p e r s o n s w h o b e l o n g
to t h e system, t h a t is, all p e r s o n s w h o systemically affect t h e
client. T h e therapist begins by asking a b o u t u n u s u a l events in
the e x t e n d e d family, such as deaths, suicides, separations, divorces,
accidents, h a n d i c a p s , serious illnesses, a n d absences. D e s c r i p t i o n s
of character a n d evaluations of people are i n t e r r u p t e d b e c a u s e that
information influences the representatives a n d interferes with their
s p o n t a n e o u s reactions to the constellation.

The Conditions for Setting Up a Constellation

W h e n clients set up a constellation, their intention m u s t be serious


a n d their p u r p o s e legitimate. Frivolous interest a n d idle curiosity
d o n ' t p r o d u c e the sensitivity and alertness necessary to distinguish
b e t w e e n personal projections and systemic effect.
T h e effect of a constellation can go very deep. F o r this reason, a
g r o u p a t m o s p h e r e of attentive cooperation is essential. Participants
s h o u l d n ' t say anything while being set u p , n o r should t h e p e r s o n
w h o is setting up the constellation.

H e l l i n g e r (to representatives doing their first constellation): Center


yourselves, collect yourselves. Forget your own p r o b l e m s , your
intentions, your goals. Just notice the feelings a n d sensations that
Some Helpful Interventions 253

arise a s y o u ' r e m o v e d t o y o u r places, a n d n o t i c e w h a t e v e r c h a n g e s


i n you w h e n o t h e r s are b r o u g h t i n t o t h e constellation.
It's i m p o r t a n t n o t t o try t o figure o u t h o w y o u t h i n k y o u s h o u l d
feel in this or t h a t place b a s e d on w h a t you see or believe. T r u s t
y o u r b o d y r e a c t i o n s . W h e n you feel different t h a n e x p e c t e d , r e p o r t
that neutrally, w i t h o u t j u d g m e n t . You m a y e x p e r i e n c e feelings t h a t
are t a b o o a n d t h a t c a u s e anxiety o r e m b a r r a s s m e n t . F o r e x a m p l e ,
you m i g h t feel relieved w h e n s o m e o n e dies, or y o u m i g h t feel d r a w n
t o w a r d an illicit or i n c e s t u o u s relationship. If you d o n ' t say it, t h e n
i m p o r t a n t i n f o r m a t i o n d o e s n ' t c o m e into t h e o p e n . I t w o r k s b e s t
w h e n y o u say w h a t you e x p e r i e n c e w i t h o u t c e n s o r i n g it, w i t h o u t
leaving a n y t h i n g o u t or e l a b o r a t i n g on it in any way. W h a t e v e r you
experience w h e n you're representing someone has to do with that
p e r s o n , a n d n o t w i t h y o u r p e r s o n a l life.
W h e n y o u set u p y o u r constellation, d o i t b y feel. Actually t o u c h
the r e p r e s e n t a t i v e s , take t h e m b y a s h o u l d e r a n d m o v e t h e m t o their
places so t h a t y o u c a n feel w h a t ' s right. You c a n forget w h a t y o u
t h o u g h t before, b e c a u s e that's usually n o t helpful. D o n ' t w o r r y
a b o u t g e s t u r e s a n d s e n t e n c e s , a n d i n w h i c h d i r e c t i o n p e o p l e are
looking. J u s t find t h e place for e a c h to s t a n d t h a t feels right.

Choosing Representatives
Question: Is it n e c e s s a r y t h a t t h e representatives b e of t h e s a m e
gender as the persons they represent?

Hellinger: Yes, as a general r u l e , b u t s o m e t i m e s t h a t i s n ' t p o s -


sible. It usually works o u t okay w h e n s o m e o n e r e p r e s e n t s a p e r s o n
of t h e o p p o s i t e sex in a m i n o r role. It is, however, a d i s t u r b a n c e .
Still, w h e n t h e r e are too few p e o p l e , you've got t o m a k e d o . S o m e -
t i m e s , I even s t a n d in for s o m e o n e in a p e r i p h e r a l role.

Question: I have t h e i m p r e s s i o n t h a t representatives are c h o s e n


w h o fit their roles, a n d t h a t t h e y ' r e similar to t h e a c t u a l p e r s o n s .

Hellinger: W h e n p e o p l e are c h o o s i n g , they d o n ' t t u r n off t h e i r


u n c o n s c i o u s . Obviously, t h e r e are similarities. H o w e v e r , if y o u allow
yourself to feel the effect of the position, a n y o n e c a n r e p r e s e n t a n y -
o n e . I t isn't t o o i m p o r t a n t . I t s o m e t i m e s h a p p e n s t h a t t h e s a m e p e r -
son is r e p e a t e d l y c h o s e n to r e p r e s e n t certain p e r s o n s , for e x a m p l e ,
p e r s o n s w h o have c o m m i t t e d suicide. T h e t h e r a p i s t s h o u l d t h e n
254 Love's Hidden Symmetry

work with the hypothesis that there's s o m e t h i n g in the p e r s o n ' s sys-


t e m that could place that p e r s o n at risk and protect h i m or h e r from
being chosen for such roles t o o often.

Ignoring Interpretations and Representatives' Personal


Material
Question: W h e n you're feeling s o m e t h i n g d u r i n g a constellation,
d o e s n ' t y o u r personal history c o m e into play?

H e l l i n g e r : T h a t ' s a very i m p o r t a n t question. You c a n ' t do a fam-


ily constellation if you have the idea that what you feel is personal.
T h a t ' s too confusing. If you try to figure o u t w h e t h e r it's your feel-
ing or p a r t of the system, you're already distracted from noticing
h o w t h e position is affecting you. It's simpler to a s s u m e that what
you feel is a function of the system and n o t your personal history.
You enter into a foreign system w h e n you're a representative, a n d
you have foreign feelings a n d sensations. Obviously, your personal
m e m o r i e s a n d experiences can be t o u c h e d , b u t it has a destructive
effect if you allow yourself to think a b o u t t h e m as long as y o u ' r e in
the role. T h e n you're mixing personal and external things.
F o r this reason, it's very i m p o r t a n t that you r e m a i n clear—
although you let yourself get into t h e role fully, t h e feelings that
c o m e a r e n ' t y o u r feelings a n d they d o n ' t apply to you. After you get
o u t of the role, you can deal with y o u r feelings if you w a n t to. It's a
little like b e i n g an actor w h o is playing an intense role. T h e feelings
of Othello m a y t o u c h the actor's personal feelings, b u t he's going to
go crazy if he tries to deal with his personal issues while he's identi-
fied with Othello. It's better to work on your issues in the context of
your system.
W h e n you've observed a n u m b e r of constellations, you see h o w
the same p a r t i c i p a n t has different feelings in each different system,
a n d you see h o w t h e feelings constantly change within one constel-
lation. As an outsider, you c a n ' t always tell h o w s o m e o n e will react
in a position.

Family Sculptures and Family Constellations


Hellinger: T h e r e ' s a n o t h e r distinction t h a t I m a k e : W h a t w e d o
are family constellations, n o t family sculptures. By family s c u l p -
Some Helpful Interventions 255

t u r e s , I m e a n setting up t h e family with gestures a n d p o s t u r e s ,


t u r n i n g p e o p l e ' s h e a d s to look in a certain direction, a n d so o n .
W h e n representatives are sculpted like that, their e x p e r i e n c e s are
completely d e t e r m i n e d by their positions, a n d they a r e n ' t free to
notice the c h a n g e s that o c c u r in t h e course of the work. If t h e r e p -
resentatives are simply p u t in their places, they can follow t h e
c h a n g e s in their i n n e r sensations as the constellation develops. If
I t u r n their h e a d s for t h e m or tell t h e m w h o m to look at, they
c a n ' t allow t h e position to affect t h e m b e c a u s e I've defined their
experience.
G e s t u r e s and poses also m a k e it difficult to feel t h e effect of the
family d y n a m i c . T h e very simple, almost plain constellations, on
t h e other h a n d , allow us to get a m u c h better picture of the d y n a m i c
of the family system, of h o w the system influences its m e m b e r s . If
we just lead the representatives to a certain position in relation to
the others a n d allow that to affect t h e m , they start to get s y m p t o m s ,
p e r h a p s weak knees, anger, silly ideas, or something like that. W h e n
that h a p p e n s , we're getting information from a different level, n o t
just from t h e protagonist's conscious concepts.

Question: While I was in the constellation, my h a n d s felt terribly


cold. I t h o u g h t it was just my anxiety at being in the role, b u t m a y b e
it was a p a r t of the system.

Hellinger: Yes, that would be i m p o r t a n t information. You n e e d to


act as if t h e m o m e n t you step into the system, you're no longer
yourself, b u t a n o t h e r whose feelings you feel. You m u s t n ' t apply to
yourself w h a t you feel in the role. D o n ' t even think, " T h a t m i g h t be
an indication that there's s o m e t h i n g similar in m e . " You n e e d a cer-
tain discipline.

P a u l (referring to a specific constellation): W h e n I see the parents


and children in such a confrontation with one another. . . .

H e l l i n g e r (interrupting): T h a t ' s an interpretation. You're m a k i n g


the interpretation that there's a confrontation b e c a u s e they were
standing across from one a n o t h e r in the constellation. T h a t ' s a seri-
ous mistake.

Paul: But that's h o w I sense it.

H e l l i n g e r : N o , that's n o t actually h o w you sense it. It's h o w you


interpret it. In this work, absolute accuracy is essential. You only
256 Love's Hidden Symmetry

c o u l d sense it if y o u were actually s t a n d i n g in the constellation. T h e


representatives d i d n ' t have a sense of c o n f r o n t a t i o n . T h a t ' s a very
basic p r i n c i p l e of w o r k i n g with the constellations. You have to resist
t h e t e m p t a t i o n to c o m e to conclusions a b o u t the system as a w h o l e
on the basis of w h a t you think y o u w o u l d feel.

Paul: D o e s t h a t m e a n that I have to place myself in t h e client's


position in o r d e r to u n d e r s t a n d t h e client?

H e l l i n g e r : N o , i t d o e s n ' t m e a n that. You c a n ' t actually m a k e a n


e m p a t h i c c o n n e c t i o n with your clients if you identify w i t h t h e m
completely. You n e e d alertness a n d a c e r t a i n d i s t a n c e to be truly
e m p a t h i c . If you c o n t a c t a n o t h e r p e r s o n w i t h that k i n d of a l e r t n e s s ,
y o u c a n usually s e n s e w h a t he or she is e x p e r i e n c i n g . Especially, you
c a n sense w h a t ' s r e q u i r e d for a solution. L o o k i n g for a s o l u t i o n
r e q u i r e s a c o m p l e t e l y different alertness t h a n asking t h e q u e s t i o n ,
" W h a t ' s t h e p r o b l e m ? " Y o u c a n ' t e m p a t h i z e w h e n y o u ' r e looking for
problems.

Working with the Minimum


Q u e s t i o n : W h e n p e o p l e start to tell y o u a b o u t their families, I
n o t i c e t h a t you often i n t e r r u p t t h e m before they finish. W h y d o y o u
d o that?

Hellinger: P e o p l e setting u p their systems are often t e m p t e d t o


give m u c h m o r e i n f o r m a t i o n t h a n i s necessary. W h e n they d o t h a t ,
they interfere w i t h t h e representatives' ability to e x p e r i e n c e directly
h o w t h e system affects t h e m . T o o m u c h i n f o r m a t i o n confuses m o r e
t h a n it h e l p s . E x p e r i e n c e d representatives will say w h a t ' s i m p o r t a n t .
W h e n i n f o r m a t i o n c o m e s from t h e m o u t o f their e x p e r i e n c e i n t h e
role, it h a s a different weight a n d effect.
It's also t e m p t i n g t o set u p m o r e m e m b e r s o f t h e family t h a n are
n e c e s s a r y for r e s o l u t i o n . Every u n n e c e s s a r y p e r s o n in t h e r e s o l u t i o n
constellation d i m i n i s h e s the p o w e r of t h e i m a g e , so the t h e r a p i s t
m u s t m a k e sure t h a t only those p e r s o n s are i n c l u d e d i n t h e c o n s t e l -
lation w h o are n e c e s s a r y for a r e s o l u t i o n . P e o p l e s o m e t i m e s say,
" M y g r a n d m o t h e r was living w i t h u s , " o r " M y n a n n y was very
i m p o r t a n t for me as a child." M e r e physical p r o x i m i t y isn't in itself
an i n d i c a t i o n of m e m b e r s h i p in t h e system or of i m p o r t a n c e for a
resolution.
Some Helpful Interventions 257

T h e fundamental principle is: Always work with the minimum nec-


essary for resolution. People can be a d d e d to the system later as
n e e d e d , b u t representatives w h o have no effect on the others m u s t
be removed from the constellation. It's confusing w h e n too m a n y
people are set u p , a n d it's disturbing to the representatives if you're
constantly p u t t i n g people in and then having to take t h e m out again.

Family Therapy and Family Constellations

Question: C a n you set up a family constellation with the m e m -


bers of the family itself?

Hellinger: You d o n ' t n e e d your family to set up a family system.


T h e constellations have a clearer effect w h e n representatives from
the g r o u p are used instead of family m e m b e r s . If family m e m b e r s
set up the other m e m b e r s , they can't avoid setting up their c o n -
scious relationships, what they think or feel a b o u t the others. T h a t ' s
a very different level of information t h a n what we n e e d to find a
resolution. Working like that can lead to good relationship clarifica-
tion, b u t n o t work with the dynamics of the family system.
I ' m cautious a b o u t doing therapy with the entire family. W h e n t h e
entire family goes to a therapist, the children t e n d to lose s o m e of
their respect for their parents. T h a t ' s a very high price to pay, espe-
cially for younger children, so I prefer to work with the parents. I do
family therapy with the p a r e n t s , and the parents work with their chil-
dren. T h e children d o n ' t even need to know what we discussed.
S o m e t i m e s it works very well to have the family watching while
o n e m e m b e r sets up the constellation with representatives from a
g r o u p , b u t I use this option sparingly, primarily w h e n a child has a
physical illness that m a y have a systemic c o m p o n e n t . T h e n o n e of
the p a r e n t s can set up t h e family while the child watches.
W h e n you set up a constellation of your family in a g r o u p , you
carry away images of w h a t h a p p e n e d in the constellation, a n d those
images can affect t h e whole system. T h a t ' s an elegant solution
because no o n e n e e d s to know that a therapist was involved at all.
T h e dignity a n d privacy of family m e m b e r s are n o t violated, t h e
responsibility remains in the family, a n d the therapist r e m a i n s
unobtrusive, h i d d e n in the b a c k g r o u n d .
O n c e the p r o b l e m d y n a m i c in the family is clear, t h e n you can do
family therapy in whatever way is appropriate to t h e family's situa-
258 Love's Hidden Symmetry

tion. T h e family constellations are useful w h e n t h e s y m p t o m s are


k n o w n , b u t t h e u n d e r l y i n g systemic d y n a m i c isn't yet visible.

The Meaning of the Constellations


Hellinger: I w a n t to say o n e t h i n g m o r e a b o u t t h e constellations,
just to avoid possible m i s u n d e r s t a n d i n g s . T h e constellations are
images, like s n a p s h o t s of w h a t was a n d could b e . A n d , like s n a p -
shots, they d o n ' t show the w h o l e t r u t h of t h e situation, just certain
aspects of it. T h e y are like scenic viewing p o i n t s along a highway.
W h e n p e o p l e try to m a k e life decisions on t h e basis of s u c h c o n s t e l -
lations, they easily get it w r o n g . T h e best t h i n g to do following a c o n -
stellation is n o t to do anything at all, b u t just to allow the n e w i m a g e
to take effect on its own. L e t yourself be surprised by w h a t h a p p e n s .
T h e r e p r e s e n t a t i v e s ' feelings reveal a p a r t i a l t r u t h , b u t t h e y
d o n ' t n e c e s s a r i l y tell u s w h a t actually h a p p e n e d i n t h e p a s t . T h e y
h e l p t o identify forces o p e r a t i n g i n t h e s y s t e m t h a t a r e u n c o n -
scious. A n d t h e y h e l p t o find a r e s o l u t i o n . T h a t ' s all t h a t t h e c o n -
stellations d o .
A m a n o n c e set up a constellation. He w a s n ' t getting a l o n g w i t h
his wife. In t h e r e s o l u t i o n constellation, he was s e p a r a t e d from his
wife, a n d t h e c h i l d r e n were with h i m . H e t h e n w e n t h o m e a n d said
to his wife, " B e r t Hellinger said we m u s t get divorced, a n d t h a t I
s h o u l d have c u s t o d y o f t h e c h i l d r e n . " T h a t ' s a b u s e , p u r e a n d s i m p l e .
T h a t ' s a terrible m i s u s e of t h e exercise. It was very unfair to his
wife, a n d it w a s unfair to t h e exercise.
W h e n t h e s u n c o m e s u p , you c a n use t h e light. You allow t h e light
to w o r k , h e l p i n g you to see clearly. After a while, you see w h a t
y o u ' v e got to d o , or you see things differently, or you see a n e w p o s -
sibility. T h e n y o u d o w h a t n e e d s t o b e d o n e , b u t y o u d o n ' t n e e d t o
talk m u c h a b o u t t h e s u n .

The Standard Resolution Constellation


Hellinger: W h e n y o u ' r e r e a d y to look for a r e s o l u t i o n constella-
tion, w h a t y o u ' r e looking for is a constellation in w h i c h e v e r y o n e ,
especially t h e client, feels g o o d . You've seen t h e r e p r e s e n t a t i v e s '
r e a c t i o n s , w h e n they c o u l d s u d d e n l y feel, " T h a t ' s right!" You have
to find it by trial a n d e r r o r , b u t there's a s t a n d a r d o r d e r you s h o u l d
Some Helpful Interventions 259

know. T h e r e are always exceptions, b u t t h e basic internal ordering


principle of a family relationship system is this:

1. W h o e v e r was there first has priority.

2. T h e direction of priority in a constellation is clockwise.

3. Between a m a n a n d a w o m a n w h o entered t h e system at the


s a m e t i m e , the m a n generally c o m e s first, a n d t h e n the
w o m a n . (See C h a p t e r Two.)

4. In the resolution constellations, t h e children usually c o m e


next, the oldest closest to the m o t h e r ' s left. Q u i t e often, t h e
constellation is m o r e relaxed w h e n the children are standing
opposite their parents. (I've also h a d feedback from families
that m e a l t i m e is m o r e relaxed w h e n the family sits at t h e
table in this order.)

