Bert Hellinger on relationships
“The one who is too good to be bad destroys the relationship.” (3.54)
“Sexuality is greater than love.” (3.145)
“You have to accept and take from father and mother as who they are: One does not become a parent through moral qualities but through procreation and birth.” (2.63)
“If I hurt him back a bit less, it does not only satisfy the sense of justice but also of love.” (2.28)
German family therapist Bert Hellinger states the obvious and provokes with strong and definite statements. Throughout the last years he has attracted great interest and big crowds at his public talks and seminars.
Until recently, Hellinger has refused to write a book, not to create misunderstandings. His statements need to be understood in context and cannot describe an “absolute” truth. Writing takes away from the aliveness of the encounter in which his theory arose.* The books published so far have mainly been written by his students and contain verbatim of his work or interviews.
I am reminded of Fritz Perls, and it is no surprise that in particular the Gestalt community has shown a strong interest in Hellinger’s work.
It was Malcolm Parlett, who first introduced me to Bert Hellinger. Malcolm is the editor of the British Gestalt Journal, which together with the London Gestalt Centre initiated Hellinger’s first seminar in the U.K. in 1996.
Since no English translations are available I present a taste of Hellinger’s work including translations of relevant quotes. I focus on what he has said about relationships. His strong statements have touched me, inspired me, and shaken me to review some of my introjected positions. It would be too easy to dismiss his statements as old fashioned. I believe his reclaiming of ancient values is refreshing and relevant today. May it inspire you too.
Parents and children
It is an illusion to believe that our parents could have been different from the way they are. We are the product of our parents and we wouldn’t be who we are, if they were not who they were.
This might be hard to hear for you, especially if you have a tense or broken relationship with your parents, and yet, it’s the truth. Fighting our parents, wanting them to be different, are only indications of the difficulty to accept the facts and staying stuck in what should be rather than what is.
Since the parents give the greatest gift possible – they give us life – children need to honour their parents.
Parents give what they are themselves, they cannot add or leave out anything. Therefore Children can only take parents how they are. (2.53)
A child can only come to terms with itself and find its identity when it has come to terms with its parents. To take parents for who they are is healing.
Fighting parents is a way of refusing to move on, is a way of staying stuck. Expectation of parents ties to parents and yet one doesn’t receive. Taking from parents helps separate: “I take what you have given me, it is a lot and sufficient, the rest I do by myself and I leave you in peace.” (2.69)
“What shall I do, my parents interfere with everything?” Hellinger: “Yes, as parents they may do this, but you (as an adult) can do what feels right for you.”
“Children will always stay indebted to their parents and can’t be free from them.” (2.25) The way out is to pass on what they were given to the next generation, to their children.
“A last possibility of balancing take and give is in thanking. … Thanking means: I receive it with joy and with love. This is then a high appreciation of the other.” (2.26)
As parents grow old, children care for them in a way that feels right to them, not as the parents demand (as if they still were children).
For relationships to succeed three aspects need to be considered: bonding, order and balance.
Bonding is created through “primary love”, which provides a sense of belonging.
Secondly, Hellinger speaks of “the order of love”. He refers to norms, rituals, convictions and taboos that develop and bind all involved in long-term relationships.
Both, bonding and order need to be carefully balanced: too much discipline can endanger the bonding, not enough boundaries takes away the security of a set structure.
A balance needs to exist between give and take. This sounds to me like a natural law. “In all living systems there is a continuous balance between antagonistic tendencies.” (2.22) For example, similar to the process of breathing, where I can only breathe in to the degree that I breathe out, there is a natural pull towards an equalisation of both, give and take.
“When we receive, we lose a bit of our independence” (2.22) since we feel indebted to the person who gives. Subsequently, we want to give back, preferably a bit more.
“The happiness in a relationship depends on the turn-over of give and take.” (2.23)
As the turnover increases, so does the happiness and bonding. Hellinger draws on the example of walking. As we stand still we maintain balance; as we move on we lose and regain balance.
To constantly give can also be a way of manipulation. If I give without receiving, the other constantly feels indebted to me and unfree. Therefore: “if someone gives without receiving, the other one doesn’t want anything any more after a while…. This stance is hostile to relating.” (2.24)
The balance of give and receive takes place in good and in bad, in positive and negative. When someone hurts me I feel like hurting back. If I paid him/her back with the same amount, this would be the end of the relationship. “If I hurt him back a bit less, it does not only satisfy the sense of justice but also of love.” (2.28) For relationships to continue, Hellinger proposes a plausible option: “In the positive, one gives back a bit more, in the negative one gives back a bit less.”
Unless this balance is maintained there is a danger for conflicts to escalate. However, “the one who is too good to be bad destroys the relationship.” (3.54)
In case of something hurtful being done to someone, there is good and bad forgiving. Too fast forgiving avoids facing the issues and covers up the conflict without resolution. Forgiving from an arrogant, superior position can also not be helpful. “To achieve a real reconciliation, the innocent can not only claim reparation, but also has the duty to demand it.” (2.29) The guilty one has not only got the duty to carry the consequences of his doing but has also got the right. “Good forgiving leaves the guilty one with his dignity.” (2.30)
Men and women
Men and women are totally different, in their thinking, feeling and view of the world. Both manners of being are valid and equally valuable ways of self-realisation. (2.106)
A relationship between man and woman succeeds best if father’s son marries mother’s daughter. What does Hellinger mean by this?
