When Someone You Love Lacks Soul

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“My life was going great until one day at the office this good looking guy, Sam, a computer consultant, came on our floor and I just couldn’t keep my eyes off of him. Co-workers said, “Marty, he’s a nerd. He’s not your type. Leave him alone.” Did I listen to them? No I didn’t. As a young ad rep believe me I met my share of players and I wanted someone stable — someone really stable! Initially Sam’s boyish charm and conventionality stole my heart. He seemed like an old-fashioned guy, someone you bring home to mom and dad. My folks loved him. His lack of social skills was no big deal since I had enough pizazz for the two of us. At first Sam worshipped me and was very agreeable. After a year of dating we got married. But then Sam changed. The first sign of trouble came on our honeymoon. This absolutely hot guy didn’t want to have sex with me. I thought he was just nervous and I didn’t make a big deal of it. However Sam’s rigidity and control over our life together became extreme. He insisted on our going to bed each night at 10, always wanted to schedule our weekend activities for the two of us, and micromanaged our finances to the penny. The worst part was Sam’s indifference to my tears and his denial of his contribution to our marital woes. I just couldn’t stand it. Even so I constantly doubted my own sanity and blamed myself for Sam’s coldness. My teddy bear had become a grizzly bear squeezing the life out of me. Rather than lose any more of my identity I left Sam. Could we have worked things out? No. I married Same because he was predictable, not because he was capable of love.”

Soullessness in a relationship

Nearly all of us have loved one who “just doesn’t get it.” Although he or she may appear to be the answer to our dreams, something basic is missing. Our family member may be persistently incapable of understanding his or her emotional impact on others and lack a conscience. Whether it’s a parent, partner or child, a soulless family member may take an enormous toll on us. We may feel disoriented, duped, exploited, overburdened, and depressed from such experiences as we overly blame ourselves for the insensitivity of a clueless loved one.

In an effort to lessen our ordeal we may attempt to change our soulless loved one. We may communicate our feelings, ask for behavior change, lose our composure, manipulate for better results, or even threaten to leave. All to no avail. Even when our loved one is sober, law-abiding, and apparently well-functioning, we may be living in anguish with a person who is incapable of change and relational sensitivity.

The stark reality is that our loved one lacks compassion and we may be too horror stricken to recognize that fact. So we deny, deceive ourselves, overfunction and endlessly suffer.

Yes some people really are incapable of understanding other people’s feelings. Often we don’t know what to do about it and we feel crazy.

About one in six people is unable to empathize with other people’s feelings, gets stuck in rigid and insensitive patterns of behavior, and essentially pretends at life itself. Such coldness is chronic in uncaring people’s lives, originates in childhood and ought not to be confused with other problems.

For instance, people with chemical dependency problems may go through periods of indifference to others but when they sober up they feel true remorse over what they have done. Teens may go through normal periods of self-preoccupation and be oblivious to others but eventually grow out of such limitations. They never change without highly specialized psychological help — professionals who treat attachment disorders. They impose their limitations on others who typically give them more credit than their due.

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It can feel horrifying and deeply discouraging to realize the person we love so much is incapable of true compassion. Most of us would rather not know. So we pretend and suffer.

How did they get this way?

Clearly people who lack a conscience are not all bad and they deserve our compassion and caring. Their inability to grasp how they affect others in relationships and be responsible for their actions is something they can work on but doesn’t come naturally to them.

There is a range of soullessness — from the criminally insane psychopaths to the garden variety petty criminals to the apparently well-functioning people in relationships who are incapable of caring. Typically when a neighbor’s pet dies they feel nothing, unless there is some advantage to appearing to be sorry. They are predators in relationships and see love not as having its own merit but as a means to an end. Typically they partner with people who were vulnerable to them in the first place.

Both men and women can be soulless but express their coldness differently.

