A couple of days ago I was having a conversation with a man in his late 50s, who described himself as a “Peter Pan.” He said that he is in a relationship with a woman he adores and wants to make it work, but added that he “keeps messing things up” and she’s about had it with him. He sensed that he could not keep avoiding tough conversations with her or keep acting the way he was acting or he would eventually end up in the nursing home alone. He really wanted a solution. “Why am I like this?” he asked.
“Well,” I said, “without knowing your whole story, it’s hard to say, but to me Peter Pans don’t want to take responsibility – they don’t want to rely on anyone for anything and they don’t want the responsibility of anyone relying on them, because of underlying trust issues.”
He thought for a minute – “You know, I think it might have something to do with my mother being married five times.” Apparently, one of these times his mother remarried a European man and basically up and left the family to live in Italy for 14 years. He said he was basically raised by another family and was clearly still angry about it. I asked him if he ever forgave her, he said he did though it scarred him. He agreed that he had trust issues, but underlying those trust issues was a sense of abandonment. He was weary about getting attached to anyone for fear of being abandoned again.
His experience reminded me of a couple other men I know who could be classified as Peter Pans. One is in his mid-40s, never been married, never had kids. He is outgoing and good-looking and says he is looking for “the one.” He has no problems getting dates but his relationships don’t last very long (the longest was a year and a half).
Every time he reached the point in a relationship where there was the "do-we-get-more-serious?" moment, he ended the relationship. He said that his parents had a long and happy marriage but that he was the youngest of seven brothers and growing up all of them picked on him and gave him a hard time about everything.
Underneath his confidence and charm there was a fear of being judged (his words); he was afraid of not being accepted when he really gave his all in a relationship, that he’d end up with another critic rather than a someone in his corner and therefore was indecisive until whatever woman he was seeing wanted to know how he felt about where the relationship was going.
The other man it made me think of is now in his early 60s and lives alone in a beautiful house he designed that is in the middle of nowhere. Not exactly the best place to meet people, right? But the choice of location is part of the point. This man was married briefly in his early 20s and had a couple of kids, but abandoned them and his young wife after a few years to go be a free spirit – traveling the world with no obligations. He dropped out of contact with his entire family, eventually sending his wife divorce papers from another part of the country. Later, he tried repairing his relationship with his kids but they weren’t interested.
His parents, now in their late 80s, were telling me this story, as it was “unfinished business” for them because they still were trying to pinpoint where they went wrong. They were, above all, concerned that their grandson, now in his late 30s and single, told them that because of what he went through with his father popping in and out of his life he never wanted to get married or have kids of his own.
Listening to this older couple, I asked about their son’s upbringing: he was the oldest son and they placed a lot of responsibility on him at a young age. He wasn’t allowed much time to play as a child and they didn’t allow him many possessions. The grandfather was a disciplinarian, but became less strict with each child. The grandmother was emotionally guarded. The sense I got, based on his childhood and later his pattern with women as well as his penchant for acquiring material things, was that he felt deprived in his youth and that sense of “not having enough” carried into his adulthood. Of course, that's an assumption based on a second-hand version of the story.
Regardles, if someone does not know how to have a healthy relationship with others, they usually don’t have a healthy relationship with themselves – in this man’s situation I sense there’s also a lack of self-love. When someone doesn’t get enough love when they’re young, they don’t learn how to love others. When another person comes along and starts wanting some of the little bit of love that is there, it can feel threatening, like they’re going to be deprived again. That’s where possessions can be comforting.
It seems like there’s many reasons why a person could be a Peter Pan. Another might be that they just don’t want what society wants them to want. Part of me gets that, but another part of me thinks that at some point, everyone wants to touch and be touched, love and be loved, accept and be accepted. Fully. It takes courage to let someone see you, all of you, and not know whether they’ll hold space for you or reject you.
Some people, I think, have lost faith that anyone would be willing to do that for them. Or the possibility of rejection for them is too great, so they either end the relationship first or purposely don’t pick partners that they’ll truly care about. In the end I don’t think it’s about growing up, it’s about understanding the past and taking the risk (despite the past) that someone out there wants to accept you, love you and show up for you.
Also, one of the book recommendations I would give to anyone who feels like they may be a Peter Pan is The Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller. It's a short read and can really help readers get to the core of whatever is holding them back from forming healthy attachment.
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