5. Stillborn children usually stand with their siblings in their


order of b i r t h . A b o r t e d children, if they're i m p o r t a n t to t h e
system at all, usually feel good sitting in front of their par-
ents, leaning against t h e m . W h e n they're in t h a t position, t h e
other m e m b e r s of the constellation usually can relax, too.
A b o r t e d children aren't c o u n t e d with t h e o t h e r s — t h e y affect
their p a r e n t s , b u t n o t their siblings.

Q u e s t i o n : You said that the natural o r d e r of t h e family moves


clockwise. W h a t a b o u t w h e n there's b e e n m o r e t h a n o n e marriage?

H e l l i n g e r : T h e o r d e r is still clockwise: the first family, t h e n t h e


second family, a n d t h e n the third family. F o r e x a m p l e , if t h e client is
a m a n w h o was m a r r i e d three times, it starts with his first wife, with
the children they h a d together to her left; t h e n t h e second wife a n d
children; t h e n h e ; and, finally, his third wife with t h e children they
h a d together on h e r left. S o m e t i m e s the o r d e r is different. D o n ' t get
t h e idea that it always has to be the s a m e , b u t the resolution constel-
lation very often will t u r n out to be a variant of this basic form.
Actually, you c a n ' t set up s o m e constellations in their full complex-
ity, b u t you can usually get close e n o u g h to find a good resolution.

Question: D o e s n ' t a complex family start with t h e client?

Hellinger: N o , b u t the client's t h e m i d p o i n t .

Question: So it isn't set where the circle actually starts?


260 Love's Hidden Symmetry

H e l l i n g e r : N o . As a r u l e , t h e children from a divorce s t a n d


b e t w e e n their p a r e n t s . T h e n a t u r a l o r d e r within a family is t h a t t h e
o l d e r m e m b e r s e n t e r e d t h e system f i r s t a n d c o m e f i r s t , b u t b e t w e e n
t w o systems, t h e n e w system m u s t have p r e c e d e n c e over t h e previ-
o u s o n e s ; o t h e r w i s e , there's confusion a n d disarray. T h e p r e s e n t
family h a s p r e c e d e n c e over the earlier families. T h a t ' s w h y p a r t n e r s
have to leave their old families in o r d e r to e n t e r i n t o a n o t h e r . T h e r e
are e x c e p t i o n s to this as well, for i n s t a n c e a w i d o w a n d h e r only
child. Very often, s u c h a child has to integrate his or h e r m o t h e r into
t h e n e w family if he or she m a r r i e s . W h e n a p e r s o n has m o r e t h a n
o n e family, t h e n all of t h e families f o r m o n e very c o m p l e x relation-
ship system.
D i v o r c e d p e r s o n s are only s e p a r a t e d from their p a r t n e r s as p a r t -
n e r s , b u t as p a r e n t s t h e y ' r e still c o n n e c t e d . T h e r e f o r e , r e s o l u t i o n s
are possible only if that's a c k n o w l e d g e d a n d the w h o l e system is
brought into balance.

Question: I ' m still confused a b o u t w h e n t h e m a n c o m e s first a n d


w h e n t h e w o m a n h a s t h e lead position.

H e l l i n g e r : T h e representatives' reactions are t h e only criterion.


T r y it o u t b o t h ways if y o u ' r e n o t sure. T h e y usually a g r e e as to
w h i c h way is b e t t e r . I'll r e p e a t my observations since it's a p o i n t
t h a t ' s confusing t o m a n y p e o p l e .
S i n c e t h e father a n d m o t h e r e n t e r a family s y s t e m at t h e s a m e
t i m e , their r a n k i n g is d e t e r m i n e d by their function a n d by their psy-
chological weight. T h e p e r s o n responsible for the family's e x t e r n a l
security usually h a s t h e first position, a n d that's usually t h e m a n .
T h e r e are situations i n w h i c h the w o m a n h a s priority even w h e n she
i s n ' t responsible for t h e family security, for e x a m p l e , w h e n h e r f a m -
ily of origin h a s u n u s u a l weight b e c a u s e of its history. T h e n t h a t
family's f o r t u n e o r m i s f o r t u n e outweighs t h e m a n ' s p r o t e c t i v e func-
tion. Feel free to e x p e r i m e n t with the constellation to see w h i c h
o r d e r is b e t t e r for t h e p a r t i c i p a n t s .
W h e n t h e m a n ' s p l a c e i s t o t h e left o f t h e w o m a n w i t h o u t t h e r e
b e i n g a legitimate r e a s o n for it, he h a s a fool's f r e e d o m a n d he t e n d s
to w a n d e r away from his family a n d avoid responsibility, a n d t h e
w o m a n often feels very alone a n d u n s u p p o r t e d . As s o o n as he's
s t a n d i n g o n t h e o t h e r side, h e feels responsible a n d t h e w o m a n feels
protected and helped.
Some Helpful Interventions 261

Question: Isn't that just the patriarchal order?

H e l l i n g e r : I don't know. The soul reacts as it does no matter


what ideology you embrace. It isn't a matter of conscious choice.
T h e constellations show clearly that whomever is responsible for the
safety and living space for the family has priority, and he or she is
also the one who comes first in the line of fire. It's not a question of
human value, as if either men or women were more valuable.

Additional Considerations

M a n y couples we've worked with have discovered that it's m u c h


m o r e difficult to change their roles and functions t h a n they expected.
S o m e say that's because the socialization of the roles of m e n a n d
w o m e n is so entrenched, and others that there are biological or
archetypal p a t t e r n s that resist change.
We d o n ' t speculate about that. We observe that it generally works
b e t t e r w h e n the fathers do their best to protect a n d serve their fami-
lies, a n d w h e n the m o t h e r s s u p p o r t t h e m in that and follow their
lead. B u t for many families, the traditional roles assigned to w o m e n
a n d m e n are no longer appropriate. Sometimes these roles a n d func-
tions may be reversed successfully, b u t when a m a n asserts his
strength in a way that's contrary or oblivious to the needs a n d inter-
ests of his wife and children, or when wives a n d children claim the
privileges of the lead position without truly accepting the responsibil-
ity a n d danger as well, the result is invariably destructive to love.
W h e n partnerships a n d families are having difficulties, it's often t h e
case that the actual dynamics of the family are different from w h a t
the p a r t n e r s would like to believe.
Love requires that the overall power, privilege, responsibility, a n d
freedom in the family remain balanced a n d well m a t c h e d , and that
the roles a n d functions of family m e m b e r s remain systemically
appropriate. [H.B.]

T h e R e s o l u t i o n Constellation E m e r g e s f r o m t h e
Process
Question: H o w do you go about looking for a resolution?

H e l l i n g e r : The resolution emerges during the constellation pro-


cess. It's absolutely essential that you listen closely to the representa-
tives' reports and allow them to lead you toward the resolution. There
are some situations in which the therapist must trust his or her own
262 Love's Hidden Symmetry

perceptions m o r e t h a n the reports of the p a r t i c i p a n t s , especially w h e n


their nonverbal behavior isn't c o n g r u e n t with w h a t they say, b u t , as a
rule, t r u s t w h a t they say. Often there's missing information that
makes the m o v e m e n t t o w a r d resolution difficult or even impossible.
T h e n you've got to stop a n d wait until the information is available.
Bear in m i n d t h a t y o u ' r e seeking a r e s o l u t i o n p r i m a r i l y for t h e
client, a n d only secondarily for t h e o t h e r m e m b e r s of t h e system.
It's m y intuitive conviction t h a t t h e e n d resolutions are pretty m u c h
t h e s a m e for all m e m b e r s of t h e family. N e v e r t h e l e s s , the steps
t a k e n a n d t h e p e r s o n s b r o u g h t into t h e system m a y well differ
d e p e n d i n g o n w h o t h e p r o t a g o n i s t is, a n d w h e t h e r c h i l d h o o d was
e x p e r i e n c e d as a b o y or as a girl.
Seeking a r e s o l u t i o n for s o m e o n e is a service t h a t c a n only be
d o n e w i t h humility. It isn't y o u r job to create a r e s o l u t i o n w h e n o n e
d o e s n ' t e m e r g e on its o w n . You'll m a k e a m e s s if y o u try. T h e h u m i l -
ity I ' m talking a b o u t r e q u i r e s t h a t you c o n s e n t t o b e i n g stuck w h e n
the c o n s t e l l a t i o n d o e s n ' t provide a r e s o l u t i o n , a n d t h a t you t r u s t t h e
p r o c e s s t o c o n t i n u e o n its o w n . T h i s kind o f t h e r a p y isn't s o m e t h i n g
the t h e r a p i s t d o e s to t h e client, a n d y o u r t r u s t in t h e p r o c e s s is a
m o d e l for t h e client.

How the Resolution Constellation Works for Change


Question: H o w d o t h e e n d constellations actually work?

Hellinger: A r e s o l u t i o n constellation h a s its greatest p o w e r for


c h a n g e w h e n clients see it, take it in, a n d give up t h e a t t e m p t to do
a n y t h i n g actively. It's as if t h e resolution constellation were an
u n c o n s c i o u s p i c t u r e t h a t c a n w o r k if you let it. You'll do b e t t e r if
you just let t i m e p a s s . It's like a convalescence after a serious ill-
ness—it takes t i m e , b u t after a while, y o u ' r e h e a l t h y again. It m a y
take several years for t h e healing p r o c e s s set in m o t i o n by t h e r e s o -
lution constellation t o c o m p l e t e itself. T h a t ' s n o t h i n g you c a n objec-
tively m e a s u r e , b u t y o u definitely c a n see t h e results.
T h e r e ' s a n o t h e r i m p o r t a n t issue. N o o n e else i n y o u r system h a s
to c h a n g e in o r d e r for y o u to c h a n g e . You d o n ' t n e e d a n y o n e to
a s s u m e a different function in t h e system. T h e entire shift in t h e
family system o c c u r s as a result of a shift in y o u r i n n e r i m a g e . O c c a -
sionally, it's helpful to tell o t h e r m e m b e r s of t h e family a b o u t t h e
constellation, b u t only w h e n it's a p p r o p r i a t e a n d y o u tell t h e m w i t h -
Some Helpful Interventions 263

out any interpretation. You only tell what happened and how that
was for you.
When parents get their image of the family in order it affects their
children. It's not necessary to tell the children anything at all about
what happened. The order of the system itself has the effect, and
also your honoring it in your soul. It's a characteristic of a good
resolution that everyone in the system has a good place. If the reso-
lution constellation reveals that you still owe someone something,
you've got to take care of it. Some people find it useful to draw or
paint their constellation, or they may look at a videotape of the con-
stellation after a while.
Often the details of the resolution are completely forgotten, and
only the effect remains. I remember a conversation I had that illus-
trates how the images work without actively doing anything.

I'll Pay for the Motorcycle

I was invited to lunch by a colleague. Her niece was living with her
because she'd been thrown out at home. The niece, who was about
2 0 , had been a junkie living a junkie's street life, had attempted sui-
cide a number of times, and finally had gotten herself together at her
aunt's house. She was clean, had learned a trade, and had become a
more or less normal young woman. My friend told how her niece had
recently made a trip to Guatemala where she borrowed a motorcycle
and wrecked it. She just left it lying there, and went on her way.
I let the story work in me a while, then I said, "She'd better pay for
the motorcycle, or she's in danger of slipping back into her old life-
style." My friend had to go on a business trip right after our lunch
and didn't have a chance to talk with her niece before she left. That
night, her niece called her at her hotel and said, "I've been thinking.
I'm going to pay for the motorcycle."

That's how the inner pictures work. I can tell you many similar
anecdotes. It's the effect of "nondoing." The good image makes
things happen. When insight is present, then I only need to keep my
strength collected while a new pattern emerges. When the new
image is clearly formed, I can do what's necessary with a minimum
of effort. I can tell you of another case.

Grandmother's Serenity

A lively young couple in a group who were in their late 20s had three
daughters and a fourth child on the way. The second daughter had
264 Love's Hidden Symmetry

diabetes. W h e n w e set u p t h e constellation, t h e d a u g h t e r ' s r e p r e s e n -


tative was very n e r v o u s a n d c o u l d n ' t find a place w h e r e she felt g o o d .
T h e n w e b r o u g h t t h e child's m a t e r n a l g r a n d m o t h e r a n d great
g r a n d m o t h e r i n t o t h e constellation. T h e y b o t h h a d b a d r e p u t a t i o n s
a n d were rejected a n d devalued by the client. As s o o n as they c a m e
into t h e constellation, t h e little girl's representative b e c a m e c a l m .
W h e n w e p u t t h e g r a n d m o t h e r b e h i n d her, she r a d i a t e d serenity. T h e
p a r e n t s called h o m e that n i g h t from the w o r k s h o p a n d talked with
their children. T h e y later related that the little girl h a d talked with
t h e m a s never before. T h e y were completely s u r p r i s e d .
A c o u p l e of m o n t h s later, the m a n ' s b r o t h e r p a r t i c i p a t e d in a
g r o u p . H e c a m e u p t o m e a n d told m e t h a t t h e little girl's b l o o d
sugar h a d d r o p p e d so dramatically after t h e constellation t h a t they
s t o p p e d the insulin injections for three days. T h e n it w e n t b a c k u p ,
a n d t h e y h a d t o start insulin again.

That seems to indicate that the good effect of the resolution c o n -


stellation was interrupted, but the story still shows the kind of
change made possible by putting the inner system in order. T h e y
hadn't told the child anything. Changes just happen w h e n the sys-
temic images are in order.
Here is a final example.

A Loving Telephone Call

A m a n in a g r o u p w h o was having serious t r o u b l e in his m a r r i a g e


told h o w he h a d recently r e a d in t h e n e w s p a p e r that his illegitimate
son h a d b e e n killed i n a n accident. H e ' d n e v e r seen t h e son a n d h a d
never c o n c e r n e d himself with h i m . H e h a d m a r r i e d his p r e s e n t wife
shortly after t h e boy's b i r t h , a n d t h e c o u p l e h a d t h r e e c h i l d r e n
together.
We set up t h e constellation, a n d after a s e q u e n c e of m o v e s , the
m a n w o u n d u p s t a n d i n g n e x t t o his d e c e a s e d son. T h e n t h e son sat i n
front o f his father, w h o p u t a h a n d o n his h e a d . T h e m a n b r o k e
d o w n , s o b b i n g in d e e p grief a n d s h a m e . T h e n it was over.
A l t h o u g h he was having serious p r o b l e m s with his wife, she tele-
p h o n e d h i m a t the w o r k s h o p that night a n d talked t o h i m lovingly.

T h e image had affected his wife in some way in spite of the dis-
tance. That kind of thing happens a lot, but I don't even speculate
about h o w it works.
Some Helpful Interventions 265

Stopping as a Difficult but Necessary Intervention


Hellinger: It's n o t always possible to find a good resolution. After
you've looked for a while without finding anything, t h e g r o u p starts
to lose interest. W h e n you notice that h a p p e n i n g , it's time to quit.
Usually there's information missing that you n e e d in o r d e r to
uncover a resolution. T h e process of watching t h e constellation
being set up has already provided plenty of useful insight for t h e cli-
ent, a n d my general principle is that it's b e t t e r to quit while you're
ahead. It's better to do too little t h a n to risk doing t o o m u c h .

Interrupting a Constellation

T h e p r i m a r y issue to watch out for is h o w people go a b o u t setting


up their constellations, w h e t h e r or n o t they have a confusing or a
clear effect on the representatives. S o m e constellations are very
clear and have an i m m e d i a t e effect on the representatives. O t h e r s
are diffuse, and t h e representatives d o n ' t get a real sense of what's
going o n , forget w h o m they're supposed to represent, and so o n .
After you've h a d a bit of experience, you can see h o w deeply
engaged a n d centered s o m e o n e is.
W h e n clients are really collected in themselves, they move slowly,
feeling their way into each m o v e m e n t . T h e y t e n d to take each r e p -
resentative tenderly by the a r m , as if physical t o u c h helps t h e m get
the feel of what's "right." T h e y lead t h e p e r s o n to his or h e r place,
m a k e fine a d j u s t m e n t s , a n d stay with the p e r s o n until it's just right.
T h e n they go on to get the next person. W h e n clients w a n t to m a k e
sure that they've got it right, they instinctively walk a r o u n d t h e
periphery, looking at w h a t they've d o n e from t h e outside. I d o n ' t
tell participants t o o m u c h a b o u t these things, because I w a n t to be
able to see h o w they naturally go a b o u t it.
W h e n a client d o e s n ' t set up the constellation with this kind of
genuine respect, there's a difficult a n d subtle test for the therapist.
Everyone unconsciously watches to see if t h e therapist is really in
charge of the situation a n d notices the difference. If the therapist
d o e s n ' t notice, he or she might as well go h o m e b e c a u s e real t r u s t
c a n ' t develop. T h e r e ' s s o m e t h i n g in the soul that recognizes w h e t h e r
the therapist truly respects life. If the therapist were to tolerate a
careless or irreverent h a n d l i n g of issues of life a n d d e a t h , t h e n
people would be foolish to show their real c o n c e r n s .
266 Love's Hidden Symmetry

I'll tell you a t r u e story that illustrates t h e p o i n t .

I Lost Respect for the Saw


Two years ago, a friend came to visit. While he was here, he told how
his oldest son, who was learning to become a carpenter, had severely
cut his leg with an electric saw and had to go to the hospital for sur-
gery. After the operation was over and it had become clear that there
wouldn't be permanent damage, he looked at his father and said, "I
lost respect for the saw."

W h e n I n o t i c e t h a t s o m e o n e is setting up t h e constellation
a c c o r d i n g to a p l a n w o r k e d o u t a h e a d of t i m e , I usually s t o p t h e
constellation a n d tell t h e p e r s o n t h a t I c a n ' t w o r k w i t h s u c h a c o n -
stellation. C o n s t e l l a t i o n s like these are m e n t a l c o n s t r u c t s , n o t
images of w h a t really is h a p p e n i n g in t h e family. It's always m o r e
effective n o t to have any m e n t a l images of y o u r constellation before
you set it u p . I n t e r r u p t i n g a constellation is t h e m o s t difficult i n t e r -
v e n t i o n in systemic p s y c h o t h e r a p y , b u t it's also o n e of t h e m o s t
effective.
Also, w h e n p e o p l e ask if I w a n t t h e m to set up t h e families t h e
way t h e y were or t h e way they are now, I stop. If they start o u t set-
ting up their constellation by trying to do w h a t I w a n t , t h e y ' r e n o t
r e s p e c t i n g the t r u t h of their o w n soul. Or if t h e y t r y to create images
a c c o r d i n g to a c o n s c i o u s p l a n , they p r e v e n t t h e i m a g e s t h a t c o u l d
help from e m e r g i n g spontaneously. It's always m o r e effective n o t to
have any m e n t a l images of y o u r constellation before you set it u p .

