Putting a Finger on the Problems of Traditional Family Constellations

Read my reaction to Franz Rupper’s criticism of traditional Family Constellations published in “The Knowing Field Journal” 23, January 2014

While watching Professor Dr. Franz Ruppert’s presentation entitled: ‘Aufstellungen – das Entstehen einer Methode und ihr aktueller Entwicklungstand’ (Constellations – the emergence of a method and its current state of development)1, I found myself in general agreement with some points of his critique and some not. However, I cannot agree to identify with his criticism of traditional Family Constellations. To be clear from the start, I am a convinced and enthusiastic ‘Traditional Family Constellations’ facilitator to the point that I have recently put one of my books, translated into English, on Amazon:2 Family Constellations Revealed

I find it rather disappointing that Ruppert says: “I distance myself from traditional family constellations.” As far as I can see, he is largely directing his attention to the practice of constellators who do not comprehend the basics of traditional family constellations, have not had sufficient training or suffer themselves from unprocessed, symbiotic entanglements. This is evident from the arguments and examples he puts forward to distance himself. Asking him (by e-mail) why he focuses his criticisms on traditional family constellations he replies: “This has nothing to do with poor education, because such illusory concepts ( .. symbiotic illusions in relation to the parents and ancestors..) are indeed taught and passed on by the relevant trainers and other people in authority as essentials for traditional family constellations.”

I do not want to judge Ruppert’s reason for taking up this position (and the arguments and examples he puts forward). However, in my understanding it is perfectly clear that they do not fall within the realm of traditional family constellations as I learned them from Bertold Ulsamer and as is found in much of the literature. What I think

he is doing is putting his finger on an unclear image of what traditional family constellations are about. If the examples he presents are common practice for many colleagues and therefore, to their understanding, part of traditional family constellations, then we have real problems.

He begins his criticism by giving an example about a facilitator who summed up his conclusion at the end of a constellation by saying something like: “Everyone can see that’s the way it is….”

According to my understanding this comment aims to generalise personal observations. If ‘everyone sees this’ anyway, and it is thus perceivable by everyone and in particular for the client, such a remark is superfluous.

Commenting on this, Ruppert says:

“…there is no (phenomenological) perception of a constellation process, without intention” and “one ‘sees’ something based on one’s own perception.”

I myself, have experienced two constellations that ended in a similar way to this one and since then have had no need to further experience this form of constellation. As I see it, the way the facilitator positioned himself towards his client was untenable with the basics of traditional family constellations and its phenomenological approach:

A facilitator has to go beyond a subconscious wanting to do good and instead be open to perceptions that show up through the representatives and from there, assist the client in his growth process. This can only happen, according to Hellinger, when the facilitator “empties himself of personal views, prior experiences and inner notions of emotion, will and judgement.” The phenomenological stance of a facilitator is working from the “empty middle” as Hellinger calls it. By adopting this attitude,

“…all that has to be revealed will be revealed”.3 (This and subsequent quotes are from a period when Hellinger himself was still working with Traditional Family Constellations).

Another comparable situation is when a facilitator offers his own perceptions of the constellation to the client after a constellation without being invited to do so. A traditional constellation serves the client’s needs, since his internalised system is being represented. Whatever shows up is just what is needed to find solution and that is precisely what the client can integrate. Successful integration happens through ‘non- interference’ from the facilitator, known as ‘der Verzicht’ in German.

“A person who wants to change that which has shown up, puts himself above reality. He is trying to manipulate what has shown up to suit his own preconceptions. In so doing, he is attempting to play God over reality and make it subordinate to himself. Only people who are able to subject themselves to reality and take it exactly as it is, can work effectively with family constellations. A facilitator does not exert his own will. This is the phenomenological attitude.”4 It is my opinion, that while working with family constellations a client’s awareness and process have to take place in his own consciousness. The client can then integrate the resultant insights in his or her daily life, or not. All outside information, like the constellators personal or spiritual insights, are subjective and cannot replace or enhance this process.

Continuing with his criticism that traditional constellations promote symbiotic illusions in relation to the parents and ancestors, Ruppert lists in his presentation the following points with no further substantiation of his argument.1

“Traditional family constellations are oriented around ‘the orders of love’, the ‘search for family roots’ and ‘finding one’s own place in the family and in general’.”

He continues to explain his view: “Very essential for traditional family constellations are: Reconciliation with Parents which, ultimately leads to the sparing of parents and offenders” and “the perpetrator is pardoned even in case of abuse” which, according to Ruppert, leads to the illusion that: “You can have a good relationship with your parents even when abuse is present.” When discussing rituals such as bowing, he says that they promote symbiotic illusions.

