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What Is a Man Child? Also Known as Peter Pan Syndrome

Original Post By VeryWell Marni Feuerman, LCSW, LMFT Updated on March 27, 2023

Reviewed by Carly Snyder, MD

A man who exhibits persistent patterns of emotionally immature responses and behavior is sometimes referred to as a man child. People married to these individuals might complain about having an immature husband who does not behave like an adult in their relationship.


During the 1980s, this phenomenon was dubbed "Peter Pan syndrome." The term was popularized by a psychologist named Dan Kiley, who published a book in 1983 titled, "The Peter Pan Syndrome: Men Who Have Never Grown Up."1


While it provides a way to organize and discuss the characteristics and behaviors of people who are emotionally immature, Peter Pan syndrome is not an official psychiatric diagnosis. It does not appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) and is not recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO).


Like the character of Peter Pan, you might know a person who just refuses to grow up. It could be a friend, a co-worker, or even your spouse. While the term is often applied to men, women are capable of exhibiting the same patterns of behavior.


I Don't Want to Grow Up: What Should I Do About That?


The "Man Child" Label

It's important to understand what you really mean when you describe someone as being a man child, accuse them of being an immature husband, or describe them as having Peter Pan syndrome:

  • Are you frustrated by what you perceive as his apparent lack of emotional, social, and mental development?

  • Do you feel that certain attributes that initially attracted you to your partner and that you used to love (such as a laid-back and fun-loving personality) are now causing difficulties in your relationship?

  • Do you sometimes feel like you are talking to a teenager rather than a grown-up when you attempt to engage them in a discussion?

  • Is their behavior immature, irresponsible, and unreliable?

  • In response to their behavior, do you feel that you have to work extra hard to compensate or even cover up for them?


Why the Label Is Harmful

No one should be reduced to labels—especially hurtful name-calling. When you are feeling frustrated by your spouse's behavior, hurtful phrases might slip out when you are expressing your exasperation to a confidant.


When you confront your spouse, you might be tempted to resort to using this term as you try to explain behavior that you don't understand, appreciate, or find problematic. But using this term is not likely to help you have a productive conversation.


For one, it's vague and might be interpreted by your partner in a way other than what you intend. It could also make your partner feel angry or hurt. They might get defensive or shut down the conversation completely.


If you want to have a talk with your partner about their behavior and how you feel it is affecting your relationship, you will need to be direct. You will need to give concrete examples rather than vague generalizations.


How to Have Difficult Conversations With Your Spouse


Signs of an Immature Partner

There are a variety of signs associated with a person who is described as a man child or an immature husband. You might recognize some common immature behaviors in your male partner, but these behaviors are not specific to men. These signs can appear in any adult who has not reached a certain level of emotional maturity.


They Lack Boundaries With Their Parents

People who are emotionally immature sometimes have intense and dysfunctional relationships with their parents. For men, this can include how they relate to their mothers.2


The unhealthy dynamic usually starts in childhood and is sometimes referred to as enmeshment.3 When a man is enmeshed with his mother, he might continue to rely on her to meet his emotional, social, practical, and financial needs (even when he is in a partnered adult relationship).4


They Have Not Had Mature Relationships

If you have discussed prior relationships with your partner, you might have noticed that they tend to speak poorly of people they have been in relationships with (be it friendships or romantic and sexual partners).


Instead of taking responsibility for their actions or behaviors that might have caused problems or ended a previous relationship, a person who is immature is more likely to blame others.


People who lack emotional maturity tend to see and present themselves as always being an innocent victim.1



Their Friends Are Immature

An immature person might prefer to spend time with others who also lack emotional maturity, as these individuals are less likely to question, criticize, or challenge their behavior.


You might find that you dislike many of your partner's friends because of how they behave. You might even consider these friends to be a "bad influence" or worry that they are stoking your partner's immature behavior.


When you and your partner are socializing with other adults (such as going out with friends, having a family gathering, or attending a work function), their behavior might embarrass you or even anger you. You might feel the need to explain or apologize for their misbehavior.1



They Can't Keep a Job

It's not uncommon for people who are immature emotionally to struggle with getting or holding down a job.5 They might have been fired from a string of jobs because of poor work performance, absenteeism, interpersonal problems with their co-workers or boss, substance use, or even behaviors like stealing.


If a person has enabling parents, family, or friends who support them financially well into adulthood, they might be able to continue to avoid work.


Are Your "Parenting" Your Partner?


They Lack Healthy Ways to Cope With Stress

People who are immature often don't have healthy ways to cope with stress. They might use certain activities to avoid their feelings, responsibilities, or anything else that causes them stress.