Repeating Patterns in Constellations


Hellinger: T h e r a p i s t s w h o w o r k with constellations, o r p l a n t o d o
so, are often i n t e r e s t e d in k n o w i n g w h e t h e r t h e r e are p a t t e r n s t h a t
o c c u r i n t h e constellations that have special m e a n i n g s , o r w h e t h e r
t h e r e are specific solutions t o specific d y n a m i c s . M y e x p e r i e n c e s u g -
gests t h a t this is, in fact, the case. H o w e v e r , t h e c u r r e n t state of t h e
w o r k is s u c h t h a t these are only w o r k i n g h y p o t h e s e s . If I w e r e to list
m y h u n c h e s , t h a t m i g h t lead t o m i s u n d e r s t a n d i n g s a n d t o t h e
h y p o t h e s e s b e i n g t u r n e d into c o n c l u s i o n s . I w a n t to g u a r d against
a n y t h i n g t h a t interferes w i t h p e o p l e l e a r n i n g to see for themselves
w h a t ' s g o i n g o n . I ' m c o n v i n c e d that t h e b e s t l e a r n i n g c o m e s from
personal experience.
Some Helpful Interventions 267

As a general rule of t h u m b , it's better for therapists to work on


t h e a s s u m p t i o n that each constellation is u n i q u e a n d requires a
u n i q u e resolution that can be discovered only in a sensitive dialogic
process with the participants.

Constellations of Other Relationships


H e l l i n g e r : You sometimes can use constellations to try to u n d e r -
stand the h i d d e n dynamics in other relationship systems. G r o u p
participants can be set up to represent m e m b e r s of an institution, of
t h e firm w h e r e o n e works, of one's profession, or of other i m p o r t a n t
areas of one's life. In one seminar, a participant w h o h a d a c o n s t a n t
sense of heaviness was asked what was b u r d e n i n g h i m . He set up a
constellation with himself, psychoanalysis, lightness, m e d i c i n e , a n d
spirituality. T h e n he p u t t h e m in an o r d e r so that each h a d an
appropriate place in his life.
T h i s t e c h n i q u e can also be useful w h e n a p e r s o n has two profes-
sions, or w h e n the parents c o m e from two different countries or
cultures. Setting up situations like this allows t h e i m p o r t a n c e of
b o t h elements to be acknowledged, and still lets you find the a p p r o -
priate balance of t h e two. T h e constellations are an excellent m e t h -
od for seeing larger systemic wholes, for getting an overview.

Constellations with Couples


H e l l i n g e r : W h e n a couple at a seminar wants to work on their
relationship, I first have one of t h e m , a n d t h e n the other, set up
their relationship using the same representatives. T h e representa-
tives stay s t a n d i n g , and after the first constellation, the o t h e r p a r t -
n e r moves t h e m to new positions. S o m e t i m e s you can see that o n e
or the o t h e r is avoiding setting up t h e constellation so that the is-
sues are clearly visible. In cases like that, t h e representatives' c o m -
parisons of h o w they felt in the two constellations are especially
important.
W h e n p a r t n e r s join together, each brings an internalized system.
F o r example, if a w o m a n has internalized a distorted or dysfunc-
tional family system, t h e n the m a n ' s perceptions of h e r will be dis-
t o r t e d , as will be h e r perceptions of h i m . W h e n b o t h p a r t n e r s set up
their relationship a n d the i m p o r t a n t m e m b e r s of their families of
origin, they're confronted with a m o r e c o m p l e t e picture of their

|
268 Love's Hidden Symmetry

p a r t n e r a n d a m o r e objective reality. W h e n the internalized systems


are b r o u g h t into order, t h e n their m u t u a l perceptions are also m o r e
appropriate. T h a t has a very powerful effect on t h e relationship.

S u m m a r y of Things to Consider

T h e following is a s u m m a r y of t h e basic points to be considered in


setting up constellations and in seeking resolutions.

Guidelines for Protagonists

• Set up a constellation only w h e n there's a b u r n i n g question


a n d a t r u e need. Curiosity alone is n o t e n o u g h .

• As t h e representatives are chosen, it's useful to arrange t h e m


in their natural order—parents first a n d t h e n the s e q u e n c e of
the siblings. Before the constellation itself is b e g u n , it's useful
to repeat everyone's role, to detect a n d avoid confusion.

• Avoid characterizations a n d i n f o r m a t i o n a b o u t h o w p e r s o n s
a c t e d or t h o u g h t . F o r this work, only i n f o r m a t i o n a b o u t
actual events is helpful—illnesses, physical h a n d i c a p s , s e p a -
rations, a n d deeds that h a d consequences for t h e p e r s o n ' s life.
Characterizations of the m e m b e r s of your family interfere
with the representatives' ability to sense the effect of the fam-
ily dynamics.

• C e n t e r yourself a n d orient yourself toward the "feel" of t h e


family. Your ideas a n d plans a b o u t h o w to set up the family
interfere with sensing the information that helps. T h e constel-
lation will e m e r g e only as you go t h r o u g h t h e process of set-
ting it up. Allow yourself to be surprised by w h a t emerges.

• As you look for the right place for each representative, take
the p e r s o n by the h a n d or a r m and go with t h e p e r s o n to his
or h e r place so that you can "feel" where t h e p e r s o n belongs.
M o v i n g h i m or h e r a few inches can m a k e a big difference.

• Search for t h e p r o p e r place, b u t d o n ' t sculpt gestures or


m o v e m e n t s , or tell the p e r s o n w h e r e to look.
Some Helpful Interventions 269

• After y o u ' v e set t h e m u p , go a r o u n d t h e o u t s i d e of t h e c o n -


stellation o n c e , m a k e fine a d j u s t m e n t s , a n d say, o n c e again,
w h o m e v e r y o n e is r e p r e s e n t i n g .

Guidelines for Representatives

• G a t h e r yourself a n d c o n c e n t r a t e y o u r a t t e n t i o n o n y o u r r e a c -
tions to b e i n g in this place. Your job is to let t h e p o s i t i o n affect
you a n d to r e p o r t t h a t as clearly a n d concisely as you possibly
can.

• Avoid c o m i n g to c o n c l u s i o n s a b o u t w h a t y o u t h i n k you
s h o u l d feel b a s e d on w h a t you see. If you feel n o t h i n g at all,
t h e n say that.

• Say whatever you notice a b o u t h o w this place affects you,


regardless of w h a t it m i g h t be—especially w h e n t h e feeling goes
against your p e r s o n a l values a n d sense of right a n d w r o n g .

• D o n ' t w o r r y a b o u t w h e t h e r o r n o t t h e s e n s a t i o n s are y o u r
p e r s o n a l r e a c t i o n or a r e s p o n s e to the situation. T h e t h e r a p i s t
will sort t h a t o u t .

• R e p o r t w h a t y o u feel, b u t g u a r d against i n t e r p r e t i n g y o u r feel-


ings. T r u s t t h e m a s they c o m e .

• D o n ' t have a n y i n t e n t i o n s o t h e r t h a n to r e p o r t a c c u r a t e l y h o w
t h e p o s i t i o n affects you. T h i s m a y i n c l u d e c e r t a i n ideas or
images t h a t o c c u r to you. W i t h e x p e r i e n c e , you'll develop a
clear sense of w h a t n e e d s to be said a n d w h a t c a n be left o u t .

Guidelines for Therapists

• Your o r i e n t a t i o n is t o w a r d finding a r e s o l u t i o n . You m u s t seek


it, b u t y o u c a n ' t create it. It's n o t y o u r job to create a r e s o l u -
tion, b u t to seek t h e o n e t h a t suggests itself from w h a t y o u
actually see in the constellation.

• L o o k for t h o s e w h o have b e e n e x c l u d e d a n d f o r g o t t e n , b u t
w h o still have an effect on t h e system.

• You m u s t s t a n d by all t h o s e in t h e system w h o have b e e n vili-


fied, h a t e d , s c o r n e d , s h u t o u t . In cases of a b u s e , t h a t will often
270 Love's Hidden Symmetry

be the perpetrator. Resolution requires that the system be


completely represented.

• L o o k for those w h o w a n t to go, t h o s e w h o m u s t go, a n d t h o s e


w h o m u s t b e allowed t o go.

• T r u s t t h e r e p o r t s of t h e representatives.

• T r u s t y o u r o w n p e r c e p t i o n s , even w h e n they are at v a r i a n c e


w i t h t h o s e of the representatives.

• S t o p t h e constellation w h e n you n o t i c e that:


t h e p r o t a g o n i s t isn't sufficiently serious;
t h e p r o t a g o n i s t isn't c e n t e r e d a n d m a k i n g g o o d c o n t a c t
w i t h each representative;
t h e p r o t a g o n i s t isn't seeking t h e "feel" of t h e constellation;
i m p o r t a n t i n f o r m a t i o n is missing;
you c a n ' t see a resolution.

• K e e p it simple; u s e t h e m i n i m u m n u m b e r of p e r s o n s n e c e s -
sary to find resolution.

• Pay a t t e n t i o n to t h e m o o d of the g r o u p . It t h e g r o u p isn't seri-


ous and gathered, something is wrong.

Suggestions for Seeking a Resolution

• W h o e v e r e n t e r e d t h e system first h a s p r e c e d e n c e over t h o s e


w h o c a m e later. W a t c h the o r d e r o f p r e c e d e n c e . I t r u n s clock-
wise, t h e later p e r s o n s s t a n d i n g to t h e left of t h e earlier o n e .
P a r e n t s have equal r a n k i n g , b u t w h i c h o f t h e m s t a n d s first
varies from family to family a c c o r d i n g to their function in t h e
family.

• B e t w e e n two systems, the later system has p r e c e d e n c e over t h e


earlier o n e . T h u s , t h e p r e s e n t family h a s p r e c e d e n c e over
t h e family o f o r i g i n , t h e s e c o n d m a r r i a g e h a s p r e c e d e n c e
over t h e first, a n d so o n . W h e n a p e r s o n h a s a child w i t h
a n o t h e r p e r s o n d u r i n g a m a r r i a g e , this s e c o n d r e l a t i o n s h i p
h a s p r e c e d e n c e over t h e first.

• W h e n a m a n a n d a w o m a n are set up facing e a c h o t h e r , that's


a n i n d i c a t i o n t h a t their sexual i n t i m a c y h a s b e e n d i s r u p t e d .
Some Helpful Interventions 271

• W h e n a m o t h e r chooses a w o m a n to r e p r e s e n t h e r s o n , s u s -
p e c t systemic p r e s s u r e t o w a r d homosexuality.

• W h e n o n e of the p a r t i c i p a n t s has an u r g e to leave t h e r o o m or


t h e constellation, s u s p e c t suicidal t e n d e n c i e s .

• W h e n o n e of t h e p a r e n t s h a d an earlier relationship w i t h firm


b o n d i n g , t h e n e w p a r t n e r often n e e d s t o s t a n d b e t w e e n h i m
o r h e r a n d the old p a r t n e r ; o t h e r w i s e , t h e r e ' s n o s e p a r a t i o n
from t h e old relationship. T h i s c a n get c o m p l i c a t e d w h e n
b o n d i n g h a s t a k e n place w i t h several p e r s o n s since t h e y all
f o r m o n e large system. T h e r e are m a n y e x c e p t i o n s , especially
w h e n t h e r e are c h i l d r e n i n o n e o r m o r e o f t h e r e l a t i o n s h i p s .

• W h e n all of t h e representatives are facing in t h e s a m e d i r e c -


t i o n , look for a m i s s i n g p e r s o n s t a n d i n g in front of t h e m .

Additional Considerations
Participants in our groups who have come from tribal cultures in
various parts of the world have commented that our use of these con-
stellations is like reinventing the wheel. Native healers in many cul-
tures have utilized related methods for making visible the hidden
systemic dynamics operating in relationship systems. This feedback is
gratifying. Obviously, the cosmologies and world views of many
native cultures are more holistic and systemic than the linear cause-
and-effect thinking that has dominated Western thought for several
centuries. If the therapeutic use of these constellations has the unex-
pected side effect of building bridges and increasing understanding
among these various thought worlds, we will be very pleased indeed.
[H.B.]

STORIES THAT HEAL


Question: T h e stories a n d a n e c d o t e s y o u tell are very beautiful. I
often d o n ' t u n d e r s t a n d t h e m , b u t t h e y still have a powerful h y p n o t i c
effect o n m e .

Hellinger: W h e n I tell p e o p l e t h a t they s h o u l d d o this o r c a n ' t d o


t h a t , t h e y owe it to their a u t o n o m y a n d sense of h o n o r to refuse. If I
have m e t h o d s for indicating w h e r e c h a n g e is possible t h a t d o n ' t
r e q u i r e t h e m t o give u p their a u t o n o m y , t h e n t h e y c a n listen t o m y
offer a n d d e c i d e for themselves w h a t ' s a p p r o p r i a t e for t h e m . T h a t ' s
272 Love's Hidden Symmetry

what telling stories does. They can listen to the stories without com-
mitting themselves to change. They can then take from the story
whatever they need and throw away the rest. They don't need to get
into a conflict with me; in fact, they can forget me altogether. When
we watch a film, we forget who's operating the projector. We just
watch the film and then go home.

Stories About Bed-Wetting

A father asked me what he could do to help his d a u g h t e r stop wetting


the b e d . I told h i m he could tell her h o w glad he was to have m a r r i e d
her m o t h e r — n o big deal, just a kind of throw away sentence in the
context of another conversation. T h e n he should tell her a story she
already knew well, b u t with some minor variations, for example,
Little Red Riding H o o d .
Little Red Riding H o o d went to h e r g r a n d m o t h e r ' s h o u s e , a n d as
she got there, she noticed that the roof had a leak a n d the e n t r a n c e to
the h o u s e was getting wet. So Little Red Riding H o o d went into the
b a r n a n d got s o m e straw to stop up the hole so t h a t the e n t r a n c e
w o u l d n ' t get wet. T h e n she went into the house with her basket of
goodies. H e r g r a n d m o t h e r was very h a p p y to see her, a n d they h a d a
wonderful party together.
Or Snow W h i t e : O n e of the dwarfs came to Snow W h i t e a n d said,
" T h e r e ' s a leak in my r o o m and the rain drips in." S n o w W h i t e told
him not to worry, that she'd take care of it. She looked at the roof
a n d saw that there was a loose shingle, up high where the very m u c h
smaller dwarf c o u l d n ' t reach it. She stretched up on h e r tippy toes,
higher t h a n he could reach, and p u t it back into place. T h e dwarf
d i d n ' t even thank her because once everything was all right, he forgot
all a b o u t it.
Or a story a b o u t a water faucet that dripped a n d d r i p p e d until
Snow White t u r n e d it off. Or, a little girl was sitting on the toilet
w h e n a strange m a n o p e n e d the d o o r and looked in. W h e n he noticed
her there, he quickly closed the d o o r and went away, a n d the little
girl, w h o h a d b e e n holding her breath, let it out.

Do you understand the hypnotherapeutic background of the


intervention of the last story? When she imagines the strange man
coming in, the little girl automatically constricts the sphincter
muscle of her bladder. That's a well-known intervention from Mil-
ton Erickson.
Six months later, the father reported in a supervision group what
had happened. T h e intervention had been successful, but most
Some Helpful Interventions 273

interesting for h i m was his little d a u g h t e r ' s reaction to t h e devia-


tions in t h e stories. Normally, like m a n y small children, she w o u l d
have insisted that the stories be told exactly, b u t she d i d n ' t protest
a b o u t these deviations.
His experience tells us s o m e t h i n g i m p o r t a n t a b o u t p s y c h o t h e r a -
peutic interventions: Because he found a nonintrusive and respectful
way to talk with her about wetting the bed by telling her the stories, his
little d a u g h t e r felt his respect a n d d i d n ' t n e e d to guard against his
intervention. T h e r e was no capitulation or loss of face for her. H e r
father acted in a way compatible with his love, a n d in that space of
nonintrusive trust, something could change w i t h o u t its being n e c e s -
sary to talk a b o u t it directly.

WORKING THROUGH IMAGES THAT BIND


AND CREATING IMAGES THAT LIBERATE
H e l l i n g e r : In therapy, you often observe that people are living
out certain inner images or p a t t e r n s . Transactional Analysis calls
those images scripts. T h e images have two different origins: S o m e
arise out of personal experiences and t r a u m a a n d some o u t of sys-
temic e n t a n g l e m e n t s .
W h e n a child has a t r a u m a t i c experience, it's often internalized
a n d t h e n organizes t h e child's later experiences. M a n y fairy tales
and m y t h s describe this kind of p a t t e r n ; for example, Hansel and
Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, The Little Match Girl, Sleeping Beauty,
and Rumpelstiltskin.
Sleeping Beauty for example, describes a p a t t e r n in which a girl
stays " a s l e e p " with the illusion that w h e n she wakens after a 100
years, she'll still be 15 years old. T h e story actually encourages h e r
to keep on sleeping while waiting for her prince. W h e n it dawns on
her that she's really getting older, she wakes up pretty quickly.
W o m e n w h o choose Sleeping Beauty as their favorite fairy tale are
often identified with their father's former p a r t n e r .
After working with fairy tales for s o m e t i m e , I realized s o m e t h i n g
strange: M a n y of t h e m contain images that limit us a n d t h e solu-
tions they suggest are destructive illusions that serve to m a i n t a i n t h e
status q u o . F o r m a n y years, I've asked people to tell their favorite
fairy tale, o n e with which they identify, a n d t h e n to c o m p a r e t h e
fairy tale with their own situation. I've m a d e s o m e interesting obser-
vations.
274 Love's Hidden Symmetry

W h e n a p e r s o n c h o o s e s a fairy tale a b o u t s o m e t h i n g a c h i l d c a n
e x p e r i e n c e b e f o r e t h e age o f seven, t h e c l i e n t ' s p r o b l e m s a r e m o s t
likely a c t u a l e x p e r i e n c e s . W h e n p e o p l e c h o o s e t h e s t o r y o f Rumpel-
stiltskin, for e x a m p l e , t h e i r p r o b l e m s u s u a l l y d o n ' t h a v e t o d o w i t h
systemic entanglements, b u t with actual traumatic experiences.
T h e m o t h e r i s m i s s i n g i n m a n y fairy t a l e s , b u t fairy tales a r e v e r y
clever a n d t h e y d i s t r a c t u s from t h e essential m e s s a g e . I n Rumpel-
stiltskin, t h e d i v e r s i o n i s t h e s e n t e n c e , " L u c k y for m e t h a t n o o n e
knew that Rumpelstiltskin is my n a m e . " For the people who chose
it, Rumpelstiltskin w a s an i m a g e for t h e e x p e r i e n c e of b e i n g g i v e n
away o r a b a n d o n e d ; for e x a m p l e , t h e e x p e r i e n c e o f a girl w h o w a s
a b a n d o n e d b y h e r f a t h e r after h e r m o t h e r d i e d o r left, a n d w h o , i n
h e r t u r n , a b a n d o n e d h e r o w n s o n . A few h a d a sibling w h o w a s
given away. W h e n I s u s p e c t t h a t m i g h t be t h e c a s e , I tell a v a r i a t i o n
o f t h e s t o r y t h a t gives t h e m a c h a n c e t o r e c o g n i z e t h e h i d d e n
dynamic.

