Indifference: How to Cope When Someone You Love Is Indifferent to Others

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“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Eleanor Roosevelt, ‘This Is My Story’ 1937

My boyfriend Brad is to die for. When is visits me at work all the girls in the office go nuts over him. They tell me, “Girl, if you blow it with him, he’s mine.” Yes, Brad’s dark looks and puppy dog eyes sure captured my heart. He makes me feel special. But now that I’ve known him for a year I’m not so sure that Brad is such a good catch after all. I get so confused. It’s like he’s two different people. At times he’s warm and gracious and seems willing to give you the shirt off his back. Then for no apparent reasons he goes cold and is indifferent to others. At times he puts me down and tells me I’m too fat. Once he laughed at an elderly woman who fell down in the snow. He got mad at me for helping her. I can’t explain his reactions. I keep feeling the switch from the good Brad to the bad Brad is something I’ve done. When is he good, Brad is a total sweetheart. When he is bad, he’s icy and indifferent. Once when he lost his cool and grabbed me, I got so freaked out when I stared into his eyes. They looked empty. Don’t worry, Brad has never hit me. It’s not like that at all. I just need to find a way to be nicer to him so that he can bring out his better part. He just needs somebody to love him.

About one in ten people we meet is incapable of empathy towards others due to flaws in their character. These flaws aren’t due to alcohol/drug abuse or cultural differences. Such people have split personalities where one side appears friendly and charming and the other side is indifferent and sometimes hostile to emotional needs in others. Most such people are not violent but instead do incredible psychological damage to others who get close to them. Often they are nice to the neighbors and horror stories at home. Some such people are nice to nobody and can be very dangerous to be around. Frequently they are our financial advisers, grade school teachers, church pastors and next door neighbors that we know and have come to rely on. They hide under the cloak of normalcy but are in fact quite capable of inflicting incredible harm rather coldly on others. Indifferent people generally don’t want to hurt others. They just can’t help themselves and do it any other way.

Nevertheless too many of us get duped by unempathetic people and we can’t help taking care of them or falling in love with them. As the example above shows, most of the time we feel we can change or compensate for a cold person and have the greatest relationship we’ve always dreamed of. Unfortunately, over time our dreams turn into nightmares. We more desperately hold on to the hope that our loved one will change. However, the magic of our love only goes so far. Our hearts get broken to the core of our existence by indifference in a loved one. We’re hurt to the very core. Let’s not be blind and get sanctimonious. We have a huge part in allowing ourselves to be damaged. By being involved with a cold person and focusing on his or her outrageous behaviors, we distract ourselves from our own issues, the most important of which is why we would ever be involved with a heartless person in the first place. Oh yes, we’re not innocent. As Sheldon Kopp, the famous psychoanalyst, once said, “The knife and the wound both need each other.”

Why do we get involved with cold people?

Some of us are on a mission. We feel the only way we can deserve love is to save another person. Unfortunately trying to save a cold person is like trying to get an elephant to fly. Inevitably we fail and get used, abused and abandoned much as we were earlier in our lives. Focusing on an uncaring person helps us avoid feeling and healing significant anguish from our past. When we make another person a project we disown fixing ourselves. Others of us enjoy the association of a cold person because he or she can express the rage and naughtiness that we are unwilling to own in our own lives. We vicariously live out our own bad sides by getting hooked up with outlaws. Then we can look good, maintain our innocence, get lots of sympathy and disown our own villainy. Alternatively, some of us have been so hurt by abuse and neglect in our past that we may as well be involved with a cold person as that’s what feels normal to us. Getting real love from a caring person is nothing we can trust. After all, isn’t there something seriously wrong with a person who wants to love us? Others of us are so dreamy-eyed that we fall for a cold person simply because we want to be in love. We love being in love. We may over focus on some exceptional superficial aspect of another and ignore the glaring flaw in their character simply because we need a hero to rescue us. Finally some of us are way too scared to feel the big empty space in our souls that comes from years of emotional neglect. The fear of feeling our own abandonment as children is just too much for us. Hence it’s better to be around a cold person so that we don’t have to be pressured by authentic love. Some of us can only take love in small doses or not at all. All of these strategies are ways we unconsciously and creatively cope with overwhelming pain in the short run. However, these strategies only make things worse down the road.

