Are you in a relationship with 'Peter Pan'? Here's how to tell

Reality TV shows are littered with men who suffer from what's called Peter Pan Syndrome, but there may be a few overgrown boys (and girls) in your life, too. Here's how to spot them.
Illustration of woman carrying man while he takes a selfie.
Dating someone with Peter Pan Syndrome can often leave women feeling like the "mother" to a man who never grew up.Abbey Lossing / for NBC News
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By Danielle Page

Living vicariously through the drama-filled days and nights of reality stars on shows like "Vanderpump Rules," "The Bachelor" and "Southern Charm" is a large part of the draw to tune in week after week.

But if you take a closer look at the main male characters like Jax Taylor and Thomas Ravenel who drive these story lines, there's a specific behavior pattern that adds to the drama; one you may have experienced more subtly in your own relationships.

Peter Pan Syndrome — when grown men avoid the personal and professional responsibilities of adulthood — isn't recognized as a psychological disorder, but it can explain a certain pattern of behavior. While these reality TV stars may be extreme examples: egotistical, rampant narcissists who struggle with the mere concept of commitment and avoid grown up responsibilities at all costs, Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist based in California, says it's a real, fairly common dilemma — one you can easily fall for if you're not careful.

"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)," she says.

These qualities have been kryptonite for many of reality TV's leading ladies. In a recent interview with Bravo TV, "Real Housewives of New York City's" Sonja Morgan, Luann de Lesseps, and Dorinda Medley shared similar sentiments about the playful charm that drew them to infamous Peter Pan, Harry Dubin — a real estate millionaire who has worked his way through the RHONY cast members who find him irresistible despite his non-committal, untrustworthy track record. "He’s a southern guy, and when he wants he can be really charming," said Sonja Morgan. "You can’t help but love him until he pisses you off."

These love-to-hate-them reality stars all exhibit typical behavior patterns of someone who fits the "Peter Pan" mold. These behaviors include: difficulty expressing emotions, procrastination and unclear or poorly defined life goals, and "magical thinking" around mistakes or responsibilities, blaming others for their problems and trying to escape their reality to make their problems disappear, explains Nathan Brandon, a psychologist practicing in California. Their behavior in relationships — both platonic and romantic — also may signal that you have a Peter Pan on your hands. They are often in desperate search of a partner but have difficulty maintaining meaningful relationships, and while they are great at working a room, they lack the ability to move beyond acquaintances and connect further on a deeper level, adds Brandon.

At the root of these behaviors is a desire to remain at the adolescent stage of development.

"Maturity level is a factor in Peter Pan Syndrome as those who exhibit these behaviors are typically behaving in ways that we might consider someone who is an adolescent to behave," says Brandon. "It seems to be more about specific types of immature behaviors and the extent to which a person’s maturity level doesn’t match their age in what we might expect in an adult (e.g., being responsible, emotional maturity, being in a committed relationship, or being financially stable) or meeting certain developmental milestones (e.g., graduating from college, starting a career, getting married, or having children). In this way, we can think of Peter Pan Syndrome as a sort of arrested development at the adolescent stage of life."

While Brandon caveats that he would never "diagnose" someone exhibiting these behaviors with Peter Pan Syndrome, he would utilize works such as J.M. Barrie’s "Peter Pan" as a means of helping a client to better understand their pattern of behavior and desire to remain at the adolescent stage of development.

Peter Pan Syndrome: when grown men avoid the personal and professional responsibilities of adulthood.

What explains Peter Pan Syndrome?

Psychologist Dan Riley coined the term Peter Pan Syndrome in his attempt to explore and explain the behaviors of these men who refuse to grow up. And while Peter Pan Syndrome is commonly attributed to men, Connie Omari, a licensed professional counselor and owner of Tech Talk Therapy, explains that the way many of us have grown up may have opened doors for both genders to suffer from this particular syndrome (which would explain why so many Peter Pans grace the small screen).

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"When Dr Kiley wrote his book ... he was attempting to address a cluster of symptoms or behaviors that he noticed in some of the clients he worked with. He came up with his list of traits in order to try to define these behaviors as a syndrome so it could be better recognized and treated," says Brandon. "Unfortunately, his attempt to address these problematic traits in some individuals has become part of popular culture and a way of labeling individuals as immature or as people to avoid in relationships. I think this is unfortunate because it is stigmatizing and like all problematic behaviors, it arises as a means of coping with other difficult emotional wounds or problems."