Rumpelstiltskin
T h e queen sent messengers to the far corners of her realm to dis-
cover the n a m e of the little man. After searching day and night for
many m o n t h s , a messenger returned just in time and told the queen
that he had discovered what she requested. She wanted to know the
name immediately, but he declined, saying that he could only tell her
when the little m a n came for her child.
At the appointed time, the little m a n came to get the child. He
asked the queen, " D o you know my n a m e ? "
T h e queen asked the messenger waiting at her side, "What's his
n a m e ? " He said, "Rumpelstiltskin."
"Rumpelstiltskin," said the queen. "But that's the n a m e of my handi-
capped brother who was given away!"

T h e s e c o n d k i n d o f p a t t e r n reflected i n fairy tales arises o u t o f


systemic entanglements rather t h a n from direct personal experi-
e n c e . W h e n clients identify w i t h stories t h a t o n l y a d u l t s c a n e x p e r i -
e n c e , for i n s t a n c e , Othello or The Odyssey, my e x p e r i e n c e is t h a t
t h e y ' r e m o s t likely identified w i t h s o m e o n e i n t h e i r family s y s t e m .
T h e r e a r e m a n y f a m o u s stories a n d m y t h s o f this t y p e t h a t f a s c i n a t e
c h i l d r e n a n d a d u l t s , a l t h o u g h t h e y c a n ' t say why. I believe t h e s t o -
ries h a v e t o d o w i t h a n o t h e r p e r s o n w h o p l a y e d a n i m p o r t a n t r o l e i n
t h e life o f t h e family, s o m e o n e w h o suffered t r a g e d y o r m i s f o r t u n e ,
Some Helpful Interventions 275

who was shut out of the family, or who left to make place for some-
one else.
Such stories are literary images of real-life events that have in-
fluence on the life of the family system. Telling the story allows the
missing person to be present, even if only in representational
form.
In therapy, it's possible to identify the inner images that bind you
and those that liberate you, regardless of whether they're related to
personal experiences or to systemic dynamics. One method I devel-
oped to help clients to identify the script or the image that's impor-
tant for them is to tell them the following story.

All the World Is a Stage

O n c e u p o n a time, a m a n decided that the time h a d c o m e to retire.


He h a d worked h a r d and it was time to do something good for h i m -
self. He left his h o m e and went somewhere else, w a n d e r e d a r o u n d a
while, and came to a house with a sign in big letters: " T h e a t e r of the
World."
He t h o u g h t , " T h i s is the right place for m e , " a n d b o u g h t a ticket.
It was a bit expensive, b u t he told himself it d i d n ' t matter. He went
into the theater, sat down in a comfortable chair, leaned back, a n d
waited. T h e lights went d o w n , the curtain o p e n e d , t h e performance
began. As he watched, he thought, "I know this piece from literature.
T h a t ' s absolutely nothing new at all." As he c o n t i n u e d to watch, he
noticed that it was a play in which he h a d played the leading role.
Ask yourself, " W h a t ' s the n a m e of the play?" It's a play that can be
found in literature, a book, a play, a film, a story of s o m e o n e ' s life.
W h e n you discover the n a m e of the piece, it's a bit of a surprise a n d
a little embarrassing.

HEALING RITUALS

Rituals that heal arise out of love and are performed in the service
of love. Rituals that seek to change reality for any other reason don't
heal. Healing rituals involve movement and they're effective in
therapeutic settings only when the sincerity of all participants sup-
ports the completion of the ritual movement. Therapeutic rituals of
healing are offerings made to clients that, when properly performed,
can change the systemic dynamics that shape their lives. That is, the
rituals performed in the therapeutic situation can change the inner
276 Love's Hidden Symmetry

i m a g e s t h a t organize a client's e x p e r i e n c e of the w o r l d , a n d m a y also


affect t h e client's situation at h o m e . C l i e n t s frequently r e p o r t t h a t
after p e r f o r m i n g a healing ritual in a t h e r a p y g r o u p , t h e b e h a v i o r of
t h e o t h e r m e m b e r s o f their family c h a n g e d . C o m p l e t i n g r e a c h i n g
o u t , reliving b i r t h , a n d b o w i n g d o w n are t h r e e highly effective h e a l -
ing rituals.

Completing "Reaching Out" Toward an Appropriate


Goal
Question: You often speak a b o u t " b r i n g i n g t h e r e a c h i n g o u t t o
its goal." C a n y o u explain w h a t you m e a n b y that?

Hellinger: T h e r e are two basic situations t h a t lead t o difficulties


in relationships. O n e is an u n c o n s c i o u s identification w i t h s o m e o n e
else in t h e system. T h e s e c o n d d y n a m i c is an i n t e r r u p t i o n of t h e
natural movement of "reaching out toward." T h a t movement can't
develop p r o p e r l y w h e n the n a t u r a l r e a c h i n g - o u t m o v e m e n t o f t h e
y o u n g child t o w a r d s o m e o n e t h e child loves was i n t e r r u p t e d —
t h r o u g h d e a t h , illness, c i r c u m s t a n c e s , o r o t h e r e x p e r i e n c e s . S u c h
i n t e r r u p t i o n s are a c c o m p a n i e d by s t r o n g feelings of h u r t , rejection,
despair, h a t e , resignation, a n d grief. T h e s e feelings overlay t h e p r i -
m a l love, b u t t h e y ' r e just the reverse side of love. W h e n y o u n g chil-
d r e n c a n ' t r e a c h t h e p e r s o n they love, t h e y have a s t r o n g t e n d e n c y
to feel rejected, as if t h e r e were s o m e t h i n g w r o n g w i t h t h e m , a n d
they s t o p p r a c t i c i n g t h e m o v e m e n t .
W h e n e v e r s u c h p e r s o n s w a n t t o r e a c h o u t t o a n o t h e r p e r s o n later
in life, their m e m o r i e s of h u r t u n c o n s c i o u s l y e m e r g e a n d i n t e r r u p t
their m o v e m e n t , a n d t h e y react w i t h t h e s a m e h u r t a s before. T h a t ' s
not a primary hurt that supports appropriate reaching out toward
s o m e o n e w h o c o u l d give w h a t i s n e e d e d , b u t s e c o n d a r y feelings t h a t
p r e v e n t t h e m o v e m e n t from developing a n d from r e a c h i n g its goal.
S o m e t i m e s a n i n t e r r u p t e d r e a c h i n g - o u t m o v e m e n t manifests a s
m u s c l e t e n s i o n , h e a d a c h e , or self-destructive b e h a v i o r s ; for ex-
a m p l e , "I'll never s h o w w e a k n e s s , " o r " N o t h i n g really c a n h e l p m e . "
I n s t e a d of c a r r y i n g on w i t h t h e m o v e m e n t until it r e a c h e s its goal,
s u c h a p e r s o n draws b a c k or goes into a circular " a p p r o a c h / a v o i d -
a n c e " p a t t e r n . T h a t ' s t h e basis o f n e u r o t i c behavior. W h e n a p e r s o n
becomes angry at the point at which the reaching-out movement
gets i n t e r r u p t e d a n d t h e therapist e n c o u r a g e s t h e expression o f t h e
Some Helpful Interventions 277

a n g e r i n s t e a d of going b a c k to the basic love a n d t r u s t , t h e i n t e r r u p -


tion of t h e m o v e m e n t is reinforced.
T h e expression o f e m o t i o n s t h a t cover a n d p r o t e c t t h e m o r e
painful earlier o n e s d o e s n ' t b r i n g r e s o l u t i o n . R e s o l u t i o n c o m e s only
w h e n t h e m o v e m e n t r e a c h e s its goal a n d is c o m p l e t e d . T h i s is p o s -
sible in a t h e r a p e u t i c setting by a c c o m p a n y i n g t h e p e r s o n b a c k to
t h e p o i n t a t w h i c h the i n t e r r u p t i o n o c c u r r e d , a n d t h e n h e l p i n g t h e
p e r s o n t o c o m p l e t e it. T h e therapist, o r a n o t h e r m e m b e r o f t h e
g r o u p , c a n r e p r e s e n t t h e p a r e n t a n d t h e client t h e n actually p r a c -
tices a n d c o m p l e t e s t h e m o v e m e n t . W h e n h e o r she h a s m a d e a n e w
experience of completing the movement, then other reaching-out
m o v e m e n t s are also easier. Often t h e e n t i r e p r o c e s s lasts o n l y 15 to
20 minutes.
A m o n g o t h e r t e c h n i q u e s for c o m p l e t i n g s u c h m o v e m e n t s are
H y p n o t h e r a p y , H o l d i n g T h e r a p y , a n d s o m e forms o f b o d y o r m o v e -
m e n t w o r k . W h a t I do is a c o m b i n a t i o n of w h a t I l e a r n e d in P r i m a l
Therapy Neuro-Linguistic Programming ( N L P ) , and H y p n o -
therapy. P r i m a l T h e r a p y involves w o r k i n g t h r o u g h t h e p r i m a l p a i n
o f t h e p a r e n t s n o t b e i n g t h e r e i n s o m e way. T h e p r i m a l p a i n devel-
ops where the movement of reaching out is interrupted. T h e pain
confirms that the reaching-out movement has been interrupted, b u t
it solves n o t h i n g . I n s t e a d of c o n c e r n i n g myself w i t h facilitating t h e
expression of t h e p a i n , I w o r k to b r i n g t h e r e a c h i n g - o u t m o v e m e n t
to c o m p l e t i o n , a n d t h e n love s p o n t a n e o u s l y flows.

Question: I ' m i n t e r e s t e d i n y o u r distinction b e t w e e n c o m p l e t i n g


an unfinished situation from the p a s t by expressing t h e feelings of
a n g e r t h a t a c c o m p a n i e d i t a n d c o m p l e t i n g t h e situation b y c o m p l e t -
ing t h e i n t e r r u p t e d m o v e m e n t o f r e a c h i n g o u t . C o u l d you say m o r e
a b o u t t h a t , please?

Hellinger: I m a k e a distinction, as we already d i s c u s s e d , b e t w e e n


feelings t h a t originally w e r e a p p r o p r i a t e r e a c t i o n s t o s o m e s i t u a t i o n
a n d feelings that distract o r m a i n t a i n a n i n c o m p l e t e s i t u a t i o n . W h e n
s o m e o n e is a b u s e d or injured, t h e n saying t h a t it h u r t s is an a p p r o -
p r i a t e r e a c t i o n a n d m a y h e l p t o finish t h e situation. B u t m o s t o f t h e
aggression t h a t c o m e s up in a t h e r a p y situation actually m a i n t a i n s
t h e i n t e r r u p t i o n of the r e a c h i n g - o u t m o v e m e n t . If you look, y o u c a n
see w h e t h e r or n o t the expression of an e m o t i o n facilitates r e s o l u -
tion. T h e l o n g - t e r m effect of expressing s e c o n d a r y a n g e r is d e s t r u c -
tive. R e s o l u t i o n i n relationships w i t h p a r e n t s o c c u r s only w h e n t h e
278 Love's Hidden Symmetry

p a r e n t s are t a k e n as they are, a n d that m e a n s m a s t e r i n g the r e a c h i n g -


out movement.

Reliving Birth

Q u e s t i o n : You occasionally allow s o m e o n e to relive his or h e r


b i r t h . W h e n d o y o u d o that?

Hellinger: I do that w h e n the p r o b l e m c o n c e r n s a p e r s o n a l e x p e -


r i e n c e o r t r a u m a . F o r e x a m p l e , w h e n there's a b i r t h t r a u m a , t h e
r e a c h i n g - o u t m o v e m e n t t o the m o t h e r i s already i n t e r r u p t e d a t
b i r t h . T h e n it's a p p r o p r i a t e for clients to relive their b i r t h , to r e e s -
tablish a b o n d to t h e m o t h e r a n d father, a n d to recite a " T h a n k s g i v -
ing at t h e D a w n of Life."
Reaching out to our mother and the experience of being accepted
b y h e r i s t h e m o s t f u n d a m e n t a l a n d intensive e x p e r i e n c e o f relation-
ship w e c a n have. E v e n w h e n t h e p r i m a r y b o n d i n g t o t h e m o t h e r
d i d n ' t s u c c e e d in c h i l d h o o d , m a n y p e o p l e are still able to r e e s t a b -
lish b o n d i n g t h r o u g h a h e a l i n g ritual of reliving their b i r t h a n d t h e n
b e i n g h e l d appropriately.

Question: H o w d o y o u d o t h a t , exactly?

Hellinger: I use an integration of N L P and Primal Therapy, con-


n e c t i n g a g o o d e x p e r i e n c e to a negative o n e so t h a t they b a l a n c e
o u t . It's actually very s i m p l e , b u t t h e t i m i n g is critical. W h e n y o u
recognize t h e right m o m e n t for t h e client, you really d o n ' t have t o
do m u c h at all. I just say, " G o b a c k slowly in t i m e t h r o u g h y o u r life,
a n d w h e n you c o m e to a place w h e r e you s t o p , just stay t h e r e . "
T h e n , after a m i n u t e or so, a client will s t a r t to sob or w e e p , a n d I
ask, " H o w old are you now? W h a t ' s h a p p e n i n g ? " I f it's a p p r o p r i a t e
for t h e client, he or she will lead y o u to t h e b i r t h e x p e r i e n c e . I h e l p
t h e client to relive t h e e x p e r i e n c e in a g o o d way a n d I h o l d t h e p e r -
s o n securely (or have a n o t h e r m e m b e r o f t h e g r o u p d o so) s o t h a t
h e o r s h e feels safe n o m a t t e r w h a t feelings c o m e u p . S o m e t i m e s ,
after this k i n d of work, I invite p e o p l e to look at t h e representative
o f their m o t h e r o r father, a n d recite the " T h a n k s g i v i n g a t t h e D a w n
of Life."
Some Helpful Interventions 279

Thanksgiving at the Damn of Life

Dear Mama/Mother
I take everything that comes from you,
all of it, with its full consequences.
I take it at the full price it cost you
and that it costs me.
I will make out of it something good in memory of you—
to thank and honor you.
What you did must not have been in vain.
I hold it close and in my heart,
and if I am permitted, I will pass it on
—as you have done.

I take you as my mother,


and you may have me as your child
(son, daughter)
You are my only mother and I am your child.
You are big , and I am little.
You give, I take, dear Mama.
I'm glad that you took Daddy as your husband.
You both are the right parents for me.

Dear Daddy/Father
I take everything that comes from you,
all of it, with its full consequences.
I accept it at the full price it cost you
and that it costs me.
I will make out of it something good in memory of you—
to thank and honor you.
What you did must not have been in vain.
I hold it close and in my heart,
and if I am permitted, I will pass it on
—as you have done.
I take you as my father,
and you may have me as your child
(son, daughter)
You are my only father and I am your child.
You are big , and I am little.
You give, I take, dear Daddy.
280 Love's Hidden Symmetry

I'm glad that you took Mama as your wife.


You both are the right parents for me.

T h e r e ' s n o b e t t e r feeling t h a n b e i n g a c c e p t e d after o n e ' s b i r t h , s o


I h e l p clients find t h e best possible e x p e r i e n c e , t h e e x p e r i e n c e of
b e i n g a c c e p t e d after b i r t h , a n d use t h a t a s a n a n c h o r t o h e l p t h e m
t o deal w i t h w h a t e v e r t r a u m a t i c experiences they m a y have.
After we establish t h e e x p e r i e n c e of b e i n g a c c e p t e d at b i r t h , I let
t h e m r e t u r n t o t h e p r e s e n t t h r o u g h their m e m o r i e s , t h r o u g h all o f
t h e t r a u m a s . I n this way, t h e negative experiences are c o n t a i n e d a n d
t r a n s f o r m e d by t h e m o r e f u n d a m e n t a l positive o n e . All of t h e later
childhood traumas can be worked through at one time in using
t h e s e a n c h o r i n g c o m p e n s a t i o n s . I a c c o m p a n y t h e m i n t o their t r a u -
m a s a n d let t h e m look a t e a c h e x p e r i e n c e until t h e y ' r e f i n i s h e d .
T h e n I m o v e on to t h e n e x t situation. S o m e t i m e s a lot of analytic
h o u r s c a n b e c o n d e n s e d i n t o o n e session, b u t t h a t ' s individual
t h e r a p y as o p p o s e d to systemic therapy. It's the s e c o n d a s p e c t of my
w o r k t h a t c o m p l e m e n t s the systemic work.

Bowing D o w n and Standing Up

T h e ritual o f b o w i n g d o w n before t h e a p p r o p r i a t e p e r s o n , p a y i n g
h o m a g e , restores b a l a n c e a n d o r d e r . I n o u r c u l t u r e , this m o v e m e n t
h a s b e c o m e difficult for m a n y p e o p l e ; b o w i n g d o w n as an act of
r e s p e c t is easily confused with b o w i n g d o w n as an act of u n h e a l t h y
submission. W h e n we bow down and pay obeisance to someone
w h o deserves t o receive o u r h o n o r i n g g e s t u r e , t h e soul a n d t h e b o d y
r e s p o n d with release a n d a sense of lightness. It feels g o o d a n d it
h a s a g o o d effect.
W h e n w e refuse t o pay o u r obeisance t o s o m e o n e w h o has a
legitimate right to receive it, t h e b o d y a n d t h e soul r e s p o n d with
c o n s t r i c t i o n , w i t h a sense of effort a n d heaviness. T h e r e a s o n s for
o u r refusal are irrelevant.
W h e n families d o n ' t follow t h e o r d e r s o f love, t h e c h i l d r e n m u s t
l e a r n t o i g n o r e their o w n souls a n d later t h e y w o n ' t b e able t o r e c -
ognize w h a t ' s t r u e a n d right for t h e m . T h e y m a y refuse t o b o w
d o w n before t h e p e r s o n s for w h o m it's a p p r o p r i a t e , a n d t h e y fre-
q u e n t l y s t u b b o r n l y insist o n h o n o r i n g p e r s o n s i t isn't a p p r o p r i a t e
for t h e m t o h o n o r .
Some Helpful Interventions 281

Like reaching out, bowing down is a movement of both soul and


body. It can be completed most easily in a constellation in which
the whole of the family system is represented. T h e completeness of
the family system legitimatizes the movement.