Both men and women can be soulless but express their coldness differently.A combination of bad genes, early infant bonding problems, emotional family trauma and neglect all contribute to psychopathy. Normally we all develop a conscience in the context of early childhood relationships and peer influence. Healthy bonding makes for good conscience. However, when a baby comes into the world with a temperament that is impossible to soothe, he or she may not fully bond and later be indifferent to human love. Alternatively, when a mom is indifferent to her even-tempered toddler or doesn’t allow the toddler to be different from herself, there is some likelihood that the toddler will grow into an adult who does whatever he or she pleases. Since the adult in the toddler’s young life never recognized his or her feelings, why would he or she do so later in adult years? Certainly trauma can disrupt the normal growth of morality in children as the very people who were supposed to protect a child actually harmed the child. Our moral compass is essentially formed in the first three years of life. Soulless adults are actually stuck in a very immature level of moral development. Unlike others who feel healthy guilt, soulless people feel little guilt and consequently don’t learn from their experiences. They remain stuck for life and are great actors.

Why didn’t I see it?

Plato once said, “And then there are those feeding on the food of illusion seeking truth in things that contain none.” We are not innocent in picking a partner who is soulless or making excuses for inexcusable behavior in a soulless family member. Some of us simply don’t want to see the full extent of heartlessness in our loved ones. We may endlessly fault ourselves if we really saw them as soulless. If we’re dating a cold person, we may be so scared of being alone we may settle for anyone who gives us some attention especially if they are charming and tell us what we want to hear. In established relationships, our loyalty to loved ones may preclude seeing them in a realistic light. Reality may overwhelm us. Some of us live in a dream world and prefer to not see the real brutal coldness of a dear one. Others may feel that the heroic person we are with will fill some empty space in ourselves and we may make excuses for his or her insensitive behaviors. A few of us have lead such overprotected lives we are naïve and are unable to protect ourselves from evil. Some of us pick a mate for superficial reasons and mistakenly believe we will not be harmed by the coldness of a partner. Sometimes the cold person is such a convincing actor that we make a fool of ourselves in believing a person who is not credible. We are all vulnerable to being conned no matter how smart we are. Most of the time we don’t see psychopathy in a loved one because we have a stake in being blind. WE are too scared to see the obvious. We may be unwilling to work on those aspects of ourselves that makes us easy targets for exploiters.

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Signals of soullessness

Although you probably already know when a loved one lacks a conscience, use the the following guide for confirming your hunches. A person is likely soulless when he or she:

  • Is a loner or only has superficial or utilitarian friendships
  • Treats people like objects
  • Shows repeated indifference or mechanical concern for human suffering
  • Has a repetitive pattern of not learning from past mistakes
  • Sees no inconsistencies between words that say one thing and actions that say another
  • Becomes rageful when confronted with the truth
  • Cannot be trusted, is manipulative and makes others crazy for expecting the truth
  • Is primarily self-serving and uses others for selfish gain
  • Knows how to turn on the charm, use drama and lie to get ahead
  • Has an explanation or excuse for everything
  • Is a master at eliciting pity from others and getting others to have blind faith in him or her
  • Just doesn’t get human relationships and how they work

Survival strategies: Should I stay or should I leave?

“I realize today that nothing in the world is more distasteful to a man than to take the path that leads to himself.” Hermann HesseHermann Hesse once said, “I realize today that nothing in the world is more distasteful to a man than to take the path that leads to himself.” It’s to your credit that you are reading this article and looking at what you can do to protect yourself from soullessness. The lack of conscience is not a pleasant topic but it ought to be faced. Read, Crazy Love by W. Brad Johnson and Kelly Murray. First don’t blame yourself for your loved one’s behaviors or take personally how he or she behaves no matter how much your well-intentioned friends tell you otherwise. Instead lean on friends who really believe you and can stand in your shoes. Second, don’t expect your loved one to change. Make your own happiness apart from your loved one. You cannot change your lover or save him or her. Only he or she can do that. Third, leave the relationship if you are just dating, are repeatedly emotionally or physically abused, or are putting your children in continuing danger to their growth and development. Your lover may play the pity card, make unrealistic promises to change, or threaten to fall apart completely if you leave. These are all masquerades to get you back to the old system. Make plans with friends to ensure your own safety and move on with your life. Learn an important lesson of love: to fully appreciate the bounty of human love we must experience it’s absence.


John H. Driggs, LICSW, 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 February 2008 issue of The Phoenix Spirit. We may earn a commission via some of the links on this page – at no cost to you.

Last Updated on August 24, 2021

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