What wounds or problems are they coping with exactly? Omari points out that many parents attempts to make their kids' lives better may have "left many of them feeling unprepared, and even, incapable of truly taking responsibility for their actions."

Dr. Rick Capaldi, Ph.D, a family therapist practicing in Nevada, echoes this sentiment, explaining that the amount of freedom, responsibility and accountability we're given during childhood has a direct impact on how we behave as adults. "If the direction and reasonable support by significant adults for embracing risk is not present, and excuses are consistently made for an individual’s poor or childlike behavior, parents create a child who’s helpless and risk avoidant, lowering their expectations and rewarding childishness versus maturity and growth," he says. "As the child grows into adulthood with a lack of a sense of accomplishment, pride, confidence and the ability and willingness to embrace risk and opportunity, they shy away from challenges. The long-term results for them, as well as those individuals they connect with, can be devastating, establishing a lifetime of dissatisfaction for all involved."

Some Peter Pans may exhibit traits or features of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, but they don't typically meet the full criteria for the disorder, says Brandon. "These symptoms or traits seem to stem from a deeper woundedness that occurred during their development. The symptoms are often masked with humor or confidence in an attempt of the person’s ego to protect them from having to experience the associated negative feelings from past issues."

Dating a Peter Pan

Cathy Hayes, a 43-year-old marketing and public relations director based in Florida, had been dating her boyfriend for about five months when she started to see a pattern emerge. "He was 40, never married, no kids. Smart, tons of fun and a nice guy. But completely clueless when it comes to relationships or how to date," she says.

Being a novice in the chivalry category is one thing, but as time went on, Cathy found herself acting more like a parent than a girlfriend. "It started to get irritating when he would come back to my house and just stay, making himself comfortable," she says. "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."

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His communication with her was also sporadic; Hayes never knew where things stood or when she'd see him next. "He would go days without communicating and then just pop up out of nowhere," she says. "Not once in five months did he ever tell me how he felt about me as a person or try to have a conversation about where things were or were not going with us. I felt like we were just friends who would make out on occasion."

The lack of communication, commitment avoidance and childlike behavior Hayes describes are all hallmarks of a so-called Peter Pan. But is there hope that he can change?

What motivates a Peter Pan to want to change?

As Jax Taylor recently proved by finally tying the knot with long-term love interest and "Vanderpump Rules" co-star Brittany Cartwright, someone with Peter Pan Syndrome can change — if and when he wants to.

"Sadly, a person with this syndrome often has no desire or reason to change — if the current partner is truly fed up, the next 'supporter' is often waiting just around the corner," says Manly.

While it can vary, Manly says negative occurrences can sometimes snap those suffering from this syndrome into action. “Loss, whether death of a family member or end of a relationship, can make us step back to assess our lives,” she explains. “When a Peter Pan loses a relationship as a result of self-indulgent or immature ways, the loss may be significant enough to trigger change. In the same way, if a Peter Pan loses a parent who was an idol or strong life force, that loss can trigger a life reassessment. Even losing a job as a result of not showing up or giving insufficient effort can — if the loss is serious enough — trigger change.”

Is your Peter Pan ready to change?

To know for sure, Manly suggests talking to them about how you feel and where you stand, which can help you move on or move forward based on their reaction. "The subject can be approached openly and honestly — but with a bit of delicacy," Manly says. "For example, a partner might say, 'I love your sweet, boyish side, and I care about you so much. Still, I feel hurt and disrespected as it feels like I’m carrying the financial load and key responsibilities in the relationship. It’s important for us to address this, and I’d like us to see a therapist together.' If the partner is unwilling to move forward, the choices are sad, but clear — accept what is present or move forward on your own."

As for Hayes' Peter Pan? "We spent the weekend before last together, I drove him home, and haven’t heard from him since," she says. "My advice to anyone in this situation is to realize you cannot change them. If you choose to stay in it, you need to accept that this person is just not capable of anything more. I enjoy spending time and having fun with someone, but an adult relationship requires adult behavior."

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