Fall on Your Knees

A w o m a n at a workshop told of her difficult relationship with her


father. She related m a n y horrible things he h a d d o n e to h e r a n d to
her m o t h e r . As she prepared to set up the constellation of h e r family,
the therapist asked if anyone in his family h a d died early. She an-
swered, "Yes. He had seven brothers and a sister w h o died in the war.
H i s parents also were killed. He was the only m e m b e r of t h e family
w h o survived."
As representatives for the deceased were placed in a semicircle
b e h i n d the representative of her father a n d the weight of his fate
b e c a m e visible for everyone, the w o m a n spontaneously broke into
deep sobbing. She covered her face with her h a n d s a n d d r o p p e d her
head o n t o her breast. After the intense sobbing h a d passed, t h e thera-
pist directed her attention to the s p o n t a n e o u s m o v e m e n t of her h e a d ,
a n d suggested she complete it.
She t u r n e d her attention inward, sensing the direction in which
the m o v e m e n t wanted to go. She fell to her knees and placed her
forehead on the floor b e t w e e n h e r u p t u r n e d h a n d s . She r e m a i n e d in
that position for a long while, weeping.
In the following g r o u p four m o n t h s later, she r e p o r t e d that,
although she was in her m i d - 4 0 s , she unexpectedly h a d b e c o m e preg-
nant.

T h e movement of bowing down isn't completed until the person


stands up and goes on his or her way. Appropriate bowing down
frees love to flow.

ROUNDS
Q u e s t i o n : You mostly do therapy in groups, yet your groups are
different from anything I've experienced before. Can you say some-
thing about that?

H e l l i n g e r : My groups differ from the usual psychodynamic


group in that members are not encouraged to interpret and con-
front one another. To replace this interaction between members, I
do rounds. In a round, each participant has an opportunity to
282 Love's Hidden Symmetry

r e p o r t w h a t h e o r she i s e x p e r i e n c i n g o r w o r k i n g o n , o n e after t h e
o t h e r . I s e l d o m w o r k w i t h an individual in a r o u n d for m o r e t h a n 10
m i n u t e s , b u t t h e s e s h o r t interactions have continuity, b u i l d i n g o n
o n e a n o t h e r over the c o u r s e of a s e m i n a r . T h e result is t h a t s o m e
i n t e r v e n t i o n s w i t h p e o p l e last four or five days. I w o r k in small
d o s e s t h a t leave a lot of t i m e in b e t w e e n for p e r s o n a l reflection so
t h a t n o o n e i s overflooded a n d n o o n e i s u n d e r p r e s s u r e t o d o m o r e
t h a n is possible at any m o m e n t .
I n g r o u p d y n a m i c p s y c h o t h e r a p y , every p a r t i c i p a n t c a n i n t e r p r e t
e v e r y o n e else. E v e r y o n e is e x p o s e d a n d v u l n e r a b l e to e v e r y o n e else.
W h e n p a r t i c i p a n t s d o n o t have very s t r o n g personalities (or are n o t
e x p e r i e n c e d i n g r o u p w o r k ) , they get c a u g h t u p i n g r o u p d y n a m i c s ,
w h i c h act as a collective defense, a n d c e r t a i n i m p o r t a n t t h e m e s sys-
tematically get s h u t o u t .
G r o u p s have a s t r o n g t e n d e n c y to a d o p t c e r t a i n principles a n d to
m a k e t h e m i n t o a g r o u p r u l e ; for e x a m p l e , " N o t h i n g can b e d o n e i n
this g r o u p w i t h o u t the c o n s e n s u s of all m e m b e r s . " C o n s e n s u s is
i m p o r t a n t in t h e life of a g r o u p , b u t w h e n it b e c o m e s an a b s o l u t e
r u l e , it's d e s t r u c t i v e . T h e n t h e objections o f t h o s e p e o p l e w h o d o n ' t
seriously desire to explore s o m e t h i n g in themselves i n t e r r u p t t h e
p r o c e s s o f t h e w h o l e g r o u p a n d h i n d e r o t h e r s from d o i n g t h e w o r k
t h e y c a m e t o d o . I f the p r i n c i p l e t h a t " d i s t u r b a n c e s have p r i o r i t y "
becomes an absolute rule, then anyone can disrupt the group, no
m a t t e r h o w trivial the " d i s t u r b a n c e . "
T h e u s e o f t h e g r o u p r o u n d h a s the a d v a n t a g e t h a t i n t e r a c t i o n s
b e t w e e n m e m b e r s o f t h e g r o u p are d i s c o u r a g e d . N o o n e c a n i n t e r -
fere w i t h s o m e o n e else's w o r k . N o o n e i s a t t a c k e d ; n o o n e c a n b e
b l a m e d or p r a i s e d . (Praise is just as d a m a g i n g to g r o u p p r o c e s s as is
b l a m e . I t directs t h e p a r t i c i p a n t s ' a t t e n t i o n away from t h e i r actual
e x p e r i e n c e s a n d t o w a r d their effect o n t h e o t h e r m e m b e r s o f t h e
g r o u p . ) T h e r o u n d m e t h o d allows everyone t o feel t r u s t i n t h e p r o -
cess w i t h i n t h e g r o u p , t o b e able t o p r e s e n t their t h e m e s , a n d t o
w o r k w i t h t h o s e t h e m e s in a safe context.
T h i s r e s p e c t for t h e individual a n d t h e loving a n d s u p p o r t i n g
p o s t u r e establish a n u n c o n s c i o u s solidarity w i t h i n t h e g r o u p t h a t
h a s a m o r e spiritual quality t h a n that w h i c h is possible w i t h i n a
g r o u p - d y n a m i c - o r i e n t e d p s y c h o t h e r a p y . T h e r e is, of c o u r s e , also a
c e r t a i n g r o u p d y n a m i c , b u t g r o u p resistance d o e s n ' t d e v e l o p a s
strongly.
Some Helpful Interventions 283

Transcript of a R o u n d

T h e following is a partial transcript of a g r o u p r o u n d on t h e third


m o r n i n g of a six-day seminar. Early in the r o u n d , a constellation
was m a d e of the family of origin of o n e of the participants a n d m o s t
of t h e c o m m e n t s having to do with that constellation have b e e n
o m i t t e d . T h e transcript begins s o m e w h a t later i n t h e r o u n d .

S a r a h : I h a d an experience during a walk yesterday. I walked


along a stream and suddenly I h a d the feeling that I h a d d o n e s o m e -
thing wrong. It was a very intense feeling. I felt guilty. I climbed up
the m o u n t a i n a n d c a m e out of the forest, and it was s u d d e n l y very
bright. I felt lighter a n d lighter, and the evening fog b e g a n to rise
from t h e m e a d o w s . (Pauses thoughtfully.)

Hellinger: I want to say s o m e t h i n g a b o u t w h a t you experienced.


If you recognize and accept personal guilt, you no longer feel it as
guilt. It gets transformed into a powerful force for action. You still
k n o w a b o u t y o u r guilt, b u t it d o e s n ' t oppress you as guilty feelings.
Guilty feelings develop at t h e point at which you refuse to act
responsibly with respect to your guilt. T h e n you're cut off from t h e
p o w e r to act that the guilt gives you. W h e n you o p e n yourself fully
to your personal guilt, t h e n you have a source of s u p p o r t for doing
good.
Your image beautifully portrays this. You let yourself feel y o u r
guilt, you o p e n e d yourself to it, and you felt lighter. O n l y the s u p -
p o r t for d o i n g good remains. You can do things n o w that you
w o u l d n ' t have b e e n able to do if you h a d blocked your guilt.
W h e n e v e r I feel guilty a n d try to a t o n e for s o m e t h i n g I've d o n e ,
I feel tight a n d limited. W h e n I allow my guilt to e m p o w e r m e , t h e
effect is totally different. F o r e x a m p l e , w h e n I do s o m e t h i n g t h a t
reconciles victims a n d p e r p e t r a t o r s , or w h e n I do s o m e t h i n g t h a t
helps s o m e o n e else, t h e n s o m e t h i n g c o m e s o u t of t h e victim's
sacrifice.
If this were n o t a training g r o u p , a n d if you were n o t a therapist,
Sarah, I w o u l d n ' t say anything at all, because everything i m p o r t a n t
has already h a p p e n e d .
T h e r e ' s a famous story a b o u t the secrets a n d t h e w i s d o m of the
world. It's told that they're all written in the sibylline books a n d are
stored in a h i d d e n cave in Italy. If anyone were to find t h e way to
the cave and o p e n it to learn t h e w i s d o m of t h e world, all the b o o k s
284 Love's Hidden Symmetry

w o u l d dissolve. W h a t e v e r is essential shies away from o u r curiosity,


a n d t h e great secrets a n d mysteries o f B e i n g p r o t e c t themselves.

Angela: I ' m still thinking a b o u t b e i n g c e n t e r e d . I r e m e m b e r a


piece I o n c e r e a d a b o u t prayer, t h e five qualities of prayer: t r u s t , c e n -
t e r i n g , g r a t i t u d e , responsibility, a n d s o m e t h i n g else . . . faith. I really
liked t h e article a n d the w o r d s , b u t I always have t h e s a m e q u e s t i o n :
H o w do I recognize centering? I always have anxiety that. . . .

H e l l i n g e r (interrupting): I'll tell you s o m e t h i n g a b o u t c e n t e r i n g .


S o m e p e o p l e close their eyes in an a t t e m p t to e m p t y t h e m s e l v e s ,
a n d t h e y call t h a t c e n t e r i n g . I find t h a t s t r a n g e . C e n t e r i n g h a p p e n s
w h e n I o p e n my eyes a n d ears a n d take in t h e r i c h n e s s of t h e w o r l d
all a r o u n d m e , a n d allow it to o r d e r itself in m e . T h a t ' s g a t h e r i n g
a n d c e n t e r i n g . A n y t h i n g else, Angela?

Angela: N o , that's enough.

Joseph: I am filled w i t h t h o u g h t s a n d feelings, a n d I p a s s .

Ruth: I also.

Steven: I ' m still t h i n k i n g a b o u t w h a t y o u said to S a r a h . (Looks


depressed.)

Hellinger: I d o n ' t q u i t e trust y o u , Steven.

Steven: I ' m really n o t in a g o o d place at all. (Shrugs his shoulders.)

Hellinger: Right! You're leading us on a w i l d - g o o s e c h a s e . (Steven


remains withdrawn, silent, thoughtful. Long pause.) W h a t are y o u r chil-
d r e n g o i n g to do if you do c o m m i t suicide? (Pause) You owe t h e liv-
ing r e s o l u t i o n , Steven. (Silence) I'll tell y o u a story.

Love
Once upon a time, a man dreamed in the night that he heard the
voice of God saying to him, "Rise up, take your son, your only and
beloved son, and go with him to the top of the mountain I will show
to you and make a sacrifice of him to me there."
T h e next morning, the man arose, and looked at his son, his only
and beloved son; looked at his wife, the mother of his son; and then
he looked at his God. He took his son and went with him to the top
of the mountain God showed to him and he built an altar there.
There he heard another voice, and instead of his son, he sacrificed a
sheep.
Some Helpful Interventions 285

H o w does t h e son look at his father?


H o w the father his son?
H o w the wife her h u s b a n d ?
H o w the h u s b a n d his wife?
H o w do they look at G o d ?
A n d h o w does God—if there is a G o d — l o o k at them?

A n o t h e r m a n d r e a m e d in the night that he heard the voice of G o d


saying to h i m , "Rise u p , take your son, your only and beloved son,
and go with h i m to the top of the m o u n t a i n I will show to you a n d
m a k e a sacrifice of him to me there."
T h e next m o r n i n g , the m a n arose and looked at his son, his only
and beloved son; looked at his wife, the m o t h e r of his son; a n d then
he looked at his G o d . He looked his G o d in the face a n d answered,
"I will not do that."

H o w does t h e son look at his father?


H o w the father his son?
H o w the wife her h u s b a n d ?
H o w the h u s b a n d his wife?
H o w do they look at God?
A n d h o w does G o d — i f there is a G o d — l o o k at them?

That's the end of the story, but I'll add a little more just for you,
Steven.

A n d a third m a n d r e a m e d in the night that he had heard the voice of


G o d , and so on. He got u p , looked at his son, took h i m to the m o u n -
tain, built an altar, drew a knife, and killed him. A n d w h e n he got
h o m e , he killed himself.

My comment is: It's a pity about the boy.


Suicide is a poor substitute for responsibility and guilt. That kind
of atonement is just as nasty as the deed itself, and it's far easier
than acting appropriately in the first place. So, Steven, I've read the
riot act to you. Anything else? (Steven shakes his head.) Good. Irene,
what's happening with you?

I r e n e : During the meditation before the lunch break I remem-


bered that I was given the name of a child of my grandmother's who
had died very early. I have the feeling that I'm carrying something
around with me.
286 Love's Hidden Symmetry

Hellinger: O h ! I w o n d e r w h e r e y o u got t h a t feeling from, b u t if


it's i m p o r t a n t to you (pause), there's a m a g i c f o r m u l a for situations
like this. O v e r t h e years, I've discovered several m a g i c f o r m u l a s for
different situations. I d o n ' t u n d e r s t a n d t h e m , b u t they w o r k never-
theless. I e x p e r i e n c e it as a great gift w h e n o n e of t h e s e n t e n c e s is
given t o m e . T h e f o r m u l a you c a n use is: " D e a r A u n t , y o u are
dead "

I r e n e (interrupting with amusement): . . . a n d I ' m alive!

Hellinger: N o . You have to be sincere if you w a n t to know, or I'll


m o v e o n . (Long pause. Irene remains sarcastically amused and silent.
He speaks to the group.) Okay, she's let t h e m o m e n t e s c a p e . I c a n ' t
tell h e r now. We'll go o n .

Lars: T h e last constellation t o u c h e d m e very m u c h , a n d I ' m still


t h i n k i n g a b o u t it. O t h e r t h a n that, I've got a h e a d a c h e .

Hellinger: You get w h a t y o u deserve.

Lars: W h a t d o you m e a n ?

Hellinger: G o e t h e said it beautifully, " E v e r y o n e is t h e s m i t h w h o


forges his o w n m i s f o r t u n e . " (Laughter)

Eric: I n o t i c e t h a t I have the desire to set up my family. I've


always t r e a t e d t h e m as if t h e y were u n i m p o r t a n t , b u t n o w I see h o w
i m p o r t a n t they really are. T h e e x c h a n g e w i t h Steven gave me a
push.

Hellinger: Okay. We'll do it later.

Fred: I have a q u e s t i o n a b o u t w o r k i n g with clients. T h e m o t h e r of


o n e of my clients tried to kill h e r children. S h e d i d n ' t actually do it,
b u t she did severely a b u s e t h e m . My q u e s t i o n is: Is t h e r e a way for
this d a u g h t e r t o find s o m e reconciliation w i t h h e r m o t h e r ? A t
p r e s e n t , she w a n t s n o t h i n g to do with her. S h e feels very intensely
t h a t she's b e e n victimized by h e r o w n m o t h e r . It w o u l d be a great
relief for h e r if she were to find s o m e p e a c e with h e r m o t h e r , b u t I
a m very c a u t i o u s w h e n things like this have h a p p e n e d .

H e l l i n g e r : T h e r e is a way. It's also a m a g i c f o r m u l a . W h e n she's


r e a d y t o m a k e p e a c e w i t h h e r m o t h e r , she c a n say, " D e a r M a m a , I
agree to it." (Silence)
Some Helpful Interventions 287

F r e d (pause): I think I u n d e r s t a n d , b u t will she?

H e l l i n g e r : N o , the sentence isn't exactly right yet, b u t it would


go in that direction. M a y b e it would be better to say, " D e a r M a m a ,
if that's my fate, I agree to it." S o m e t h i n g along those lines.

Fred: M e a n i n g that. . . .

H e l l i n g e r : N o ! N o m e a n i n g . A s soon a s you c o m m e n t o n one o f


these formulas, they lose their power. W h a t was t h e sentence?

Fred: " D e a r M a m a , if that's my fate, I agree to it."

H e l l i n g e r : A child d o e s n ' t have to forgive t h e parents. T h a t ' s a


different thing altogether. An abused child can say, " T h a t was very
b a d , " a n d t h e child can say, " I ' m n o t allowed to forgive you for it,"
b u t he or she d o e s n ' t have to be d a m a g e d a n d bitter a b o u t what
h a p p e n e d . T h e child can say, "You have to carry t h e b u r d e n of w h a t
you did."
A b u s e d children usually take t h e guilt and the c o n s e q u e n c e s of
t h e abuse o n t o themselves. It's m u c h m o r e difficult to leave t h e guilt
a n d the c o n s e q u e n c e s with the p a r e n t s , and also t h e responsibility.
B u t children cause themselves additional d a m a g e w h e n they feel
that they have t h e right to get even with their p a r e n t s , in the sense
of, "All right, n o w you're going to pay for what you did to m e . " T h a t
has very d a m a g i n g consequences. W h e n children file a complaint or
go to c o u r t against their p a r e n t s , they pay dearly for it, regardless of
what the p a r e n t s did.
S o m e t h i n g else, F r e d ?

F r e d : Yes, I have a n o t h e r client whose father was a high-ranking


officer in t h e S S . S h e never m e t h i m . H e r m o t h e r w e n t back to A u s -
tria. She s u d d e n l y developed a recurring idea to kill herself.

Hellinger: W h o ? T h e client o r h e r mother?

Fred: T h e client. I've got the idea that. . . .

Hellinger: W h a t h a p p e n e d t o t h e father?

F r e d : He h a d a very strange story. He was missing in action, a n d


they t h o u g h t he was d e a d , b u t it later c a m e o u t that he was a
paraplegic a n d was living in n o r t h e r n G e r m a n y . He never c o n t a c t e d
his family before he died.
288 Love's Hidden Symmetry

H e l l i n g e r (thoughtfully): A s e n t e n c e t h a t m i g h t h e l p h e r is s o m e -
t h i n g like, " D e a r F a t h e r , I leave y o u to rest in p e a c e . " You c a n h e l p
h e r to get to t h e place w h e r e she can say it truthfully. It's also
i m p o r t a n t for h e r n o t t o w a n t t o k n o w m o r e . S h e s h o u l d n ' t dig into
his p a s t trying to find o u t exactly w h a t he did in t h e war. S h e c a n
just say, "I a c c e p t y o u r fate a n d y o u r decision, a n d I leave you in
p e a c e w i t h y o u r fate a n d y o u r decision a n d all t h e c o n s e q u e n c e s
t h e y h a d for y o u . "

Max: Nothing at the m o m e n t .

Vera: I ' m on a roller c o a s t e r of feelings. T h i s m o r n i n g t h e r e was


real p a i n , n o w I ' m feeling g o o d . I'll leave it at that for now.