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Why are cold people like that?

The most important thing to learn about why cold people are the way they are is: you are not the cause of why they are the way they areNature, nurture and fate all contribute to the heartlessness in people. About 30 to 50 percent of personality is determined by genetics. Some children are born with an oversensitivity to criticism, a detachment from others or early criminal traits which set them up for coldness in adulthood. This fact is not the whole explanation. Indeed, nurture plays the biggest role. We know that the core of having a conscience and sense of responsibility to others is formed during the “terrible two’s” through a caring connection to a primary parent. Caregivers who are overly indulgent, excessively protective, emotionally abusive, chronically neglectful or those that see their toddlers as extensions of themselves are at risk for raising heartless adults. Often it is the parents who are doing too much for their children and not setting adequate limits with their children that are in this category. Those of us who have witnessed the chaos and yelling in families where the children run the house may well understand how heartless adults are formed. Parents are the first people children need to learn respect for in order to learn how to respect others and themselves. Because of the early age at which this problem develops in terms of brain maturation, heartlessness tends to be a brain development problem which blocks learning from past experiences and causes it to persist indefinitely. Fate is another contributor to heartlessness. Some children are removed from or lose their parents in earliest years due to unfortunate circumstances, blocking early attachment and the development of warmth towards others. Adopted children are at risk in this category. Some children are born into abusive families which causes them to repeatedly associate fear with closeness to others due to the abuse itself. Trauma in earliest years blocks children from having the safety to learn how they affect others and contributes to later empathy gaps in their adulthood.

The most important thing to learn about why cold people are the way they are is: you are not the cause of why they are the way they are;, you can’t make him or her change to be a warm person; and even though they had tough breaks in their early lives, they are still completely responsible for their own behaviors today. With psychological help, cold people can learn to be less cold but you can’t do it for them. It’s better to learn how to cope with living with a cold person. It’s you that needs the help.

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Coping with coldness in a loved one

If you can avoid being involved with a heartless person, do it. Or keep the relationship very superficial. You can’t get water from a rock and this rock is radioactive. In the long run being close to an unempathetic person will drain you, exploit your kindness and leave you with a life lesson you will never forget. Don’t be seduced by the charm, charisma or attractiveness of an uncaring person. The best ways to tell you are with a cold person is to observe how they handle personal differences with you and to see how much pity they elicit in you. Cold people make you feel small for disagreeing with them on personal issues and they sucker you into feeling sorry for them when they could care less. If someone you know lets you do all the talking or never asks you questions about yourself, chances are you’re with a cold person. Don’t be fooled by appearances.

On the other hand, if you must be with an uncaring person, get smart. You will never change that person and it’s best to be on guard or else you will be sucked dry by the impossible demands he or she makes of you. Cold people, while having many good traits, are inherently parasitic. It’s best to use the word “no” a lot around them, especially when you feel overwhelmed or exploited by their demands or indifference to you. Remember “no” is the most important word a toddler needs to hear; the same can be said for heartless adults. Give up the idea that you are owed thanks for your caring since you will never get thanked anyway. Without his or her getting outside psychological help, disavow the notion that your loved one is finally changing when he or she takes a turn for the good. You’re just fooling yourself. On the other hand, the best time to suggest psychological help for a loved one is when he or she is in a crisis. Make sure your loved one gets help from someone who specializes in people with personality disorders, the psychological term for heartlessness. You can give him or her this article to read but don’t get your hopes up that it will make a difference. For your guidance read Crazy Love by Johnson and Murray and Too Close for Comfort by Geraldine K. Piorkowski.

Most of all, get a life of your own. Chances are too much of your energy has already gone into a heartless loved one, sometimes like water through a sieve. Face your own demons and deprivation. Focus on what you need from caring friends and how to make yourself happy apart from an uncaring loved one. If your identity is already too wrapped around a heartless person get involved in an Alanon group and seek psychological help for yourself. You don’t have to love an alcoholic to be in Alanon, you just have to be willing to have a self that you’d like to love. Indifferent people will never be able to comfort you. What you deserve are people that can make a big difference in your life. Let people love you for real.

John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W., is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.

This article first appeared in the Nov/Dec 2010 issue of The Phoenix Spirit. We may earn commissions via some of the links on this page, at no cost to you. 

Last Updated on August 10, 2021

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