The Systemic Principles Behind Family Constellations

Being part of a family constellation process often feels like seeing an elaborate and longstanding mystery becoming solved. There is almost always a missing piece, and when it is discovered, it has the quality of finding a piece of the puzzle that was hiding in plain sight.

What gives constellations the quality of being obvious and ordinary is that we are always looking for simple truths. Their discovery is punctuated by simple sentences that have a way of moving mountains: “You are part of my family.” “You came first.” “You gave, and I benefitted.”

We find our way to these truths by following the Orders of Love developed by Bert Hellinger, which describe how life energy moves through a system. These Orders are written in the language that relates to applications for a family system, but they are derived from living systems theory. For any system we see in nature, the same mechanics apply.

Kenojuak Ashevak

The Orders of Love

Living among multi-generational families as a missionary in South Africa, Bert Hellinger observed basic governing principles operating in family systems. Over time he found that these principles also applied for families he worked with in post-WWII Germany, and as the work grew, in most every other culture around the world.

In traditional psychotherapy, we usually investigate an issue or symptom, assuming that it is unique to our own lives and our personal psyches. We often attempt to trace the source back to events in our early childhood. In Family Constellations we zoom out further, looking at a person as a member of a multi-generational family system.

No matter what the nature of our family relationships may be today, or whether we personally had contact with members from previous generations, the family we come from has bearing on who we are in the world. We carry patterns from our family system around with us like a hologram, and these effect how much we feel supported and can thrive in the world, and in what circumstances we feel held back.

The Orders of Love describe what homeostasis looks like in a family system, what puts a system out of balance, and how other members of the system unconsciously try to bring the system back into balance. Hellinger named these principles the “Orders of Love” because they describe what circumstances encourage or prevent love from moving freely through a family system.

The Orders of Love are:

1. It all belongs. Everyone in the family system has a right to belong to the system, always.
2. All who belong must be given their place. Each member of the family system has a right place.
3. There needs to be a balance of giving and receiving in relationships.

It all belongs

This first Order of Love, “It all belongs,” seems like the most obvious. It means that everyone in the family system has a right to belong to the system. However it is surprisingly easy to exclude or forget about someone in a family, either consciously or unconsciously. There are the obvious times when a family forcibly attempts to erase people from memory — the black sheep, the outlaw, or the cantankerous aunt or uncle everyone would just assume forget about. Just as common there are premature deaths, first loves, first husbands and wives, and babies who pass only briefly through the threshold of this world. Many times these losses are too much for the heart to bear and so people in the family put them out of their awareness and try to move on.

All of these people belong to a family system, even when family members attempt to banish them from memory. The family consciousness knows when a person has gone missing. When a person is cast out, actively excluded or passively unacknowledged, the family system will attempt to bring attention to the one who is missing. Even if the person is effectively cast out for one generation, we often see that a child born into later generations, unconsciously adopts their traits or behaviors. They may mimic a form of hiding themselves, or hide an important aspect of themselves. The work then is to see, remember, and acknowledge the original missing person. This gets love flowing again and can change everything.

Raven Shapes, Kenojuak Ashevak

All who belong must be given their place

There needs to be a balance of giving and receiving

When someone gives to you, there is a natural tendency to want to give something back — and maybe even a little more than what they gave to you. When a person takes too much, or takes something they are not entitled to, the system knows there is a deficit, and will attempt to make up for it in some way.

This is not a new discovery, but a very old one. In its most basic form, Hellinger describes the evolutionary impulse to keep giving life energy in the way parents pass life down to their children. Children feel the importance of this gift and naturally feel compelled to do just about anything for their parents in order to give back. Subconsciously out of love they may try to “help” their parents by sharing in their struggles. They hold a stance of “I’ll carry the burden for you…” in an attempt to repay them. This leads to imbalances that we often see in family constellations, as there is nothing children can do directly for their parents to repay their feeling of indebtedness.

From a systemic perspective, the best way for children go “give back” is to say those most important words, “Thank you,” and to let life keep moving through them — through their own offspring or through their creative works in the world. Living into the fullness of the life energy and gifts we were given is a big way to restore balance.

Hellinger stresses that the Orders of Love are not rigid rules and should not be applied in a rigid way. They are the guide that a facilitator checks after a constellation is set up and the first image emerges: “Who or what has been excluded?” “Who is not taking their place in the system?” “Where is the balance of giving and taking out of balance?” The Orders of Love are the map that we follow to find our way back to that the missing piece that changes everything


Interwoven Owl, Kenojuak Ashevak

“People often treat these orders
as if they were opinions
Which may be adopted or not
And changed at will.

But they are given to us as they are.
They have effects independent of our understanding.
They are not created, they can only be discovered.
We can only recognize the orders from their effects,
In the same way we are aware of the existence of soul and consciousness only by their effects upon us.”
Bert Hellinger, Supporting Love, 2001

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