How To Handle A Partner Who Can’t Grow Up (2024)

How To Handle A Partner Who Can’t Grow Up (1)

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Picture this: You’re living with a partner who consistently leaves their dirty laundry on the bathroom floor (despite your many reminders). Or maybe, you’re a bit earlier in the relationship and notice they’re quick to avoid serious conversations or make plans about the future—even the near future. Perhaps you’ve caught a pattern in which they can’t seem to decide on a long-term career path, so they’re often jumping from job to job.

Dating can involve a delicate balance between accepting your partner’s quirks and encouraging each other to become the best versions of yourselves. (After all, no one is perfect!) But if you’ve had the thought that your significant other just can’t seem to grow up, you may be up against a case of Peter Pan Syndrome, says David Tzall, PsyD, a licensed psychologist based in New York City.

“Peter Pan Syndrome is a pop psychology term to describe adults who display traits associated with immaturity, irresponsibility, and avoidance of adult responsibilities,” Tzall says. It’s important to note that, although the term is trendy within conversations surrounding dating and psychology (especially on TikTok), Peter Pan Syndrome isn’t an official mental health condition. “It is not a clinical diagnosis,” Tzall affirms, “so there are no legitimate or standard symptoms or signs that a person is exhibiting such behavior.”

That said, understanding this term can still help you examine your partner’s behavior and notice where (and why) they may be having a hard time, well, being an adult. Whether they seem to shy away from discussing long-term commitments in your relationship or simply can’t be bothered to empty the dishwasher without being hounded, read on for the telltale signs of Peter Pan Syndrome in a partner, plus how to deal with it in your dating life.

Meet the Experts: David Tzall, PsyD, is a licensed psychologist based in New York City. Elisabeth Crain, PsyD, is a licensed psychotherapist based in Southern California. Janet Bayramyan, LCSW, a psychotherapist and EMDR trauma therapist based in Los Angeles.

What is Peter Pan Syndrome?

Peter Pan Syndrome, also known as PPS, is “a nuanced term coined by [psychoanalyst] Dr. Dan Kiley to describe a specific type of male later on in life who demonstrates similarities to the famous Disney character Peter Pan,” says Elisabeth Crain, PsyD, a licensed psychotherapist based in Southern California. Kiley first popularized the term in his 1983 bestseller, Peter Pan Syndrome: Men Who Have Never Grown Up.

Although the behavior is still found most often in men, per Crain, the term generally describes any “adult who has never grown up or fully matured,” she explains. “It's an adult who demonstrates childlike or immature behaviors that are not in line with their adult age.”

PPS tends to go beyond occasional slip-ups (like someone who has a habit of forgetting to take out the trash) or a generally goofy personality. If your S.O. can’t hold down a job or take part in the more serious aspects of a romantic relationship, they may be affected by it—and likely, so are you, says Crain. “It can be a big turn-off for women who are demonstrating full ‘adulting’ when they meet a guy they like who exhibits traits of PPS,” she explains.

What causes Peter Pan Syndrome?

Because it’s not a psychologically diagnosable condition, it’s often difficult to pinpoint how or why Peter Pan syndrome develops in a person. But due to its connection to childlike behavior, PPS can—understandably—stem from your partner’s younger years.

“Someone might struggle with this if they lacked guidance in their youth or experienced trauma in their childhood. Experiencing trauma in childhood can stunt development and make growing up in certain areas of life incredibly challenging,” says Janet Bayramyan, LCSW, a psychotherapist and EMDR trauma therapist based in Los Angeles. “Someone might also struggle with this if they've had overprotective parents. Overprotective parents, while well-intentioned, unfortunately foster dependence on their kids and do not allow the child to grow up to be independent and self-sufficient.”

Think about it this way: If your S.O. is a fully-grown adult but constantly relies on their parents for guidance and support (even when it comes to very small setbacks or questions they could figure out on their own), they might get panicked when it comes to making adult decisions about their career, finances, relationship, or more. In the face of this uncertainty or panic, they often make impulsive decisions or even choose to not take action altogether—thus avoiding their responsibility as an adult.

