Revenge and Forgiveness in Family Constellations

Revenge and Forgiveness in Family Constellations              14/10/2008

Part 1

In one of my seminars a client tells me that he wants to do a constellation about the story of hisgrandfather.  His grandfather was a young man when he died. According to the story, he was on his way between one village and another and met his death before reaching his destination.

The circumstances of his death were not clear, however, the client was certain, due to some evidence he had received, that his grandfather had been murdered.

The story is going around in his head and he would like to find some resolution.

I begun considering which representatives I should select for the client’s story, the first two that came to mind were the grandfather and the assailant.

On further reflection, it occurred to me that it was not certain whether his grand-father had been murdered, and if he was, it is not known who was to blame for the incident. I also wasn’t sure what affect this kind of constellation would have, and anyway, I do not aim to be a detective.

I then asked him what he would like the outcome of the process to be. His reply was, “I don’t want to be so taken over by a wave of emotions every time the story arises”.

I suggested that he place two representatives in the working space; one for himself and one to represent this ‘wave of emotions’.

The two representatives started to move around and report on how they felt while they are doing so. The client’s representative reported that he was feeling very energetic and his hands were looking for something to grab. He found a rubber stick and walked around looking for some one to take this energy out on, which by then, felt like it wanted to explode.

As the process progressed it became clear that some sort of violence wanted to erupt.  At times there was a sense of madness and there were bursts of hysterical laughter which spread to participants and observers.

As the process progressed and other representatives joined in, a spatial distance between the two main representatives grew, which brought in a sense of a time line. In this time line the representative for the ‘wave of emotions’ said she felt that she came from a long way back in time. The distance, in the working space, between the two and the sense that it also meant distance in time and generations, helped the client’s representative to feel calmer.

The process came to a good enough end, when the representative of the ‘wave of emotions’ said that she was more where she belonged, which is in the distant past, and that she could see generations between her and the client’s representative, while he in turn said that the stick in his hand felt more like a playing stick and not anything violence.

About a month later, the client reported that he found himself talking about the incident with much more ease than he used to, and he could discuss the story with family and friends without feeling so charged about it. This was a very important change for him.

Later on, in a different setting, we were using pieces of felt as floor markings to represent the different characters.  In this kind of constellation the client moves from one felt to another and reports his experience in the here and now.

This time he wanted to work on the difficult relationship with his father, which he would like to see some change in.

So we placed two felts, one to represent him and one for his father.

This constellation, progressed to the relationship between his father and his grandfather (the one who was killed), and then it focused on the dynamic between his grandfather and the presumed assailant. We could see similar dynamics in each relationship.

At this point it felt easy and almost natural to bring into the working space a representation for the presumed assailant. This was possible, I believe, due to the process that was done earlier.

The client stood on his grandfather’s felt and then on the assailant’s. He was able to feel and speak from the two opposite perspectives, and he also had the chance to speak for the two opposing communities that they belonged to.

At the end of this process he said, “I was surprised how easy it was to represent the assailant and his background… this was very important for me, however, if I were to meet this man, and I got a chance, I would kill him without hesitating”.

The way he said this brought a chill to my spine. At the same time I thought that saying it like this, so deeply connected to his need for revenge, or maybe even to a fantasy of completion, that it could be very relieving for him.

We left it at that.

Some time later, in another process which was also done with felt pieces , the issue of manhood came up. This time we started with a representation for him, his father and his grandfather.

When he stood on his father’s place he felt very weak.  When he stood on his grandfather’s place, he fell straight to the floor, saying he felt very sleepy, heavy and all alone. He was looking for help. When asked who could help him, he wanted somebody that would protect him so that he wouldn’t be killed again, and somebody to take care of him. When these two representations were brought in and placed behind him, he immediately stood up and was very emotional. For him they represented the grandfather’s mother and father.  He said that the connection between these two generations was severed.

After some time, and from the place of the grandfather, he was able to look to his son (the father of the client) and then, in turn, the client’s father could look to his son (the client). A new sense of a male line and connections could be experienced. This felt both very moving and empowering.

This was the first time that there was no mention of the assailant and the dynamic that that has brought. The focus had turned to the family relationships and the wish for connection between the fathers and their sons. This was quite a shift from the previous times.

And so, we could see that when at least three generations of men have a severance in their relationship with their father, this brings the issue of manhood into question.

Part 2

Each of these constellations were more then an hour long. In this article I have tried to focus just on the main points of the process.

The wish for revenge is as natural and deep as love, anger, jealousy and all other feelings. Many times, as a therapist, my agenda of healing, forgiving and peace making, together with the fear of violence, does not allow this wish in the client to have its full space. Sometimes the distance between it having a place and the acting out of it, is very small. So, rightfully I would be worried about bringing it up. Yet if it doesn’t come out, it stays an unconscious driving force in the client’s life, and tends to be turned against himself.

What about forgiveness? Just imagine for a moment that you are the client standing in front of this assailant who has killed your grandfather, and you say to him “You killed my grandfather, time has past, so, I forgive you…”.

How would this feel to you? Can you feel what this demands of the client? Would or can the assailant feel forgiven?

In my work, I try to avoid, if at all possible, one side saying to another “I forgive you”. I find that forgiveness, when said from one side to another, can give the idea that one can be not only above one’s own deep needs and feelings but also above the one that is ‘forgiven’; that one is better than the other or is morally higher than the other.  It does not bring them into a space of equality which is where something new can happen.

This story tells of a dynamic that goes far back. In family constellations we see, many times, how the same kind of dynamic can be played out in different generations. We could call this a ‘trans-generational pattern’.

Two possible ways of looking at these kinds of patterns are:

a) When there is an unresolved issue in one generation, it (the issue) goes looking for a resolution by moving through the generations. And so, it becomes a pattern that repeats itself.

b) The wish for belonging and being part of one’s family and its history runs very deep. Through repeating a negative pattern that runs in the family, the client can feel this deep sense of connection.

This is, of course, paradoxical, because it also runs against the innate wish for well being and for healthy relationships; not only the client’s but also, his parents’ and possibly his ancestors’.

I am trying to explain the ‘why’ of the phenomena and within the Family Constellations community there are different ideas about this.

Considering these two ideas – a pattern that is looking for resolution and the wish for belonging – means that saying to him “you must not take revenge”, or that “you have to let go, forgive”, could mean for him that he should be able to either stand against this pattern that has a need to be resolved, or not to follow his deep need for connection to his background.

What happens with the need for revenge? If the client does act it out, he will perpetuate his own suffering and perhaps the suffering of others too. If he doesn’t, he has to work against deep needs within him and this perpetuates an inner suffering. This may demand he sever his connection with his family and his history.

From my experience with this work, and this perhaps echoes some formulations from Psychotherapist Michael Soth’s ideas, “when most or all elements that are connected to an unresolved situation are experienced and witnessed by each other a chance for transformation and reorganisation of the situation is available”.

To apply this to this specific story – when the client, the father of the client, the grandfather, the assailant, the communities behind the two, the context and history of each character and the event, and the feelings (which include the wish for revenge and the wish for resolution) of all sides that belong to this occurrence come into existence, in the here and now and are mutually witnessed, a certain recognition then occurs which brings the chance for transformation…

And when this happens, the wish for revenge dissolves of its own accord.


In a constellation when the “negative” symptom dissolves or transforms, it more or less brings the constellation to an end. Interestingly, some times, it also can bring  a sense of emptiness.  But as we have other representatives of family members around, it allows them to feel a new and simple connection to each other and with life.

Yishai Gaster