Fred: I ' m e x p e r i e n c i n g this as c o m p l e t e l y fascinating. Brilliant. I


feel m o r e c o n n e c t e d to p e o p l e t h a n ever before. T h i s r i c h n e s s is
fantastic.

Hellinger: T h a t ' s a m a n w h o c a n b e a m a z e d . T h a t ' s g o o d t o see.

Fred: Yes, really. I never t h o u g h t it could be so exciting.

H e l l i n g e r : H e l e n , y o u said t h a t s o m e t h i n g else c a m e t o you.


W h a t d o you w a n t t o say?

Helen: I've got a funny feeling t h a t my h u s b a n d , C a r l , p a i d you


t h e s e m i n a r fee for b o t h of us. I w o u l d have liked to have given it to
y o u myself.

Hellinger: Do y o u k n o w w h a t t h a t is? We call t h a t a diversionary


tactic. (Pause) W h o was t h e w o m a n ? (Laughter. Bert Hellinger is refer-
ring to an earlier intuition that her facial expressions sometimes mimicked
someone else.)

H e l e n (quietly and hesitant): My m o t h e r ?

Hellinger: G u e s s i n g d o e s n ' t help.

Helen: I d o n ' t know.

Hellinger: Okay, t h e n set up y o u r family of origin.


(Helen sets up her family. It emerges that she identifies with her father's
first wife. She was Jewish and separated from Helen's father in 1938,
emigrating to the United States, where she later remarried. In a moving
sequence, a resolution is found. Bert Hellinger continues after all partici-
pants are again seated.)
Some Helpful Interventions 289

Being Jewish is always i m p o r t a n t in G e r m a n y . T h a t always has an


e n o r m o u s l y powerful effect on the family system. So, H e l e n , h o w
are you doing?

H e l e n (laughs): G o o d . I feel really good.

Hellinger: So it was an identification with your father's first wife.


W h a t now?
Helen: T h a t makes a lot of things clear to m e .

Hellinger: Yes, you m u s t say to your father, "I have n o t h i n g to do


with your first wife. I belong to my m o t h e r . Only she is right for
m e . " N o w you're n o d d i n g already. D o you k n o w what p r e m a t u r e
n o d d i n g means?

Helen: No.

Hellinger: T h e r e ' s a famous saying in G o e t h e ' s Gotz von Berlich-


ingen: "Tell your master, 'Kiss my ass.' " T h a t ' s the m o s t subtle form
of defense. Do you notice h o w you're still defending? L o o k clearly
at your father a n d say, " T h i s is my m o t h e r a n d I stand with her."
T h a t makes you less i m p o r t a n t , b u t that's the price of happiness.
You k n o w the saying, "Small is. beautiful." (Helen laughs) H e r e
comes the other expression, do you notice it? (Helen nods affirma-
tion.) Anything else? (Helen signals "No.")

Alexis: I've h a d a really peaceful, w a r m feeling after b o t h of t h e


last two constellations. It's beautiful.

Hellinger: Yes, all of a s u d d e n everything was clear and at p e a c e .

F r e d : W h e n we look at what emerged in H e l e n ' s constellation,


does it m e a n that her father has lost his right to have H e l e n ' s
mother?

H e l l i n g e r : N o , n o t at all. It m e a n s that h e r m o t h e r c a n ' t claim


h i m fully, n o t at t h e price t h e first wife h a d to pay. H e r m o t h e r m u s t
pull b a c k just a little a n d inwardly acknowledge h e r debt to t h e first
wife. T h a t ' s a form of respect for the first wife's sacrifice, whatever
that m e a n s in actual practice. (To Helen) But that's n o n e of y o u r
business, H e l e n . You're already back in t h e old expression. It takes a
while before an old face like that completely dissolves. (Bert Hel-
linger makes a couple of mildly off-color jokes to divert the group's atten-
tion.) Okay, let's take a break.
290 Love's Hidden Symmetry

I r e n e (before the break): I r e m e m b e r e d the sentence! I d o n ' t know


it exactly, b u t I ' m not m a d at you any m o r e for confronting m e .

Hellinger: Yes, that was an effective confrontation. W h a t is t h e


sentence?

Irene: D e a r A u n t , you're dead. I ' m sorry. I'll stay a little while.

H e l l i n g e r : N o w I'll tell you t h e real sentence. " D e a r A u n t , you're


dead. I'll live until my time c o m e s , then I'll die t o o . "
T h a t ' s a sentence you can use in m a n y situations, although I ' m
cautious to say it, because it could be u s e d like a vending m a c h i n e
token a n d t h e n it would lose its effect. F o r example, a second wife
could say to a first wife, "You lost your h u s b a n d , a n d I have h i m for
a while before I t o o will lose h i m . " T h a t eliminates the superiority
and a r r o g a n c e . It unites on a very deep h u m a n level, on a level
where t h e passing away of everything has a right to exist. N o w we'll
really take a break.
Transcript
BRINGING INTERRUPTED REACHING O U T
TO ITS GOAL

Brigid is a p a r t i c i p a n t in a six-day s e m i n a r . S h e d e m o n s t r a t e s feel-


ings a n d r e a c t i o n s t h a t are typical o f p e r s o n s w h o s e r e a c h i n g o u t
has been i n t e r r u p t e d . S o m e m i n o r interactions have b e e n o m i t t e d
from t h e transcript.

Second Day, Morning


B r i g i d : Yesterday, I was feeling as if I were w e a r i n g a r m o r , b u t
t o d a y I feel m o r e o p e n a n d t h e r e ' s s o m e t h i n g very fragile c o m i n g
u p in m e .

Hellinger: I'll be very careful w i t h y o u r fragility, Brigid. (She


begins to cry softly.) B r e a t h i n g h e l p s . B r e a t h e in, b r e a t h e o u t . O p e n
your m o u t h so t h a t t h e b r e a t h m o v e s easily, so t h a t it flows . . .
breathe . . . b r e a t h e . . . everything goes p r e t t y quickly w i t h y o u ,
d o e s n ' t it?

Brigid: N o t always.

Hellinger: Y o u ' r e n o t u s e d t o h a v i n g s o m e o n e t a k e t i m e for you?


(Brigid begins to sob. Pause.) B r i n g y o u r chair a n d sit h e r e in front of
m e . (Brigid moves closer to him. Hellinger takes tissues from his pocket
and gives them to her.) I ' m p r e p a r e d for every e m e r g e n c y . C o m e a b i t
closer . . . even closer . . . just a bit m o r e . . . (gently removes her
glasses and holds her hands) . . . close y o u r eyes, o p e n y o u r m o u t h ,
a n d b r e a t h e easily a n d deeply, in a n d o u t . (He lightly touches the tips
of the fingers of his right hand to the upper end of her breastbone.) Go as
far b a c k as the feeling goes, far far back, until you c o m e to t h e place
w h e r e it b e l o n g s a n d to t h e situation w h e r e it b e l o n g s . . . m o u t h
o p e n , b r e a t h e . . . (Brigid continues breathing easily for about one
minute.) A c c e p t it as it is, w h a t e v e r it is. . . . (After about two minutes
more) W h a t ' s h a p p e n i n g ? H o w far b a c k are you?
291
292 Love's Hidden Symmetry

Brigid: I ' m a b o u t six years old.

Hellinger: W h a t ' s there?

Brigid: I ' m traveling with my m o t h e r in a car. I w a n t to lie in h e r


lap, b u t she w o n ' t let m e . She's very cross with m e .

H e l l i n g e r : Okay, look a t t h e scene. W h a t did y o u call y o u r


m o t h e r as a child?

Brigid: Mama.

Hellinger: Say, " M a m a , p l e a s e . "

B r i g i d (very softly): M a m a , please.

H e l l i n g e r (after a long pause, to the group): So this is a situation of


interrupted reaching out. C a n you notice how the scene continues
to influence her?
To Brigid: Go b a c k farther. (After a pause.) L o o k s like y o u ' v e g o n e
a b o u t as far as y o u c a n now. (To group): S h e m a d e a decision early
in t h e w o r k n o t to go too far, a n d she's k e e p i n g h e r w o r d to herself.
(After a pause, he leans toward her and looks at her very gently.) O p e n
y o u r eyes. W h a t shall we do w i t h you? (Brigid shrugs her shoulders,
looks disappointed.) Close y o u r eyes again. Go w i t h y o u r o w n i n n e r
m o v e m e n t , go w h e r e v e r it w a n t s to take y o u . W i t h d r a w inwardly
from y o u r m o t h e r , f a r t h e r a n d farther from her. (Brigid makes a
sudden movement, turning her head to the left. Hellinger waits, then very
gently turns her head, as if encouraging her to look at what she was
avoiding, to the right.) K e e p b r e a t h i n g , b r e a t h i n g o u t w i t h p o w e r , a
little faster, n o t violently, just strongly. (Brigid starts to cough.)
I n s t e a d o f c o u g h i n g , say s o m e t h i n g t o y o u r m o t h e r , w h a t e v e r n e e d s
t o b e said.

B r i g i d (softly): No more, no more.

Hellinger: Say t h a t again, a bit l o u d e r , " N o m o r e , n o m o r e . "


(Hellinger reaches behind her with his right hand and, with a light touch
of his fingertips, bends her upper body forward. She lays her head on his
shoulder. He holds her as she sobs.)
" N o m o r e , no m o r e . " (Hellinger suggests that she put her arms
around him, which she does.) B r e a t h e deeply, k e e p y o u r m o u t h o p e n
. . . a bit faster . . . still faster . . . b r e a t h e o u t deeply. It i s n ' t n e c e s -
sary to h o l d b a c k y o u r crying. (Breathing gradually slows.) (To
Some Helpful Interventions 293

group): Brigid h a s c h o s e n the smaller h a p p i n e s s . (To Brigid): H o w


are y o u doing?

Brigid: B e t t e r (pointing to her chest), . . . m o r e o p e n .

Hellinger: You got s t u c k halfway, b u t y o u still m a d e it f a r t h e r


t h a n before.

Brigid: Halfway back?

H e l l i n g e r : Halfway t o her. Like G o e t h e said, " E v e r y o n e creates


their o w n u n h a p p i n e s s . "

Brigid: I d o n ' t t h i n k t h a t ' s w h a t he said.

Hellinger: Oh no? (Both laugh.) Okay, g o o d . (Brigid stands up


and returns to her seat.) T h a t was a situation in w h i c h t h e r e a c h i n g
o u t was i n t e r r u p t e d , a n d w e c o u l d all see w h a t h a p p e n e d w h e n s h e
r e a c h e d t h a t p o i n t . My o b s e r v a t i o n is t h a t a lot of n e u r o s i s starts at
t h e p o i n t of an i n t e r r u p t e d r e a c h i n g - o u t m o v e m e n t . In fact, I see
n e u r o s i s as a circular m o v e m e n t that always r e t u r n s to t h e p o i n t of
i n t e r r u p t i o n i n s t e a d o n m o v i n g on. A s w e r e m e m b e r t h e inter-
r u p t e d m o v e m e n t , feelings a n d m e m o r i e s c o m e u p , t h e decision w e
learned as children comes up, and then instead of completing the
r e a c h i n g o u t , w e t u r n b a c k t o the starting p o i n t a n d s t a r t all over
again. T h a t ' s m e r r y - g o - r o u n d progress.
W h a t do I do as a therapist with this kind of p a t t e r n ? (Pause)
Brigid got s t u c k a n d c o u l d n ' t c o m p l e t e the i n t e r r r u p t e d m o v e m e n t .
W e m u s t b e careful n o t t o p r e t e n d that t h e w o r k b r o u g h t m o r e t h a n
i t did. B u t even t h o u g h she d i d n ' t m a n a g e t o c o m p l e t e h e r r e a c h i n g
o u t , she did get a p e e k . N o w , I t u r n t h e w o r k over to h e r loving
h e a r t . A g r e e d , Brigid?

Brigid: Yes (smiling).

Hellinger: A r e t h e r e any q u e s t i o n s a b o u t this work?

Participant: I d i d n ' t u n d e r s t a n d w h a t y o u m e a n t , " T u r n i t over


t o h e r loving h e a r t . "

H e l l i n g e r : You c a n ' t u n d e r s t a n d it, b u t she d i d . T r u s t i n g t h e


h e a r t , t h e g o o d h e a r t , is always a g o o d m e t h o d . It's really a s t o n i s h -
ing h o w often clients find a way that no t h e r a p i s t c o u l d find. A n d
secretly, w i t h o u t saying t h a t o u t loud h e r e , I also t u r n h e r over to
h e r m o t h e r ' s loving h e a r t .
294 Love's Hidden Symmetry

Participant: First you suggested t o h e r t h a t she r e a c h o u t , a n d


t h e n t h a t she withdraw.

H e l l i n g e r : It doesn't matter in which direction people move,


w h e t h e r t h e y r e a c h o u t o r pull back. T h e m a i n t h i n g i s that t h e y ' r e
i n m o t i o n . W h e n r e a c h i n g o u t d o e s n ' t w o r k , t h e n t r y the o p p o s i t e .
W h e n a p e r s o n starts to m o v e , t h e m o v e m e n t reverses itself s p o n t a -
neously. You go w i t h w h a t ' s t h e r e . S h e w i t h d r e w , a n d so I followed
h e r n a t u r a l m o v e m e n t . W h e n she t u r n e d h e r h e a d t o t h e left, I h a d
t h e i m a g e of h e r pulling away from h e r m o t h e r . W h e n I gently
t u r n e d h e r h e a d to t h e right, feelings c a m e u p . I w a s following t h e
m o v e m e n t as it e m e r g e d .

Participant: T h a t was a correction?

H e l l i n g e r : N o , I d o n ' t " c o r r e c t " a n y t h i n g . It w a s m o r e nearly a


s u p p o r t for t h e m o v e m e n t t h a t was already h a p p e n i n g . T h a t ' s w h e n
the s e n t e n c e c a m e , " N o m o r e . " H e r m o t h e r was clearly p r e s e n t for
her at that m o m e n t in the work.

Participant: C a n you give t h o s e of us w h o have less e x p e r i e n c e


w i t h b o d y w o r k s o m e suggestions o n h o w t o recognize w h e n a p e r -
s o n is i n t e r r u p t i n g a r e a c h i n g - o u t m o v e m e n t a n d w h e n he or she is
not?

Hellinger: N o t really. You do it w i t h careful o b s e r v a t i o n , w i t h see-


ing. P e r h a p s you'll get a c h a n c e to see o t h e r e x a m p l e s d u r i n g t h e
s e m i n a r . W h e n you h o l d on to a theory, y o u m a k e it difficult for
yourself t o see w h a t ' s t h e r e . Seeing i s m u c h m o r e i m p o r t a n t t h a n
any specific rules. I t h i n k I've said e v e r y t h i n g i m p o r t a n t a b o u t it;
m o r e w o u l d n ' t b e helpful.

Later, Same Morning


Brigid: I ' m taking i t all in. M y m o o d i s c h a n g i n g constantly. O n e
m i n u t e I ' m h a v i n g a feeling of w a r m t h a n d c o m p a s s i o n — a l s o in my
eyes (gets teary), a n d t h e n it switches. It's always c h a n g i n g , a n d
when I reach out. . . .

Hellinger: T h a t ' s very g o o d , Brigid, very g o o d . (To group): Do


y o u see h o w h e r loving h e a r t is working? L e t y o u r g o o d h e a r t w o r k
on it until it finds t h e solution.
Some Helpful Interventions 295

Afternoon, Same Day


B r i g i d : I'm completely present. D u r i n g the lunch break, I
crawled into my b e d a n d pulled t h e covers u p . I tried to find a c o n -
n e c t i o n t o m y m o t h e r . T h a t was very p l e a s a n t .

Next Morning
Brigid: I w a s awake a lot last night. I kept t h i n k i n g a b o u t my
family a n d my m o t h e r ' s family.

Hellinger: W h a t h a p p e n e d i n y o u r m o t h e r ' s family?

Brigid: M y m o t h e r ' s sister d i e d o f t y p h u s , a n d six weeks before


t h a t , h e r father d i e d . M y m o t h e r was 1 0 w h e n t h a t h a p p e n e d .

Hellinger: W a s h e r sister y o u n g e r t h a n your m o t h e r ?

Brigid: S h e w a s older, t h e m i d d l e child. M y m o t h e r h a d a n o l d e r


b r o t h e r , too. I k e e p t h i n k i n g a b o u t the a t m o s p h e r e in my family, a
k i n d of deadly silence. T h e r e was a lot of silence a n d stiffness. I just
t h o u g h t a b o u t s o m e t h i n g else: W h e n I visit my p a r e n t s w i t h my chil-
d r e n , t h a t a t m o s p h e r e i s g o n e . M y p a r e n t s love m y c h i l d r e n , a n d t h e
c h i l d r e n fill t h e i r w h o l e h o u s e w i t h life. I r e m e m b e r s o m e t h i n g else,
t o o , a b o u t sitting o n h e r lap. W h e n m y p a r e n t s c o m e t o visit u s ,
b o t h of t h e girls say, " S i t on lap, G r a n d p a . Sit on lap, G r a n d m a . "
A n d they're allowed t o d o it.

Hellinger: W h a t did y o u r m o t h e r ' s father die of?

Brigid: I t w a s s o m e kind o f b l a d d e r infection. H e w e n t i n t o t h e


hospital a n d d i d n ' t c o m e o u t again. T h a t was i n 1 9 3 8 . Six weeks
later, my m o t h e r ' s o l d e r sister died.

Hellinger: T h a t ' s a s h o c k for s u c h a family.

B r i g i d : Yes. T h e r e ' s m o r e t o o . I o n c e did a constellation w i t h


a n o t h e r t h e r a p i s t , a n d I set my m o t h e r up way o u t on o n e side,
looking away. I c a n ' t really i m a g i n e w h a t all she m u s t have e x p e r i -
enced.

Hellinger: S h e m a y b e following h e r sister a n d h e r father, b u t w e


c a n set it up n o w a n d we'll see. (Brigid sets up her family. Additional
296 Love's Hidden Symmetry

information emerges that Brigid's father was the youngest of four children;
his brother died in childhood and he has two living sisters.)

Hellinger: S o , h o w ' s t h a t for t h e father?

Father: I d o n ' t have a n y c o n t a c t with my children, a n d my wife is


just s o r t o f t h e r e . I ' m p r e t t y m u c h alone.

Mother: I feel very m u c h alone. It's n o t g o o d to see t h e c h i l d r e n


from b e h i n d . I c a n just barely feel my h u s b a n d .

Brigid's Representative: I ' m in a d a z e a n d feel like leaving.


There's something behind me, but I don't know what.

