Zach Rawlings, MA, LPC

Licensed Professional Counselor

Men Who Never Grow Up and Four Ways To Interact With Them More Effectively

Peter Pan: “Would you send me to school?”

Mrs. Darling: “Yes.”

Peter Pan: “And then to an office?”

 Mrs. Darling: “I suppose so.”

 Peter Pan: “Soon I should be a man?”

Mrs. Darling: “Very soon.”

Peter Pan: I don’t want to go to school and learn solemn things! No one is going to catch me, lady, and make me a man. I want always to be a little boy and to have fun!”

We all know the type. You may even run out of fingers counting the men in your life who fit the criteria. They are the men who refuse to grow up. They can be hopelessly irresponsible, emotionally stunted and uncomfortable with negative emotions. Sometimes they can even be rude, narcissistic, and chauvinistic.

You might be dating one. You might be married to one. Or maybe you just work with one and cannot figure out how to convince them to embrace their adulthood. They are the men in all of our lives who refuse to grow up. Some psychologists identify these men as suffering from Peter Pan Syndrome (Kiley, 1983).

Named after the lovable fairy tale character, Peter Pan was a young boy who wanted to stay young and childlike forever. He reminds us all of everlasting youth, fun spiritedness, and the importance of play. Although these are important characteristics to have in our lives, they cannot be the only characteristics we adopt and prioritize if we want to experience fulfillment and contentedness.

Perhaps you have such a man in your life. You may even be in love with him. But no matter how much affinity you feel for the guy, his inability to embrace adulthood leaves you constantly frustrated and wondering over and over if being in relationship with him is sustainable.

Often times these men have a host of frustrating behaviors that make it difficult to be close to them, be it romantically or platonically:

·      perpetual irresponsibility (refusal to choose a realistic career path or to spend money wisely),

·      high anxiety (constant preoccupation with the future or the past which sabotages their ability to be present),

·      loneliness (although often this is not outwardly shown or expressed),

·      sex role conflicts (e.g. a strong desire to be the “man” in a relationship or a demand to be “doted on” or “taken care of” by his partner),

·      narcissism and chauvinism (a refusal to apologize for mistakes or pouting behavior when they do not get their way) (Kiley, 1983).

This list is not exhaustive but it gives us a brief picture of the issues contributing to these men’s inability to maturely embrace adulthood.

So what should you do if you find yourself in relationship with a man like this?

The good news is that this isn’t an irreversible condition. But you do need to know your limits. Often those who are drawn to and attracted to these types of men can have a desire to “take care of” or “parent” them. They enjoy being needed and gain satisfaction from “rescuing” these men from their immaturity or self-pity. However, if you find yourself feeling increased resentment or frustration, here are a few strategies to try:

  1. Be specific and factual when confronting upsetting behavior: Often these men do not know how to handle negative emotions themselves—much less anyone else’s. Remember to be factual and not emotional. High emotional expression is often a trigger for these men and can make them shut down quickly. A good formula to follow when addressing an upsetting behavior is to:
    • Factually state what happened. (e.g. You came home two hours later than you told me you would last night.)
    • Express what you feel and why you feel this way. (e.g. I feel pretty hurt by that because it feels like you do not respect my time when you do not show up when you say you will.)
    • Explain what you would like to see in the future (e.g. In the future, please call me if you are going to be later than you promised. 
  2. Reflect the issue under the surface: Men who refuse to grow up often externalize problems and refuse to connect them to their current emotional state. Refusing to grow in self-awareness alongside your Peter Pan can be tempting, but it isn’t healthy. After hearing him complain about his boss and how he is a victim to some force outside of him, use a simple reflective statement that attacks the underlying issue: “It sounds like you’re really scared about losing your job because your boss seems to misunderstand your intentions. It’s okay for a guy like you to be scared sometimes.”
  3. Practice active ignoring: In other words, ignore this guy when what he is saying is loaded with narcissism, chauvinistic undertones, or irresponsibility. Change the direction of the conversation. Sometimes behaviors that are ignored become extinguished (but not always, unfortunately).
  4. Express opinions without sounding apologetic: Sometimes these men can make us feel wrong or badly about our feelings or opinions. It is crucial to understand that this is simply a projection of their own inability to fully understand or accept their own feelings of inferiority. Refuse to apologize for how a situation made you feel. You can hear him out, but that does not mean your feelings are invalid. Learn to use assertive language that isn’t riddled with self-doubt (e.g. That was frustrating when you forgot my birthday. It hurt my feelings because I felt unimportant to you, and I would like for us to find a time to talk about that.)

Remember: if you are in relationship with a Peter Pan, then you must make a hard decision if he fails to respond to you in a different way. Know when you need to walk away, or encourage relationship therapy and look at all of the options you have to engage him.

Above all, remember that his growth and maturity is not your responsibility. Know your limits and how far you are willing to go. If you are interested in learning more about these men, the causes of such behavior, and more specific interventions to implement, I highly suggest Dr. Dan Kiley’s book, The Peter Pan Syndrome. 

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Kiley, D. (1983). The Peter Pan syndrome. New York, NY: Avon Books.