Step by step I’ll walk through Ruppert’s points of critique and present you my understanding of traditional family constellations:

Orders of Love
The question whether or not we have to call it ‘orders of love’ is a legitimate one but it is clear from every traditional family constellation that human relationship systems follow certain laws and that there is an underlying order or organising principle at work. The restoration of this order is not a purpose in itself; rather it is a movement that arises from the constellation itself. I don’t see that this promotes symbiotic illusions.

Searching for family roots
That this is undeniably a secondary aspect in traditional family constellations, goes without saying, but it is not a goal or purpose in itself, unless it forms part of the client’s theme. The phenomenological attitude takes distance from wanting and has therefore no goal or purpose in itself.

Finding one’s own place (in the family/in general)
This is certainly an important aspect of traditional family constellations but also is not end in itself. It can, however, be a client’s goal in terms of gaining insight and becoming aware.

Reconciliation with Parents
In his presentation Ruppert states: “Reconciliation with parents ultimately leads to the sparing of parents and offenders.” In my opinion, traditional family constellations have no other purpose than to provide answers to a client’s theme or question(s) in alignment with his system as revealed by representatives. Reconciliation with parents, therefore, cannot be the purpose of a constellation as such, unless it is part of the client’s theme or question and happens during the constellation as an authentic movement. In this way, successful reconciliation with the parents, resulting from a constellation, is a welcome bonus. Again, I don’t see that this promotes symbiotic illusions. Whenever facilitators set up reconciliation with parents as a constellation goal in general, whether consciously or sub-consciously, they themselves are most likely to be entangled with their own system and take on more of the role of a social worker who is ruled by their need to be the helper than that of a traditional family constellation facilitator.


Hellinger makes the following comment about this:

“It is clear how demanding it is to adopt the position of non- interference (der Verzicht) as non-interference also includes refraining from interfering with the best of intentions.”5

Sparing parents or offenders is to my understanding not a fundamental part of traditional constellation work at all. (See later). In his presentation Ruppert states that in traditional family constellations:

“The perpetrator is pardoned even in case of abuse.” And he continues: “You can have a good relationship with your parents even when abuse is present.”

In my understanding of traditional family constellations one is neither excused, pardoned nor forgiven because everyone bears his own destiny with all its associated responsibilities. Hellinger says: “Excusing is presumptuous” and “What I forgive in others ends up in my own backpack.” (Hellinger, 2001)6

Writing about his work with incest victims Hellinger says:
“The child has every right (…) to be angry with the perpetrator.”7 In line with my personal experience and approach to traditional family constellations, perpetrators clearly become identified as perpetrators in constellations and if it shows up as a necessary action, they lose their rights as a parent. For existing guilt, the responsibility is left with the family member where it originally belongs, even though they are entangled themselves.

Rituals in constellation
According to Ruppert, rituals strengthen and nourish symbiotic entanglements with survival structures, which support symbiotic illusions.

Ruppert pays special attention to bowing in his speech as well as in his book ‘Symbiosis and Autonomy’. He says: “It borders on psychic rape when bowing is demanded, even when the client clearly shows resistance.”8 Bowing before one’s parents or for the early death of a forgotten family member has real therapeutic value only when it is a natural movement stemming from a relaxed mood. This usually occurs once all entanglements concerning the client’s theme or questions(s) have been dealt with and it feels truly appropriate for the client. Once these conditions are met, the client is willing and able to let go, relax and surrender to what has shown up in the constellation. That’s when the client’s neck muscles become loose during a bow and therefore the whole PM muscle chain is activated.9 Only when the client can do this from his own free will, can the bowing ritual be redemptive and liberating.

Commenting on this, Bert Hellinger says: “This movement has become difficult for a lot of people in our culture; bowing as a sign of respect is easily confused with bowing as a way of showing unhealthy subordination. When we bow before a person and pay tribute to someone who is entitled to it, one’s body and mind react by relaxing, accompanied by a feeling of lightness. It feels good and has a positive effect.”10 This makes it clear that a bow during a traditional family constellation may never be a ritual of submission or performed out of (moralising) coercion from the constellator or the group. If bowing happens under any kind of pressure, it is at best a pointless intervention and at worst it borders indeed on ‘psychic rape’ of the client. Ruppert’s conclusion is:

“Symbiotic survival methods are given a lot of confirmation through traditional family constellations.”

He gives the following examples: “You can save the system” and “You can save your family.” In my understanding of the essence of traditional family constellations there is no need to rescue others. Every form of ‘wanting to save’ runs contrary to the phenomenological attitude: “[…] the therapist has to be able to resist the temptation to want to help, or to want to find a solution that conforms to his own ideals and ideas.”11 (Hellinger 2001)

According to Ruppert: “Spirituality belongs necessarily to traditional family constellations as a source for solutions.” The constellation work and certainly the solutions that emerge during traditional family constellations require no further spiritual context. Constellations for me, are living and applied spirituality or Taoism in practice: no other form of spirituality can replace what takes place in a constellation.