As long as the son stays tied to his mother he only remains a youth, becomes a womaniser or playboy, but not a man. He has to make the sacrifice to give up the first woman of his life – his mother – and step next to his father. (2.101) – Traditionally this is done through initiation. – Next to his father the son becomes a man. As he renounces the feminine in him, he opens to the gift of the feminine from a woman.
To become a woman, the daughter has to give up her first man, the father, return to the mother and stand next to her. This is the exact opposite of the narcissistic notion that the woman has to develop the masculine in herself.
The feminine will always stay a secrete to the man and vice versa. (2.103)
Foundation of Partnership between men and women
The man becomes only a man when he takes a woman to be his wife, and the woman only becomes a woman when she takes a man to be her husband. (2.107)
Both have to embrace their limitation to become able to have a relationship, because then they depend on each other and can complete each other.
Someone who is too self sufficient does not need a relationship, and often won’t be willing to face the challenges that they hold.
Viewing each other as peers is a prerequisite for a lasting relationship. The attempt to lock the other into a parent or a child stereotype leads to a crisis. (2.109)
“Being in love” is blind, love is awake. Two people being in love focus on the illusion that the other will meet all their needs. This leads to the rise of child needs in themselves while the other is made into a parent. With necessity this will lead to disappointments. No-one can ever live up to the idealisation that takes place in a stage of being in love.
In love, there is mutual acceptance, as the other being right exactly how s/he is. (2.113) There is always a mixture of satisfaction and frustration when 2 real people meet.
Two family traditions meet when a man and a woman join in partnership.
Both have to accept the other’s order, examine their own and perhaps let go of old patterns, and find new ones for the partnership.
Hellinger’s choice of metaphor: both are on opposite shores of a river: To know their joint order, both have to give up their position and take the risk to step into the river, where they meet in the whirlpool. “Then they notice what life is and the order that results.” (2.115)
The binding to a partner
The significance of love making: the bond that is created through physical union is stronger than to parents.
Making love makes man and woman into a couple with the potential to create a child. (116)
“Sexuality is greater than love.” (3.145) Sexuality and death belong together. Since there is always the possibility of creating new life, death, also death of the relationship needs to be faced.
Desire and granting: The one who expresses the desire risks rejection. This risk needs to be shared. For exchange and balance to succeed, both must allow themselves to desire, and allow themselves to grant with respect and love the other’s desires. (2.121)
A difficulty in partnerships is that sexuality can become too important. Then sexuality becomes a goal rather than serve the relationship. If it serves the relationship, it is more profound and variable.
During a partnership a man becomes less male and a woman becomes less female. Both lose some of their identity. To maintain the difference, men have to be with men and women with women. It doesn’t matter what they do, but it is important to also spend time with members of the same sex.
In each relationship there need to be boundaries that define it. These boundaries are set as guilt enters, like for example in faithfulness. You know you have crossed a boundary when you feel guilty. Inside the boundary is innocence and freedom. “As long as there are no boundaries, there is also no freedom.” (2.130)
Separation requires a letting go of each other. With necessity, this brings up grief.
When separation doesn’t work, one looks for a guilty one – to escape the force of the fate.
In particular, there is a deep pain, a “catastrophe”, when a marriage is separated where a child was born. (2.143) The enormity and depth of the situation is often underestimated. Anger and rage is often a substitute for the pain of grieve. As one assigns guilt to the other s/he has the illusion that the other could have behaved differently and everything could have been saved. This underestimates the depth of the situation and focuses on reproach and assigning guilt to each other.
It is best for the child when a man appreciates and respects himself and his wife in the child, and when the women appreciates and respects herself and her husband in the child. Then the child is free of its parents. (2.132)
This is in particular important at the event of separation, since the child is the product of both parents. “In the child both become inseparably one.” (2.131)
Hellinger provides a clear answer to the question: Who gets the children after the divorce?
The children have to go with the parent who respects the other parent in them the most. (2.73) The children belong to both parents, they need to know that they remain as their parents even though they no longer are a couple.
In any separation, the solution is for both to allow the pain of grieving, not necessarily long but deep. Both acknowledge what they received from each other, this frees. Then they can let go of each other, be friends and sort things out.
Some people go in and out of relationships as if they went to a club that they can join or leave anytime. This is not possible if bonding took place. When you are in a significant relationship, you are tied to it and can no longer move out of it without pain and feelings of guilt. (2.144)
* “Schriftlich Geronnenes verliert allzuleicht den Bezug zum Lebendigen, wird verdinglicht, vereinfacht, unreflektiert verallgemeinert und so zu Schablonen und Leersätzen.” (2.15)
1. Bert Hellinger; Ordnungen der Liebe; Heidelberg (Auer); 1995.
2. Gunthard Weber (Hrsg.); Zweierlei Glück; Heidelberg (Auer); 1995.
3. Bert Hellinger & Gabriele ten Hövel; Anerkennen, was ist; München (Kösel); 1996.
Copyright © 11/1997 by Rumijabu | Originally published in Gestalt Dialogue #7, Nov1997
Postscript: In the meantime the first book of Hellinger’s ideas has been published in English.
Bert Hellinger, Gunthard Weber, Hunter Beaumont (Introduction); Love’s Hidden Symmetry: What Makes Love Work in Relationships; Phoenix, Arizona (Zeig Tucker & Co Inc.); Oct1998.