H e l l i n g e r : T h e child w h o d i e d in y o u r father's family, w a s it a


b o y or a girl?

Brigid: I d o n ' t know.

Hellinger: W h a t w o u l d b e y o u r guess?

Brigid: A girl.

Brother: I d o n ' t have c o n t a c t w i t h a n y o n e . My legs are frozen


c o m p l e t e l y stiff.

H e l l i n g e r (to children): T u r n a r o u n d a n d face y o u r p a r e n t s . W h a t


c h a n g e s w h e n y o u d o that?

Brother: It's a b i t lighter now.

*Legend: Fa—father; Mo—mother; 1—first child, a boy; 2—Brigid's representa-


tive.
Some Helpful Interventions 297

Brigid's Representative: I find it comfortable a n d I ' m clearer in


my head.

F a t h e r : Yes, I feel b e t t e r toward my children, b u t there's still


n o t h i n g going on with my wife.

Mother: T h e same for m e .

H e l l i n g e r (to parents): Exchange places a n d see if that's different.

Father: Yes, my d a u g h t e r is closer to m e . T h a t feels good.

Brigid's Representative: I'm feeling slightly excited about


something.

Hellinger: H o w is it between t h e p a r e n t s , better or worse?

Father: Worse.
298 Love's Hidden Symmetry

Mother: I feel a little m o r e alive.

Hellinger: We'll b r i n g in the grandfather. (Brigid places her pater-


nal grandfather beside her father. The father and grandfather then experi-
ment and find the best position behind the father.)

Brigid: I forgot something. My m o t h e r ' s father also died y o u n g ,


w h e n my m o t h e r was eight years old. He h a d epilepsy after a war
injury. He died from a seizure while he was working in the fields.

Hellinger: P u t your m o t h e r ' s father b e h i n d her.

* Legend addition: +PGFa—paternal grandfather, died when Brigid's father was


eight years old.
** Legend addition: +MGFa—maternal grandfather, died when mother was 10
years old.
Some Helpful Interventions 299

Mother: As my h u s b a n d ' s father c a m e in, I felt a s t r o n g n e e d to


look. I w a s s u d d e n l y able t o see m y h u s b a n d . N o w t h a t m y father's
t h e r e , t h e m o v e m e n t i s m o r e t o w a r d t h e left. C o u l d h e g o over
t h e r e , w h e r e I c a n see h i m ? (Hellinger moves representative of mother's
father to left.) T h a t ' s better.

Father: T h a t d o e s n ' t c h a n g e a n y t h i n g i n m y relationship w i t h m y


wife.

B r o t h e r : F o r m e , m y m o t h e r ' s father i s very interesting. Since


he's t h e r e , I find myself looking at h i m all t h e t i m e .

H e l l i n g e r (to Brigid): So t h a t looks like y o u r b r o t h e r ' s identifica-


t i o n . H e ' s identified w i t h y o u r m o t h e r ' s father. (Asks the parents,
with their fathers, to exchange sides.)

B r i g i d ' s R e p r e s e n t a t i v e : T h a t ' s a distinct relief. I c a n exhale


a n d relax. As my m o t h e r ' s father w a s s u d d e n l y s t a n d i n g t h e r e , I h a d
t h e feeling t h a t I w a s s t a n d i n g across from so m a n y m e n , b u t I
d i d n ' t have any c o n t a c t w i t h m y m o t h e r . T h e r e w a s n ' t a n y o t h e r
w o m a n t h e r e . It's a little b e t t e r now. My feeling t o w a r d my father is
m o r e relaxed. It's g o o d w h e n m y m o t h e r ' s father i s over t h e r e .
W h e n h e w a s o n m y right, h e w a s t o o close.

Hellinger: P u t y o u r m o t h e r ' s sister i n t h e system, t h e o n e w h o


died. (Brigid places her deceased aunt behind her mother, to the right.)
W h a t d o e s t h a t change?

Mother: I ' m uneasy.

Brigid's Representative: I ' m looking m o r e a t h e r , a n d I c a n ' t


see my father as well a n y m o r e .

Mother's Sister: I ' m feeling a n u n e a s y pull t o m y sister, t o o .

H e l l i n g e r (placing aunt beside mother): W h a t a b o u t that?

Mother: I ' m g e t t i n g w a r m e r on this side (toward husband). Its


very nice. (She moves closer to him, taking her sister with her.)

F a t h e r : T h i s p l a c e is ever so m u c h b e t t e r for m e . I actually feel


closer to my d a u g h t e r , as well as to my wife.

B r i g i d ' s R e p r e s e n t a t i v e : Yes, I c a n even see my m o t h e r , a n d I


c a n see my father b e t t e r . It's a c o m p l e t e p i c t u r e , m u c h b e t t e r .
Before, I w a s focused on my a u n t .
300 Love's Hidden Symmetry

H e l l i n g e r (to Brigid's representative): Stand over t h e r e n e x t to


y o u r b r o t h e r . H o w ' s that?

Brother: I'd like to e x c h a n g e places w i t h my sister. (Brother and


sister exchange places.) T h a t ' s better.
(The father wants to move away a bit. Hellinger places his deceased
sister next to him. All representatives make minor adjustments, until all
have a sense of balance within the system. He then asks Brigid to take her
place in the constellation.)

B r i g i d (Looks intently at the system, especially at her mother): Some-


t h i n g is p u l l i n g me over t h e r e (to the mother).

Hellinger: It's okay to go t h e r e . (Brigid slowly moves toward her


mother and takes her in her arms.) Brigid, if y o u ' r e going to h u g h e r
at all, t h e n h u g h e r g o o d a n d tight. (Brigid holds her mother's repre-
sentative very tightly, starts to rock back and forth.) Calmly, calmly.
Stay c a l m . Go slowly. B r e a t h e deeply, m o u t h o p e n . (Hellinger brings
the mother's sister to them and she holds them both in her arms. Brigid
starts to cry.) B r e a t h e deeply with y o u r m o u t h o p e n , deeply in a n d
. . . d e e p l y o u t . . . inhaling is taking . . . no s o u n d , Brigid . . . s i m -
ply b r e a t h e in a n d b r e a t h e o u t , until y o u ' v e h a d e n o u g h . (Brigid
starts to rush.) N o , n o , Brigid. T a k e y o u r t i m e . T a k e all t h e t i m e y o u
n e e d . In . . . a n d o u t . . . the silent b r e a t h has m o r e p o w e r in it.
(Brigid does this naturally. Her body relaxes visibly. After a while, she
looks around the room, and is radiant.)

* Legend addition: +FaB—father's brother, died in childhood; +MoS—mother's


sister, died when mother was 10 years old.
Some Helpful Interventions 301

Okay, y o u c a n g o b a c k t o y o u r place. T h a t ' s all, t h a n k y o u .


(Everyone goes back to their seats.)

Brigid: I ' m feeling great. I feel free a n d my h e a d is o p e n a n d able


to learn.

Hellinger: T h a t was a beautiful m o v e m e n t .

B r i g i d (pointing to her heart): T h e r e ' s s o m e t h i n g m o v i n g h e r e , as


if it w e r e o p e n i n g .

Hellinger: Beautiful!

Brigid: Its g e t t i n g freer. D u r i n g t h e l u n c h b r e a k , I h a d s u c h a


feeling of h o p e that t h e w o r k I did h e r e will h e l p me to feel m o r e
m y age.

Hellinger: Surely!

Brigid: I d o n ' t w a n t t o say a n y t h i n g m o r e a b o u t w h a t h a p p e n e d .

Hellinger: N o , t h a t isn't necessary.


C H A P T E R E I G H T

Specific Themes in
Systemic Psychotherapy

WORKING WITH DREAMS

Question: H o w d o you work with d r e a m s ?

Hellinger: I d o n ' t w o r k with d r e a m s m u c h , b u t w h e n I d o , I take a


p h e n o m e n o l o g i c a l , process-oriented view. I resist mythologizing
d r e a m s . S o m e therapists treat d r e a m s as if they were messages from
G o d , b u t I ' m very sensitive to the distortion of reality that c a n o c c u r
in d r e a m w o r k a n d in hypnosis, especially the issue of false m e m o r y .
I r e m e m b e r o n e p a t i e n t w h o " d i s c o v e r e d " certain things in h y p -
n o t h e r a p e u t i c d r e a m w o r k with a r e p u t a b l e h y p n o t h e r a p i s t . As we
r e e x a m i n e d t h e m a t e r i a l , i t b e c a m e clear t o u s b o t h t h a t w h a t h a d
b e e n " d i s c o v e r e d " was actually invented, b u t it h a d already h a d a
d a m a g i n g effect in his life. W h e n we r e w o r k e d t h e m a t e r i a l from a
systemic p e r s p e c t i v e , w e f o u n d s o m e t h i n g practical t h a t h e c o u l d
d o , a n d t h a t h a d a very positive effect on the quality of his life.
M y t h o l o g i c a l d r e a m w o r k a n d hypnosis d o n ' t get t o t h a t k i n d o f
practical a c t i o n unless there's a n u n d e r s t a n d i n g o f system d y n a m -
ics. If s o m e o n e is avoiding d o i n g w h a t n e e d s to be d o n e , t h e n talk-
i n g a b o u t a d r e a m isn't going to help.
D r e a m s are very a d a p t a b l e . T h e y a d a p t to the flow of e n e r g y in a
p e r s o n ' s life. If y o u r energy is flowing i n t o avoiding decisions a n d
302
Specific Themes in Systemic Psychotherapy 303

effective action, o r i n t o m a i n t a i n i n g the status q u o , t h e n y o u r


d r e a m s justify t h a t p o s t u r e . W h e n y o u ' r e using different t e c h n i q u e s
t o p u t off d o i n g w h a t n e e d s t o b e d o n e a n d t o justify y o u r n o t act-
ing, t h e n y o u r d r e a m s d o the s a m e . You can recognize t h a t k i n d o f
d r e a m by t h e way p e o p l e tell it. If p e o p l e j u m p right into t h e telling
o f their d r e a m s , w i t h o u t feeling, w i t h o u t r e s p e c t for t h e d r e a m ,
w i t h o u t a n a p p r o p r i a t e shyness a n d s h a m e , t h e n it's a l m o s t cer-
tainly o n e of those d r e a m s .
I call t h o s e d r e a m s secondary dreams to go w i t h s e c o n d a r y feel-
ings, a n d like s e c o n d a r y feelings, they serve to avoid w h a t e v e r really
is going o n . B e c a u s e it's " o n l y a d r e a m , " p e o p l e t h i n k t h a t t h e y c a n
afford n o t to do a n y t h i n g . If y o u take s u c h d r e a m s seriously, y o u
only reinforce t h e p r o b l e m , a n d s o m e p a r t o f t h e d r e a m e r laughs a t
you for falling i n t o t h e trap. It's similar w h e n s o m e o n e s t a r t s , "I
d r e a m e d a b o u t y o u last night. You were. . . ." Usually, t h e p e r s o n
just w a n t s to take a p o k e at you.
I've g o t a great e x a m p l e of a s e c o n d a r y d r e a m . A m a n d r e a m e d
that a h u n t i n g falcon saw a little b i r d , let it sing for a while, t h e n
held it carefully, circled high over the little b i r d ' s nest, a n d let it
d r o p gently i n t o t h e n e s t . H e t h o u g h t that was a w o n d e r f u l d r e a m .
H i s a c t u a l situation at h o m e was t h a t his wife h a d left h i m to live
w i t h a n o t h e r m a n . S h e c a m e b a c k t h r e e days a week t o b e w i t h t h e
c h i l d r e n , a n d t h e n r e t u r n e d t o b e w i t h h e r friend for t h e o t h e r four
days. A n d h e a c c e p t e d t h e situation, a l t h o u g h h e w a s deeply h u r t .
T h e d r e a m d e s c r i b e d t h e m a n ' s situation perfectly. I n s t e a d o f d o i n g
w h a t a falcon a p p r o p r i a t e l y d o e s , his d r e a m falcon c a r r i e d t h e little
b i r d t e n d e r l y b a c k t o its nest a n d d r o p p e d i t neatly in. H e h a d sur-
r e n d e r e d his wife to a n o t h e r , a n d she h a d fallen i n t o s o m e b o d y
else's n e s t . T h e m a n t h o u g h t it was a wonderful d r e a m , a revelation.
H e d i d n ' t even n o t i c e t h a t t h e d r e a m only d e s c r i b e d his situation. I t
was a s e c o n d a r y d r e a m . S e c o n d a r y d r e a m s are like b a i t , testing to
see if y o u ' r e g o i n g to b i t e . lt's so easy to gossip a b o u t things in t h e
i m a g e s of d r e a m s , i n s t e a d of g e t t i n g to w o r k m a k i n g the n e c e s s a r y
c h a n g e s in y o u r life.
T h e r e ' s a n o t h e r kind of d r e a m t h a t I call a primary dream. P r i -
m a r y d r e a m s are c o d e d m e m o r i e s , a n d like p r i m a r y feelings, t h e y ' r e
n o t d r a m a t i c a n d l o u d . D r e a m s o f water, for e x a m p l e , often carry
t h e m e m o r y o f b i r t h . O n e w o m a n d r e a m e d t h a t she was skiing with
h e r d a u g h t e r . A s they s t a r t e d d o w n t h e slope, she w a s h o l d i n g h e r
little d a u g h t e r b e t w e e n h e r legs, a n d w h e n t h e y got t o t h e b o t t o m ,
304 Love's Hidden Symmetry

t h e d a u g h t e r fell into a lake. I asked h e r a b o u t h e r o w n b i r t h . S h e


said t h a t she h a d arrived very s u d d e n l y while h e r m o t h e r was i n t h e
bathtub. So, the d r e a m seems to be an example of a coded memory.
I also distinguish shadow dreams. T h e s e d r e a m s s h o w us t h e side
of ourselves t h a t we d o n ' t w a n t to look at. We usually d o n ' t relate
t h e s e d r e a m s b e c a u s e w e a r e n ' t r e a d y t o deal w i t h w h a t t h e y tell u s .
T h e y c a n , in fact, reveal a h i d d e n side of u s . W h e n y o u w a n t to w o r k
w i t h s u c h d r e a m s , t h e n it's necessary t o take t h e m seriously, t o f i n d
a p l a c e in y o u r h e a r t for whatever you fear in t h e d r e a m . T h a t ' s t h e
m e t h o d of integration.
T h e r e are also systemic dreams. T h e y d o n ' t have a n y t h i n g to do
with the personal experience of the dreamer, b u t rather portray an
u n r e s o l v e d s i t u a t i o n i n t h e family o r i n t h e e x t e n d e d family. T h e y
bring something to consciousness that's i m p o r t a n t to deal with in
t h e family s y s t e m . I f t h e d r e a m e r takes o n t h e task o f b a l a n c i n g
t h e w h o l e family s y s t e m , t h e n t h e c o n s e q u e n c e s are u s u a l l y d i s a s -
trous.
S y s t e m i c d r e a m s often have s o m e t h i n g b r u t a l a b o u t t h e m ; they
deal with m u r d e r , suicide, o r d e a t h . T h e s h a d o w o f t h e system itself
is often visible. W h e n y o u try to i n t e r p r e t t h e s e d r e a m s as if they
w e r e s t a t e m e n t s a b o u t the p e r s o n , you a b u s e y o u r client, m a k i n g
h i m o r h e r personally responsible for s o m e t h i n g t h a t ' s m u c h larger.

Q u e s t i o n : W o u l d you give an e x a m p l e of a systemic d r e a m ? I


d o n ' t get w h a t you are driving at.

H e l l i n g e r : A m a n o n c e d r e a m e d that he f o u n d a b o d y in his
b a s e m e n t t h a t w a s c u t u p into pieces. T h e n h e called t h e police. H e
w a n t e d to go i n t o all of t h e details of t h e d r e a m , a b o u t his u n c o n -
scious m u r d e r o u s i m p u l s e s a n d all that, b u t I i n t e r r u p t e d h i m . I
asked h i m w h o i n his family h a d b e e n m u r d e r e d . H e said t h a t h e
d i d n ' t k n o w a n d called his father. H i s father said, "I c a n ' t tell you
o n t h e t e l e p h o n e . " W h a t his father eventually told h i m w a s t h a t
shortly after h e w a s b o r n , his m o t h e r b e c a m e p r e g n a n t again a n d
c o m p l i c a t i o n s d e v e l o p e d . T h e hospital d i d n ' t have t h e p r o p e r facili-
ties a n d t h e b a b y h a d t o b e killed a n d r e m o v e d b y dissecting i t i n t o
pieces while it w a s still in h e r body. A l t h o u g h he d i d n ' t k n o w a b o u t
t h e d e a t h o f his u n b o r n sibling until h e d r e a m e d this d r e a m , h e h a d
b e e n u n c o n s c i o u s l y m a k i n g a place for h i m or h e r in his life. He h a d
always h a d t w o of e v e r y t h i n g — t w o a p a r t m e n t s , t w o offices, t w o
d e s k s , a n d s o o n . T h a t w a s t h e actual situation.
Specific Themes in Systemic Psychotherapy 305

T h e r e ' s a n o t h e r t h i n g t h a t ' s i n t e r e s t i n g a b o u t this d r e a m . L i k e


m o s t d r e a m s , e v e r y t h i n g y o u n e e d i s i n t h e first c o u p l e o f s e n -
t e n c e s . T h e telling o f a d r e a m u s u a l l y r e a c h e s its p e a k after a b o u t
t h e s e c o n d o r t h i r d s e n t e n c e . E v e r y t h i n g t h a t c o m e s after t h a t i s
j u s t frosting o n t h e c a k e a n d d e t r a c t s f r o m t h e p o w e r o f t h e
d r e a m . T h e p e r s o n r e l a t i n g a d r e a m t e n d s t o b e c o m e lost i n t h e
details. If y o u get p e o p l e i n t o t h e h a b i t of telling d r e a m s in a very
c o n c e n t r a t e d way a n d t o s t o p after t h e s e c o n d o r t h i r d s e n t e n c e ,
t h e n y o u have a b e t t e r c h a n c e of g e t t i n g a clear m e s s a g e w i t h
which to work.
T h e r e are d r e a m s t h a t d o h e l p , b u t t h e y ' r e m a i n l y helpful t o
p e o p l e w h o are already w o r k i n g o n themselves. S u c h p e o p l e receive
a d d i t i o n a l s u p p o r t from their o w n d e p t h . I call t h o s e d r e a m s meta-
dreams. T h e d r e a m e r k n o w s i m m e d i a t e l y w h a t a m e t a - d r e a m is
a b o u t a n d i t n e e d s n o further i n t e r p r e t a t i o n . S u c h d r e a m s b r i n g a
solution into consciousness. Sometimes, w h e n I'm working on a
p r o b l e m , m e t a - d r e a m s p r o v i d e a solution, o r they s h o w m e t h e n e x t
s t e p , b u t only i f I ' m p r e p a r e d 'to d e m o n s t r a t e m y t r u s t i n t h e d r e a m
b y m y s u b s e q u e n t actions.
S o , if y o u w a n t to w o r k w i t h d r e a m s , it's very helpful to distin-
guish a m o n g t h e different types. Obviously, w h a t I've said isn't a
c o m p r e h e n s i v e t h e o r y of d r e a m w o r k . It's just a collection of c e r t a i n
o b s e r v a t i o n s t h a t m a y h e l p y o u t o avoid s o m e o f t h e m o r e c o m m o n
t r a p s , a n d n o t set off in a n o n p r o d u c t i v e d i r e c t i o n . It's in no way
i n t e n d e d t o replace o t h e r m e t h o d s o f u n d e r s t a n d i n g a n d w o r k i n g
w i t h d r e a m s , b u t I do find it destructive w h e n all d r e a m s are t r e a t e d
a s t r u t h . T h e r e ' s a C h i n e s e saying: " T h e wise m a n d o e s n ' t d r e a m . "
H e d o e s n ' t n e e d d r e a m s any longer.

