Ellyn Bader

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.

Low Road

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.com/blog/


Ellyn Bader, Ph.D., is Co-Founder & Director of The Couples Institute and creator of The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. Ellyn is widely recognized as an expert in couples therapy, and since 2006 she has led innovative online training programs for therapists. Professionals from around the world connect with her through internet, conference calls and blog discussions to study couples therapy.

Ellyn’s first book, "In Quest of the Mythical Mate," won the Clark Vincent Award by the California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists for its outstanding contribution to the field of marital therapy and is now in its 18th printing. She has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including "The Today Show" and "CBS Early Morning News," and she has been quoted in many publications including "The New York Times," "The Oprah Magazine" and "Cosmopolitan."

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  2. This is lovely Meg and such words of wisdom. It allows us to own all aspects of ourselves and yet lead from the centre with clarity and empathy.

  3. Meg, as always I love your authenticity. This is about being real in that moment and then catching yourself and allowing the rational observer self to take over. We’ve all been there. Thanks so much for your accurate description.

  4. Great article! I like the common sense ideas for communicating one can put into practice right away. And yes, breathing is always good!

  5. It is so exciting to know this post was helpful to some of you. Very special to read what people have to say. As for me, taking the “high road” is an ongoing work in progress.

  6. I love this poem Meg! It so captures that inner-tension we all feel at times to act from a undifferentiated or a more differentiated part. I caught myself the other day feeling pulled to follow this undifferentiated part and your poem came to mind. It gave me pause and I was able to make a healthier choice. Thank you!

  7. Meg I already know which couple I will use this idea on first. I appreciate your sense of humor. It breathes oxygen into tense moments while keeping clients on task. I’ll let you know how it goes!

  8. Meg, thank you for sharing your internal process with us. It’s interesting how you were able to tap into your humour as soon as you began to address your undifferentiated self. Differentiation can be very challenging at times and I appreciate your tips on self-discipline!

  9. Meg, thank you for sharing your insights in this very well-written article. I loved the poem and appreciate your suggestions on how to take the high road when one’s undifferentiated self makes an appearance.

  10. Could you please move to Washington, DC and begin working with the dysfunctional, undifferentiated relationships that abound there!?

  11. I’ve been working as a trauma therapist for over 25 years, and this brought both chuckles (self-recognition) and appreciation for a poem that reflects my own growth and the growth of my clients along the road to healthy relationships. Thank you!