It's not recognized as a psychological disorder in its own right, but if you were to describe “Peter Pan Syndrome” to a group of women in heterosexual relationships, the odds are it would be familiar to some of them. Some of those – maybe by accident – will have found themselves playing the role of Wendy. But what is the Peter Pan and Wendy dynamic, and how does it impact relationships?
You might know Peter Pan as the impish, green-clad protagonist of the 1953 Disney movie, or from one of the many other adaptations that have come out since. The character was originally the creation of Scottish playwright JM Barrie, appearing in his work Peter Pan; or The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up. It’s right there in the title – Peter Pan refused to let go of his childhood, turning his back on the adult world in favor of the everlasting kids’ club of Neverland.
While we may agree that certain aspects of adult life are overrated (have you filed your taxes yet?), studies have suggested that some people take this view to the extreme. Peter Pan Syndrome describes adults, generally men, who appear unable to face up to the responsibilities that come with life in a grown-up relationship and may instead rely on their female partners to take on these burdens. Not exactly a recipe for relationship success.
A 2021 study referred to some of the key signs that the man in your life could be taking on the Peter Pan persona. Individuals with Peter Pan syndrome may express their emotions in inappropriate ways. They tend to be self-centered, but also apathetic and unwilling to make long-term life plans. They are said to be lonely, also struggling to form social relationships. They may find it difficult to take responsibility for their mistakes. They may have a difficult relationship with their own father, while expecting the women in their life to take on the role of a mother figure.
When laid out like this, these characteristics may not sound particularly attractive; but, as clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly told NBC News BETTER, other personality traits can draw you in, at least at the start of a relationship. “Peter Pans have a playfulness that can be wonderful – yet works against involvement in life’s duties; a boyish charm that is both captivating and irritating (due to the avoidance of adult reality).”
The study went on to develop a five-point scale to quantify someone’s degree of Peter Pan syndrome, incorporating 22 factors across three different categories: “Escape from responsibility”; “Power perception”; and “Never-growing child”. The maximum score is 110, and a higher score indicates a greater level of Peter Pan-ness. The authors suggest that their scale is reliable, and could be used to help guide clinical practice, for example in marriage counseling.
So where does Wendy come into the equation? In the story, Wendy gets a pretty raw deal, being taken to Neverland to effectively assume maternal responsibility for a load of children who’ve been living unsupervised on an island for an unspecified amount of time. It doesn’t even stop when she returns home at the end of the story, as she graciously agrees to go back there once a year to do Peter Pan’s spring cleaning for him.
Just like the put-upon Wendy of JM Barrie’s imagination, the partners of those with Peter Pan syndrome can find themselves enabling their distaste for adult responsibilities. This can pretty quickly lead to resentment, and feeling underappreciated. One woman explained to NBC News BETTER how, a few months into a new relationship, she found herself with not so much a boyfriend, but more another child on her hands:
“It started to get irritating when he would come back to my house and just stay, making himself comfortable. He’d ask for back rubs and eat my kid's Lucky Charms. The more I gave, the less he did. I would even have to drive him home the next day! It was like adding a separate carpool to my to-do list.”
That’s not to say that everyone who could feasibly be pegged as a “Wendy” is unhappy about it. But for those who do want to get out of the Peter and Wendy trap, psychologist Mark Travers highlighted some things you could do to get the relationship back on track. It may be possible to help your Peter Pan partner gradually take on more responsibility whilst also knocking your own enabling behaviors on the head.
“Do not forget to celebrate your partner’s efforts every step of the way by showing them appreciation and affection. Hold them accountable for the things they say they will do and focus on small victories rather than massive behavioral overhauls,” Travers suggests. “Ending enabling behaviors, like tidying up after them every time they make a mess, getting their car cleaned, or paying their bills, may help them recognize the need for change.”
However, he cautions that expecting a person to radically change in order to fit with your own goals and ideals is not the way to look at this. If you’re not happy being a Wendy, and your other half seems set in their Peter Pan ways, it may be best to call time on the relationship.
“Never ask your partner to change who they are. After all, that’s probably the reason you fell in love with them in the first place.”