I held his hand and drew myself in closer, into the warmth of his neck which was wrapped in a wool scarf. It was cold outside, we had just said I love you for the first time, and yet, I could feel his body rigid and retreating away from mine. Within moments he said he needed to go. He needed to get back to work. And in an instant he was gone. Just like the season, I felt the cold slap of a style of rejection that would confuse me for years. Avoidant love. I wouldn’t see him for almost two weeks. Sure, I’d get mushy texts from him and even phone calls that would last past midnight. But, any time I suggested we actually see each other, he’d say no. He was either working, or had to go up to NYC, or something had been planned and he couldn’t change his schedule. It was as if the force that propelled him to confess his love to me had sucked all the life out of him and he needed to withdrawal and recharge for weeks.
Avoidant love is like that. Confusing. There’s loads of mixed messages. But for someone who wants to believe in the fantasy of true love, anything is bearable. Even an unavailable partner. This was the biggest conundrum of my 20’s. Until I learned about avoidant partners and Peter Pan.
Remember Peter Pan, the story of a magical boy who refuses to grow up and, instead, lives on the island of Neverland? Well, that was every guy I ever dated.
I recently saw a high school production of Peter Pan and it hit a little too close to home. At one point, Peter visits the nursery of The Darling children, Wendy, John and Michael, where Wendy takes a liking to him and tries to get a kiss from him. Peter has no clue what a kiss is and so he gives her a thimble instead, for which she takes and puts on her necklace as a keepsake.
This gift of a thimble was the symbolic equivalent of every scrap I ever humbly, gratefully accepted from every bad relationship I found myself in.
And when Peter convinces the children to fly away with him to Neverland, which they do, they determine that Wendy will be their mother (Oh, the codependence!). She agrees, under the condition that Peter be their father. He hesitantly agrees, but only if it’s “pretend.” Not wanting to commit to anything more serious, he humors Wendy, but says he doesn’t like the responsibility of being grown up. At times he even gets angry with her when she imposes too much emotion or responsibility onto him:
Wendy: I daresay you’ve felt it yourself. For something… or… someone?
Peter: Never. Even the sound of it offends me.
[Wendy tries to touch his face, and he jumps away]
Peter: Why do you have to spoil everything? We have fun, don’t we? I taught you to fly and to fight. What more could there be?
Wendy: There is so much more.
Peter: What? What else is there?
Wendy: I don’t know. I guess it becomes clearer when you grow up.
Peter: Well, I will not grow up. You cannot make me!
When she finally asks him about his “feelings” for her he says, “I feel for you like a son feels for his mother…” In the end Wendy chooses to leave Neverland. Sound familiar?
The story of Peter Pan is, of course, that of the love addict and her avoidant boyfriend. The motherly, doting, codependent grown up woman paired with the fun, exciting, but immature “boy” who, when emotions get too serious, tends to run away. In The Break Up Journal I refer to “P” as a Peter Pan; in fact, I chose the letter P for the parallel of my ex to Peter. When I began dating P (who was 40 at the time), he had never had a serious relationship, never been married, no children, still lived at home, could barely pay his bills and would hang out in the basement of his parents’ house and listen to Grateful Dead records as if no time had passed between now and when he was in high school.
P suffered from severely stunted growth, a bit of narcissism and an intimacy disorder which kept him from being able to truly become intimate with people. In retrospect, I couldn’t see him for who he was. I was too wrapped up in how “fun” he was, and how good looking he was. I suffered from a Wendy-syndrome–a desire to attach to Peter Pan and mother him, versus be his equal. Essentially, I had refused to grow up too.
As I sat awkward and uncomfortable at the play, I told my very-grown-up, very-present husband how deeply affected I was by the story. He squeezed my hand, knowing my past, and said, “I bet.”
Love addict-style love is like living in Neverland. And when you finally choose to leave Neverland, it’s about choosing to grow up, whether you want to or not. It’s about recognizing that you cannot change the Peters of the world and letting them remain in their fantasy land while you make a forward leap into reality.