Let us look once more at what I see as the problems of traditional family constellations. Like any other system, family systems follow certain laws, one of which is that a system has to delineate itself from other systems to be able to be observed. It has to be able to be defined. This has clearly not happened sufficiently, otherwise Ruppert’s criticisms could not have taken place in this way, because he seems completely ignorant about what traditional family constellations actually are.

Just as I have pointed out above, Ruppert’s critique is more about the intervention and attitudes of constellators that lie beyond the essence of traditional family constellations. It is not that I wish to judge in any way a colleague who uses a different approach to traditional family constellations; every child has the right to his own name and there should be many children. On the other hand, any facilitator using the name traditional family constellations to describe their work while – consciously or unconsciously – doing something different, is misleading to me. It seems that this may be happening a lot and the risk of this is that traditional family constellations will become diluted and lose power or their (good) reputation will be lost. That counts as well for Ruppert; he states himself that his work and Systemic or Family Constellation Work have nothing in common. For these reasons it seems to me an important step towards the method’s maturity for us to come to a commonly agreed definition about what constitutes traditional family constellations and the associated phenomenological attitude and what does not. Just because Hellinger has moved away from traditional family constellations and (bravely) follows his own way, we don’t necessarily have to relinquish what is useful. Having a commonly agreed definition won’t prevent us from further development of the method. Instead it will provide us with a common basis and framework for development of the work. In saying this I do not know if there is any desire ‘in the field’ to find a common ground or definition for traditional family constellations. However, I hope to start with this article a discussion that will finally lead to more clarity on the matter in order to give this (in my view genius) methodology a clarity and rightfully earned central place in the field of constellations work.

In this sense I agree with Max Dauskardt’s words below:

“My hope is to find the systemic constellation community engaging in an open deliberation towards clarity of what a constellation is and of what constitutes the constellation method for our own sake as well as in the interests of other mental health practitioners and the general public at large.12

Systems that are not in a position to be self-delineated die out sooner or later.


  1. Ruppert, Prof. Dr. Franz.(2012) Aufstellungen – das Entstehen einer Methode und ihr aktueller Entwicklungstand. DVD, Muenchen, Germany. www.jahnsverlag.de
  2. Torsten Preiss, Indra (2012) Family Constellations Revealed, The Systemic View, Torsten Preiss, Indra (Self-published on Amazon), Antwerp, Belgium.
  3. Hellinger, B. (2001) in Torsten Preiss, Indra (2012) Family Constellations Revealed, The Systemic View, Torsten Preiss, Indra (Self- published on Amazon), Antwerp, Belgium.
  4. & 5. Hellinger, B.(2001) Ordnungen der Liebe. Ein Kursbuch, p. 21-22, Carl-Auer-Systeme Verlag, Heidelberg, Germany.

6 & 7. Hellinger, B. (2001). Ordnungen der Liebe. Ein Kursbuch, p. 281, Carl-Auer-Systeme Verlag, Heidelberg, Germany.

  1. Ruppert, F. (2010) Symbiose en Autonomie p. 225. Akasha, Eeserveen, The Netherlands.
  2. Godelieve Struyf-Denijs, a Dutch ostepath has isolated 6 pairs of muscle chains and developed a whole method around it. http://www.apgds.com/ apgds-dans-le-monde/nederland.html

Franciose Meternad has also developed her own methodology. She says:

“In the west, the importance of the organisation of muscles in chains was

first seen by Francoise Mezieres, a French physiotherapist, who came up with an extensive exercise schedule for the centrally located back muscle chains, called the postero-mediane (PM) chain. She noted that a stretch of the whole chain was more efficient than a stretch of only one muscle and that the chain-stretch was not so effective if one of the chain muscles shortened instead of lengthening. This happens when the head is not allowed to droop and therefore hang loosely while bowing.

Full impact can only be achieved by surrendering and letting go of control, which cannot be forced.” (http:// fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Méthode_Mézières)

  1. Hellinger, B., Weber G., Beaumont H. (2001) De verborgen dynamiek

van familiebanden, p.273 Altamira- Becht, Haarlem, The Netherlands.

  1. Hellinger, B. (2001). Ordnungen der Liebe. Ein Kursbuch, p. 281, Carl-Auer-Systeme Verlag, Heidelberg, Germany.
  2. Max Dauskardt, What is a Constellation? TKF 21


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