An emotionally mature adult might take up a stress-relieving hobby, confide in a friend over coffee, work with a therapist, or use exercise to relieve stress. Someone who is immature might develop an addiction to an activity that promotes avoidance and escapism, such as video games.6



Their Relationship With Substances Is Unhealthy

Anyone can develop an unhealthy relationship with alcohol or other substances, but emotional immaturity might play a role in substance misuse and addiction for some people.7



Someone who is using drugs or alcohol irresponsibly may not know or care about the potential dangers. They might not be aware of (or fail to consider) the potential consequences of their actions on themselves and those around them.


An immature husband or "man child" might even try to justify their irresponsible behavior (for example, by emailing you a questionable research study on the safety or benefits of taking an illicit drug after you express concern).


When they are unable to justify or back up their behavior when you call them out on it, an immature person might attack you. For example, if you express concern about your partner's binge drinking, they might accuse you of being "uptight" and unable to relax and have fun.


They Don't (or Won't) Help Around the House

Someone who is immature might lack a sense of responsibility for some of the more mundane aspects of adult life, like paying the bills or household tasks.


They might refuse to help with any of the cooking, cleaning, or laundry. If asked to help with chores, an immature person might respond petulantly. They might need to be bribed or demand compensation for performing tasks that are simply a routine part of keeping a home and functioning as a responsible adult.8


Someone who is emotionally immature may also lack an awareness of the need for self-care. Their partner might need to remind them to brush their teeth, shave, or shower.9


They might need to be made aware of what constitutes appropriate attire for social occasions or events. Their partner might need to tell them what to wear or even put out clothes for them.


Is Housework Hurting Your Marriage?


They Don't Express Emotions Appropriately

People who lack emotional maturity often do not have good insight into themselves or their behavior. They might not believe or will refuse to see that their behavior is dysfunctional or unhealthy.


A person who lacks maturity might have a hard time explaining how they feel. They might struggle to problem-solve when faced with challenges.9


An emotionally immature person may frequently complain, whine, and insist that they are being treated unfairly. They can be petty and may "keep score" when it comes to arguments.


At times, a person who is immature may go so far as to throw tantrums—particularly when they feel that they are being slighted, blamed, or "called out" in some way.


Men who expect to be or feel entitled to being treated a certain way by their partner might "act out" if they feel that their needs have not been met or have been ignored.

Emotionally immature men who are parents might even feel threatened by their own children.


For example, a man might be upset if his partner prioritizes the kids' needs before his (a behavior that is also common in narcissistic parents).


Coping With a "Man Child"

If your partner is Peter Pan, you might be Wendy.10 In other words, if your male spouse is acting like a man child, you might be unconsciously encouraging the behavior by taking on the role of a parent.


At first, his behavior might have been fun and entertaining. Perhaps you were drawn to him because you felt that he was a "challenge" or someone that you could "fix" or change. His childlike behavior might have made you feel like you needed to take care of him, dote on him, or guide him.


This type of behavior has been dubbed "Wendy syndrome."

Initially, you might have felt attracted to and enjoyed these aspects of your partner's personality.


As your relationship progressed (perhaps even to marriage), however, you might have become exhausted by, or even resentful of, your partner's immature behavior.


Once you have identified that your partner's immature behavior is causing problems in your relationship, there are steps that you can take to challenge the dysfunctional dynamic.


Is Your Marriage in Trouble?


Observe Your Own Behavior

The first step is to ask yourself how you might be enabling your partner's behavior. It might be that there are certain aspects of your personality and life experiences that have influenced how you relate to your partner.11


Think back to your childhood. Do you feel that you had to "grow up fast?" Were you overly responsible because you had to care for siblings or a parent? Is it possible that you are continuing to perform the caretaker role in your adult relationships?


The caretaking behaviors you felt stuck with as a child do not have to define how you relate to others as a grown-up.12 You will need to learn to create (and enforce) healthy boundaries in your adult relationships.


Set and Enforce Boundaries

While it is important and necessary for you to establish these boundaries, it will not necessarily "cure" your partner of their immature behavior. These boundaries are for your health and well-being.13 You are not responsible for changing your partner's behavior, but you can support them as they work on making changes.


You can also work on changing yourself. If you have been enabling your partner's behavior, the changes you make (such as letting go of or shedding the caretaker role) will help both you and your partner move forward.


You will also need to be honest with yourself about whether your needs are being met in the relationship. If your partner is unwilling to do the work they need to do to become a more mature and emotionally available partner, you might find that the relationship is no longer healthy or satisfying for you.


When Your Partner Doesn't Want to Change


Get Support

Throughout this process, your partner might benefit from working with a professional to understand their behavior and work on changing it. A therapist can help someone identify the underlying reason for their behavior.


Emotional immaturity can sometimes be a sign that a person has a mental health condition such as depression, anxiety, or borderline personality disorder (BPD).14

You might also find it helpful to work with a counselor on your own. A professional can help you do the work that you need to do, support your partner as they work on making changes, and honestly assess whether the relationship is healthy for both of you.


Once you have each started doing your own work, you might find it helpful to come together and work with a marriage counselor.

 
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