Short Transcripts of D r e a m Work

Miriam: I k e e p t h i n k i n g a b o u t a d r e a m I've h a d t h r e e or four


t i m e s . In it, I always w o r r y a b o u t my y o u n g e s t son.

Hellinger: S o , tell t h e d r e a m as if you w e r e d r e a m i n g it again.

Miriam: I ' m w i t h my y o u n g e s t s o n in a large p l a c e of b u s i n e s s , in


t h e b u i l d i n g i n w h i c h m y sister w o r k s . I ' m b u s y w i t h m y sister. S u d -
d e n l y I h e a r my s o n calling. H e ' s very far away a n d I c a n ' t find h i m .
W h e n I find h i m , he's c h o k i n g . He has b r o k e n i n t o a r o o m into
306 Love's Hidden Symmetry

which adults can't go, a n d I hear his voice getting fainter a n d


fainter.

H e l l i n g e r (interrupting): Your d r e a m , strangely, makes no i m p r e s -


sion on m e . H o w old is your son?

Miriam: H e ' s 10 years old.

Hellinger: D i d a child in your extended family system die?

Miriam: My g r a n d p a r e n t s both c a m e from large families with a


lot of children. My g r a n d m o t h e r h a d 11 children herself. I d o n ' t
k n o w w h e t h e r there was a stillbirth or something like that a m o n g all
those kids. As far as I know, there was n o t (longpause).

H e l l i n g e r : T h a t ' s strangely distant. It just d o e s n ' t t o u c h the


h e a r t , in spite of the dramatic images. I c o u l d n ' t see you in the
d r e a m as you were telling it. T h e r e was no m o v e m e n t , no sense of
presence. T h e d r e a m leaves m e cold.

M i r i a m : W h e n I woke u p , I immediately imagined my son in a


good situation.

H e l l i n g e r : T h e interpretation that the people in a d r e a m like this


actually represent themselves is old-fashioned. It's a kind of Popular
Romance interpretation.

M i r i a m : It actually only partially corresponds to reality. I never


worry a b o u t my elder son, even w h e n he d o e s n ' t c o m e h o m e at
night. I ' m always sure he's okay.

Hellinger: T h a t ' s a distraction. W h a t did I say?

Miriam: A Popular Romance interpretation.

Hellinger: Do you worry a b o u t your younger son in o t h e r situa-


tions?

Miriam: Yes, very often. (Her mood shifts, she becomes thoughtful.)
I just r e m e m b e r e d that my pregnancy with h i m was very difficult,
a n d that I h a d to stay in b e d a lot. T h e n , after he was b o r n , he was
ill. He h a d a very serious malfunction of his digestive system. It took
a year and a half before it b e g a n to function properly.

H e l l i n g e r : Let's go a h e a d a n d consider your d r e a m to be a


m e m o r y . However, something's missing from the whole d r e a m
Specific Themes in Systemic Psychotherapy 307

gestalt. T h a t ' s the reason that it keeps trying to finish a n d d o e s n ' t


leave you in p e a c e . First, let's look at the general situation. W h e n a
t r a u m a is worked on in psychotherapy, the m o s t i m p o r t a n t thing is
usually forgotten—that the person survived. Unless that's acknowl-
edged, the gestalt w o n ' t close a n d there's no resolution. So take a
m i n u t e now, get a picture of your son in y o u r m i n d , a n d let h i m feel
h o w glad you are that everything t u r n e d out all right. Okay,
M i r i a m ? (Miriam nods affirmation, and her work develops in a new
direction.)

T h o m a s : I h a d a terrible d r e a m last night. I woke up in a cold


sweat, a n d my h e a r t was p o u n d i n g . I have no idea w h a t it has to do
with.

Hellinger: Tell t h e d r e a m as if it were h a p p e n i n g right now.

T h o m a s : I am sitting with s o m e o n e in a bus. H e ' s driving the


b u s . I know that he's my friend. T h e bus is completely full. We start
to go up a steep m o u n t a i n .

Hellinger: G o o d . Start again.

Thomas: I am sitting or standing in a b u s , a n d a friend is driving.

H e l l i n g e r : G o o d ! T h a t ' s e n o u g h . T h a t ' s t h e p o i n t o f the d r e a m .


(Pause) W h a t ' s t h e solution?

Thomas: I could drive myself.

Hellinger: Okay. C h a n g e places with t h e driver. Anything else,


Thomas?

T h o m a s : Yes, s o m e t h i n g still b o t h e r s m e . My d r e a m s always have


t h e same endings. T h e beginnings m a y b e different, b u t they e n d u p
the same. T h a t bothers me.

Hellinger: So, tell h o w they end.

Thomas: T h e y e n d u p with c h a s m s a n d cliffs, with anxiety a b o u t


falling. T h e r e ' s always a fear of falling a n d of d e p t h .

Hellinger: Okay. W h e n you have this d r e a m , s u p p o r t yourself by


imagining yourself with your back leaning against your father.
308 Love's Hidden Symmetry

T h o m a s (after a pause): I d i d it just now. It's a c o m p l e t e l y differ-


e n t feeling.

Hellinger: Okay. T h a t ' s t h e r e s o l u t i o n . W h e n a child's in d a n g e r


in a d r e a m , the p e r s o n w h o c a n h e l p is a l m o s t always the father. It
d o e s n ' t m a t t e r w h e t h e r t h e child is a b o y or a girl. Of c o u r s e , t h e r e
are e x c e p t i o n s , b u t especially w h e n t h e d a n g e r is suicide, or a t e n -
dency to pseudosuicidal accidents or to catastrophes, the person
usually will feel safe n e x t to the father. S o m e t i m e s t h e g r a n d f a t h e r
is n e e d e d , as well. It d o e s n ' t m a t t e r w h a t t h e father did or d i d n ' t
d o , o r w h e t h e r o r n o t t h e child k n e w h i m . T h e r e ' s s t r e n g t h i n the
masculine.

Joseph: I h a d a powerful d r e a m . My y o u n g e s t son goes i n t o t h e


w a t e r , falls b a c k w a r d , a n d I ' m afraid he'll d r o w n . I g r a b for h i m . I
feel t o r n b e c a u s e I d o n ' t have m u c h time to save h i m , a n d , at the
s a m e t i m e , I have to w o r k slowly so t h a t I d o n ' t lose sight of h i m .
I ' m afraid his clothes will rip. T h e n I get h i m b a c k a n d I ' m very
h a p p y . H e ' s alive a n d he starts to b r e a t h e , b u t I w o r r y t h a t he m i g h t
have s o m e d a m a g e .

H e l l i n g e r : T h a t ' s a s e c o n d a r y d r e a m . It dramatically d e s c r i b e s
t h e p r o b l e m w i t h o u t offering a s o l u t i o n . T h e solution is t h a t before
he falls in t h e water, you h o l d h i m affectionately in y o u r a r m s .
A g r e e d , Joseph?

R a l p h : I fell asleep d u r i n g t h e break, a n d I d r e a m e d t h a t I


c l i m b e d a tall w a l n u t tree. I c l i m b e d b e y o n d t h e l a d d e r i n t o the
h i g h e r b r a n c h e s s o I c o u l d shake t h e b r a n c h e s a n d m a k e t h e n u t s
fall. (There's a quality of superficial boasting in his relating the dream.)

Hellinger: T h a t d r e a m w o n ' t h e l p you.

Ralph: And then. . . .

Hellinger: T h e d r e a m w o n ' t h e l p y o u . You d o n ' t r e s p e c t it.

Ralph: I t w o n ' t help? After t h e d r e a m , I w o k e u p w i t h t h e feeling


t h a t I really w a n t e d to crack t h e n u t s .
Specific Themes in Systemic Psychotherapy 309

Hellinger: Yes, after you woke, you w a n t e d to crack t h e n u t s . T h e


image is violent, forcing things to h a p p e n . I d o n ' t work that way. I
rarely w o r k with a h a m m e r . —

Ralph: I really w a n t e d to work.

H e l l i n g e r : T h e r e ' s no energy in your telling of your d r e a m . If I


stay with t h e d r e a m image, you're shaking, not harvesting. T h e solu-
tion m u s t c o m e from outside. Perhaps you think I should do t h e
work for you? T h a t ' s a pretty p o o r basis for working together.

R a l p h : N o , I was certain that I w a n t e d to crack t h e n u t s myself.


My feeling was that. . . .

H e l l i n g e r (interrupting): L e t go of the image of cracking n u t s . It


d o e s n ' t help. M o s t d r e a m s only affirm the p r o b l e m , especially t h e
d r e a m s people immediately want to tell. T h e y serve to rationalize
failure.

Ralph: I was so certain that I was ready to tackle t h e p r o b l e m .

H e l l i n g e r : T h a t ' s it. S o m e o n e w h o is s w i m m i n g a r o u n d in his or


h e r misery, always feels certain. People w h o have m a d e t h e decision
to keep their u n h a p p i n e s s a p p r o a c h the void with h e a d held high.
T h e truly good m u s t b e a p p r o a c h e d with fear a n d t r e m b l i n g , with
p r o f o u n d respect. You were closer to it yesterday.

L a r s : I h a d a d r e a m a couple of days ago. I can only r e m e m b e r a


fragment, b u t I think it could be a systemic d r e a m .

Hellinger: Okay, tell it as if it were h a p p e n i n g .

L a r s : I am lying in my b e d , a b o u t to go to sleep. T h e d o o r o p e n s
and a w o m a n comes in. H e r face has a very e m o t i o n a l expression
and she quickly moves toward m e .

H e l l i n g e r : T h a t ' s e n o u g h . We can work with that m u c h . It feels


like a p r i m a r y d r e a m that contains a m e m o r y .

Lars: I've got the feeling that if it's a m e m o r y , it's really b a d . My


whole h e a d is getting hot.

H e l l i n g e r : L o o k at t h e eyes of the w o m a n . C a n you see t h e m ?


Close your eyes and look at t h e w o m a n ' s eyes a n d at h e r m o u t h .
310 Love's Hidden Symmetry

Lars: I recognize t h e m o u t h , b u t n o t t h e eyes.

H e l l i n g e r : W h o s e m o u t h is it? Take y o u r t i m e . O b s e r v e carefully


h o w t h e m o u t h m o v e s — a n d t h e eyes. T h o s e are t h e p o i n t s a t w h i c h
m e m o r y is easiest.

Lars: I t h i n k it is my m o t h e r ' s m o u t h , b u t I ' m n o t s u r e .

Hellinger: Okay. L e t ' s leave it there for now. P e r h a p s t h e d r e a m


is a m e m o r y , b u t we d o n ' t w a n t to m a k e a n y t h i n g u p . L e t ' s just see
if a n y t h i n g c o m e s to y o u in the n e x t few days.

Next Day

Lars: D u r i n g t h e p a s t t h r e e o r four years, I've b e e n w o r k i n g o n


m y relationship w i t h m y father, o n taking h i m , b u t I h a v e n ' t t a k e n
my m o t h e r a n d I miss h e r , h e r energy. I w a n t to take a step now.

Hellinger: I ' m t h i n k i n g a b o u t y o u r d r e a m yesterday. A s y o u w e r e


s p e a k i n g , I saw t h e i m a g e from the d r e a m again. Were y o u in t h e
h o s p i t a l as a child?

Lars: Yes, I w a s often ill a n d I have the feeling t h a t I just m a n a g e d


to escape w i t h my life. W h e n I w a s six m o n t h s old, I h a d an abscess,
a n d m y m o t h e r h a d t o take m e t o the d o c t o r t o have t h e abscess
d r a i n e d . T h a t m u s t have b e e n very painful.

H e l l i n g e r : Yes, she c o m e s i n t o the r o o m a n d y o u k n o w w h a t ' s


going to happen.

Lars: I m u s t have really s c r e a m e d . A n o t h e r t i m e , I was in t h e h o s -


pital for. . . .

H e l l i n g e r : N o t now, L a r s . W e already have s o m e t h i n g t o w o r k


w i t h . It's e n o u g h . L e t ' s u s e it. We d o n ' t n e e d m o r e now. T h a t ' s a
g o o d i n t e r p r e t a t i o n for y o u r d r e a m . C a n y o u i m a g i n e h o w a m o t h e r
feels w h e n the d o c t o r expresses t h e b a b y ' s abscesses a n d h e starts t o
s c r e a m ? A b a b y d o e s n ' t u n d e r s t a n d that at all.
A w e l l - k n o w n p s y c h o t h e r a p i s t w h o specializes in r e p a r e n t i n g
o n c e told a story a b o u t h e r 16-year-old s o n . He t o o k p a r t in a
g r o u p she was r u n n i n g i n w h i c h the p a r t i c i p a n t s regressed a n d
relived things from their c h i l d h o o d . H e r s o n s u d d e n l y said, " M o m ,
y o u tried t o starve m e . " S h e r e m e m b e r e d t h e situation. T h e b a b y
h a d severe d i a r r h e a a n d t h e d o c t o r h a d o r d e r e d a 2 4 - h o u r fast.
Specific Themes in Systemic Psychotherapy 311

T h e b a b y recovered, b u t the m e m o r y r e m a i n e d a s a n a t t e m p t t o
starve h i m . T h a t ' s what sometimes h a p p e n s to parents.
A n o t h e r t i m e , a therapist told h o w he once looked very sharply at
his y o u n g daughter. She t h e n went to her m o t h e r a n d said, " P a p a
hit m e . " A n d that was w h a t r e m a i n e d in her m e m o r y .
If you're willing to feel what your m o t h e r felt w h e n she took you,
as a baby, to t h e doctor, you'll be able to resolve that image. It
would have b e e n m u c h worse if she h a d left you in the hospital.

RESISTANCE

Bert Hellinger is a master at working with those p a t t e r n s of b e h a v -


ior we call "resistance." In observing h i m at work, it quickly
b e c o m e s clear h o w skillfully he uses the short interactions d u r i n g
the r o u n d to i n t e r r u p t those p a t t e r n s . He is extremely quick to rec-
ognize a p a t t e r n of avoidance, and he t h e n interrupts with an expla-
nation to t h e g r o u p or with a story or an a n e c d o t e . He can afford to
confront rather blatantly since the groups quickly recognize h o w
m u c h love and respect are contained in his interventions, a n d h o w
often a good resolution emerges in the end. [G.W.]

Wishful Thinking and Hypothetical Objections

L a r s (referring to a constellation in which he represented a mother's


lover): Isn't it possible for the lover a n d the h u s b a n d to get
together a n d be friendly? Or is that just wishful thinking?

Hellinger: It's wishful thinking.

L a r s : Yes, b u t it's n o t impossible in real life. I k n o w p e o p l e w h o


have d o n e it.

H e l l i n g e r : T h e lover you represented and the h u s b a n d could


m a k e peace if they w a n t e d to have a h o m o e r o t i c affair with each
other by sharing the same w o m a n . If you look carefully at t h e actual
people involved, you'll see the price that they and their children will
have to pay in the long r u n .

L a r s : Yes, b u t I still w o u l d n ' t w a n t to exclude it as a possible


resolution.
312 Love's Hidden Symmetry

Hellinger: I w a n t to p o i n t o u t a basic p h e n o m e n o n : You c a n raise


a h y p o t h e t i c a l objection to everything, even to w h a t ' s right. T h e
effect of s u c h objections is that w h a t w a s previously effective s u d -
d e n l y h a s no effect at all. Raising h y p o t h e t i c a l objections in t h e r a p y
cuts off t h e energy, d i s t u r b s a healing possibility, a n d is always a
c h e a p s h o t b e c a u s e it's easier to c o m e up w i t h objections t h a n it is
to find g o o d s o l u t i o n s . W h o e v e r raises objections usually d o e s n ' t
have to take responsibility for their effects.
It's very different w h e n s o m e o n e e n t e r s i n t o t h e s i t u a t i o n , a n d
t h r o u g h his or h e r p e r s o n a l involvement, discovers a n e w variation.
T h e n h e o r she c a n speak from p e r s o n a l e x p e r i e n c e a n d b r i n g
insight to s u p p l e m e n t or correct w h a t w a s originally said. T h a t ' s a
very g r e a t difference b e c a u s e m e n t a l effort a n d risk are r e q u i r e d to
bring such a contribution.
Criticizing a n d q u e s t i o n i n g everything w i t h h y p o t h e t i c a l p o s s i -
bilities is a g a m e you play at the university. B u t w h e n y o u ' r e w o r k -
ing w i t h real p e o p l e w i t h real suffering, you c a n ' t d o it. T h e
c o n s e q u e n c e s are t o o great. I c a n q u e s t i o n e v e r y t h i n g , b u t w h a t
d o e s i t a c c o m p l i s h ? W h a t d o you actually achieve w h e n y o u b r i n g
u p s u c h objections, Lars? You can observe w h a t h a p p e n s h e r e , w h a t
t h e effect of t h e i n t e r v e n t i o n s actually is. Or you c a n tell us a b o u t
y o u r o w n experience—if you a n d y o u r wife's lover are g o o d friends.
W h e n y o u m e r e l y raise hypothetical objections, t h e g o o d effect of
t h e w o r k is b l o c k e d .

Lars: I have a n o t h e r q u e s t i o n . . . .

Hellinger: N o t now. (To group) D i d y o u n o t i c e h o w quickly he


m o v e d o n t o his n e x t t h o u g h t ? H e d i d n ' t really even c o n s i d e r w h a t
w e w e r e discussing. T h e r e ' s s o m e t h i n g t h r e a t e n i n g a b o u t o b s e r v i n g
a p r o c e s s t h a t leads to resolution—it s e l d o m leaves m