Are you a “Wendy”? How “Peter Pan Syndrome” Can Affect Relationships

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, chances are it’s familiar to some people. ‘between them. Some of them – perhaps 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 mischievous, green-clad protagonist from the 1953 Disney film, or 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 Wouldn’t 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 eternal children’s club of Neverland.

While we might agree that some aspects of adult life are overstated (have you ever filed your taxes?), studies have suggested that some people take this view to extremes. Peter Pan syndrome describes adults, usually men, who seem unable to cope with the responsibilities that come with living in an adult relationship and who can instead rely on their female partners to shoulder those burdens. Not exactly a recipe for relationship success.

A 2021 study referenced some of the key signs that the man in your life might adopt the Peter Pan persona. People with Peter Pan syndrome may express their emotions inappropriately. 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 lives to take on the role of a mother figure.

When presented in this way, these features may not seem particularly appealing; but, as clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly told NBC News BETTER, other personality traits may attract you, at least at the start of a relationship. “Peter Pans have a playful spirit that can be wonderful – but belies involvement in the duties of life; a childish charm that is both captivating and irritating (due to the avoidance of adult reality).

The study then developed a five-point scale to quantify a person’s degree of Peter Pan syndrome, incorporating 22 factors in three different categories: ‘escaping responsibility’; “Perception of power”; and “Child who never grows up”. 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 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 take on maternal responsibility for a bunch of children who have been living unsupervised on an island for an indefinite amount of time. It doesn’t even end when she returns home at the end of the story, as she graciously agrees to go back once a year to do Peter Pan’s spring cleaning for him.

Much like Wendy from the imagination of JM Barrie, partners of people with Peter Pan Syndrome may find themselves fostering their distaste for adult responsibilities. This can quite quickly lead to resentment and a feeling of being underestimated. One woman told NBC News BETTER how, a few months into a new relationship, she found herself not with a boyfriend, but rather with another child on her hands:

“It started to get irritating when he would come back to my house and just stay, make himself comfortable. He asked for back massages and ate my child’s lucky charms. The more I gave, the less he made. I should even 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 might be likened to a “Wendy” is unhappy with it. But for those who want to get out of the Peter and Wendy trap, psychologist Mark Travers has pointed out 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 while reversing your own empowering behaviors.

“Remember to celebrate your partner’s efforts every step of the way by showing appreciation and affection. Hold them accountable for what they say they will do and focus on small wins rather than massive behavioral overhauls,” Travers suggests. “Stopping empowering behaviors, like tidying up after them every time they make a mess, getting their car cleaned or paying their bills, can help them recognize the need for change.”

However, he cautions that expecting a person to change drastically in order to fit 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 end the relationship.

“Never ask your partner to change who they are. After all, that’s probably why you fell in love with them in the first place.

[H/T: Forbes]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *