International Systemic Constellations Association

Systems Theory and Family Therapy 

Most of the principles underlying systemic constellation work were clearly outlined by family therapists from the 1960's onward.

The basic theory of family therapy was derived mainly from systems theory and cybernetics . Ludvig Von Bertalanfy introduced general systems theory to the social sciences and psychology in the 1960's. This lead to family therapists developing the  fundamental idea that the family is an interactive unit affected by past generations and operating on a set of unifying principles, which includes the ideas that:


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  • The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. So a living human body is more than just its organs and limbs. It depends on how they connect and interact. Similarly a family or organisation is more than just a number of individual members put together. It also depends on how they link and interact.
  • All elements in a system are interdependent . Changes in one element result in changes in all the others.

In family dynamics this is especially obvious when a family member is excluded. This can be caused by a number of factors including extreme shame or grief. If, for example, a family member is excluded because he has brought shame on the family through illegal activities, then that exclusion has consequences for all the other family members.

In organic systems such as the human body or a family (as opposed to a machine like a car) the system works to maintain equilibrium. This process is called homeostasis. In this situation survival of the system takes priority over the survival of the component parts. So when a person is exposed to extreme cold the vital organs will be protected while the extremities may be permanently damaged by frostbite.  This is clearly not an ideal solution but it may save a person's life. Similarly in families an individual may be sacrificed for the sake of the system. Family therapies look for better solutions when possible.

Important schools of family therapy that provide a background to systemic constellation work include:

Structural Family Therapy developed by Salvador Minuchin, in which he defined a “healthy” family structure.  Some of the principles of a healthy family are reflected in Hellinger's theory of “The Orders of Love”.  Minuchin also showed how the movement of family members from one chair to another in the session demonstrated aspects of structures and change in the family. mrmunichin-photo.jpg

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Around the same time, the Milan Group in Italy (Mara Selvini- Palazzoli, Luigi  Boscolo,   Gianfranco Cecchin and Giuliana  Prata ) began to work with families and came to the conclusion that problems involved the family as a whole, not just an individual, and that there is a repetition of patterns from one generation to another.


Strategic Family Therapy , and later Brief Therapy was an outgrowth of the work of  the The Palo Alto Group (Gregory Bateson,  Don Jackson, Paul Watzlawick, John Weakland.) This involved patterns of communication. Jay Haley emerged as a leader in the USA using the teachings and techniques of Milton Erickson (1901-1980) an outstanding hypnotherapist whose work concentrated around interactive patterns. erickson1.jpg

Each of these major theorists had a part in creating a body of knowledge and a way of intervening with individuals, couples, and families that went beyond the confines of psychodynamic work. They included ideas such as the individual's symptom, such as anorexia, being seen as a function of the whole system. By reframing, the therapist attempts to weave the family's content and process together in a way that expands the focus to include all members of the family. The effect of the healing picture, which often emerges during a constellation, serves effectively as a reframe and provides a lasting image of a family in which love flows.

Family Constellation work is a dynamic interaction that takes into consideration all these concepts and the transgenerational patterns that influence the individual from the past. In this regard there are two special areas of influence on the systemic stand of systemic constellation work:

1. Transgenerational family therapies

2. African tribal ancestral traditions


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