One of the things we see quickly in constellations is whether one partner is available to the other, or whether a parent was available to a child. What do I mean by “available?” Ah, now that’s an interesting question.

What we actually see on the floor is something like this (though it can vary widely):

In this image, one partner (“Him”) is looking forward (we’re viewing this from above and slightly behind the constellation), and his nose (that smaller white oval on the top of the darker chip) is facing forward. (The important thing is the “nose” as it shows you which way the person is facing.) The other partner (“Her” in this case) has her back to her partner and is facing away from him.

Adding a child to the couple doesn’t help.

The problem for “Her” is still the same. Something draws her attention away from her partner and child. In a very real, embodied way, she is “unavailable” to them. The kind of availability we’re talking about here is real and physical. When she looks at her partner, she doesn’t really see him. The same for her child. Her deeper self is “entangled” in something else. The question is what…or whom?

A common entanglement is with a parent – though we can become entangled with former lovers, siblings, grandparents, and sometimes friends or other people important to our family if a trauma or difficulty was not resolved within the generation that experienced it. Let’s say in this case, “Her” father left the family when she was three, and she saw him only once after that. The image now looks like this:

This “missing father” creates a longing in the little girl’s heart that, unless it can be addressed and resolved, ties up some part of her energy, making her unavailable to those she loves in the present. If, however, she is able to resolve her situation with her missing father and accept the early loss, she will naturally begin to turn back to her partner and child. The constellation then looks like this:

In this image, we see that she has turned back towards her partner and child, moving closer to her partner. Her father can now be experienced as a supportive presence at her back. This movement often happens spontaneously when the entanglement is resolved. Often the partner who was entangled will say (with surprise), “Now I see you! I didn’t know I had a partner (or child as the case may be).”

Being “available” – or not – is often a key determinant of success in our close relationships. Previous traumas and unresolved entanglements keep us from really being “all in” in our relationship. Even though we go through the motions of a close relationship, some part of us is missing. Our partner or child senses this in the way we touch them, gaze at them, speak to them. There is a real physical difference between someone who is available to us and someone who isn’t.

I think we often use the term “presence” to describe someone who is fully available to us in the present moment, who is “all in.” This means in a very real way that they are open to us. Because we have mirror neurons that fire when we see another’s emotions, our brain and body (soma) literally experience changes in the presence of the other. We are coupled with each other in a close, reciprocating circuit of affect-response-reaction-affect, etc. The physical nature of this kind of coupling is clearest between a mother and infant. Babies are born without a fully developed pre-frontal cortex and other important brain regions used in regulating the nervous system – they are definitely in the “now”! Through the baby’s interactions with the mother, if all goes well, the baby is soothed when agitated, aroused for play at the appropriate times and begins to learn how to self-regulate as the baby’s brain develops. An “absent” or entangled parent is not able to match the rhythm of the baby’s movements and vocalizations as consistently or accurately as a mother that is fully present – physically available – to her infant.

The majority of us have a “good enough” mother or primary care-giver so that we develop sufficient regulation to get through life. Still, it is possible to have a good relationship with the mother, and physically miss the presence of the other biological parent. All of our studies with infants show that there is no substitute for really being present, physically, mentally, and emotionally engaged with our children. As one client of mine wisely said, “I don’t believe in ‘quality time.’ I believe that quantity counts.” It does. So does presence. This is true for all of our close and important relationships. We have to be willing to open ourselves to the experience of the other – to feel them, and, if we are lucky in return, we will “feel felt” by them, as Dan Siegel puts it in his recent book, MindSight.

To be “all in” we have to be willing to feel with the important others, to make ourselves physically available to them. Of course, the benefits of this kind of risk depend on the quality of trust and safety we have created in that relationship. And, knowing the depth of our lived experience of our relationships, the words of Stan Tatkin resonate: Your partner (child, friend, colleague) is in your care. Are you “all in?”