What are the signs of Peter Pan Syndrome?

Despite the fact that it isn’t a mental health condition, Peter Pan Syndrome can still show up as a pattern of avoidance, especially in an adult relationship. Signs your partner has Peter Pan Syndrome can range from neglecting to pay bills to making significant, impulsive changes—like getting a new job— without considering any potential consequences, says Tzall.

Even your S.O.’s interests and hobbies could hint at their struggles with maturing and taking on adult responsibilities. Although there’s nothing wrong with engaging in activities typically geared toward children, like playing video games or watching cartoons, Crain notes that a lack of balance between those pastimes and taking care of adult business, so to speak, may hint at a case of PPS.

“The biggest sign is deflecting from responsibility,” says Crain. “Can the person hold a job? Can they pay their own bills? Do they have ambition to better themselves in any way? Even if the person doesn’t have those items checked off presently, there should be a want and desire there to achieve. If there’s a lack of ambition or achievement, or the striving for achievement, that’s a red flag.”

These patterns don’t just impact the person experiencing them, either. Having a partner with PPS “may make relationships incredibly challenging,” Bayramyan says. “If you have a partner with Peter Pan Syndrome, you might find yourself growing incredibly frustrated, wanting your partner to emotionally show up for you, yet they lack the ability to do so.”

You may also notice an imbalance when it comes to sharing household chores, planning dates, or initiating important conversations, which can foster resentment in relationships, adds Bayramyan. She also notes that your Peter Pan of a partner may not feel comfortable handling conflict in a mature way, which is likely to cause frustration and more tension down the line.

Can I have a healthy relationship with someone who has Peter Pan Syndrome?

Truly healthy relationships require core elements like communication, trust, and mutual respect—none of which are automatically ruled out by any psychological conditions or behavioral tendencies. If you feel like your partner may be a “Peter Pan,” it doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to break up. What it does mean is that your partner will need to put in some effort toward escaping their ineffective patterns—and that they’ll likely need support in doing so.

Even if PPS is a factor, “it is possible to have a healthy relationship if both partners are willing and motivated,” says Bayramayan. You both need to communicate and be open to change, and the partner with PPS will also need to be receptive to feedback and willing to put in more effort—as both a partner and an adult, she adds. This can come in the form of couples therapy or even scheduling a weekly check-in with your partner to share how you’re both feeling, what each of you need, and how you can best support each other in reaching your mutual goals.

It’s also okay to admit to yourself and others that an S.O. who struggles with maturity is not a major issue for you. After all, everyone has different flaws, and someone might be very responsible, ambitious, and eager to commit, all while exhibiting other less-great behaviors that could be your deal breakers. What's most important is to develop an inner understanding about what you want, and what kind of connection you'll truly be happy with, says Crain.

“Maybe someone with PPS has these shortcomings, but they’re genuinely kind. We can’t discount the fact that somebody who has PPS may be generous of heart and simply lack motivation in other regards,” Crain says. And if your partner’s struggle to grow up does start to cause issues in your relationship, PPS isn’t exactly an unfixable condition. If you’re willing to help your S.O. grow and provide space and support for them to become a more equal partner in your relationship, you can express your frustrations and fears in a way that helps them self-reflect.

For example, if they drop the ball on planning regular date nights and always leave the onus on you, you can say, “I feel disappointed and deprioritized when you don’t put in effort to plan quality time together. Can we set a routine to switch off on planning dates?” The health and satisfaction of your relationship is largely dependent on setting and sharing your expectations, Crain notes, so make your needs clear and offer a path to meeting them.

There’s also no shame in seeking professional help via couples counseling or leaning on family and friends to support your relationship while you both work to improve your partner's PPS. “All these traits are certainly learned, and can be unlearned,” Tzall says.

And while it’s not your job to teach another adult how to “grow up,” the simple act of being in an evolving and communicative relationship can help people—yes, even Peter Pans—develop a more mature outlook on life. “A person can learn to grow and change over time,” Tzall adds, “and being in an appropriate and healthy relationship can have reverberating results to their level of change.”

Ultimately, all you need is faith and trust in each other—no magic pixie dust required.

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