In the Bader-Pearson Developmental Model of Couples therapy, you may hear about differentiation. But what is it? This blog post includes the poem, “Undifferentiated Self,” which touches on differentiation.
In case you are unfamiliar with this concept, here is a note of clarification to help you understand one aspect of the broader term. According to Couples Institute co-founder, Dr. Ellyn Bader, “self-differentiation is the capacity to go internal and notice and express one’s thoughts, feelings, wishes and desires without blame or criticism.” It takes maturity to interact in this way and it is not uncommon to struggle at times in this regard – especially in important relationships.
In this piece, couples therapist Meg Luce describes the strong temptation to sometimes let go of self-differentiation and give into a lesser side. She also shows how it may be helpful to acknowledge this temptation, while not giving into it. Pushing one’s ability to tolerate and experience strong emotions, and not let them take over, is a key for successful relationships.
Hello, Undifferentiated Self,
You are here today and would like to come on strong – rant and rave a bit;
maybe throw your weight around.
You know you are loved. And yet you want to be petty.
You know he gets caught in his patterns that have practically nothing to do with you.
And yet you want to be angry.
A comment, a look, a sound, and you would like to be off and running. WHY?!
It is pointless! And so I stop.
But the feelings remain; rumbling around inside me.
Hah! I could change my mind at any second and be vicious!
Ah, to fantasize about all the ways to be evil!
I would feel such a sense of glee, until I really hurt him.
Then I would feel horrible and it wouldn’t even be worth it.
And so…I simmer.
I wrote this one day while angry at my spouse. There was no treasonous act or horrible insult. He was simply tired, but feeling he should do more for me. Rather than telling me so, he gave me the subtle but unmistakable impression that I am an enormous burden.
The message radiating off of him really set me off. It was a moment of wanting to take the low road. This happens now and then to us humans. I wanted to give into my feelings, without any thinking. I wanted to make him responsible for my state of mind and say, “You made me feel irate!” The urge was so strong!
But I also had my thinking. As a therapist who works with many couples trying to help them take the high road, I knew exactly what was going on. What a dilemma! I knew that he was, indeed, not responsible for my feelings. My feelings were something for me to experience and make sense of. If I then chose to talk with my husband after I had returned to my integrated adult self, I knew he would be willing to listen.
I took a walk and tried to settle down. Did some mindfulness practice. I made a partial recovery, and when my husband got home and gave me a look, I was angry all over again.
With a wicked little smile on my face, I sat down with my computer. I knew the moment I started writing that I was on the right track.
Starting with the greeting to my undifferentiated self felt perfect. Yes, it was a regressed part of me that wanted to act out. Saying hello to this childish interloper broke the spell. Fully acknowledging this side of me that wanted to take the low road, while not allowing myself to do it, was at once satisfying and empowering.
Paradoxically, by allowing my dark thoughts to flourish, I immediately found the humor in the situation and the light feeling that came with it. By imagining all of the ways a part of me wanted to act out, but not doing so, was oddly entertaining. The blustery anger seemed to evaporate. I really wasn’t that upset with my husband. This was more between me and me, and I was handling it.
Try this at home…
When strong feelings bubble up and you want to lash out at your partner, stop instead and self-reflect. Walk away, take a few breaths, do some journaling; this might be the perfect time to get the kitchen floor scrubbed clean! While your feelings are activated, ask yourself what is going on. What is it exactly that you are telling yourself? It may or may not be true. It might be simply that you are annoyed with your partner, or there may be a theme that has been activated from your past. Exercising the discipline to discern your experience and not unload on your partner is a valuable practice, even though you may really, really want to! If you take the time to settle down and figure out what it is you are thinking and feeling, you can tell your partner at a later time in a better way.
Meg Luce, MFT, is a psychotherapist who provides relationship counseling services for individuals, couples and parents. Her approach is caring, compassionate and nonjudgmental. She collaborates with clients in a safe environment to promote the changes that they wish to make and believes that all people have the ability to grow, change and resolve relationship conflicts. To learn more about Meg please visit her blog at www.nevadacountytherapist.